This past Sunday at my church we started a new adult education series called, “The Bible: What is it?”
I wanted to name it, “The Bible: What the Hell?” but my editors decided against that.
Overall, the first day of the class went OK. I say just “OK” because, well, we talked about some boring stuff on Sunday like how the Bible came about. Basically some Bishops of the ancient church started proposing that there should be a particular “plumb-line” for what is acceptable to use as scripture…mostly in reaction to some interesting suggestions (they called them “heresies” but, whatev) from some other Bishops like Marcion.
So in the year 331 they arrived at what we commonly call our Biblical canon (“canon” is a fancy word for “ruler”…as in, what something is measured by).
So the Christian Bible (of the Protestant flavor) contains 66 books with histories, myths, poetry, wisdom writing, prose, letters, and little snippets of other stuff here and there (like apocalyptic writing). How did they decide on the books they would allow? Well, for the Older Testament they took books being used in Jewish circles already. They were a little bit easier to agree on.
The books that ended up in the Newer Testament were not so easy to agree on. And, here’s something to chew on, the early church didn’t ask if God had “divinely inspired” each book before they put it in the canon. They wouldn’t have been considered “Bible believing” by modern evangelical standards.
Instead they asked questions like, “Who wrote it?” Because books that were written by people who may have had access to the Christ…or people who had access to the people who knew the Christ…got first dibs.
But they didn’t stop there, they then asked, “Is it any good?” In essence, were people reading it widely in communities of faith? And if so, were they gaining some spiritual food from it?
They also asked, “Is it weird?” * Or, better put, “is it consistent with other things we’ve heard about Jesus.” This is why the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Judas aren’t included in the common canon. I know, you’ve heard the rumors that they were excluded because they lifted up women too much (although, in the Gospel of Mary she turns into a dude at the end…so…yeah), or because they were suppressing gnostic voices or, what have you.
And, sure, some of those theories might have some credence. After all, when you get a bunch of men used to systems of patriarchy in one place, you’re going to get something that fits well within that system.
But I don’t buy the vast conspiracy theories about the formation of the Bible.
And finally, as a person of faith, I believe that God’s breath (the feminine ruach in the Old Testament) moved through this whole thing, as incomplete and laden with patriarchy as it is. Because God always works with broken things. And there are certainly parts of this process, and parts of the scriptures and the way they’re interpreted, that are very broken.
I’m not one who worships the Bible. I worship the one the Bible points to. I don’t think that’s true for all of Christianity out there. And if the ancient church didn’t worship the Bible (heck, it didn’t even have a Bible for 200 years after Jesus died), why would we assume that to be Christian you have to believe the Bible is “inerrant” or “infallible”?
But, for those of you wonder just what is in the Bible, here’s a rundown of it’s books with approximate dates of authorship according to scholars, much of which is taken from the Lutheran Study Bible (Augsburg Fortress Press/Minneapolis, 2009), as well as a brief description of the book/context/author.
This is just an overview…people study this stuff for years, remember.
The Pentateuch (first 5 books authored by at least three different traditions, probably 4…and with edits, maybe more)
Genesis: written by a number of authors and compiled over more than five centuries, completed while Israel was taken over by Babylon (587-538 B.C.E.) Talks about the common connections of the people who would be known as Israel. Note: Not written by Moses.
Exodus: Meaning “exit,” this book tells the story of Israel leaving Egyptian slavery (perhaps around 1250 B.C.E.?). We find Israel mentioned in a stele erected by Pharaoh Merneptah, the son of Ramses II. Note: Not written by Moses, either.
Leviticus: About offerings, rituals, and some other rites partly compiled during Israel’s monarchy period (1000-600 B.C.E.), but also containing some concerns of the community post being taken over by Babylon. Written and redacted over centuries. Note: Moses probably couldn’t write if historical accounts are true.
Numbers: Probably to account for people who could serve in the armies. Continues with the stories and themes begun in Exodus…with a whole lot of counting and “so and so begat so and so” in there. Note: Moses? Nope.
Deuteronomy: Written around 700-640 B.C.E., this book is another one about rules and relationships, like Leviticus, but with some significant prose and changes to previous laws/understandings. It was hoped that, if Israel followed the rites and laws of Deuteronomy, they wouldn’t be overtaken by foreign armies because God would protect them. Let’s just say, that didn’t happen. Note: Still not Moses.
Joshua: This tells the story of Israel settling down again in the promised land of Canaan after the Exodus. It’s written about the history of the 13th Century, BCE, but was actually written and completed sometime in the 7th Century BCE. Not exactly eye-witness accounts, here. The battle of Jericho is one famous story in Joshua…although in an archeological dig we didn’t really find any walls around Jericho. Just sayin’.
Judges: Written about the time between 1200 and 1020 BCE, this book records the people who watched over Israel (the “Judges”) before there was a king/queen. This book was put together when Israel was conquered by Babylon, between 587-539 BCE. Coolest judge? Deborah. Want to know why? Read the book.
Ruth: A book of inspiration taking place between the period of the judges and the kings/queens of Israel. May have been written by a woman after Israel returned from Babylonian capture!
1 & 2 Samuel: Written by many people collected and edited over time, mostly after 721 BCE. These two books were only one book originally, and speak of the beginning of the monarchy period for Israel. King David is the major character here. And Bathsheba. And David’s harp.
1 & 2 Kings: The author of this book loved the book of Deuteronomy, and records the Kings of Israel (much like 1 & 2 Samuel) in an effort to say that Israel kept being conquered by people because they didn’t follow the rules of God.
1 & 2 Chronicles: Originally one book, Chronicles was written by an author in Jerusalem sometime after Israel had returned from Babylon (539-532 BCE). It’s main thrust is to give a people who had been without a home (in exile in Babylon) a connection back to Jerusalem.
Ezra: May have been written by the same author as Chronicles (or maybe not), it was completed somewhere around 400 BCE scholars think, and it tries to assign meaning to the events that had happened the previous 300 years. Much like Chronicles, as the people return from exile in Babylon, they try to distinguish themselves from the surrounding people (Samaritans), while re-claiming a connection to Jerusalem.
Nehemiah: See above…Ezra-Nehemiah were one book until the 15th Century.
Esther: A book with Persian influence! Esther is a fun book about idiotic leadership, there is no direct mention of God, but it speaks of Persia’s power of the Jewish people after they left Babylon (Persia conquered Babylon and let the Jewish people resettle where they wished…and many went back to Jerusalem). Grab some stuffed grape-leaves and read this book.
Wisdom Writings and Poetry and Songs
Job: A story whose date of composition is unclear. Maybe the 6th Century BCE. A meditation on the problem of suffering, it is a difficult book and not a history, but rather a story that raises good questions about the human condition.
Psalms: The ancient songbook of the church 150 units long. It was composed by many different authors. There are Psalms for help, comfort, thanksgiving…you name it, it’s here.
Proverbs: Connected with King Solomon, it was finished somewhere around the 4th C BCE and is largely intended to provide practical advice and wise saying.
Ecclesiastes: One of the youngest books of the Old Testament (maybe just 3oo years before Jesus was born), it is narrated by an aged person called “The Teacher” and is a personal memoir to share thoughts that he has learned about the difference between what is fleeting and what is fulfilling. It was once said of Ecclesiastes that, if you ever needed a reason to hate yourself, read this book. I don’t see it that way, but I get the sentiment.
Song of Solomon (Song of Songs): Written in the 4th or 3rd Centuries, we don’t know the author…but it wasn’t Solomon. It has a strong female voice, and may have been written by a woman. It’s a series of scandalous love poems…and should be read immediately. Because we all need some scandal in our lives.
Prophetic Books both Major and Minor (“big deals” and “littler deals”)
Isaiah: Big deal. You know much of what’s in here if you’ve been around the Bible at all. It tells of the promise of a “Messiah” (anointed one) and was compiled by several prophets and editors over many many years, from around the 740’s BCE to 538 BCE…basically much of Israel’s monarchy to when they were taken over by Babylon, to when they started to return to Jerusalem. Lots here (not the person, “Lot,” he’s back in Genesis).
Jeremiah: Another big deal. Jeremiah lived from 626 BCE-586, and many of his sermons are in writing in this book. His secretary, Baruch, wrote some of the end of Jeremiah, and we don’t know who wrote the last chapter but it certainly wasn’t either of those two…
Lamentations: If you need a reason to be sad, read this book. It’s 5 poems about Babylon destroying Jerusalem’s much beloved temple in 586 BCE. We don’t know who wrote it, but they sure were sad.
Ezekiel: Ezekiel was a priest during the time when Israel was taken over by Babylon, and had some prophesies for his fellow exiles. It started around 593 and extended to 571 BCE. It’s obviously edited by someone, but we think most of the writing comes from the priest himself.
Daniel: A book of stories and visions, Daniel contains some of the oldest material we have as far as the Old Testament goes (including some cool apocalyptic writing). Written in Hebrew and Aramaic (in different parts), main characters are Daniel (of lion den fame) as well as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. And a furnace. This book covers a long period of time, from the Babylonian captivity all the way to Alexander the Great (320’s BCE)!
Hosea: A prophet from 769-697, Hosea prophesied during 5 of Israel’s kings in the northern half of the kingdom. His words were shared through oral communities, scholars think.
Joel: Written after the Babylonian exile, scholars think Joel was composed sometime before 348 BCE and is focused at an Israel trying to rebuild itself.
Amos: He’s a pissed off prophet who said his share around the first half of the 8th C BCE. See how these prophets aren’t chronological order? It’s confusing, right? Mostly just to us…
Obadiah: Written (most likely) after the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon, Obadiah’s vision is of an Israel sad over the loss of their kingdom and longing for good news from God.
Jonah: A short story, probably what we moderns would call a “myth,” it’s set in the time when the Assyrians had taken over Israel (720’s BCE) and is a tale about what you should not do if you’re a prophet. Main characters: Jonah and a big fish. Oh, and God.
Micah: Micah foretells doom for an Israel (split into a northern and southern kingdom) who is living a little too comfortably in the shadow of Assyria. It appears to have been written in the mid 8th C BCE.
Nahum: A group of oracles from around 612 BCE, his sayings celebrated the fall of the Assyrian capital city of Nineveh. It’s supposed to be a story of good news. The bad news is that, after Assyria fell Babylon took over…and things got bad again.
Habakkuk: A prophet around 600 BCE, this book is a book where a prophet pleads on behalf of God’s people not to be squashed between Egypt and Babylon.
Zephaniah: Probably written in the second half of the 7th C BCE, Zephaniah begins mad but ends peacefully assured that God will prevail over the threatening power of Babylon.
Haggai: Written after people had returned from exile in Babylon (in 520 BCE), the community of Israel begins to feel some difficulties in rebuilding both community and the temple. Haggai provides encouragement for a community in depression.
Zechariah: A contemporary of Haggai, this author (and book) offers a vision of an Israel beautifully reformed and reconstructed.
Malachi: Not the scary dude from Children of the Corn, this book asks the people returning from exile in Babylon to become re-devoted to God and use the priests to aid them in leadership. Probably written after the temple had been rebuilt (515 BCE).
The New Testament does not “pick right up” where the Older Testament left off. There’s a number of gap years. Rome is now the major imperial power (after Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia all had taken turns). And then Jesus shows up in an Israel controlled by Rome. The New Testament starts off with stories about Jesus.
Matthew: Probably written in the 80’s by someone who had read the gospel of Mark. We call it “Matthew” because that name became associated with the book somewhere in the early 100’s. Did “Matthew” the apostle write it? Very doubtful. It appears that the author of Matthew also uses a source that scholars call “Q” (short for quelle or “pen”) to provide some Jesus stories. The magi are in Matthew at Jesus’ birth, but no angels or shepherds.
Mark: Oldest gospel book, written in the 60’s or very early 70’s. Probably was written by the same “Mark” talked about in the book of Acts, and may have had some eye-witness accounts of Jesus. Jesus is the most human in this Gospel. In Mark there is no birth in Bethlehem. Jesus just walks out of Galilee.
Luke: Probably written between 80-90 CE, this writer also had read Mark (because he, like Matthew, copies parts of Mark word-for-word), and also had access to this other document we’ve called “Q”. Did someone named Luke write it? We think it may have been. It is clear from it’s style that this gospel was recited and performed orally, and is the first half of a longer story (the second half is the book of Acts). Here we have angels and shepherds in the birth story of Jesus…but no Magi.
John: The gospel of John doesn’t fit well with the first three. It’s thought to be the one written the latest (90’s), and Jesus dies on a Thursday in John…which doesn’t line up with the other three. Jesus is also most fully seen as divine in John, as he knows what’s coming next. That being said, it is included because a large number of people were using this gospel book when the Bible was compiled, and although it contains some unique material, it is not out of character for Jesus drastically.
Books about the Church
Acts: The second part of the Gospel of Luke, Acts picks up where Luke lets off and describes the formulation of the early church. Probably written in the 80’s CE. Main characters: Paul, Silas, the early church, the Holy Spirit. You know, the usual.
Letters of/attributed to Paul
Romans: Written by Paul to the Christian community in Rome (context clues!), sent in the mid-50’s CE. Paul had already been a missionary for around 20 years. Paul entreats the Romans to live peacefully between Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians
1 Corinthians: Written in the early 50’s CE, this letter was written to the church in Corinth by Paul to heal a division in the church.
2 Corinthians: OK, we’re pretty sure this is actually like three or four letters all put together by someone other than Paul from letter fragments of Paul’s. There is no agreement here, though, on the subject. It was written sometime after 1 Corinthians and pieced together (if that theory is true) much later.
Galatians: Written by the apostle Paul sometime between 50-55 CE, about 20 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, to the church at Galatia. Again…context clues. The big fight in this letter that Paul tries to resolve is whether or not Christians had to follow Jewish practices. Verdict: nope.
Ephesians: One of the coolest letters in the New Testament, it’s almost certainly not Paul who wrote this book (though it claims he did) because the style and verbage is not very Paul-like. It could be a disciple of Paul’s, though, as the central ideas are echoes of Paul’s other letters. BTW, it was pretty common for a disciple to write under their teacher’s name…so, who cares if Paul didn’t write it? It talks about the Cosmic Christ and all of creation being redeemed and is just so freakin’ cool.
Philippians: A letter to the first Christian church in Europe from Paul and Timothy, this is a happy letter and it’s clear that Paul loves this little church.
Colossians: We do not know who wrote this letter. It may be Paul; it may be someone else. It’s got some not-so-very-Paulish theology in it. It may have been written in the 50’s or as late as the 70’s. But it is written to the church of Colossae, and we don’t know much about that church because a big earthquake destroyed much of the area. Regardless, the author had never been there, but is writing to talk to them about Christian teaching and living.
1 Thessalonians: May be the earliest letter, from the early 40’s CE! It is Pauline, and is one of the oldest writings that we have of the early church.
2 Thessalonians: Probably not written by Paul, this letter writes again to the church at Thessalonica. It may have been written by Timothy or Silvanus (Paul’s compatriots), but probably not by Paul. It’s a letter of encouragement for the church.
1 Timothy: It may have been Paul’s letter…or maybe not, and is relatively late for the letters (80 or 90 CE). Paul was already dead by then. It’s obvious the author respected Paul…as he went on to write 2 Timothy and Titus…but it was probably not Paul. Remember, just because it says it’s from Paul doesn’t mean it actually is. This didn’t cause the ancient church much trouble, and they knew about it…you don’t need to be troubled by it, either.
2 Timothy: Read above.
Titus: Same dude who wrote the letters to Timothy, this letter goes to Titus (a fun name, right?) on the island of Crete and includes general instructions for the early church.
Philemon: I love this little book! It’s probably from Paul and written while he was in jail about his friend Onesimus who had a falling out with the church of Colossae that met in this man Philemon’s house. It’s a book about reconciliation and love.
Hebrews: This book is an odd duck in the New Testament. It’s written in elegant Greek (much more elegant than even Paul’s writing), and probably is from the 70’s CE. Hebrews is all about interpreting the Older Testament for the current times, and holds up the cross as central to understanding God’s work in the world.
James: Martin Luther hated this book. It may have been written as late as 130-140 CE, this letter is dedicated to James the leader of the Jerusalem church, and speaks heavily of right action (rather than right belief…which is why Luther disliked it so much).
1 Peter: Not written by the apostle Peter, but probably dedicated to him. It was also not written to one specific church, but most likely to any/all churches of the time. It’s focus is on new life and living hope through Jesus the Christ.
2 Peter: See above. Same sort of deal except the author now seems to feel his death coming soon. All sorts of talk about “false prophets” and “false teachers” which has often sent literalists smelling false prophets under every rock…
1, 2, 3 John: We don’t know who wrote these books (may be referred to as “the elder” spoken of in 2 John), but we think that all three of these John books are written from the perspective of a faith community that relied heavily on the Gospel of John. Time period is unclear, though certainly after the composition of the Gospel of John (90’s)
Jude: We don’t know who wrote this or who they were aiming to write this letter to, but we think it was written in the late first century. Again, “false teaching” is a major theme in this book (like 2 Peter). You can imagine that would be a central theme because these Christian communities were so scattered that different traditions and ideas popped up in different places.
Revelation: This book almost didn’t make the canonization cut! It’s not written by the John who wrote the gospel, nor the John who was the apostle. It is a type of writing known as “apocalyptic,” which means it uses stark imagery to talk about modern themes. That’s right, it’s not about the future or the “end times.” It was about the current times of this John writing at the end of the 1st Century (or maybe even later). It does not, repeat, does not tell the future. But it sure does say a lot about Roman imperialism and the Christian call to fight against bowing down to nations rather than to God.
So, there you have it. For all of you in the Bible course, we’re going to be talking about the history of the Bible this Sunday: how it’s been read over the centuries, by who, and for what. It’s a much sexier topic than canonization, I think…
*Taken from “Animate: Bible” (Augsburg Fortress Press/Minneapolis, 2013)
Please remember: these dates and much of the descriptions were gleaned from a number of sources over the years (from my brain), but chiefly from The Lutheran Study Bible which is a great resource.