Archive for May, 2011

What did the original Bible look like? Actually, the question itself is deceptive. It makes it sound like if we could go back far enough, we would find the original Bible, and it would be a book like we have today. Of course that is not true. Even the most conservative Christian I have ever met would recognize that the Bible was written by different people over hundreds of years. We should also remember that the process of collecting books to be included in what would come to be called the Bible was also a lengthy process. So it is not as if Paul writes 1 Corinthians and says, “Okay, here’s another book. Add it to the others.” Paul did not write “1 Corinthians.” he wrote a letter to the church at Corinth, dealing with problems they were facing and apparently in response to a letter they had written to him. Every book in the Bible was written to people living at that time with a message for them. This does not mean that it has no meaning for us; however, it is profitable to understand its message to those to whom it was first written. This will help us as we seek to apply the message to our situation today. Today we are going to focus on the form of the books of the Old Testament.

The header at the top of this blog is a photograph of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is a book of psalms, although I was perhaps a bit deceptive about including it. While this is a book of psalms of the Qumran community, it is a collection of psalms that are not in the Biblical book of Psalms. But it is a good representation of what an Old Testament book might have looked like, with one exception. The picture is written in a form of Hebrew that is similar to modern Hebrew. This dates to a time after the Jews returned from Babylon when they incorporated the Aramaic alphabet to represent Hebrew words. Earlier Hebrew writing used the Phoenician alphabet. Here is an example of what is referred to as the Gezer Calendar.

Early Hebrew Writing

Early Hebrew Writing

Although it is written on stone and is not a part of the Bible, it does represent very well what the original Hebrew might have looked like.

If we are speaking of books in the Old Testament, we can be fairly certain of what the original (called the “autograph”) of a book would have looked like. It would undoubtedly have been on a scroll, written either on vellum (prepared animal skins, stitched together) or perhaps even papyrus, which was less expensive. At an early date, vellum would have been more likely. The maximum effective length of a scroll would have been around thirty feet long. If a scroll is much longer than that, it becomes hard to read. It is bulky and heavy. This limitation probably explains how some of the books in the Bible are divided. For instance, if we look at 1 and 2 Samuel, we see that 2 Samuel begins exactly where 1 Samuel left off with no break or even introductory material. So why did the writer not simply make 1 and 2 Samuel one book? I suspect that it has to do with size. 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel each represent what can realistically be included in one scroll. So, it is possible (I believe likely) that these were originally written to be one book; however, because of the size limitations of a scroll, they were separated and written on two scrolls. 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles may also have been divided for similar reasons. This is not always the case, however. In the New Testament, Acts is obviously a continuation of Luke and written by the same person. But if we read the introduction, we see clearly that Acts is intended to be a separate book, even though it essentially takes up the chronology where Luke left off.

There is another reason for limiting the size of a scroll. In a long scroll it is difficult to find your place. Remember that there would have been no chapters or verses. The writing would not even have included any punctuation. A scroll would normally have been written on only one side, and the reason is obvious. It is extremely difficult to locate a specific passage even when the writing is all on one side. Now imagine trying to deal with trying to find the location you want, if the scroll were written on both sides. Ezekiel 2.9 describes a scroll written on both sides, as does Revelation 5.1. While it is possible that small scrolls may have been written on both sides, I suspect the writings in Ezekiel and Revelation are literary devices, intended to draw attention to the message. It certainly was not common practice.

The Hebrew language has two distinctive characteristics that we might find unfamiliar. The first is this.

tfel ot thgir morf daer dna nettirw si werbeH
“Hebrew is written and read from right to left,” not left to right as we do in English. You just have to get used to it. This obviously meant that Hebrew scrolls would be rolled from left to right and unrolled from the right to the left.

Hbrw hs twnt-tw cnsnnts, bt n vwls
“Hebrew has twenty-two consonants, but no vowels.” The Hebrew language has no written vowels. But I suspect most of you could read the sentence above. I understand that people who read Hebrew fluently have no difficulty and that the vowel points (which were inserted much later) are actually a hindrance to them.

I hope this gives you a feel for what the original books of the Old Testament might have been like, as well as an appreciation for how much easier to read books are today. In my next post, we shall look at what the original writings of the New Testament may have been like. While there are many similarities, there are also some differences which may be interesting to consider.

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I feel the need for some order and consistency in my life, so I have decided to try to be consistent in my posts. I will try to include a new post every Tuesday. Having a deadline forces me to get off my recliner and do some work. I hope it can also be a help for those reading my blog (both of you) to know when to expect another post. I don’t promise to keep to this schedule every week, but I am going to try. So you can expect a new post sometime this afternoon.

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In my last post I began a discussion of elements you may find in your Bible that actually are not part of your Bible. At that time, I mentioned specifically how chapters and verses were added. Today I want to expand that topic. In addition to chapters and verses there are other things you may find that should not be thought of as part of the Bible.

Some of these should be fairly obvious. It used to be fairly common to include center columns, which contained Scripture references, keyed to the text. These are intended to show other verses in the Bible which may relate to the passage you are reading. These kinds of references are not used as much today, and when they are, they are more likely to be included in footnotes. Once again, this kind of information can be helpful, but we should recognize that these references are not part of your Bible.

Another practice seldom used now is to include a date at the top of the page, corresponding to the date of the action described on that page. The date system most frequently used was devised by Bishop James Ussher and first included in a Bible in 1701. These dates are certainly not to be considered part of your Bible. As I pointed out in an earlier post, even the designations BC and AD reflect a later time after Christianity became the established religion of the western world.

Study Bibles can also be helpful, but we must be careful how we use them. Study Bibles contain notes on the page which basically serve as commentary. I have been in classes and heard someone say something to the effect, “My Bible says,” and then go on to read one of these notes. While I hope this is just semantics and the individual understands the difference, we must be very clear. These notes are not part of your Bible. Use them to help understand a passage, but never accept them uncritically. They are merely one person’s interpretation.

Many modern translations include headings within the chapters to indicate the subject that is being discussed. This is often helpful, but those placements are merely one person or group’s interpretation of the proper organization of the passage. And if we accept them uncritically, we can actually misread the message of the text.

I wish to discuss just one example of a division I believe to be misleading. It has to do with the way the NIV divides Ephesians 5 and 6.This criticism is not restricted just to the NIV. In one form or another, other translations divide sections in a similar manner. Ephesians 5.21 in the NIV reads, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Then verses 5.22-33 are labeled “Wives and Husbands,” verses 6.1-4 are labeled “Children and Parents,” and verses 6.5-9 are labeled “Slaves and Masters.” This division distorts the message that is being presented. Even the chapter division is misleading.

If I were to divide this section, 5.21-6.9 would be one chapter. 5.21 “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” is the thesis sentence, and everything that follows is intended to show how that principle should work in different roles. So we are told how a wife is to submit to her husband, followed by instructions to the husband, showing how he should exercise his role in a way that subjects his desires to her needs. This is followed by instructions to children that reinforce the parents’ authority, but once again that is tempered by emphasizing to the parents that this authority is always to be exercised for the good of the children. Finally, even the very touchy master/slave relationship is discussed. While it may go against the grain to have slaves told to “obey your earthly masters,” this would have been practical advice, given that culture. But notice two things. First, slaves are to obey their “earthly” masters. In other words, there is the implicit recognition that this role does not reflect how God views a slave. And the instructions to masters clearly are designed to teach that slaves are more than the “living tools” they were designated by Roman law. They are human beings. And the master is to “submit” his own requirements to their needs. Notice verse 9 which reads, “And masters, treat your slaves in the same way (my emphasis).

In other words mutual submission is the message of this whole passage. But if we follow the NIV heading, verse 21 is separated from the whole discussion, so we can easily miss what the text is intending to teach.

What is particularly striking to me is that in order to separate verse 21 from verse 22, the NIV translators divided the text in the middle of a sentence, if we follow the Greek text. While certainly, punctuation is sometimes an issue, in this instance, the NIV translators divided verse 21 from 22, even though the very Greek text they were working from showed the verses as one sentence. If you know Greek, you can check this out in A Reader’s Greek New Testament, which contains the Greek text upon which the NIV is based. To be fair to the NIV, they corrected this in the 2011 edition. There they show 5.21 through 6.9 as “Instructions for Christian Households.” I don’t mean to pick on the NIV. Other translations, have similar divisions. The point is that you should not accept these divisions uncritically. They are not part of your Bible.

One other element that should be mentioned is the names of the books themselves. These were added later. Virtually all the books of the Bible (except short books such as Philemon) were almost certainly written originally on scrolls. There might be a note attached to the outside of the scroll which would provide information about the work, the scribe who copied it, the date, and yes, perhaps even the author. But if such information was provided with the originals of any of the Biblical books, we no longer have it. Just as one example, take the gospels. The gospels were collected at a fairly early date, and published together. The earliest Greek collections of the four gospels we possess, use the designations, “According to Matthew,” “According to Mark,” and so on. Current editions of the Greek New Testament still follow this form of designation. I am not suggesting you need to abandon the traditional authorship of these books. That subject is very complex and for another post; however, we need to approach the text with integrity and be clear about what we can say with confidence and what we cannot. For the record, let me state that I do tend to accept the traditional authorship of the gospels. At another time, I hope we can get into dating, and I will explain something of my reasoning. But that does not change truth, and the simple truth is that the headings for virtually every book in our Bible were added at a later date. This is simply a matter of intellectual honesty.

Let me close by making one point. I suspect that both my more conservative and my more liberal friends may disagree with some of the things I have discussed today. But that is not the issue. I like to believe I am interested only in the truth, not in either defending or refuting a position. What I wish to emphasize is that the only thing in the Bible that should actually be considered to be the Bible is the text itself. The rest can be helpful and even meaningful. But be clear about what is the Bible and what is not.

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At this point, I feel the need to prepare to discuss the text of the Bible, dealing with such issues as how it originated and how reliable is the text we have today. Before we do that, however, there is another issue that is even more basic. This is the need to understand just exactly what portion of that Bible you are holding can rightfully be considered to be “the Bible.” That may sound confusing, but it is very important. The reality is that not everything printed in your Bible really is part of the Bible. Before you discount me as a heretic, please hear me out.

Today I want to talk about the chapters and verses you find in your Bible. These were certainly not originally part of the Bible text. As a matter of fact, they are a relatively late addition. Our modern chapter divisions were developed in 1227 by Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury. They were first used in the Wycliffe English Bible in 1382. Since then, virtually all Bible translations have used Langton’s chapter divisions.

Below is a picture of an English translation called Matthew’s Bible originally published in 1537. This particular page is from a Bible which was printed in 1551. It contains modern chapter divisions, but no verse divisions, because they had not yet been created.

Matthew's Bible

Matthew's Bible page printed in 1551

While it may be difficult to see in the picture above, the printer has labeled sections roughly corresponding to paragraphs with the letters A, B, C, etc. This practice remained until the modern verse divisions were first used.

We cannot say with certainty when the Old Testament verses were created, but many people believe they are the product of Rabbi Isaac Nathan ben Kalonymus in 1440. The New Testament verse divisions were first used by a printer named Robert Estienne who printed under the name Stephanus. He first used the verse divisions in the fourth edition of his Greek New Testament in 1551. The first English Bible to use them was a translation by William Whittingham in 1557. The first Bible to use our current chapter and verse divisions for both the Old and New Testaments was the Geneva Bible in 1560. Below is a picture of a Geneva Bible printed in 1595. Both this leaf and the one from Matthew’s Bible are from my personal collection.

Geneva Bible

Geneva Bible page printed in 1595

The point I am trying to make is that there is nothing sacred about our modern chapter and verse divisions. They are simply tools created to make Bible study easier and more convenient. They should not be considered part of your Bible. There are numerous instances in which I would have divided verses, and even chapters in a different way, and you should not hesitate to do the same in your own study. If you come to the end of a chapter, and the next chapter appears to be a part of the context of the message, you should feel free to ignore these artificial divisions for your own study. They are not part of your Bible. They are simply tools to help you interpret your Bible.

Actually, it is possible that these divisions can be a detriment to Bible study. The authors of the Bible did not write in chapters and verses. Certainly, their works are organized, just as any literary work would be. But each book of the Bible was written to be read as a book. When we take a verse or even a chapter out of context, there is a danger of misunderstanding the meaning that was intended by the author. The Bible was not written merely to provide inspirational sayings to be cut out and placed on our refrigerator doors. The message is more complex than that. Please continue to use the chapter and verse divisions as the helpful tools they are. I certainly do, and I am grateful for them. But remember – they are not part of your Bible.

There are a number of other things you may find that are also not strictly speaking part of your Bible. Some of these may surprise you. I will save those for my next post.

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Now that we have finished discussing the King James Bible, I want to get back to some elementary issues. To some this article may appear simplistic, but I believe it is important to understand as much as possible about the world in which the Bible first appeared. I would rather err on the side of providing too much information, rather than assuming everyone reading this knows it already.

The Bible as we have it now, of course, takes the form of a single book. It can be easy (and incorrect) to think of its parts as chapters in a book. This of course would be quite wrong. We talk about the “books” of the Bible and perhaps teach our children to recite the titles. But do we recognize that this is a totally inaccurate way to understand the Bible? Each one of the “books of the Bible” was originally just that – a separate book, written by a different author and designed to be read for the particular message presented in it.

Originally, the books were written by hand on scrolls, usually made from the hides of animal skins. The codex, or book form, with which we are accustomed, did not catch on until the late first or early second century AD. And remember, either scroll or codex, every copy of every book had to be copied by hand. This made books extremely rare and very expensive.

Because copying any book in the ancient world was so laborious and expensive, it affected the way people wrote. Have you ever needed to jot something down quickly and grabbed a sheet of paper just to write it down, only to discard the paper a few minutes later? This would never have been done in the ancient world. First of all, paper as we know it did not exist. You certainly would not use expensive parchment or vellum to jot down a little note. Normally, unimportant writing was done on broken pieces of pottery called “ostraca.” In the ancient world almost nothing was just thrown away. A broken jar could still provide a means of writing information that was less important and not necessarily intended to be preserved.

Because writing was so labor intensive and expensive, people wrote books because they had something to say which they felt to be important. Today, a word processor allows us to be as wordy as we desire and go on at length about subjects about which nobody really cares (such as this blog!). On social media such as FaceBook and Twitter, people post innumerable messages about simple things or everyday events. Not so in the ancient world. Reading was rare, and writing even rarer. People wrote because they had something to say, not because they had time to kill.

So, when you read any portion of the Bible, remember that someone went to a great deal of time and usually expense to write it, because the message was felt to be very important. The writers would not have been given to ramble or include information that was not relevant. That simply was not the world in which they lived. The next post will go into some more detail about writing in the ancient world and specifically as we find it in the Bible.

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Daniel B. Wallace

Executive Director of CSNTM & Senior Research Professor of NT Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary

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