THE GREAT STORY OF SACRED SCRIPTURE
Friends: This is a very helpful article to help you understand how the ‘bible’ was provided to us and for us. We will divide this article into two parts, today and tomorrow. J
Article by Dirk Jongkind, academic vice principal and senior research fellow in New Testament text and language at Tyndale House, Cambridge. He is also the author of An Introduction to the Greek New Testament.)
ABSTRACT: Behind the storyline of Scripture is the story of how God, in his providence, gave his words to us. When God spoke, he ensured that it would be preserved through a process of writing, collecting, copying, translating, and printing. After thousands of years, the Scripture that began with the breath of God now comes to us in the Book that is worthy of our supreme trust.
For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors and Christian leaders, we asked Dirk Jongkind, senior research fellow in New Testament text and language at Tyndale House, to tell the story of how we got our Bibles.
Countless lives are changed by the preaching of the word of God. Since human beings tend to look at the outside and not at the inside, we often attribute the power of this transformative teaching to the preacher. We all know on reflection, though, that the real power does not rest in humans but in God’s word itself.
Reading Scripture is the most immediate exposure to the word of God. In practice, this means picking up a physical book and opening it to a specific page, or opening up an app on our phones and scrolling to a specific location. In either case, we trust that the word has not been corrupted and that the message of the Bible we hold in our hands was not changed or lost altogether. We believe that we are reading the actual words that God spoke.
In what follows, we will think about what has gone before that moment when we open Scripture and read it. What happened to the Bible between the earliest times and the twenty-first century? How did God bring his word to us? The reverse of this question — how he brought us to his word — is part of our individual testimony. But the way in which God brought about the Bible is the story of his providence in history, played out over thousands of years. And by understanding what God had done over the ages, we will see that it is reasonable and justified to trust that the Bible in our hands is a translation of the trustworthy words of Scripture. We could talk about ten reasons why to trust the Bible. But it may be more effective if we understand the larger narrative of the history of the Bible.
From God’s Breath to Israel’s Books
Because the Bible is the word of God, it naturally starts with God speaking, both in practice, as in Genesis 1:3 (“And God said, let there be light”), as well as logically, as in John 1:1 (“In the beginning was the Word”). And since we are talking about an infinite God, it should not surprise us that he uses an array of ways to communicate with his creatures.
God spoke directly to Moses from a burning bush (Exodus 3:2), and immediately after the exodus to the whole people from a burning mountain (Exodus 19:18). God speaks through the inspired recording of the history of his people, and through his prophets who heard his word — sometimes directly, but also through visions and dreams. We find personal reflections on the futility of life under the sun (Ecclesiastes), which is also part of God speaking to his people. And this in addition to the book of Proverbs, a collection of divinely crafted wisdom. In the New Testament, we have the records of how the apostles taught about Jesus and about what Jesus himself taught (the four Gospels). And we find the responses by the apostles to various situations within the churches, as well as positive teaching about the salvation that Jesus brought about.
There are many ways in which God spoke his word, and there are many ways in which it was written down. God shows his character even in the diverse ways that he used to form the Scriptures. And the Scriptures themselves testify to their formation.
‘Write This in a Book’
Of all the named authors in the Bible, Moses is the first. Immediately after the exodus, and still before the giving of the law at Mount Sinai, God tells Moses to start writing God’s words down (Exodus 17:14). Amalek had come out to fight Israel, and Moses commanded Joshua to lead the army while Moses would lift up the staff of God. It is after this fight that God speaks to Moses (the text does not tell us how) and commands him to write down what God’s ultimate judgment over Amalek will be as a memorial. The first command to record God’s words in a book comes in order that this book would become a memorial, a testimony, to the acts of God and the fulfilment of his promises. An interesting detail is that already this first Scripture is to be recited to Joshua. The future leader is to be formed by the word of God from its very beginning.
Soon after the fight with Amalek, Israel arrives at Mount Sinai. Here God speaks directly from the mountain, but the people cannot bear it (Exodus 20:19–21). Therefore, Moses goes up the mountain alone and receives the two tablets (Exodus 31:18; 32:15–16). The first set is made and written by God himself, but Moses breaks them in anger because of the idolatry of the people (Exodus 32:19). Moses then brings up a second set so that these can be inscribed with the same words of the covenant (Exodus 34:1, 28; Deuteronomy 10:4). It is also at this occasion that Moses is commanded to write down all the words, “for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel” (Exodus 34:27).
Numbers 33:2 teaches that Moses did not just write down the laws God gave to the people, but also the historical account of the journey of Israel.
In the book of Deuteronomy, at the end of Israel’s time in the wilderness and just before the entrance into the Promised Land, Moses addresses the people and reminds them of what had happened, what God had told them, and what it meant to be the covenant people of God. As expected, the written basis of the covenant is again mentioned. In Deuteronomy 10:5 we learn that the two tablets are kept in the ark. Deuteronomy 31:9 adds that the whole law is given to the Levites who carry the ark, but that it is also given to the elders of the people. The actual book that Moses wrote is to be kept near the ark “for a witness against you” (Deuteronomy 31:26). This is the beginning of the tabernacle, later replaced by the temple, as the place where the word of God is kept and preserved.
Deuteronomy gives us one unexpected insight into the actual practice of copying the law. We read about the stipulations for the future kings in Deuteronomy 17. Once the king sits on his throne, he has to write for himself a copy of the law “from before” the Levitical priests in order that he may read in it all the days of his life (Deuteronomy 17:18–19). The expression “from before” has been interpreted as meaning “approved by,” which is certainly possible. However, there is a more direct interpretation. It seems likely to me that the king is allowed to make his personal copy from the master scroll that Moses deposited with the Levites. This was a true privilege for the king, but also a serious responsibility. The king is supposed to be a faithful scribe. And as with Joshua, the leader of the people is supposed to be formed by the written word of God.
Authors and Compilers
Many of the books in the Old Testament remain without a named author, which is significant in itself. Apparently, the circumstances of their production are not necessary for their interpretation. We also read about books that were in existence but have not been preserved — for example, the book of the rights and duties of the king, written by Samuel and “laid . . . up before the Lord” (1 Samuel 10:25) — that is, put in the tabernacle together with the Scriptures.
We know David mainly as king, yet he was also the author of many psalms. He is called a “prophet” (Acts 2:30), and he calls himself “the sweet psalmist of Israel” (2 Samuel 23:1). Other authors of Psalms are named too — Moses, Solomon, Asaph, Heman, and Ethan. When considering the book of Psalms as a whole, however, we hit another boundary to our knowledge. Who collected all the individual psalms into their canonical order? Was this a gradual process that happened over time? When did this book gets its final shape?
The same questions are raised by the book of Proverbs. Solomon is presented as the source for the wisdom tradition in the book (Proverbs 1:1), but the final two chapters name two other persons, Agur and Lemuel (Proverbs 30:1 and 31:1). In addition, Proverbs 25:1 adds a fascinating detail, as it says that the men of Hezekiah brought together the content of the following chapters — several hundred years after Solomon! Like the book of Psalms, we do not know who gave the book of Proverbs its final shape. But in this case, Scripture tells us that it was centuries after the oldest parts were produced.
Books such as Proverbs seem to be the exception, though. Most books do not give us explicit information about how they came into being. Scripture tells us, however, that later authors were often very much aware of what had been written before. Psalm 119 assumes the presence of the law, the prophet Hosea refers back to Genesis (Hosea 12:3–5), Zechariah alludes to prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, and Daniel reads the prophet Jeremiah (Daniel 9:2). Throughout most of this period, the tabernacle or the temple would be the central location for the preservation of Scripture. It is not without reason that when Josiah restored the proper worship of the true God, it was the temple where the Book of the Law was rediscovered (2 Kings 22:8–11). But as would be expected, it was not just the temple that was active in the preservation of Scripture, but also faithful kings such as Hezekiah, and possibly the schools of prophets, which were not necessarily connected closely to the central sanctuary, played a role in the transmission of God’s word.
Israel’s Book Culture
If, however, the temple is of such great importance, what happened when the temple was destroyed and the people went into exile? Interestingly, around this time we see more and more signs of the book culture that we know must have existed. Jeremiah writes a letter to the Babylonian exiles (Jeremiah 29), and dictates his prophecies again to Baruch the scribe after the king burnt the first copy (Jeremiah 36:1–4). Only a little later, Daniel had a copy of Jeremiah’s prophecy in exile (Daniel 9:2). The prophet Ezekiel is ordered to eat a scroll (Ezekiel 3:1–3), and just after the exile Zechariah sees a flying scroll (Zechariah 5:1–2). Texts, scrolls, and scribes are part of the religious world and religious imagery.
Perhaps the capstone of this development is found in Ezra and Nehemiah. Here we find the scribe Ezra repeatedly expounding the Law that Moses had written. (See the expression “as it is written” in Ezra 3:2, 4; 6:18; Neh. 8:14; 10:34, 36; 13:1.) Nehemiah 8 especially is a glorious description how the people of Israel have now become a people gathered around the written word of God.
The biblical history is by and large silent about the period between Ezra and the New Testament. But when the New Testament tells us about the birth of Jesus, it mentions faithful believers who were expecting the salvation of Israel (Luke 1–2). The only story about the growing up of Jesus tells us about him questioning and answering the teachers of the law in the temple (Luke 2:41–51). Later, Jesus would say of these teachers that “they sit on the seat of Moses” and that the people were to do what they said, but not do as they do (Matthew 23:2–3). Throughout Jesus’s ministry, not only does he teach from the Scriptures (Luke 4:16–30), which were available in the synagogues, but he also fulfills prophecy by his actions (Matthew 21:4). Even when the evangelists record what Jesus had done, they use language directly derived from the Old Testament (compare, e.g., Luke 2:52 with Proverbs 3:4). Yet now we have arrived at the finale phase in writing God’s word, because all of the New Testament was written after the death and resurrection of Jesus, even though it extensively deals with the ministry of Jesus before the arrival of the new covenant. (Part 2 tomorrow) 🙂