What exactly is the Bible?

by Ibn Anwar

   Many people especially Christians themselves take for granted the Bible that they have in hand and use in their churches. If one were to ask a Christian how many Bibles there are, one would not be surprised to hear the answer that there is only one Bible that is called THE Bible. Many Christians that I have met were(probably still are) in fact under the impression that the Bible that they read(e.g. KJV) existed as it is 2000 years ago! That can't be farther from the truth. The truth of the matter is that there is no such thing as THE Bible. There are Bibles and Bibles with each major and even minor church boasting its own kind.

  When discussing the development of the Bible(s) as a single volume(a collection of scriptures put togther in a single volume) one inevitably starts from Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus which are the two oldest and the latter(at least for the New Testament) considered the "best" extant manuscripts to have been discovered. However, even this "best" codex i.e. Sinaticus is far from perfect, that is, many books of the Old Testament are absent in it such as Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 to 2 Kings, Jeremiah, Baruch, Lamentations, Ezekiel and Daniel. One would then have to describe this early "Bible" as incomplete if one goes about it backwards using today's Bible(s) as standard. When was Codex Sinaiticus written? Studies have discerned a 4th century date for the codex. That's 1600 years ago which is 400 years after Jesus. This codex besides being described as the "best" manuscript evidence has also been described in these words by the Catholic Encyclopedia, "Greek manuscript of the Old and New Testaments, of the greatest antiquity and value." Yet, as we have seen it is INCOMPLETE!

 What about Codex Vaticanus? Codex Vaticanus has most of the Old Testament, but falls short when it comes to the New Testament containing only the four gospels, Acts, Romans, 1 to 2 Corinthians, Galatian, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and 1 to 2 Thessalonians which yields 14 of the 27 books of the New Testament as you would find say in the KJV or RSV.  This codex was without rivals until Tichendorf stumbled upon Codex Sinaticus in Sinai. Yet, just like its rival Sinaiticus it too falls short. Where is the complete Bible or what would be thought as the complete Bible?

Roland H. Bainton, Tituts Street Professor Emeritus of Ecclesiastical History in Yale University writes,

"The books of the New Testament had been written, but the Church had not said that these and these only should be received as the true teaching. Little by little the Catholic Church made up its mind on the books to take in and the books to leave out of the canon. " [1] (emphasis added)

 Who decided which books to add and which to not add? Was it God? Was it Jesus? Was it the followers of Jesus? NO! It was the Catholic Church with its so called "Church Father" who decided! No wonder these days we often hear of textual critics describing the Bible as a HUMAN BOOK instead of some divine revelation.

When were they chosen? Prof. Bainton summarises in one paragraph(and a very revealing one at that!),

"First the letters of Paul were accepted, and the four Gospels, and the book of The Acts. The other writings of our New Testament were slower in finding a place and even John's Gospel had a struggle. So did he book of Revelation. Hebrews, II Peter, Jude, James, and the second and third etters of John only gradually were marked upon the ruler*. Not until the fourth century was the canon closed." [2]

So, it was not until the fourth century according to this eminent professor that the Christians finally arrived at a "canon". If it is true that the canonicity of scripture was finally closed at the fourth century, don't you think Codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus would contain what constitutes "canon"? In fact, Codex Sinaiticus two extra books, Epistle of Barnabas and Hermas that are not accepted today as scripture. Codex Vaticanus as we have seen contain only 14 of the 27 books. The next "most valuable" codex would be Alexandrinus. This codex however is younger than the previous two in that it is dated to the fifth century. One wold think that after canon had been agreed upon as Prof. Bainton stated this codex would at least have gotten it right doing justice to what is "canon" as the other two had previously failed. Yet, even this codex does not meet what would be commonly described as canon. First of all, Mathew isn't complete and secondly it includes first and second Clement. Further more, if you return to the quotation you will notice that there were no certainty, nay an enormous amount of doubt over canonicity i.e. what should be included and thought of as inspired text. What were the standards applied to sift through the dozens if not hundreds of books that were used in Christian communities then? Who knows? Many Christians labour under the delusion that there is but one absolute canon of scripture. That is as inaccurate as one can get. Philip R. Davies says,

"For no single Christian canon has ever reigned: the Catholic, Protestant, Ethiopic, Orthodox(Greek and Russian), Coptic and Syrian canons differ. In many cases canons were, and are, a matter of uncertainty(the contents of the vulgate were not settled until 1546). ?Canon', then, like ?bible', is a category of which there are several members. Whether a piece of writing is ?canonical' and whether it is in a bible is a matter of where and when you choose to ask. For the earliest stages in the devlopment of both, ?biblical' is easier to define than ?canonical, of course, because we can consult an ancient bible and see immediately what was in it. And anything that was in it was obviously ?biblical': there is no other rational definition! Any book that has been included in a bible is, after all, a biblical a book: that is a matter of fact and not for discussion. Whether the contents of the earliest bibleare ?canonical' is a different matter, involving an understanding of what the term might have meant at any particular time. (Canonical criticism, then, is not cenral to biblical studies but concerns a related topic.) Thus, for example, the New Testament of he Peshitta (dating from the fifth century) omits four of the Catholic epistles (2 and 3 John, Philemon, 2 Peter). The Ethiopic New Testament canon has 35 books. But no Ethiopic biblical manuscripts contain the whole New Testament." [3]

What is the Bible? Is there such a thing as a unified Bible canon i.e. THE Bible?

One would be hardpressed to find an ancient Bible that would constitute THE Bible. In fact, THE Bible is really a fable, a fairy tale..it is fiction. There is no such thing as THE Bible.

"What is important for every reader of an English language bible is to remember is that it should never be thought of as ?the Bible'. If there is some authoritative, inspired, scripture that Christians possess, where is it? ?It' is, as far as the majority of churchgoers are concerned, legion. The ?Bible' of theology is not a real Bible that anyone can touch, read or give the meaning of; it is some kind of Platonic ideal." [4]

 

References:

[1] Roland H. Bainton. The Church of Our Fathers(1941). New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. p. 29

[2] Ibid. p. 30

[3] Philip R. Davies. Whose Bible is it Anyway? (1995). Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press Ltd. p. 64

[4] Ibid. p. 68

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