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“The English word Bible derives ultimately from the Greek word biblia meaning ‘books’.” An opening sentence such as this can be found in more than one introduction to the Bible, and such an opening sentence, having established that “Bible” means “a collection of books” prefaces a treatment that begins in the ancient world and works its way forwards in time. Rarely do such works start where people are today, and recognize that while most people connect the Bible with the Christian Churches (less often with Judaism), they soon become aware, if they begin to take an interest in the Bible, that it exists in English in a bewildering variety of translations, and that even the contents can vary from one translation to another.
Anyone going into an academic bookshop to purchase a copy of the Bible will be faced with a number of choices. These may include the Authorized or King James Version of 1611 (AV), the Revised Standard Version (RSV), the Revised English Bible (REB), the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB), the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the New International Version (NIV), the English Standard Version (ESV) and the Good News Bible (GNB), the prevalence of the adjective “new” witnessing to the considerable effort expended in recent years on the revision or provision of translations of the Bible. Depending on the type of bookshop and the country in which it is situated the choice may also include the Today's New International Version, The Living Bible, and The Holman Christian Standard Bible.
The uses to which the Bible can be put are, if not infinite, very considerable in number. Presumably, the greatest use and interpretation of the Bible has been in sermons in churches all over the world on Sundays and other holy days. The number of such sermons must run into millions; and this use has been going on for nearly two thousand years, although not always on the scale of today. The vast majority of these sermons has been, and will be, forever lost. Before the invention of printing, only the sermons of great figures such as Augustine of Hippo (354–430 CE), John Chrysostom (c. 350–407) and Pope Gregory I (c. 540–604) were recorded for posterity. After the invention of printing, it became common for sermons to be published individually, and there must be hundreds of thousands of such pamphlets in the libraries of Europe and North America. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, famous preachers published volumes of sermons. Although there have been studies of preachers and preaching, this aspect of the use of the Bible is little known.
Another use to which the Bible has been put is in art and literature, which is a growing area of interest in current Biblical Studies. The recent Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature fills an important gap in previous knowledge of part of this use.
The first chapter has indicated that there is no such thing as the Bible, if by the Bible is meant a collection of material whose content is identical for each and every copy. It has been noted that there are Bibles with and without the Apocrypha, and that even where the Apocrypha is present it can have several variations. It may be integrated among the books of the Old Testament, or gathered together as a separate section between the Old and New Testaments, and in the latter case may contain extra books such as Psalm 151 and 3 and 4 Maccabees.
It is now necessary to introduce a further complication. In Chapter 1 it was noted that the NRSV with its enlarged Apocrypha claimed to represent the Bible as accepted by the Eastern Orthodox Churches as well as western Catholics and Protestants. This claim is not quite accurate. The official Bible of the Eastern Orthodox Church is the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament that began to be produced in the third century BCE. The Septuagint not only contains books not found in the Hebrew Bible; in some cases, its version of books found in the Hebrew text differs significantly from the Hebrew version.
The original edition of this book was published by Penguin Books in 1999 and subsequently translated into Spanish (Una introductión a la Biblia [Barcelona: Paidós, 2000], and Portuguese (O Livro de Ouro da Bíblia [Rio de Janiero: Ediouro, 2002]). A second edition was published by Equinox in 2005 after the first edition had gone out of print. It has been widely used in colleges and training schemes for ordained ministry, and it is good to have the opportunity to issue a Third Edition. The book has been thoroughly revised and, especially in the chapters on the Making of the Old and New Testaments, considerably enlarged. Since the appearance of the first editions, several works have been published with which I have had a close involvement, and which can be recommended for further study. They are The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible (ed. J. Rogerson; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible (ed. J. D. G. Dunn and J. W. Rogerson; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), and The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies (ed. J. W. Rogerson and J. M. Lieu; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006; paperback edition, 2008). Readers who wish to follow up the topics discussed in the final chapter can now consult my According to the Scriptures? The Challenge of Using the Bible in Social, Moral and Political Questions (London: Equinox, 2007).
The Bible is one of the most influential and profound texts in human history - it is disturbing, unconventional, and never content with the world as it is. This classic introduction presents a concise and accessible guide to all aspects of biblical study: the nature and purpose of the Bible; how biblical writers wrote; the making of both Old and New Testaments; the making of the Apocrypha; what was left out and what kept in the Bible and why; and how the Bible has been shaped by and continues to shape religion, culture and politics. Completely revised and updated - and considerably extended with much more material on the making of the Old and New Testaments - this third edition takes full account of recent developments in scholarship. It includes maps and a glossary of key terms.
In Chapter 1 it was pointed out that the term “Apocrypha” is used in different ways by the main branches of the Church. For Protestants the Apocrypha consists of books that appear in a separate section between the Old and New Testaments, while for Roman Catholics these same books are integrated into the Old Testament and regarded as Deuterocanonical. The term Apocrypha is used by Roman Catholics to refer to 3 and 4 Esdras, the Prayer of Manasseh and Psalm 151. No major Catholic translation in English includes these books.
The definition of the term “Apocrypha” has been complicated by the fact that, in 1977, the committee responsible for the RSV issued translations of 3 and 4 Maccabees and Psalm 151, thus producing an expanded Apocrypha. The aim was to produce a Bible that contained books recognized by the Orthodox Churches. Ironically, these extra books, as well as those designated as Apocrypha by Protestants and as Deutero-canonical and Apocrypha by Catholics, are all regarded as Deuterocanonical by the Orthodox. The following table seeks to make the position clearer, using Roman typeface to indicate “Apocrypha” and italics to indicate “Deuterocanonical” books. The order of books as given in the NRSV is followed, but it must be noted that the Greek Bible has a different order, with the four books of Maccabees together, for example.
Readers of this chapter who have heard or seen radio and television debates which have included representatives of Churches, may well have got the impression that all one has to do in using the Bible in ethics is to discover an appropriate text and apply it to the matter at hand. Indeed, the impression is often created, whether intentionally or not, that this rather mechanical way of using the Bible in ethics is the only one that is “true” to the Bible; and at the level of what I have called in the previous chapter “popular fundamentalism,” many ordinary churchgoers find it difficult to resist the argument that if something is commanded in the Bible then it should be obeyed or observed.
The aim of the present chapter is to set the debate about how the Bible might be used in ethics in an historical context. Just as the study of the Bible has always been critical, so its use in ethics has always been sophisticated. Recognition of this is a necessary prerequisite for contemporary positive use of the Bible, an outline of which will conclude the chapter.
Because it comes from the ancient world, the Bible says nothing about many contemporary problems. Those who seek guidance on whether it is legitimate to manufacture weapons of mass destruction as a deterrent, or whether building an airport runway is more important than preserving the habitat of threatened species of wildlife, will get no direct help from the Bible. This is no surprise.
Writing in the ancient world was an activity mainly confined to a professional class located in two powerful institutions, the Temple and the royal court. The traditions out of which the Old Testament grew were most likely written by scribes trained in either or both of these institutions, as located in the northern kingdom, Israel, and the southern kingdom, Judah. Given that the content of the Old Testament is diverse, including narratives, psalms, laws, proverbs, regulations about sacrifices and priesthood, prophetic literature and “wisdom” writings (e.g. Job and Ecclesiastes) it will be necessary to investigate the origin and occasion of each type of literature. This exercise has to be tempered, however, by the fact that little is known about the extent or function of literacy in ancient Israel. Just as a previous chapter has warned against assuming that biblical writers were similar to modern writers, so here it must not be assumed that the intended readers of biblical writings were similar to modern readers, even if it is not easy to be more precise.
More that half of the books of the Old Testament contain the cultural memories of Israel and Judah. They tell the story of Israel, the people of God, from the time of Abraham to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (fifth century BCE).
In earlier chapters mention has been made of the canon, or more accurately, the various canons of the Bible adopted by different churches. The subject of canon requires at least a book in its own right, and what follows will necessarily be impressionistic. At the same time, the subject will be approached differently from treatments in the standard works, and will consider a question that is not usually asked: what is the relation between canon and power?
Whatever the connection may be between the English word “canon” and the Greek word from which it derives, a “canon” is an official list of books that designates those books as normative or authoritative for a particular community. This sense needs to be distinguished from the practice of designating certain books as normative or authoritative by publishing them in a particular format. As far as I am aware, no technical term exists for this practice; but since it is important for the argument of this chapter, the term “canonical format” will be used to designate it. A final point is that the words “canon” and “canonical” are sometimes used as though their meaning was constant throughout the history of the Church (and of Judaism). The present chapter will assume that the meaning of “canon” has not been constant, but that the meaning has depended upon the interests of those using it at any particular time.