What is the Bible?


What do we mean when we ask ‘What is the Bible?’ Think about it for a moment. Think about the question, about what the question might already assume or take for granted. Think about the ways in which we might respond to such a question, about the assumptions or predispositions we might harbor that would influence our response prior to actually examining and studying the biblical text itself.

For instance, is what I as a biblical scholar mean by this question the same as someone whose relationship to the text is defined by their faith? Should it be different? How exactly does one, or should one, go about answering our question in the first place? Might one’s faith or inherent presuppositions about the text prematurely prescribe what the response ought to be, prior to actually investigating the biblical text on its own terms? In other words, have we as individuals, faith communities, a culture, already imposed a predefined answer to the question ‘what is the Bible?’ that is rather based on what the Bible means to us as individuals and faith communities? Aren’t the questions ‘what is the Bible?’ and ‘what does the Bible mean?’ two different questions? Wouldn’t the latter question elicit a subjective response, that is one that is defined by its subject, in this case the reader or hearer of the text? Does this have anything to do with what the Bible is on an objective level? That is, does not one question focus on understanding the Bible from the perspective of its subjects, what it means to its readers (real or implied); while the other question focuses on understanding the Bible from the object of study itself, namely the biblical text and what it reveals about its own compositional nature—what it is independent of what the text has come to mean to its vast and divergent readership? And how are we to distinguish between ‘what the Bible is’ and ‘what the Bible means’? If it’s a given that the Bible means something to us as a culture, as individuals, then have we not already prematurely answered the question ‘what is the Bible?’ with the response appropriate to ‘what does the Bible mean?’ Could, in fact, what the Bible means to a particular individual, community, or culture be completely different than, or even at odds with, what the Bible actually is? What if this turns out to be the case?

As we can see, the question ‘what is the Bible?’ is more complex than would initially appear. The questions above were meant to get us thinking about not only the complexities behind our query, but more so the assumptions and predispositions that we might unconsciously harbor that would influence our responses. In other words, we must distinguish objective responses (what the Bible tells us about itself and its compositional nature) from subjective responses (what the Bible means or is with respect to its readership). Our aim should be to provide an objective response to our query: what do the biblical texts themselves reveal about what the Bible is? Yet before we embark on this discovery, there are other preliminaries to ponder.

What was the Bible before the Bible was?

Independently written texts and traditions, to answer this section’s question directly. We will return to this topic later, but presently we need to get our heads around the word “Bible” and all that it implies and invokes. For instance, the question ‘what is the Bible?’ already presupposes the existence of the Bible. But the Bible itself is composed of texts that were all created and written before there ever was a Bible. So what is our question really asking? What are the textual components of what later generations came to label “the Bible”? Or are we talking about what the word “Bible” means or signifies, or what the label “Bible” implies or imposes as an interpretive framework upon these earlier once separate texts?

In other words, how exactly does this later label, “the Bible,” which means “Book,” affect our reading and understanding of these earlier, once separate, texts? Is what is implied and invoked through the term “Bible”—”Book”—something different than what were the once independent scrolls and codices that are now book-ended together under this label? Does the word or concept associated with “Bible” impose a different interpretive understanding of what the Bible is than an examination of the individual biblical texts before there was a Bible? Is, therefore, the question ‘what is the Bible?’ asking us what this collection of texts as a “book” means and implies? Or, is the question asking us about the texts that were before the Bible was, their authors, their audiences, and the historical circumstances that prompted these texts to be written in the first place?

Apparently then, the question ‘what is the Bible?’ already prejudices and presupposes a biased answer through that which is already taken as an unquestioned given in the question itself: namely that our question is posed to, and of, a Book! Since Bible means “Book” our question already presupposes we are dealing with a Book, and therefore dealing with what this label means and implies when applied to an earlier assortment of independent texts. But isn’t this a different query than enquiring about the nature of the biblical texts themselves before there was a Bible? One query implies its object of study is a “book”—itself a subjective label, a label applied as a result of a particular readership’s understanding and perception of these texts—while the other implies its objects of study are the once separate texts and traditions which were independently written over a period of roughly 1,000 years, by varying authors, and under diverse historical circumstances and religious and political convictions, before they were co-opted by a later generation of readers as part of this so-called “Book.”

We know that the Bible as we have it was not formed until the  3rd century AD, and largely under a Christian interpretive agenda. Would our answer to the question ‘what is the Bible?’ be the same or similar to that of a culture or community which existed before there was a Bible? In other words, is what the Bible is the same as what the Bible’s many scrolls (or biblia, “books”) were or meant to pre-biblical communities? What if we were hypothetically to ask a community of Hellenistic Jews living circa the dawn of the common era what were the scrolls that they were reading—commonly know as ‘the (scroll of the) law and the (scrolls of the) prophets’—do you think their response would be similar to our response to the question ‘what is the Bible’? Should it be? What about the ascetic Jews living at Qumran who were frantically copying and safeguarding numerous scrolls (deemed both canonical and non-canonical by later communities), would they respond similarly? Or what about the Judean Jews (the educated scribes and Levites) living in the 5th-4th centuries BC who actually collected, codified, and authenticated as scripture the texts and traditions that now make up ‘the scroll(s) of the law of Moses,’ the Torah—would they respond similarly? The question ‘what is the scroll of the law of Moses?’ cannot possibly invoke the same response, nor mean the same thing, as ‘what is the Bible?’ with its additional 61 books, different agendas, different audiences, and different expressed political and religious concerns and beliefs. Could it? Should it? What if we moved even further back in time, to the actual authors of the texts and traditions that later became collected together and labeled as “the Bible”? To the Levite priest writing a scroll in the 7th century BC that will become the core of the book of Deuteronomy: What was the text that he was writing and to whom? This is certainly not the Bible! nor even envisioned as part of what almost 10 centuries later will be labeled “the Bible” by vastly different people, for vastly different audiences, and to address vastly different concerns and beliefs. What about this Levite priest’s rival, the Aaronide priest writing a century or two later (6th-5th c. BC), who most probably was writing a scroll—now the book of Leviticus and a large portion of Numbers—to replace the scroll of his Levite predecessor and to denounce the claims written therein: would these two priestly schools have responded similarly to what they thought was the scroll they were writing? Is this the same as ‘what is the Bible?’ Or, what of the chronicler (the author of the books of Chronicles), who, living in the 4th century BC, rewrote the ‘history’ of Israel as preserved in the earlier books of Samuel and Kings in order to have ‘history’ now represent and address the chronicler’s own religious concerns, beliefs, and worldview—what did he think were the scrolls that he was writing? And what were the scrolls that he saw himself replacing? Are these all to be answered with the same response as ‘what is the Bible’?

We could go on like this citing many more examples and we have not even addressed the New Testament authors, many of whom dramatically changed the parameters of what is or what was becoming the Bible. Furthermore, the Bible itself, as it was formed, even preserves variant responses to our question ‘what is the Bible’? To take one example out of many: Paul’s dispute with his Jewish brethren as depicted in his letter to the Galatians (circa 54-56 AD) is not only one centered around the reinterpretation of the figure of Abraham, but the whole ‘biblical’ story. Paul’s hypothetical answer to the question ‘what is the law and the prophets?’ (since the Bible was still not created) would have not only clashed with the Judean church’s response (as depicted in the Galatian debate), but also with the responses from the chronicler, our 7th century BC Levite priest, the author of the book of Ezekiel, and even of Isaiah, although Paul cites this text to support his gospel (reading Isaiah through a new interpretive lens). These examples can be duplicated hundreds of times.

What becomes apparent from this brief survey is that the modern response to ‘what is the Bible?’ is not at all equivalent to asking about the nature of each of its independent texts before the Bible was? In other words, what the Bible is for our modern culture is vastly different from what the scroll that would become the book of Leviticus was to its author and community, and this example can be duplicated hundreds of times when we look at the texts that eventually became the Bible independently and on their own terms. What the Bible is, therefore, cannot be reduced to an interpretive framework imposed by later generations of readers, but must be answered with respect to the pre-biblical texts themselves, each of which were written independently to address the specific needs, concerns, and beliefs of specific communities living in different geo-political worlds and time periods.

What is the Bible? revisited

So what does the Bible itself tell us about its compositional nature? We are now able to respond to this question. The Bible is a collection of ancient texts and traditions. Granted, this does not yet tell us much, but it is an objective starting point and one that can readily be accepted by Jews and Christians of various persuasions, and even agnostics and atheists. Indeed, there is not much here to dispute. A glance at the Bible’s table of contents would only confirm our initial assessment: the Bible is in fact a compilation of other books, a book composed of other books. In other words, the Bible is a composite text, a text composed out of earlier texts and traditions.

This very fact presents us with a bit of an irony. The Bible, a word which literally means “Book,” is actually no book at all, but rather a collection of 66 different books, or scrolls and codices to be exact (Hebrew “books” and Christian “books” respectively)—all of which once existed independently and were variously written over a period of roughly 1,000 years by different authors, for different audiences, and to address ever-changing historical needs, concerns, and beliefs. Thus, in a very specific sense the “Bible” or “Book” is merely a term, indeed laden with meaning, that was applied to a collection of earlier texts (scrolls and codices) by, and for, a later generation of readers who sought to address the needs and concerns of their own historical circumstances. Yet the Bible is also, perhaps even more so, these ancient scrolls and codices themselves, which are now bookended together under the label “the Book.”

This brings us to the crux of the matter. How is it that a collection of diverse and variously written scrolls (and later codices) later became labeled “the Book”? How, when, and why did this happen? More importantly, how does the label “the Bible,” “the Book,” affect the way we understand—or, as the case may be, misunderstand—what these once separate and independent scrolls and codices are, or were, in fact? Furthermore, is this (mis)understanding and reading at variance with the intents and purposes of the many, once independent, scrolls and codices that now make up this so-called “Book”? In other words, is there a difference, even discrepancy, between the “Bible,” i.e., what this term implies, even imposes, as far as an interpretive framework onto this collection of scrolls and codices, and the actual scrolls and codices themselves, most of which were written earlier, independently, and as we shall see, in competition with one another?

What’s in a name? from biblia to Bible

The English “Bible,” literally “Book,” is derived directly from its Latin cognate biblia, which itself is a loan word from the Greek βιβλία. The Greek however is a plural noun meaning “books.” So how do we move from the plural “books” (Greek biblia) to the singular “Book” (Latin biblia) while seemingly not changing the noun nor its form? And moreover how does this transition affect the way we read and understand the books of the Book?

The Greek βιβλία, transcribed in Latin letters as biblia, is a neuter plural noun which is often understood as meaning “books.” However, this understanding is in fact anachronistic. For books did not yet exist; there were no books in the time period we’re concerned with. There were instead “texts” or “scrolls” of papyri. The important thing to note, even if we wish for the sake of convenience to keep “books” as the translation of the Greek biblia, is that the term is plural and it was used in a plural sense.

For our purposes, the first occurrence of the Greek term biblia appears in works written circa the late 2nd century BC and the 1st century BC. Both 1 Maccabees 1:56 and 2 Maccabees 2:13-15 speak of collections of biblia, such as “the biblia of the law” and “the biblia about the kings and the prophets.” Properly the term denotes “scrolls”—the scrolls of the law that were then collected and kept in the temple precinct. Another 2nd century BC text, the book of the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), also speaks of the books—”scrolls”—that have become authoritative for the Jewish people then: “the law and the prophets and the other biblia of our ancestors” (1:10). These brief occurrences are of extreme importance because they also indicate that by the second and first centuries BC there was already a set Hebrew canon: the law and the prophets, and other scrolls or writings. We may wish to add to this list the testimony of 1st century AD writers such as the Jewish historian Josephus, who speaks of the 22 scrolls (biblia) that make up the Hebrew canon (Against Apion 1.37), and the Gospel writers, who merely speak of “the law and the prophets” (Matt 5:17; 7:12; 22:40; Jn 1:45; cf. Lk 24:44). We will revisit this idea of a canon below.

Of course the Greek singular, biblion, was also used when referencing a single “book.” The Greek biblion, in fact, became the standard term to translate the Hebrew word sepher, “scroll.” Thus in the few instances where a sepher is referenced in the Hebrew Bible—as for example Exodus 24:7 which mentions “the scroll (sepher) of the covenant,” or Nehemiah 8:3 where “the scroll of the torah of Moses” is mentioned, or the mention in Numbers 21:14 of an ancient scroll now lost, “the scroll of the wars of Yahweh”—the Septuagint, which is a 3rd century BC Greek translation of some of the “scrolls” of the Hebrew canon, uses biblion as the translation for the Hebrew sepher. Thus biblion must be translated as “scroll” in these contexts. Likewise in our examples above of the uses of its plural, biblia, the proper understanding is the “scrolls” of the law and the prophets.

The use of the Greek word biblia in the early Christian period also follows this same usage, yet with a significant difference—the emergence of the codex, that is the modern book form. The codex in other words replaced the scroll. Now, instead of having to unroll a very large piece of papyrus to read a manuscript, one merely had to open up a codex, and much like the modern book, at any desired place. Most notably too, the codex form could hold more text than the ancient and cumbersome scroll. This codex form was aggressively adopted by the early church, and even though the word biblia was used to now designate “the books” of the Christian canon, these texts were produced in codex form where one “book” was followed by another. In other words, the codex form enabled scribes to copy many individual and independent scrolls onto one codex, one “book.” So earlier independent biblia, “scrolls,” were now reproduced as part of a larger codex of biblia, which also came to be designated by the term biblia.

Not only did the codex form reinforce, indeed create, the idea of a single book, the content of which was many previous single “books” or “scrolls,” but the notion of an orthodox canon also accentuated the idea of many books representing one “rule” or “standard.” The formation of a canon for the emergent Christian church, which occurred during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, developed concomitantly with the idea that these canonical biblia now expressed and lent themselves to be interpreted as a single authoritative ‘narrative.’ The point is that although the plural biblia was still employed throughout the early centuries of Christendom, the idea of a homogenous book was nonetheless coming into vogue, through both the codex form and the idea of a set canon of biblia.

This new format, a book that now housed all the canonical books or biblia, created a whole new interpretive framework within which to read and understand the various biblia it now contained. Moreover, all of these innovations were external to the actual texts or biblia themselves. In other words, the idea of a single codex and a unified canon were external developments and had nothing to do with what these texts were and what they actually said as products of their unique historical eras and geo-political worlds. Nothing intrinsic to these once individual biblia brought these changes about. Rather, these once individual biblia, “scrolls” written centuries earlier, took on new meaning to a new readership, and were placed in a new interpretive framework: the canonical “book” or codex of biblia. What these once separate and ancient biblia said outside of this new interpretive homogenous narrative represented by the canonical codex became irrelevant or secondary at best. Now they were read under and through an interpretive grid which imposed the idea of a unified homogenous narrative, a single book or codex of books (biblia), and even envisioned this as the product of a single divine author.

These developments were furthermore accompanied by yet another interpretive maneuver which took as its premise this idea of a single homogeneous narrative and authorship, namely Christian exegetical practices. Thus the very idea of a “book” presented itself: 1) in the concept of an authoritative canon, 2) in the newly adopted codex form of the early church, and 3) in the mode of exegesis endorsed by early church Fathers that sought to legitimate and demonstrate the books of the canon as a homogeneous narrative fabric. Learned church Fathers and apologists sought to anchor Christian doctrine in the canon of Hebrew scripture by re-interpreting, indeed often re-appropriating, Old Testament passages as prefigurations or prophecies of Christian doctrine. This new Christian interpretive approach to the Old Testament was actually indicative of a more pervasive hermeneutic tendency prevalent in the Judaism of the emergent church, namely to understand and interpret the books of the Hebrew canon as prophesying current eschatological events. For early educated Christians, the current eschatological event was Jesus and the emergent church. It’s important to recognize that this interpretive approach was carried out with little to no real knowledge of the nature of the texts which were now being impregnated with new meaning. The individual texts simply became vehicles for the larger interpretive framework now imposed on these various biblia. That is to say, they now meant little to nothing apart from this larger interpretive and external framework. Today, that external and interpretive framework goes by the name “the Bible.”

“The Bible” — a misnomer?

Does the label “the Bible”—”the Book”—accurately represent its content, that is the once separate, numerous, and often competing and as we shall see contradictory, texts and traditions that were written over a 1,000 year period by different authors, to different audiences, and to address the needs and concerns of different peoples, worldviews, and even beliefs? How could it? It is a label that by its very nature imposes a homogeneous interpretive framework onto what is then viewed as a canonical book, which was furthermore a product of a later generation of readers, who were themselves influenced by the needs, concerns, and beliefs of their own historical era.

In a very real sense, then, “the Bible” as a title for this collection of ancient texts and traditions is a misnomer. It is a prescriptive label, not a descriptive one. That is to say, the label “the Bible” does not function to describe its content; rather, it functions to prescribe an understanding of its content as a Book—as the Book in fact. It is an interpretive label imposed upon a collection of ancient texts and traditions by later generations of readers, whose interests, concerns, and religious programs were vastly different from the authors who originally penned the numerous texts and traditions, cultic laws, etiological tales, political archives, historical narratives, theological and political propaganda, poetry, hymnals, private correspondences, etc. that now make up what is labeled and marketed as “the Bible.” In actuality, the label “the Bible” misrepresents its content. It prejudices an understanding of the various texts and traditions that make up its content by innocuously claiming, prior to even examining its content, that it is a book. In truth, however, the title “the Bible” is at odds with its content, that is at odds with the numerous and competing texts and traditions as they were intended by their many authors, and for their differing audiences. Much of the textual data that supports this claim are the Bible’s contradictions, duplicate narratives, and differing styles, messages, theological emphases, etc. I have started assembling this textual data here.

This is what I mean by the title presupposes or prejudices its own case. The modern reader cannot help but conceive of the biblia of the Bible as a book, even when these ancient texts themselves consistently, and in fact quite convincingly, make a claim to the contrary (see our growing list of contradictions). In actuality, the biblical texts and traditions themselves never get a fair shot at telling their unique stories, theological programs, etc. because they have been co-opted by this imposing interpretive lens that has already prejudged them to be no “them” at all—that is, not texts—but a single “it,” “the Book.” The label “the Bible”—not to mention “the holy Bible”—has already prejudged the case in favor of a later readership’s interpretive and theological agenda, and, conversely, adjudicated against the collection of diverse texts which were once separate and independent voices created under, and for, diverse historical circumstances and audiences. The label “the Bible,” in other words, tells us little to nothing about the composite nature of the biblical texts themselves and the varying and competing authorial agendas of the variant texts that now make up this so-called “Book.” Rather it functions to set up a homogeneous interpretive grid through which the Bible’s differing texts and traditions are to be read, and in this way tells us more about the interpretive agenda of its readers!

It is, however, the very texts and traditions themselves that I am interested in—texts and traditions that spoke for themselves individually long before they were collected, bound together, and canonized under the interpretive label “the Bible.” In this respect, the my present project can be seen as one that attempts to reclaim the independent voices of the ancient texts and traditions from later interpretive agendas and prejudices that were imposed on them when they were combined and canonized with other texts and traditions, and for other purposes and later audiences, under the prescriptive label “the Bible.”

Contradictions in the Bible .com was set up as a blog to assemble and analyze the textual data–the once individual competing voices that existed long before they were co-opted as part of a later homogeneous voice, the Bible.

Dr. Steven DiMattei

9 thoughts on “What is the Bible?

  1. Can you elaborate on how you know the authors were not writing history? I have heard before that the style of writing back then was allegorical, but I’ve never encountered credible sources stating that. Show us what you got!

  2. Chris, Thanks for the thoughtful question. I find this question so important and relevant that I’m going to respond to it in a post, to give it the space and depth it needs. So rather than posting a contradiction tomorrow. I will post a response to your question, and hopefully get some conversation, even debate, going on. So tune in tomorrow!

    Ok, your reply has been written: How do we know that the biblical writers were not writing history?


  3. Dr. DiMattei

    For those of us who are dependent on English translations of the bible, would you care to comment on which translation(s) or edition(s) are most suitable for letting the texts speak for themselves in their own contexts? Do any have notes or apparatus that would be helpful?

    As you well know, translations are produced for different audiences and different purposes, including academic, devotional, apologetic and others. I have read that using several translations in tandem can help “triangulate” the meaning of complex or difficult texts, but I would think that quality translations are more important for that, not less.

    I once worked as a translator (in a very non-biblical language) and understand some of the problems involved. It’s certainly not a matter of having 101 level grammar and a good dictionary!

  4. Thomas,

    Since I too am a novice when it comes to Hebrew, I’m not sure I could recommend the best translation for the OT. I rely pretty heavily on the work of my colleagues. Normally, I use the Anchor Bible series, which is quite vast and huge (multi-volumes). I do, nonetheless, have a criteria that must be meet. The translation needs to be accurate to the Hebrew with respect to using Yahweh when yhwh appears in the manuscript and not LORD. The latter represents a centuries later oral tradition and veers heavily from the written text I would argue. So this leaves me with the New Jerusalem Bible; some editions have good notes, but at times is also highly theological and Christian in its headings of text sections and commentary—this can be tossed out. For the Pentateuch I like Friedman’s translation and sometime consult Fox’s.

    With the Greek NT, I’m much more at home. This may be antiquarian, but I still think the New King James version is most loyal to the Greek original. There is an annotated edition that makes note of those verses that scholars now recognize were not in the oldest manuscripts. I don’t care for modern attempts to render a “politically correct” version by distorting gender nouns in the original Greek, and the NKJ doesn’t attempt to do this—impose modern agendas. Certainly steer away from modern theological or colloquial, and apologetic, translations too. As another project, I am working on translating Paul’s letters with the goal of being as literal as possible; well, being as honest as one can to the Greek and bringing out its meaning as it was understood in its 1st century historical context. These ought to be the goals of any translator.

    Hope that helps.

  5. Can u give us other historical sources u consult that u hav found helpful? And I have found that some of the biblical stories can also be found in other traditions histories. For example, virgin birth of child of a god and that child redeeming mankind. Zeus had a son that matches this story, pardon typos analog keyboard. However, this is a very easy story, but there r many more. Such as noahs ark. Do u cover these areas in ur studies, tracing the stories and traditions to their original sources as much as possible? Againforgiv typos and spellings. Wouldnt the bible then be a collection of writings describing multiple traditions from multiple peoples over a period of time.

  6. I am very interested in these topics, however, as a novice I just found the writing too dense to easily understand, especially reading online. Please could you have a guide for dummies or something similar??

  7. I have read several of your pages and haven’t discovered which version of bible you refer to?
    I have studied several of the diverse and different issues of christian bible and was vastly pleased by the online publication of the oldest (first?) 4th century Roman/christian bible (Codex Sinaiticus) complete with direct translations from the original Greek.

    When the Codex Sinaiticus was about to go on line in 2008, Roger Bolton (BBC Religion correspondent) wrote:

    “For those who believe the Bible is the inerrant, unaltered word of God, there will be some very uncomfortable questions to answer. It shows there have been thousands of alterations to today’s bible.”

    Ref: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7651105.stm

    With so many different bibles., anyone talking about “the” bible always begs the question: Which bible?

    Of course: The confusion and contradictions evident in all versions of bible must raise even more uncomfortable questions than those raised by Codex Sinaiticus?

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