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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

The Bible As a Whole

WHAT IS THE BIBLE? From a literary point of view the Bible is an anthology, or a collection of literature, containing narratives, poetry, prophetic books, letters, and apocalypses. It is not organized according to types of literature; rather, different kinds of literature (called “books”) stand side by side. Furthermore, many individual books themselves juxtapose narratives, poetry, and legal codes. Understanding the Bible from a literary point of view requires us to see the character of the anthology as a whole, and how it came to be what it now is.

In the first place, the contents of the collection depend on whose Bible we are talking about. What Jews call “the Bible,” Christians call “the Old Testament”; moreover, because of the Apocrypha, Christians have not always agreed among themselves, nor with the Jews, on what constitutes the Old Testament. Roman Catholics have always included the Apocrypha in the Old Testament, but Protestants sometimes printed the books between the Old and New Testaments, or omitted them entirely. (The Revised English Bible places the Apocrypha between the two Testaments.) The reasons for this are complex, but the facts are simple enough: the Protestant Old Testament is the Bible of the Palestinian synagogue as determined by the rabbis after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. The Apocrypha, on the other hand, was part of the Bible of the Greek synagogues. This Bible in turn became the Scripture of the Greek-speaking church; later it was translated into Latin. However, in the sixteenth century, Reformation Protestants reverted to the Palestinian canon for their Old Testament, and relegated the Apocrypha to the status of books “good and useful to read,” while denying them full authority as Scripture, but at the Council of Trent Catholics determined to continue to include them in the Old Testament.

Nor did Christians always agree about the content of the New Testament. The earliest list of books which agrees with our present New Testament comes from 367 C.E., yet it was not until many centuries later that all Christians agreed on what constituted the New Testament. From this rudimentary sketch, it is clear that what the word “Bible” refers to depends on the particular religious community one has in view, and on the history of these communities with their Scriptures.

In the second place, the way in which the anthology called the Bible is organized also depends on whether one has in mind the Jewish or the Christian Bible. The Hebrew Bible, quite apart from the placement of the Apocrypha, is structured differently from the Christian Old Testament. It has three divisions: the Torah (“the Law”), the Prophets (subdivided into “the former prophets” and “the latter prophets”), and the Writings. When Christians adopted the Greek Bible, they also accepted a different order. For example, in the Christian Old Testament, the literary prophets (called “latter prophets” in the Hebrew Bible) come at the very end.

In the third place, the content of the New Testament is the result of many historical factors, especially the rejection of Marcion, a second-century heretic. Marcion demanded that Christians discard the Synagogue Bible altogether and rely solely on a Christian Bible consisting of the Gospel of Luke and the Letters of Paul (from both of which he had deleted passages favorable to Judaism and the God of the Old Testament). In rejecting Marcion, the church retained the Old Testament; it also insisted that the New Testament should have four gospels and the letters of more than one apostle. Eventually the Book of Revelation was included as well. These factors, succinctly stated here, explain why “the Bible” refers to several anthologies, and why the tables of contents vary as they do.

It is difficult to classify a piece of literature precisely if it was edited subsequently, or if it is itself a compilation of several writings. But this is exactly what we have in most books of the Bible. On the one hand, some works came to be divided into several books. For example, what we now know as 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah were originally a single work. The long work became divided and the divided parts acquired individual names. On the other hand, books which are essentially compilations are common. In the Hebrew Bible the twelve (minor) prophets are a single “book” which compiled the individual works into one scroll. Second Corinthians probably combines parts of at least five letters.

Broadly speaking, nonetheless, we may classify the books of the Bible into five kinds of literature: 1. Narrative books (e.g., Genesis, Samuel, Kings, Maccabees, the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles); 2. Poetry (e.g., Psalms, Song of Songs, Proverbs); 3. Prophetic books; 4. Epistles (e.g., the Letters of Paul); 5. Apocalypses (Daniel, 2 Esdras [4 Ezra], Revelation). Each of these will be discussed below. First, however, several considerations merit attention.

To begin with, the distribution is of interest. Narrative and apocalypse are found throughout the Old and New Testaments, and the Apocrypha. On the other hand, except for the Letter of Jeremiah in some manuscripts, epistles as separate writings are found only in the New Testament, while only the Old Testament has books of poetry and collections of proverbs. Second, many types of literature do not appear in the Bible at all: drama, satire, autobiography, myth (an extended narrative about the gods), commentaries. Third, none of the literary types found in the Bible is peculiarly biblical. Therefore, the study of types or genres of literature in general, and especially those of antiquity, illumines the particular biblical literature. Fourth, most of the books contain several literary forms. For example, Exodus contains narrative, laws, and poetry; Jeremiah contains narrative, poetry, and letters; some of the epistles contain poetic passages, such as 1 Corinthians, ch. 13 .

Multiple literary forms may exist within a given book either because it is a compilation (e.g., Daniel begins with stories and then becomes reports of visions) or because its author used various kinds of materials in writing it. For example, the Deuteronomic history (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings) used earlier documents, such as annals and previous histories.

AUTHORSHIP. The biblical writers were not self-conscious literary figures writing for a public, nor were they writing to express their personal views. They were writing for religious communities which they sought to address as effectively as possible. In doing so, some of them recorded and adapted fixed traditions. They were not professional authors who earned their livelihood by writing. Indeed, to what extent the writers were self-conscious “authors” is highly uncertain. We know few of their names. The vast majority of the books are anonymous; “authors” were assigned to them at a later date by the communities as acts of piety. Thus, the Pentateuch was attributed to Moses, the Psalms to David, Proverbs to Solomon, the Gospels to apostles or their associates. Furthermore, some of the literature was actually written in the name of well-known figures. All apocalypses, except the Revelation of John, claim to be written by persons long dead. Certain letters of Paul (Ephesians, Timothy, Titus), and probably the letters of James, Jude, Peter, and John were written in the name of these apostles. More important, the identity of none of the compilers is known, nor are the names of many of the writers whose works have been incorporated in books which we now have. In many instances it is not at all clear whether the compilation was done by an individual or by a group. For example, it is customary to speak of “the Yahwist” or “the Priestly writer” of certain strata of the Pentateuch, or of the “author” of the Fourth Gospel. But no one knows whether these works represent the efforts of a single mind or of a group. Similarly, the Gospels are end products of a process of development to which several persons or groups made their contribution. For example, the Gospel according to Matthew appropriates most of Mark, some of which was rewritten, and supplements it with a collection (itself restructured) of Jesus' teachings and with other material. Most of the individuals who wrote the literature of the Bible drew on materials already known. The creativity of the writer usually expressed itself in the use of existing material. Thus, biblical literature is much less the product of creative writing than the product of creative editing done within the context of communities of faith.

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