Podcast discussion with Eric Barreto, Cameron Howard, and James Boyce. Article written by James Boyce.
Where did the Bible come from? For most Christians questions about the origins of the Bible are not just a matter of idle curiosity. Virtually all of us hold these writings we call the Scriptures as inspired by God and authoritative for faith and life.
But we do not always agree on what being “true” and “authoritative” means. By examining how these writings originated, we can uncover insights as to how these writings have become “true” for us. Plus, we may develop guidelines that help to shape our understanding and faithful use of the Bible.
Some things about the Bible’s origins are readily evident to the reader. We note a certain complexity to its composition, its division into sections we call the Old Testament and New Testament, and its further division into books with various titles, some referring to events or topics and others to the names of persons.
Other points of fact -- particularly references to dates of origin or authorship, things that modern readers expect to find in the table of contents -- are for the most part unknown or difficult to get at. Many details must be gleaned by reading carefully between the lines, making reasonable conjectures, and then piecing these conjectures together into a sensible picture. Such details thus remain approximate and subject to changing views over time.
We do get some clues about the writings in a number of places. For example, in 2 Kings 23-24 we read of the discovery in the temple of a “book of the law,” which many assume to have been an early version of the book of Deuteronomy. Its discovery and public reading becomes an occasion for a religious revival and reform during the time of King Josiah (about 622 B.C.E.). About this same time we read of the prophet Jeremiah dictating his words to his secretary Baruch, who writes them down and reads to the people portions that must have later been incorporated into the book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 36:4 and following).
Yet the Dead Sea Scrolls discoveries reveal editing in the existence of both a longer version of Jeremiah, and a version shorter by some three thousand verses. The writer of the gospel of Luke unusually tells us something of both the process and purpose of the composition of his two-volume work in Luke-Acts. Apparently not satisfied with the work of others now unknown to us who have “set down an orderly account of the events that have taken place among us,” he gathers stories from eyewitnesses and from his own investigations in order that he may set down the “truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (Luke 1:1-4).
The writer of the gospel of John offers a similar perspective when he notes that the contents of this gospel are only a selection from a larger body of potential stories, a selection chosen for the purpose of bringing its hearers to faith in Jesus the Messiah (John 20:30-31). We are familiar with an Apostle Paul whose occasional letters are the earliest New Testament writings, written to various congregations he has served. As in 1 Corinthians, he responds to reports of difficulties (for example from “Chloe’s people” 1 Cor 1:11) or matters about which they had written (1 Cor 7:1). By the time the second epistle of Peter is written, some of these letters have been collected and have taken an authoritative place beside the “other scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-16).
Yet even these details leave us with many questions and wishing we could connect the dots and fill in the picture more completely. What we have instead is an overall general conception with which most scholars can agree. One of the best descriptions of these origins goes like this:
“The writings of scripture were shaped and hammered out in the blacksmith shop of real life” (Jessie Lace, Understanding the Old Testament).
A key aspect of this description is its witness to the dynamic circumstances of the writing that reflected the changing real-life settings of the persons who were responsible both for the writing and the collection of the books that make up the Bible.
For the writings that comprise both the Old Testament and the New Testament, though the circumstances and settings are different, much the same can be said. The writings grew out of the heart of a living, witnessing, suffering, and worshipping community of ordinary people. In these writings we can hear their cries and prayers, their praises and their arguments, as they seek to understand what God is about and to bear witness to God’s faithfulness in the midst of trying circumstances.
Though the details of circumstances and setting are of course different, the overall aspects of the writing are similar for both the Old Testament and New Testament collections. Here are some of those shared characteristics:
A lengthy process
The writing did not happen overnight. For the Old Testament this encompassed almost 2,000 years stretching from a wandering Abraham to the time of the Jewish nation under the Maccabees in the second century B.C.E.
For the New Testament, the time is much shorter and encompasses primarily the time of the development of early Christianity after the death and resurrection of Jesus in the first century of our era.
From oral traditions to writings
The writings depended on oral traditions that circulated in the community until at some point they were written down. As the process continued these first writings were adapted, solidified, reshaped, and expanded. Most assume that for the Old Testament some of the earliest writing began in the time of the kings, while much of the final shaping of these writings took place during or just after the Exile.
For the New Testament most of this move, from oral traditions to letters and then to gospels and later letters, had been completed by the first part of the second century.
Differing historical settings teach new perspectives
The writing followed the ups and downs, the high points and struggles of the people of Israel and the early Christian community. New occasions required new reflection and new insights about the ways of God with God’s people and with creation. For example we see the people of Israel wrestling with the appropriateness of having kings like their neighboring enemy nations, or later in exile asking “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a new land?”
Work of many differing hands
From the oral tradition, to the first setting down in writing, to the shaping and reshaping of traditions, the writing is the work of many differing persons, most of the authors unknown to us. (For example the unknown authors whose work can be detected in the four differing strands in the five books of the Old Testament Pentateuch, sometimes identified as JEDP).
Different kinds of literature
The careful reader will recognize a rich variety included in the collection, each type of writing requiring its own appropriate approaches or perspectives: stories, hymns, psalms, prayers, letters, prophecy, wisdom collections, history and court records, gospels, sermons, etc.
Much the same can be said about the process that shaped the final decisions about which books came to be regarded as scripture and so were included in the list recognized by the church as authoritative. In general the process was informal and gradual. The selection grew out of the actual needs and use of communities of faith.
A number of things seem apparent about this process. The early Christian community essentially adopted the list of books of the Old Testament already accepted by the Jewish community in the first century C.E., identified as the “law, the prophets, and the writings” (see Luke 24:44 and following).
As Christians added new books the list tended to be expanded over against those who sought to restrict the message or limit its witness or perspectives about God or Jesus the Christ too narrowly. The list tended to be restricted or narrowed over against those who endangered the witness to the gospel. Key factors about particular works seem to have been their use by all the churches, their faithful witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and their perceived connection to the apostles or to the apostolic witness.
James L. Boyce is Emeritus Professor of New Testament and Greek at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.