It is Written
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’
“It’s a big book”, writes N.T Wright, “full of big stories with big characters. They have big ideas (not least about themselves) and make big mistakes. It’s about God and greed and grace; about life, lust, laughter, and loneliness. It’s about birth, beginnings, and betrayal; about siblings, squabbles, and sex; about power and prayer and prison and passion. And that’s only Genesis.” (Simply Christian, p. 173) A compelling introduction, I thought, to his chapter on the Bible—the book God breathed.
Wright continued: “Picking it (the Bible) up, you need to remind yourself that you hold in your hands not only the most famous book in the world, but one which has extraordinary power to change lives, to change communities, to change the world. … Somehow, God seems to have delegated (as it were) some at least of the things he intends to do in the world to this book. This process isn`t quite like someone making a will, but nearly. It isn`t quite like a composer writing a score for people to play, but it`s not far off. It isn`t exactly like a dramatist writing a play, but that gets quite close. It isn`t even, though this is perhaps the sharpest yet, that the Bible is “the story so far” in the true novel that God is still writing. It’s all of these and more.” (Simply, p. 173-4)
1. So, what is the Bible? Let’s begin factually. Sometimes in church ministers’ complain that the congregation doesn’t know the Bible—its composition nor its major stories. (Neither do many of those same ministers much to help the congregation grow in knowledge of the Bible).
The Bible consists of two parts which Christians refer to as the Old Testament and New Testament. The Old Testament is much longer—in our pew Bibles it prints out to 890 pages compared to 261 for the New Testament. The Old Testament came into existence over a period of more than a millennium; the New, within less than a century.
The word “testament” is a translation of the word which also means “covenant”. It’s a central Christian claim that the events concerning Jesus were the means by which, in fulfillment of ancient Israelite prophesy, the creator God, Israel’s God, renewed the covenant with Israel and thereby rescued the world. Calling these two parts by these related but differentiated names—Old and New Testaments—indicated how Christians believe they are to be read and understood in relation to Jesus Christ.
The books the Jews call the Bible and Christians call the Old Testament were grouped into three sections. The first five books—known as the “Torah” (“Law”)—are traditionally ascribed to Moses himself and were always regarded as foundational. The next collection of books, known as the “Prophets”, includes what we often think of as some of the historical books (1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings) as well as the books of the great prophets and the so-called minor prophets. The third division, headed by the Psalms (including Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Daniel) were known simply as the “Writings”. Thirty-nine books in all.
One way or another, the three sections became the official list of the sacred books of the Jewish people. The Greek word for such an official list is “canon,” which means “rule” or “measuring stick.” This is the same word that came to be used of the New Testament by Christians. Most of the books of the Old Testament were written in Hebrew, which is why the Old Testament is often referred to as the “Hebrew Bible.” Our knowledge of the original text of the Old Testament has been enriched by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. They include copies of most of the Old Testament, and show that much of the later manuscripts upon which mainstream Judaism and Christianity have depended are very close, despite small variations, to the texts that would have been known in Jesus’ day.
Over two hundred years or so before the time of Jesus, all these books were translated into Greek for the benefit of the increasing number of Jews for whom Greek was their primary language. The Greek Bible they produced—known as the “Septuagint”—was the one used by most early Christians. (In Paul’s letters he sometimes cites Old Testament passages from this Greek translation and sometimes from the Hebrew).
It is at this point in history (200 years or so before Jesus) that the books known as the “Apocrypha” first appeared (18 in all). There is a long and complex debate about their status—some Bibles include them, many do not. At the very least, these books tell us a great deal about how Jews of the time of Jesus thought and lived.
The twenty-seven books of the New Testament were all written within two generations of the time of Jesus—in other words, by the end of the first century at the latest—though most scholars would put them earlier than that. The bulk are written within a single generation of the time of Jesus. The letters of Paul, for example, are written in the late forties or early fifties—within 20 years of Jesus death and resurrection.
It needs to be stressed that our evidence for the text of the New Testament is in a completely different league that our evidence for every single other book for the ancient world. We know major Greek and Roman authors through a small handful of manuscripts, some copies centuries after the original and some with just one or two late copies. By contrast, we possess literally hundreds of early manuscripts of some of all of the New Testament with dozens from the third and fourth centuries. The massive evidence available means that we are on extremely secure ground for getting at what the biblical authors actually wrote.
For much of church history, the churches of the East (Constantinople; Orthodox) read the Bible in Greek, and the churches of the West (Rome), Latin. Our fore-parents in the Protestant Reformation were part of the churches of the West; one of the great ideas of this Reformation was that the Bible should be available to all people in their own language. This precipitated a flurry of translating activity in the sixteenth century itself, led by the Martin Luther (German) and William Tyndale (English). In the seventeenth century the English-speaking world adopted the Authorized (“King James”) version. As more and better manuscripts were discovered, revealing all kinds of mostly small but interesting adjustments that needed to be made, scholars and church leaders in the late nineteenth century were persuaded that further revision was advisable. Hence, during the last hundred years a flurry of translations and revisions were produced, with many currently available. Similar stories can be told of translations in other languages. According to the Bible Society—an organization dedicated to translating scripture into more and more of the worlds’ native languages—there are 518 languages which have a translation of the whole Bible.
The story of the Bible’s composition, collection, and distribution is important. “But”, as N.T Wright points out, “setting it out in this way feels a bit like trying to describe my best friend by offering a biochemical analysis of his genetic makeup.” That technical information is important but it doesn’t tell the full story. What is it about, the Bible, that makes it such a loved and, at the same time, despised book? It surly isn’t the details of its composition and collection, is it?
2. In the portion of the Apostle Paul’s first Corinthian letter that we read today he cites two Old Testament passages. Paul insists that the message about the cross—the proclamation of Christ crucified—is the power of God at work. In this short passage, twice he writes “it is written” and quotes first from Isaiah and them from Jeremiah. Why does Paul cite passages from the scriptures in support of the message he is preaching?
Paul gives us a clue as to why he might cite scripture in something he wrote in his second letter to Timothy. “All scripture is inspired by God (literally, God–breathed), “and is (therefore) useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:16) In the Genesis story we are told that “God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7) When God breaths the result is life. To say that scripture is God-breathed is to say that God gives them life, life he intends for them.
The New Testament book of Hebrews is filled with Old Testament quotation and allusion. The author of that book says something very similar to the Apostle Paul about the scripture. “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12) Both this author and Paul indicate that the Bible has a life, a life that God gives to it. We find, for example, as we read the scripture in faith it is more accurate to say the scripture reads us.
N.T. Wright takes up the discussion of this God–breathed living nature of the scriptures likening them to the sacraments (baptism and Lord’s Supper) as one of the points where heaven and earth overlap and interlock. (Simply, p. 181) There is mystery here, to be sure, but such an image helps us to say some things that are otherwise difficult. It enables us to say that the writers, compliers, and editors of scripture were people who, with different personalities, styles, methods, and intentions, were nonetheless caught up in the strange purposes of the covenant God—purposes which included the communication, by writing, of his word. It tells us, among other things, that though words are not the only thing God specializes in, they are a central part of his repertoire. God speaks and we humans were the creature in creation created to receive such communication, a communication given that we might serve God’s purposes for the world.
Consider with me the God-breathed character of the Bible from another angle of vision. Everything we do in life has its own logic or character—sometimes quiet uniquely so. Think of simple things. You don’t, for example, clean your ears with a toothbrush (usually). You brush your teeth with a toothbrush because of the character of your teeth; we have considered the logic of dental hygiene and invented the tooth brush to fit the nature or character of our teeth. Renovating your kitchen is a much different task than applying makeup. (I know I am skating very close to open water with this illustration) The tools necessary for each task are demanded by the character of the thing we are doing. Studying marine life requires a logic very different than studying polar mammals. For one you better have scuba gear; for the other some very warm clothing. While there is something similar—both are being studied—the learnings have a logic of their own. It is a logic in accord with the character of the thing we are studying. You know the folly contained in the saying, “if all you have is a hammer every problem is a nail.”
N.T. Wright offers a wonderful illustration of the way the Bible calls us to read it as this God-breathed book. Christian scripture is stamped, in its shape and overall purpose and mode of use according to the purposes God intends for it. This means that the Christian scriptures, just like Christian prayer, have their own distinctive shape. Reading them in this way (according to their own inner logic) intends and requires a distinctive kind of activity. In some ways, reading the Bible looks like reading any book, but in other ways it isn’t. If you read it like a appliance manual you will miss the point.
“Not all “holy books” are the same sort of thing,” N.T. wright insightfully notes. “The great writings of the Hindu tradition—the Bhagavad Gita, in particular—do not offer a controlling story within which the readers are summoned to be characters. They do not speak of a single god who, as a unique creator, chooses to act in one specific family and location rather than others in order to address the whole world. This affects form as well as content. The Koran, the majestic monument to Muhammad, is a different sort of thing again, much more like (in fact) the kind of hard-edged “authoritative” book which some consider the Bible be.”
People assume that, within all religions that have a book, all these books function in the same way. Not so. The purpose of each book is different which affects its form and content and the way it is to be read. What the Christian believes about Jesus generates a narrative within which one is called to live; that living within that story generates a call to a particular vocation within the world; and that the Bible is the book through which God sustains and directs those who seek to obey that vocation as intelligent, thinking, image-bearing human beings. (Simply, p.189-190) We are called to be people who learn to hear God’s voice speaking today within the ancient text, and who become vessels of that living word in the world around us.
And about the infallible nature of scripture. Scripture is infallible in that it unfailingly accomplishes that for which it is given. Without fail, as often as it is read, the Father will send the promised Spirit and the Son will loom before us to seize, save and sustain. Therefore the Scripture never fails with respect to its purpose, an ever-renewed encounter with Jesus Christ. People become Christians as the crucified One, risen and ascended, steals over them. The point I want to underscore with you is this—God is speaking this word and its meaning to you and me now. It is God who makes known to us that this word of Scripture is his own and its meaning; astonishingly, God does this in spite of the preacher’s frailty.
Like the computer, for many of us we use only a small portion of its capability, so also the church is often with the Bible. It is written—so much is loaded into this phrase not the least being the breath of God. We give N.T. Wright the final word today. “The Bible is part of God’s answer to the ancient human quest for justice, spirituality, relationship, and beauty. Read it and see.” (Simply, p. 197)