1. The name ‘Bible’ comes from the name of the city Byblos, the most important transshipment port for Egyptian papyrus on the eastern coast of the Levant. From this name the word biblion is derived—the Greek word for the written page of papyrus, as well as for the scroll or book which it composes. The plural, bíblia, usually meant all sacred and liturgical books, and was adopted by the Christians restrictively, as the name denoting their canonical writings. Now it could be used in Latin as a singular: biblia, ‘the book,’ simply, the ‘book of books’ or ‘writing of writings,’ sacred scripture. Today, ‘Bible’ is used to denote the books of the Old and New Testaments in their entirety. The Bible comprises the whole canon of the Christian churches—Christianity's sacred scripture.
2. Designation and differentiation alike are relevant for the history of religions, in that this ‘Holy Writ’ incorporates the Bible of the first Christians—the Jewish or Hebrew Bible. This was specified as the ‘Old Testament’ only after the Church had withdrawn from Judaism. The reception of these books in the canon—despite Marcion—and the arrangement of the freshly appeared New Testament writings following the Jewish Bible in the sacred book, testifies to the fact that it was in this Jewish Bible that the Church saw the foundations of Christianity.1 The Bible's influence on the civilization and culture not only of Judaism and Christianity, but of the entire world, is unsurpassed in degree and duration by any other written work. It spans all areas of life, and extends its concerns to all spiritual occupations, namely, those of philosophy and the arts.2
3. The content and order of the writings in the Bible vary. Various formations of the canon do not receive certain writings, and others assess and arrange them differently.
a) The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament was composed originally in Hebrew, except for a few chapters of Ezra and Daniel (composed in Aramaic). It contains thirty-nine books, which are divided into three parts: (1) the Law (Torah), (2) the Prophets (Nebi'im), and (3) the Writings (Ketubim). The initial letters of these sections form the Hebrew word TNK (Tanakh), with which Jews designate the Hebrew canon in its totality. The formation of the canon occurred successively, in a process. Part 1 was closed in the fourth century BCE, part 2 in the second century BCE, and part 3 circa 100 CE. The basic tripartite arrangement of these scriptures was first explicitly referred to in the foreword composed by the grandson of Jesus Sirach for the Greek translation of his grandfather's wisdom book in 132 BCE: “The Law, the Prophets, and the other writings.” The names of these three parts are cited for the Jewish Bible in exactly the same way by the Evangelists, and by ancient authors such as Philo and Josephus. Evidently neither the name, nor indeed the extent, of the third part had been fully established by this time. The canon was not closed by the time of the events of the New Testament (although there was a surprisingly fixed tradition of some biblical books, as the evidence from Qumran reveals). It was established only around 100 CE, with the omission of important writings from the wisdom and apocalyptic literature, possibly precisely because of the proximity of their dates to those of newly arisen Christianity. These, however, were to be found in the Greek translation of the Bible that had appeared at Alexandria. The so-called Letter of Aristeas transmits the legend of the convocation of seventy-two Jewish scholars by Egyptian King Ptolemy II Philadelphos (283–247 BCE), who enjoined upon them the task of translating the Jewish Bible for his renowned library. The Jewish community of Alexandria endorsed the project, stipulating the canonical formula, “Nothing adding, nothing altering, nothing omitting.” This solemn formulation, endorsing a kind of ‘prize essay’ on the part of Judaism and Jerusalem, evidently bears on the legitimization of the Septuagint as superior to the other Greek translations available, and as solemnly sanctioned by the community for use in the liturgy. The writings contained only in the Septuagint (and in the Latin Vulgate) were seen by the Eastern and Western churches as ‘deuterocanonical.’ Martin Luther excluded them from the Reformation canon, in his humanistic regard for the revered canon of Hebraica veritas, considered the original canon. They were tolerated as ‘apocryphal,’ however, and might be read for mere edification. (Luther: “These are books not altogether regarded as belonging to Sacred Scripture, and yet they are good, and of utility to read.”) Even today they are appended to the Hebrew canon only in exceptional cases. The Catholic tradition, on the other hand, at Trent, decided to retain them, and thus they are regularly found in Catholic versions. Some further writings, not attributed to the canon even in early Christian times, were never received into the Bible. These latter compositions are reckoned as apocryphal (hidden, inauthentic) or ‘pseudepigraphic’ (pseudonymous). The Hebrew Bible writings testify to God's dealings with humanity from the creation of the world to the return from the Babylonian Captivity or the Maccabean struggle against Hellenism (to 135 BCE).
b) The New Testament contains twenty-seven writings, beginning with four testimonials on the words and deeds, life and death, of Jesus Christ (the Gospels), which are followed by a book on the beginnings of the early communities (Acts of the Apostles), letters to various communities and Christians of the first and second centuries CE, and an apocalypse. The churches today regard the history of the Bible's origin as somewhat settled. The Bible is not a book written in heaven, or at God's literal dictation (‘verbal inspiration’). It exists thanks to human beings whose writings are judged to be ‘sacred scripture’ and ‘God's word.’ Thus, the books of the Old Testament were composed for various reasons, and only later collected for regular use (formation of a canon), in an anything but uniform process, while others were excluded (Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha).
4. The (indirect) role of the Bible in the missionary evangelization of Europe, the Christianization of the West, is all but impossible to exaggerate. The clergy devoted themselves to the task of administrating the Bible, or practicing religion, ritual, and the sacraments with the Bible in hand. Until well into the twentieth century the Catholic Church maintained Latin as the language of the Church and of the Bible, and this made Latin the (scholarly) language of all Europe. A like influence was exercised by Luther's translation of the Bible. With the creation of the language of the German Bible, that became the language of every place where German was spoken. The Bible was an inexhaustible source of quotations and proverbs. By way of the inculcation of literacy in a focus that bore on the Bible—especially in the monasteries, the centers of culture and education—the Bible exerted great influence everywhere, even on painting and sculpture. For a long time, the principal content of popular education was essentially knowledge of the Bible. From the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, in manuscripts and printed works alike, we find a very particular type of book, the Biblia pauperum (“Bible of the poor”), intended to call the message of the Biblical books to the reader's mind, especially the narrative material of the Old Testament, in a manner easy to grasp. But since it obviously presupposed an ability to read the Latin text, and a minimum of theological knowledge, it was not actually ‘for the poor,’ but rather for scholars and clergy. The churches of the Reformation saw it as their task to acquaint their communities with the Bible. Luther desired to have a daily, continuous reading and explanation of the Bible at divine service morning and evening. In Zurich, Zwingli created the so-called Prophezei, a specific study of scripture for clerics and students, in the High Choir of the Great Cathedral. With secularization, the Bible has become one book among others. Since the eighteenth century, in European churches and in America, Bible Societies have been founded, which take up the task of spreading the text of the Bible worldwide.
5. In our times, the electronic publication of books and bibles is of growing importance. Voluminous Bible software programs serve various functions, providing for a synoptic study of the biblical texts in their original languages, Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek, and, at the same time, supplying translations in a number of foreign languages. Over the Internet, texts and translation aids are offered on-line, being connected with interactive functions that serve study or proclamation. These efforts also show how complicated and problematic it can be to ‘translate’ the Bible into the age of multimedia.
3. Bächtold-Staubli, Hanns et al. (eds.), Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens 1 (1987), 1211–1219.
Antiquity, Book, Canon, Christianity, Film, Judaism, Literature, Reception
Zenger et al. 1996, 12–21.
Kindlers Neues Literatur Lexikon, vol. 23, Munich 1992.
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