The beginnings of the Bible

THE OLD TESTAMENT books were completed about 400 years before the birth of Jesus and this collection of books, the Jewish Scriptures, was regarded as sacred. The order of books is different from ours and they are grouped differently, too. The Jews called the sections of the Scriptures, the Law (the first five books), the Writings and the Prophets. There is an interesting reference to this in Jeremiah.

THE WORK OF JEREMIAH

The prophet Jeremiah had an unpopular message to preach. The people of the kingdom of Judah were set a bad example by their rulers. There was corruption in government circles and in many areas God’s laws were completely disregarded. Jeremiah spoke against this state of affairs and as a result became hated for his outspokenness. The rulers and officials planned to have Jeremiah arrested and the book of Jeremiah records what they said. They felt that right was on their side – after all, they were the rulers and they said:

‘…Come, and let us devise devices against Jeremiah; for the law shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet. Come, and let us smite him with the tongue, and let us not give heed to any of his words’ (Jeremiah 18.18).

In other words they said: ‘Our priests have the Law, we also have the Books of Wisdom (the Writings) and the words of the Prophets. So the Bible is on our side. Let us plot the downfall of Jeremiah’.

Their attitude was like that of the Pharisees in the days of Jesus, ‘You ought not to speak like that to us. We are the descendants of Abraham’. Jesus replied that if God wanted to, He could raise up children to Abraham, ‘From these very stones’.

The teaching is clear. What is important is that the Pharisees should not rely on their line of descent, but should copy Abraham’s example. It is no good claiming to have the Bible unless we read it and put its teaching into practice. This was not being done either by the rulers at Jeremiah’s time or by those in Jesus’ day.

The reason we have referred to the passage in Jeremiah is to show that even at this time, before the captivity of Judah by Babylon, the books of the Jewish Scriptures were already being grouped as they were in New Testament times.

THE CLAIM OF THE BIBLE

If we look at the books of the Old and New Testaments we find many verses where the writers claim to be writing the words of God:

‘The words of Jeremiah the son of Hilkiah, of the priests that were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin: to whom the word of the LORD came in the days of Josiah…’(Jeremiah 1.1,2).

‘Moreover the word of the LORD came to me, saying…’ (Jeremiah 2.1).

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying…’ (Jeremiah 7.1).

‘Hear ye the word which the LORD speaketh unto you, O house of Israel: Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen …’ (Jeremiah 10 1,2).

The examples above are all taken from the book of Jeremiah, to make it easy to look them up; but look at any of the books of the prophets and there are many examples of the same claim.

THESE CLAIMS CONFIRMED IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

When Jesus was preaching, he often backed up his argument by appealing to the authority of the Jewish Scriptures, our Old Testament. ‘Have ye never read…’ he said on many occasions. And again: ‘why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, Honour your father and mother (Matthew 15. 3,4 NIV).

Jesus is quoting here from the book of Exodus (in the Law) which, he says, is the Word of God. He quotes from the Psalms (in the Writings) and the Prophets in the same way.

When talking to his disciples after the resurrection, he explained to them that what had happened to him – his arrest, his suffering, crucifixion, death and resurrection – were all part of the purpose of God. ‘And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself’ (Luke 24. 27 NIV).

The Old Testament books claim to be the Word of God and Jesus referred to them and quoted them as God’s Word.

THE TESTIMONY OF THE APOSTLE PAUL

Paul reminded the young man Timothy that right from being a little boy he had been brought up to know the Jewish Scriptures. They would tell him about:

  • Doctrine: the word means ‘teaching’, so this meant that the Scriptures would tell him what he should believe;

  • Reproof: they would tell him when he was choosing the wrong path;

  • Correction: he could learn how to put himself right again;

  • Instruction in righteousness: the Scriptures can tell us how we can live our lives in the way that will please God.

Paul said to Timothy that the reason the Scriptures are able to do this for us, is because they were inspired by God:

‘And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.’ (2 Timothy 3.15-17)

WHAT DOES INSPIRATION MEAN?

The word ‘inspiration’ means that the writers wrote because God had ‘breathed into’ them. He had breathed His message into them and they wrote His words. Peter wrote:

‘no prophecy of the Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit’ (2 Peter 1. 20,21 NIV).

The words ‘carried along’ are very strong in the original Greek from which our New Testament is translated. The Greek means ‘carried irresistibly along’. The writers had to write what they were inspired to write. The prophet Jeremiah again, is a good example of this. Because of his unpopular message, he was arrested, imprisoned, put in the stocks and on one occasion lowered into a miry dungeon. The result of this was that he made up his mind that, if this is how I am going to be treated: if this is what will happen as a result of my preaching – then I will stop. ‘I will not speak any more in God’s name’. But, he says,

‘…if I say, “I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed I cannot.’ (Jeremiah 20. 9 NIV)

Jeremiah was unable to stop himself speaking the message he was inspired to speak. That is what Peter meant by, ‘Holy men of God spake as they were moved’ (AV), ‘carried along’ (NIV), ‘impelled by the Holy Spirit’ (NEB).

THE NEW TESTAMENT

The verses and the claims we have looked at apply to the Old Testament and we have concentrated on this part of the Bible because many Christians already accept the New Testament as originating from God but will question the inspiration of the Old Testament. The Bible itself does not distinguish between the Old and New Testaments in this way.

Peter says that although Paul wrote many things that are hard to understand, his writings have the same authority as the Old Testament Scriptures. In Peter’s second letter, he wrote of Paul’s teaching about salvation and the suffering and patience of Christ. He says that Paul wrote with God-given wisdom.

‘He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things which are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures.’ (2 Peter 3.14–16 NIV)

Peter speaks of Paul’s writing as having the same authority as ‘the other Scriptures’. In other words, they are Scriptures also.

Paul himself wrote to the Christians at Thessalonica: ‘we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe’ (1Thessalonians 2. 13 NIV).

In the next issue of Light, the third article in this series will look at the fascinating story of translating the Bible - from the Old Testament Hebrew manuscripts and the New Testament writings in Greek, to the Bible we can read in English today.

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