Seven Things I Wish Christians Knew about the Bible
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Seven Things I Wish Christians Knew about the Bible

Michael F. Bird

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eBook - ePub

Seven Things I Wish Christians Knew about the Bible

Michael F. Bird

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Answers to the most common questions and misconceptions about the Bible

SevenThings I Wish Christians Knew about the Bible is a short and readable introduction to the Bible—its origins, interpretation, truthfulness, and authority.

Bible scholar, prolific author, and Anglican minister Michael Bird helps Christians understand seven important "things" about this unique book:

  • how the Bible was put together;
  • what "inspiration" means;
  • how the Bible is true;
  • why the Bible needs to be rooted in history;
  • why literal interpretation is not always the best interpretation;
  • how the Bible gives us knowledge, faith, love, and hope; and
  • how Jesus Christ is the center of the Bible.

SevenThings presents a clear and understandable evangelical account of the Bible's inspiration, canonization, significance, and relevance in a way that is irenic and compelling. It is a must read for any serious Bible reader who desires an informed and mature view of the Bible that will enrich their faith.

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If you are reading this book, then you probably have a Bible. As I’m sure you are aware, your Bible did not fall out of the sky, accompanied by a chorus of angels, and land in your lap, featuring a pristine leather-bound cover, the words of Jesus in red, complete with introduction, charts, tables, cross-references, and study notes. No, that is obviously not where your Bible came from.
The truth is that your Bible came from a publisher. The publisher printed a particular English translation. That translation was based on the efforts of a group of translators who worked with critical editions of the New Testament in Greek and the Old Testament in Hebrew and Aramaic. These critical editions are publications of the text of the Old and New Testament in their original languages using fonts and paragraphing to make them readable. Note “critical” here means “scholarly”; it is a scholarly effort to establish the Hebrew and Greek texts based on a study of the many manuscripts and sources available. The various critical editions of the Greek and Hebrew texts that have been made since the Renaissance were based on the study of various manuscripts. The manuscripts have been gradually discovered, collected, and compiled over the last two thousand years and are housed in museums, libraries, and private collections all over the world. Photos, microfilms, and digital copies of these manuscripts are stored in places like the Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Münster, Germany, and the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts in Dallas, Texas. Those manuscripts date from the Middle Ages all the way back to the second century AD and were copied by scribes based on even earlier manuscripts, which are actually copies of even earlier manuscripts, which go back to the dissemination of a text from its original recipients, which in turn is based on an original autograph composed by an author (“autograph” means original author’s copy). Sound like a long and complicated process? Well, it was, but this is what I will try to explain in this chapter. Hopefully by the end you’ll see just how the Bible came to be.


There’s a funny story about a lady who walked into a Jewish charity shop and asked the attendant for a copy of an Old Testament. The attendant, a young Jewish man, smiled and said in reply, “Sure thing, how old?” You see, Jewish folks only have one Testament, and they obviously don’t need to call it “old” to differentiate it from the part that is “new” as Christians do. The Jewish people call their sacred book the Tanakh, which is based on the letters TNK and stands for Torah (the five books of Moses, the Law, otherwise known as the Pentateuch), the Nevi’im (the prophets), and the Ketuvim (the writings, which is a collection of poetic and historical books). Jewish authors writing in the Second Temple period, which ran from 530 BC to AD 70, including the authors of the New Testament, could refer to Israel’s sacred texts as “Scriptures” (see, e.g., Daniel 9:2; 1 Maccabees 12:21; 2 Maccabees 2:4; 4 Maccabees 18:14; Matthew 21:42; Romans 1:2; 1 Peter 2:6). In rabbinic literature, written in the first to fourth centuries of the Christian era, Jewish sacred writings are also called “the Holy Scriptures” or “the Book of the Covenant” (based on Exodus 24:7; 2 Kings 23:2, 21; 2 Chronicles 34:30–31). In scholarly parlance, the Old Testament is usually referred to as the Hebrew Bible as a non-Christianized way of designating Israel’s sacred literature.


• The Leningrad Codex is the oldest complete copy of the Old Testament in the original Hebrew, dated to the eleventh century of the Christian era.
• The oldest copy of a complete Old Testament book is the Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa) from Qumran, dated to 350–100 BC.
• The three longest books of the Old Testament are Jeremiah (33,002 words), Genesis (32,046 words), and Psalms (30,147 words).
The origins and rationale for this tripartite structure of Law, Prophets, and Writings are not altogether clear. It is certainly not a chronological order of composition because the books that make up the Prophets and Writings were composed over several centuries, some were edited over time, and their acceptance by Jewish communities was varied. The three-part division is perhaps best regarded as a grouping based on a common literary character: books associated with Moses, prophetic works, and other writings. This division goes back as far as the first century AD, since in the Gospel of Luke the risen Jesus instructed the disciples that “everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44), which corresponds to the three-part division of Torah, Prophets, and Writings. Even earlier, in the prologue to Ben Sirach, composed around 117 BC, we read: “Many great teachings have been given to us through the Law and the Prophets and the others that followed them, and for these we should praise Israel for instruction and wisdom” (Sirach 1:1).


Law Prophets Writings
1–2 Samuel
1–2 Kings
Book of the Twelve Prophets
Song of Solomon
1–2 Chronicles

The Law

The Law/Torah/Pentateuch—let’s just call it “Law”—refers to the first five books of the Old Testament. They comprise a historical narrative about creation (Genesis 1–3), the first human civilizations of the ancient Near East (Genesis 4–11), the patriarchs and the birth of the Hebrew people (Genesis 12–50), the exodus of the Hebrews out of Egypt and their entrance into the land of Canaan (Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), as well as regulations pertaining to Israel’s worship and way of life under God (Leviticus). It is a story of God’s promises, his deliverance, covenants, and commandments in relation to the nation of Israel. You can read Deuteronomy 26:5–10 for a brief synopsis of the overall storyline.1
While the Law contains a unified story focusing on God’s plan to create a people for himself, there is also a complex diversity across the Law. We find ancient Near Eastern creation stories akin to other accounts of the formation of the world, historical narratives about nomads and kings, various legal codes, national covenants, and even poetry. The vocabulary varies across the corpus, particularly evident in a comparison of the law codes of Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Sometimes the accounts lack cohesion, as if a narrative has been interrupted by an insertion, as seems to be the case with Exodus 20:1–17, the giving of the Ten Commandments, which intrudes upon the narrative of Exodus 19:1–20:21. We also see duplication, as if two versions of a story have been found, as is the case with the story of creation (Genesis 1:1–2:4a and 2:4b–24) and commands about unclean foods (Leviticus 11:1–47 and Deuteronomy 14:3–21). Although the Law is universally regarded as the “Book of Moses” (see Joshua 23:6; Ezra 6:18; Nehemiah 8:1; 13:1; Mark 12:26; Acts 13:39) and something that Moses himself wrote (see Exodus 24:4; Deuteronomy 31:22; Mark 12:19; Luke 20:28; John 1:45), it is impossible that Moses actually wrote all of the Law. For a start, it is hard to imagine Moses sitting down to write the account of his death and burial in Deuteronomy 34 or, for that matter, the description of himself as the humblest man on earth in Numbers 12:3. There are also clear indications that many of the patriarchal narratives about Abraham and others are told from the vantage point of those who lived in the land of Israel in a much later time. For example, Genesis 14:14 declares that Abraham chased Lot’s captors as far as Dan, even though the Israelite tribal area of Dan did not receive its name until after the Danites captured the territory during Israel’s conquest of Canaan (see Joshua 19:47; Judges 18:29).2 What this means is that the Law is the product of an oral tradition—a mixture of cultural memory and folklore among the Hebrews—that was eventually committed to writing. A formative role in composition is attributed to Moses, then there was a period of transmission, growth, and editing of the traditions and texts which was probably completed by a priestly group associated with Ezra just after return from exile.

The Prophets

In the Christian Bible, the Prophets refers to the books that close off the Old Testament, that is, Isaiah to Malachi. However, in the Hebrew Bible, with its own unique ordering of the books, the former prophets refers to Joshua, Judges, 1–2 Samuel, and 1–2 Kings, while the latter prophets designates Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Book of the Twelve (shorter) Prophets. These two categories of prophetic books are quite different. The first category of former prophets features historical narratives about prophetic figures like Samuel and Elijah, while the second category of latter prophets features books that are specifically attributed to prophetic authors themselves. The former prophets provide readers with the background to Israel’s early history and a prophetic perspective on Israel’s cycle of sin-rebellion-deliverance, the formation and failure of the monarchy, and the division that eventually separated Israel and Judah. What the latter prophets provide is an overview of Israel’s covenant-breaking behavior, God’s threat of judgment, and God’s promise to restore the nation from exile amidst the rise of the nearby empires of Assyria, Babylon, and Persia.
As with the Law, the prophetic messages have often been through a complex chain of custody before finally attaining the literary form we have them in today. The prophet Huldah, on the one hand, delivered her important prophetic word orally, and it seems she never got a book deal (2 Kings 22:14). Jeremiah, on the other hand, delivered some of his messages in written form from the start (Jeremiah 30:2). It would appear that from the eighth century BC, people started to collect and edit the work of certain prophets for the benefit of subs...

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