How was the Bible formed?
Review: The Making of the Bible, Konrad Schmid and Jens Schroter, Harvard University Press
In the first years of the early church, while Judaism was using scrolls in synagogues, Christians used codices (something like today’s paperback), maybe because they were cheap and portable, typically binding a handful of books together, such as the four gospels or some of Paul’s letters. These books didn’t have quite the same status as the Scriptures in the synagogue. The Bible as we know it – and think of it – today, as a coherent, rigid set of books bound in one volume, took some time to develop. The Making of the Bible is about how this bunch of books became one book.
Most of the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) was written down when Israel had become a state, when gathering a disparate group of laws and histories became important for reinforcing the story of the God of Israel’s long relationship with the people, through thick and thin. The writings came out of an established religion, rather than the other way around. Much Old Testament material circulated orally before a scribal culture developed and the stories and laws were written down. Oral cultures relay complex material well – despite what we might think today – but writing solidified things, especially when it came to the order of words. And evidence from Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls confirms that what was written down at about the time of Christ was very close to what came down independently to the medieval West.
For a time, the religion of Israel was spread across two nations – Israel and Judah. Much material regarding Israel’s history and laws comes from the south – from Judah, ironically, where the temple cult was centred on Jerusalem. Scholars aren’t exactly sure where the places of worship were in the north, in Israel. Judah, as a smaller nation, survived longer and so did its texts, but the authors here suggest that the Jacob stories and the book of Judges probably come from the north. Intriguingly, it is likely that some material was lost with the fall of Israel and the exile.
In the Second Temple period we see a strong scribal culture centred around court and temple, with editing of texts to strengthen the narrative. One can get into trouble in conservative circles for pointing this out, as it seems to question the validity of Scripture, but the polyphony is pretty obvious to those in the know. Besides, as Karen Armstrong points out, ‘historical accuracy’ is a modern concept that is not quite right to apply to the biblical writers, and the church has consistently prioritised not the Bible itself but the message of salvation it conveys. Muslims, in contrast, have a different and more rigid view of the Koran.
The destruction of the first temple led to a shift from an emphasis on sacrifice to an emphasis on Scripture, although of course we see that in the time of Jesus, sacrifices hadn’t disappeared. There were other shifts too. Although modern biblical scholars point to the early church’s reprioritisation of individual salvation over an earlier, emphasis on collective salvation, we can also see this happening in Isaiah. The prophetic books seem, remarkably, to undermine the earlier insistence on the law.
We may take it for granted now, but the combination of Jesus’ Jewishness and the Christian and liberal Jewish belief in the Old Testament God guiding all humankind meant that the previously exclusive Jewish Scriptures became universally applicable. (Christians fitted Jesus into the OT narrative, whereas Jews tended to focus more on the particulars of the law.) This, say the authors, was ‘momentous’, and complex. One could imagine, in an alternate universe, the early church instead rejecting the Jewish Scriptures and going their own way. But the New Testament writers used the OT to understand who Jesus was and why he died. Christians saw themselves as new ‘chosen ones’, carrying the history of Israel further.
One might add here that while we speak of an Old Testament, and Paul quotes from ‘the law and the prophets’, the Jewish scriptures were not quite fixed in Paul’s time, even if there were traditions. Paul would likely include some books that the church or Judaism would later reject.
Seventy years after Jesus’ ministry, his sayings and life were written down in Greek. Mark’s gospel was the first. Matthew and Luke take from Mark and elaborate, depending on their theological interests. These gospels also share material from another earlier gospel, one we no longer have. In John’s gospel we see a different side of Jesus. Syriac churches had – and still have – a composite gospel rather than the four gospels most Christians are familiar with.
The early church communities had bound gospels and bound letters of Paul – the number of letters varying – but not exactly what would become the NT. Other gospels floated around, and different communities had access to different gospels. The Protoevangelium of James was a popular one that influenced the elevation of the status of Mary in the early church, but which was later rejected.
Schmid and Schroter suggest that the four gospels we now have could have been otherwise. Maybe, maybe not. The church fathers chose these four because they seemed reasonably consistent, and rejected others as heretical or fanciful, but also because four seemed like a sensible and symbolic number, and a canon developed. Canonical meant books fitted a ‘rule’, outlined by Irenaeus and others, that involved Trinitarian, Christological and atonement beliefs. Obviously, the books and the rule informed each other, and the rule would later develop into the creeds, through which the church has traditionally and communally asserted what central message the Bible’s vast, beautiful and polyphonic library boils down to.
Nick Mattiske blogs on books at coburgreviewofbooks.wordpress.com and is the illustrator of Thoughts That Feel So Big.
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