A Beginner's Introduction to the Bible Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

A Beginner's Introduction to the Bible

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[The Bible] is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.
- Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth

You can buy this book in Walmart. You can find it online, for free, in multiple translations and profusely annotated. You are likely to find one in your hotel room, unless your hotel is in Saudi Arabia. Most people have held one in their hands – fewer have read it. It has been called Scripture, with a capital 'S'. It's also called Holy Writ, or simply the Word. The name 'Bible' comes from Greek, which got it from ancient Semitic, which got it from a Phoenician city, one of the oldest continuously inhabited towns in the world. They made papyrus there, which is what very old Bibles were made of.

This old word has such an authoritative connotation that modern reference works are often called bibles. For instance, long-running television series have 'writers' bibles' to keep the characters and continuity straight. You might refer to a reference book you can't work without as your 'bible'.

The Capital-B-Bible itself – and we'll get into what that means in a minute – is old. How old? That would be opening Can of Worms #1. Scholars are still arguing about the age of this compendium of ancient writings. The earliest material is usually dated to the second millennium BCE, though recent archaeological finds may or may not have pushed the date back by a millennium or two.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Before we get into what people argue about, we need to define our terms. What is a Bible? Are there different Bibles? What subjects are covered in this 'book of books'? How is this book's journey connected to the history of western civilisation?

Let's start in the contemporary world, since ancient history bores most people. What is in that Bible you're holding? Well, first of all, are you an English-speaking Protestant, or an English-speaking Catholic? Are you, on the other hand, an Ethiopian Christian? Are you Jewish? There are different kinds of Bibles.

The Tanakh

Shema Israel, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai echad.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.
- Deuteronomy 6:4.

Jewish scriptures are contained in the Tanakh: an acronym for 'Torah+Nevi'im+Ketuvim', or 'Law, Prophets, and Writings'. When were these books canonised into a whole? Can of Worms #2. Anywhere from 110 BCE-450 CE, depending on whom you're talking to. So the question, 'Did Jesus bring his Bible to Sunday School?' should be answered, 'No. Jesus went to shul on the Sabbath, and they read from the Torah scroll.' See below for the breakdown of the books of the Tanakh, which was written in Hebrew (with a few Aramaic bits).

  • Torah: The Torah, also known as the Pentateuch, or Five Books of Moses, is of primary importance to Judaism, because it contains the Law, a set of rules for daily life that applied specifically to the ancient Hebrews (and to observant Jews today). Christians invariably begin their Bibles with the Pentateuch, as well. The five books are:
    • Bereshit, or Genesis: This book starts, 'In the beginning...', and contains stories of origin: the creation of the world, the origin of sin and suffering, the Deluge1, and the lives of the ancestral Hebrew patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph.

    • Shemot ('Names') or Exodus: The story of the Hebrews continues – it's their book, after all – with the mass migration from Egypt. (Dating this event is Can of Worms #3, so don't ask2.) During this journey, the Hebrews encounter God (Yahweh, or HaShem) at Mount Sinai3 and receive the Law, which becomes binding on all their descendants. They construct the Tabernacle as a mobile worship centre, and the Ark of the Covenant as a sacred reliquary.

    • Vayikra ('And He called' or Leviticus): This book contains more laws and regulations for the Levites, a tribe singled out for religious duty, and the priests, a subgroup of the Levites. Leviticus is mainly concerned with ritual purity and the right form for sacrifices – which is not unusual in the religious environment of its time.

    • B'midmar ('In the desert of' or Numbers): The Exodus story continues here. Essentially, the Hebrews make a fatal mistake: they refuse to enter the Land of Promise (Canaan) because they are deathly afraid of the military power of the residents. God punishes them by making them wander around in the Sinai for 40 years, until all of the original people are dead, except for the leaders Moses, Joshua and Caleb, who were in favour of invading earlier.

    • Devarim ('Things' or 'Words' or Deuteronomy): More religious teachings are given, including the Shema Yisrael, the basic declaration of Jewish monotheism. The story of the Exodus wraps up with the death of Moses.

  • Nevi'im ('Prophets'): Prophets come in two types: Major and Minor, based on length, not importance. Both Jewish Bibles and Christian Bibles contain these books, though in different orders, so we will list all these books together later.

  • Ketuvim ('Writings'): These books are also called 'wisdom literature'. They include everything from stories and historical accounts to poetry. We will also list them all together, since Jewish and Christian orders vary.

The rest of these books, in the order they appear in the Protestant Bible, are:

  • Joshua
  • Judges
  • Ruth
  • I Samuel
  • II Samuel
  • I Kings
  • II Kings
  • I Chronicles
  • II Chronicles
  • Ezra
  • Nehemiah
  • Esther
  • Job
  • Psalms
  • Proverbs
  • Ecclesiastes
  • Song of Solomon
  • Isaiah
  • Jeremiah
  • Lamentations
  • Ezekiel
  • Daniel
  • Hosea
  • Joel
  • Amos
  • Obadiah
  • Jonah
  • Micah
  • Nahum
  • Habakkuk
  • Zephaniah
  • Haggai
  • Zachariah
  • Malachi

Both Jews and Christians will have these books in their Bibles. In Christian Bibles, these works come first, and are grouped into what is called the Old Testament. The term 'Old Testament' refers to a Christian religious belief that the older books represent an older covenant, or 'testament', between God and the Hebrew people. In contrast, the New Testament, containing stories about Jesus and his followers, represents to Christians a new form of covenant with the rest of humankind, who would be referred to in the older books as the goyim, or 'nations'. This New Testament is not part of the Jewish Bible.

Where Will You Find a Jewish Bible?

Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.
- Nehemiah 8:10.

Probably not in a hotel room. A Torah scroll will be found in a synagogue, or Jewish place of worship. It occupies a place of honour. There is even a special holiday to celebrate the giving of the Law: Simchat Torah.

Portions of the Torah are read every week in synagogues. Jewish children attaining the rite of bar/bat mitzvah at age 13 learn to read enough Hebrew to perform the weekly Torah portion before being fêted into the community by friends and relatives.

Do you wish to explore the Hebrew Bible? We recommend the Jewish Publication Society's English translation, available freely online.

Apocrypha, or Pseudepigrapha

Now the Babylonians had an idol, called Bel, and there were spent upon him every day twelve great measures of fine flour, and forty sheep, and six vessels of wine.
- Bel and the Dragon 1:3.

When Jewish scholars canonised their scripture, they rejected some popular books. However, they didn't object to people reading them. (This point will be important later.) Some Christians accepted these books into their canon. Later, Protestants rejected them again. These books form the Apocrypha ('hidden') or pseudepigrapha ('false writings'), depending on your point of view. (Can of Worms #5.) Some of these books are just pious stories4 such as the one about Daniel catching the Babylonian priests in a scam, or Daniel as judge rescuing the virtuous Susanna from some lecherous elders.

Here are the apocryphal books:

  • 1 Esdras
  • 2 Esdras
  • Tobit
  • Judith
  • The Rest of Esther (not included in the Protestant Bible)
  • Wisdom
  • Ecclesiasticus, or Sirach
  • Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremy
  • Song of the Three Children in the Fiery Furnace
  • Story of Susanna
  • The Idol Bel and the Dragon
  • Prayer of Manasses
  • 1 Maccabees
  • 2 Maccabees

Where will you find these books? In older versions of the Authorised Bible, and in Luther's Bible5, in a separate section titled 'Apocrypha'. In Catholic Bibles, these texts are included among the regular texts of the Old Testament.

Why should you read them? Aside from general interest, reading the Apocrypha can clear up the origins of some theological and historical disputes, such as: What happened to the Ark of the Covenant6? Did wicked king Manasseh ever repent? What was it like inside the Fiery Furnace?

If you have a few spare evenings, you might want to devote them to studying some apocryphal texts online.

The New Testament

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
- John 1:1.

The New Testament, entirely written in Greek, deals with the life of Jesus – the four gospels   – and the spread of the Jesus movement beyond Jerusalem in the First Century CE. There are four gospels, a history of the early Christians, 20 letters7, and a book of prophecy.

  • Matthew
  • Mark
  • Luke
  • John
  • Acts
  • Romans
  • I Corinthians
  • II Corinthians
  • Galatians
  • Ephesians
  • Philippians
  • Colossians
  • I Thessalonians
  • II Thessalonians
  • I Timothy
  • II Timothy
  • Titus
  • Philemon
  • Hebrews
  • James
  • I Peter
  • II Peter
  • I John
  • II John
  • III John
  • Jude
  • Revelation

Where will you find these books? In all Christian Bibles, although Luther will have moved James to near the end. (He disagreed with James about some things.) We'll have more to say about where the New Testament came from in the next section, but for now, if you'd like to read it – and we recommend you do, at least once in your life – you can find it just about anywhere. You can ask the Gideons International to send you one, and they'll do so for free. (Gideons are named after a character in the Book of Judges, by the way.) You can find it online, both in the original Greek and in practically any translation you care to read, including Klingon and Lolcats.

Why Is There No New Testament Apocrypha?

Jesus said, 'Know what is in front of your face, and what is hidden from you will be disclosed to you.'
- Gospel of Thomas, verse 5.

Good question. Actually, there are some apocryphal books – the Armenian Church has sometimes (but not always) included a book called III Corinthians, the Coptic Church has two letters of Clement of Alexandria, and other ancient churches deviate in their canon. The Armenian Church didn't accept the Book of Revelation until 1200. Call it all Can of Worms #7 and move on.

The real reason there isn't an official New Testament Apocrypha is book burning. Somewhere in the 4th Century, as Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the dissidents' books got purged. Gospels of Thomas, Mary Magdelene and others were destroyed whenever possible. There was a lot of intolerance. Today, we are beginning to piece these alternative texts together from archaeological finds such as the one at Nag Hammadi. Would you like to read them? They're available online, of course. Read away. You also might enjoy the works of Gnostic scholar Elaine Pagels.

One more note is necessary to even this cursory overview of the Bible. There's one more book the Jews and Christians have mostly left out of their Bibles, but it's important.

The Book of Enoch

...books will be given to the righteous and the wise to become a cause of joy and uprightness and much wisdom.
- Book of Enoch CIV.12.

When was the Book of Enoch written? Probably in the Second Century BCE. The only Christian groups that include it in their canon are the Ethiopian and Eritrean churches. Theoretically, this book dealing with antediluvian8 history, angelic infighting, and the immortal father of Methuselah9 belongs to the apocryphal Old Testament, right? So why mention it here?

Because it is obvious that Jesus and his followers accepted the Book of Enoch as genuine scripture. Not only is Enoch quoted matter-of-factly as an authority in Jude 1:1410, but some of Jesus' parables seem to use the same symbolic language as those in Enoch.

One could legitimately argue that if the founder of a religion accepted a text, it might be worth taking a look11. Check it out in the 1917 translation online.

The Bible and Western Civilisation

How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!
- Henry David Thoreau, Walden

The Bible played a huge role in the development of western civilisation. Missionaries carried it across Europe. It was usually the first text translated into a newly-literate language. Sometimes, as with Gothic, it's practically the only artefact we have left of an older language.

For centuries, Europeans read their Bibles, when they did such a thing, in Latin or Old Church Slavonic. The battle for a vernacular (ie, non-Latin or non-liturgical) Bible translation was a long one, call it Can of Worms #9. People struggled for the right to read the Scriptures in their own languages. They fought and died for this right. After the invention of printing, they smuggled printed copies into countries as contraband. In 1536, Englishman William Tyndale was executed by strangulation, and burnt at the stake. His Bible translation was part of this particular Can of Worms.

The vernacular Bible fuelled the Protestant Reformation. When laypersons (not religious professionals) read the Bible, they were outraged to discover that it didn't say exactly what the clergy had been telling them. True, there were some very puzzling stories in there. But there was no mention of, say, a Pope, or Saint This-or-That, or many of the rituals and proscriptions that were by then codified in Christendom. The outcry led to the establishment of new churches with different ideas, different polities12 and different theories about how to read the Bible.

Ironically, actually reading the Bible seems to be less attractive when it isn't illegal. Bibles are still smuggled in many parts of the world – because they're still illegal. People want to read them there. Language groups that get a Bible as part of their new literacy drives can be very enthusiastic about this book. In 2014, the Hupla people of Indonesia finally got their Bible translation. They held a three-day festival in celebration.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

1The Flood narrative shows both similarities and differences to the Epic of Gilgamesh. Hebrew culture traces its roots to Mesopotamia, an alluvial plain where this story originated. Major floods were literally world-ending events to city-states built entirely out of mud brick.2Although we recommend Immanuel Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision, possibly the most contentious thesis of a scrappy lot.3No one is sure where Mount Sinai is, other than somewhere in the Sinai Peninsula. We will call this Can of Worms #4.4What snopes.com calls 'glurge'.5Martin Luther, OSA (1483-1546) was a German monk, theologian, and Father of the Protestant Reformation, the 16th-Century religious movement that divided the Western Christian Church. The Reformation had a far-reaching effect on European history, leading to social and political changes, and quite a few wars. Luther, a trained academic, translated the Bible into German. His translation is very forthright, even earthy in places, but possesses a poetry all its own. If you can read 16th-Century German, you might care to browse this online edition of Luther's Bibel.6No, it wasn't Indiana Jones.7At least some of these letters were written by apostles (original followers of Jesus). Which ones, and how late the others are, constitutes Can of Worms #6.8Before the Flood, see Genesis.9'The oldest man who ever lived/died before his father did' – old saying.10'And Enoch also, the seventh from Adam, prophesied of these, saying, Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints...' Authorised Version11Can of Worms #8, the book wasn't even available in German or English until the 19th Century.12Forms of church government.

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