The most famous text in the world - and probably also the most influential, widely read, misinterpreted and reviled. In fact the Bible1 is a collection of texts among which are narratives, psalms2 and letters, compiled from a variety of sources by the early Christian Church as holy writ.
It would however be wrong to class the book wholly under the banner 'Christian'. More than half of its constituent parts are from the Jewish sacred text The Torah, and various sections can be found in Islam's Koran, though Muslims have different interpretations and consider the original message corrupted in ways. Many of the events recorded in the Bible are familiar to non-Christians, and have formed the inspiration for poems, paintings, songs, and more recently musicals and movies3.
The Bible is most obviously divided into two sections, the Old and New Testaments.
Why read it?
The Bible is so large that there are many reasons to read at least parts of it.
Religion and spirituality are of course prevalent throughout. The strength of the message is shown by the fact that three major world religions - Christianity, Judaism and Islam - base a great deal of their teaching on at least part of the Bible. Others still respect the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament4, or consider him divine in some way that doesn't fit into organised religion.
Such passages manifest themselves in a variety of ways. There is philosophy, advice on how to be as a person and how to treat others; there are prayers, some formalised and others following the most basic definition, that is, talking to God; there are discussions on the nature of God, of heaven, and of God's relationship with and approach to Man; and there are the actions of God, unseen among the Israelites or in the person of Jesus.
See especially the Wisdom books, St. John's Gospel and the letters of St. Paul5.
Many of the events in the Bible, once claimed by some to be without historical basis or accuracy, have since been validated by independent sources such as archaeological data. There is strong evidence for the Noah's flood, a theory behind the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus, and Jesus is almost universally acknowledged to be an actual historical figure.
The fact that the gospels provide eyewitness accounts of First Century AD Judea - with the added advantage of some of the events being told from more than one viewpoint - makes the New Testament on its own a useful historical source, while bearing in mind that its primary concern is not to be a documentation of the times but one life. This section of the Bible adds place names and figures of authority to the historical record, and confirms other, non-religious, sources.
In some sections of the Bible the language is quite beautiful - particularly the Song of Songs, various letters of St. Paul and the imagery in the Books of Genesis and Revelation. Furthermore the Bible provides examples of texts from authors writing in a wide spectrum of periods in history and in many different styles.
The dramatic nature of much Biblical content, with miracles, plagues, death, battles and destruction is always going to gain high readership whether one believes in it or not.
Reading the Bible
The fact that the original texts are in languages you essentially need a degree course to be able to recognise means that in order to read it, you'll need to choose which translation to select. There are subtle variations in interpretation of various phrases - some key, some minor - between the translations, and branches of Christianity tend to have their own favourite; for example, the New International Version translation is preferred among Anglicans, and Catholics will tend to have a copy of the New Jerusalem translation at home.
It ought to be pointed out that hardly any of the Bible is light reading...
In terms of language, most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, with a few sections of Aramaic and Greek. The New Testament is exclusively in 'koine' Greek, though some argue St. Matthew's Gospel was first written in Hebrew. The difference in language reflects the intended audience; where the Old Testament was intended for the 'chosen people', who would have spoken Hebrew, the apostles saw their task to spread a message globally, with Greek the lingua franca.
In addition to language problems, readers will miss a great deal of assumed understood cultural context the writers embedded in the text, with the necessary subsequent failures of interpretation. A simple example often given for this is that Jesus' reference to a rich man having as much chance of getting unaided into heaven as a camel has of passing through 'the eye of the needle' is less impossible than seems the case because 'the eye of the needle' was in fact the name of a particularly slim gateway into Jerusalem – there is however no evidence for this. That said, there will be many remarks with layers of meaning lost to the modern reader due to incomplete knowledge.
Much more was written on the subject than ended up in the Bible, and numerous sections have fallen by the wayside over time. The list of books contained within the Bible varies a bit among churches, from Orthodox to Catholic to Protestant, and what 'the Bible' and 'canonicity' mean therefore depends on its compiler, though the vast majority of books (and certainly the best known) are common to all.
By way of an example, the Protestant Church disagreed with the inclusion of the 'deuterocanonical' books like Tobit and Maccabees made at the Council of Trent in the Sixteenth Century, at which the modern Catholic form of the Bible was largely established. There are also variations in acceptance of some of the lesser-known texts between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and indeed among the different branches of Orthodoxy itself.
Aside from the deuterocanonical books already mentioned, other texts now known collectively as the 'Apocrypha' by much of Christianity were removed early on, with disapprovals raised in the second century AD.
The Old Testament
Authorship generally unknown or at best obscure, these texts were written down over centuries, and indeed deal with events that span a large tract of history in what is now called the Middle East. Can be further subdivided into four sections.
Known to Jews in ancient times as 'The Law' these books comprise events from the supposed start of the world, the Garden of Eden, fall from grace and the Flood (with Noah's Ark) in the book of Genesis, to the arrival of the Jewish people, lead by Moses, on the borders of the Promised Land in the book of Deuteronomy. Events relating to the Jews can be placed in the 2nd Millennium BC.
The Historical Books
Beginning with the entrance into the Promised Land across the river Jordan, this section is concerned with the conquest of the region by the Jews and the establishment and development of the state of Israel. Events taking place during the 1st Millennium BC.
The Wisdom Books
Containing passages discussing God in various ways - in particular the Psalms and the book of Job, where the eponymous man loses all he has (which is a great deal) and, struck down by several tragedies, complains to God. There follow a couple of in-depth discussions of Man's relationship with God and divine justice.
Particularly well-known from this section is the Song of Songs - love poetry about a couple united, divided, sought and found. This is often ascribed to King Solomon but the vocabulary and style show it to be a later composition, dating from after the exile of the Jews. The poems are either an allegory of the relationship between God and the Israelites, or merely love poetry with coincidental allusions - neither interpretation satisfactorily accounts for every detail in the text.
The lives and actions of several prophets (such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel). The events mentioned or the origins of each book can be dated with reasonable accuracy.
The New Testament
Written around the latter half of the First Century AD by the followers of Jesus, whether first-hand witnesses (such as St. John) or later converts (St. Paul6). Divided into the Gospels7, Acts, Letters and the book of Revelation8.
Attributed to Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, these narratives catalogue many events in the life of Jesus. Many of the situations appear in more than one gospel. The first three gospels are in fact called 'Synoptic' (with the same eye) since they are very similar in content and each seems to borrow from the other two at times. Each gospel takes a slightly different approach - for instance Luke is writing for a non-Jewish audience, and Matthew is concerned with showing how Jesus' life fulfilled the words of Jewish scripture.
Mark's gospel is suspected to have been almost dictated by St. Peter, and while no one claims authorship of John's, of the twelve closest followers of Jesus, John is never named in this gospel, mentioned only as 'the one dear to Jesus', and at the end those writing the gospel state that these events are being told to them by 'the one dear to Jesus'.
The Acts of the Apostles
Written by the author of Luke's Gospel, concerning what happened to the Church after Jesus had left them.
Written by the leaders of the early Church to either individuals (see Paul to Timothy) or to Christian communities in such places as Corinth and Rome. More concerned with clarifying the teaching of Jesus and giving advice to the recipients than giving any insight into the recent actions of the writer.
The Book of Revelation
A great deal of people know at least something about this final section of the Bible - if only through the 'Omen' films. It deals with a vision claimed to be seen by 'John' - though some consider it to be from someone within his evangelical circle rather than literally the apostle (the true author thereby employing the method Plato used when writing discourses involving Socrates which in all probability the latter never took part in). The text appears to be part vision, part allegory.
Aside from the difficulties many people have believing in any divine action, there are various sections of the Bible that cause problems to theologians and believers alike.
For example, the beginning and end of the Bible. Most branches of Christianity now reject any historical basis for such sections as Genesis, preferring to consider them allegorical and accepting evolution as fact. A great many also dispute the inclusion of the Book of Revelation.
Authorship is a problem throughout – and that's not even bringing God into it. Some texts (particularly in the Old Testament) have no indication as to their author, others claim a particular author who could not have written them. As for the New Testament, there is considerable disagreement on the authorship of the gospels, on whether the traditional authors could have been alive to have either written or dictated them, and precisely when they were first written down – clearly apostles like John could have told their entourage events that they wrote down afterwards, but that might have some effect upon any accuracy, even though the oral tradition was much stronger at that time.
Satan appears in the Old Testament as one of the key angels - used by God to test human devotion. Although Satan does seem to enjoy his job a little too much, there is no satisfactory explanation for his sudden change to God's Arch-Enemy in the New Testament.
The inclusion of the book of Ecclesiastes has been a source of contention for Christians and Jews alike since the First Century AD. One passage seems to state there is no afterlife.
The high moral tone of the New Testament is at times at odds with the deportment of some participants in the Old Testament - like the way King David wins Bethsheba as his wife, or Jacob's deception in order to get his father Isaac's blessing. However, the Old Testament never actively promotes such behaviour.
Among Christians there is difference of opinion on matters in the New Testament, like the role of the Holy Spirit and how one should interpret Jesus' comments about his body being food. Such differences are responsible for many of the schisms that have occurred within Christianity down the centuries.