Monday, January 26, 2015

When did the Bible become the Word of God?

In my previous essay I showed that when the Bible becomes the Word of God depends on which Bible one is talking about: Jewish Bible, Protestant Bible, or Roman Catholic Bible.
            The Jewish Bible: The discovery of the book of the law in the temple suggests there was no special religiously authoritative book in Israel before 621 BCE (2 Kings 22-23; compare 2 Chronicles 33-34).  Based on the reforms instituted in Israel by Josiah it is clear that this book of the law (thought to be Deuteronomy) held a special religious authority, for people determined to govern their lives by its words for religious reasons.
            The phrase "word of God" is little used in the Jewish Bible (for example: 1 Sam 9:27; 1 Kings 12:22; 1 Chronicles 17:3, 25:5; Ezra 9:4; Proverbs 30:5; Isaiah 40:8).  Generally the "word of the Lord" is used instead.  Most of these references to the "word of the Lord" refer to an oral communication by God through a particular human intermediary, but in several instances the word of the Lord is associated with written texts: Moses writes the words of the Lord in the book of the covenant (Exodus 24:1-7); Jeremiah sends a letter of the words of the Lord to the exiles in Babylon (Jeremiah 29:1-4); Jeremiah dictates words of the Lord in a  letter against Israel and Judah (Jeremiah 36:1-4); Jeremiah dictates to Baruch sayings of the Lord against Israel, Judah, and the nations to be written on a scroll (Jeremiah 45:1-5).
            In the books of the Jewish Apocrypha (first and second centuries BCE), however, it becomes clear that special religious authority has been conferred upon the twenty-four books of the Jewish Bible, which were thought to be the revelation of God (Ezra 14:1-48; Sirach, Prologue and 24:23).  The phrase "word of God" is not used to refer to this collection, however.
            The Bible used by the early Christians is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Jewish Bible, the Septuagint (which includes The Jewish Bible plus the Jewish Apocrypha).  The legendary account (2nd century BCE) of the Jewish Bible's translation into Greek for use by Jews in the Diaspora confers the status of inspired books upon the translation as well.  The story goes: a number of scholars were brought together for the translation, put into different cubicles, and each in seventy-two days under inspiration produced the exact same translation.1  It was this translation that early Christians used and regarded as "sacred Scriptures" (2 Timothy 3:15-16).  By 367 CE in Egypt, however, the books of the Apocrypha were not considered part of the canonical scriptures.  Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria described the books of the Old Testament (the Jewish Scriptures not including Esther) and the books of the New Testament, as we know them today in the following way: they are "included in the Canon and credited as divine."  These books are "fountains of salvation that those who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain."  Athanasius describes a number of other books that, although not included in the Canon, are "appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who wish for instruction in the word of godliness."  These books are: Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Sirach, Esther, Judith, and Tobit; and two of the Apostolic Fathers, Didache and the Shepherd [of Hermas].  There must have been some fluidity throughout the churches in what books were and were not considered canonical, for in the oldest Bibles (4th and 5th century: Codex Alexandrinus, Codex Sinaiticus, and Codex Claromontanus) the "canonical books" are being used along with books that were not on the canonical list, such as the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, 4 Maccabees, two Epistles of Clement, Psalms of Solomon, Acts of Paul, and the Apocalypse of Peter.
            The Roman Catholic Bible, which includes the Jewish Apocrypha, removed all question about the status of these books; the Roman Catholic Church declared them to be inspired in 1560 at the Council of Trent.  So by the 16th century the various parts of the Bible (Jewish Bible, Apocrypha, New Testament) used as Scripture in the English speaking world have been accorded the status of divinely inspired Scripture.  As far as I can see, it was not until the 16th century that the appellation "word of God" came to be applied to the Bible.
            These are the expressions by which the Bible has been described in order to set it apart as special religious literature from just any old book: Scriptures, Holy Writ, sacred, inspired by God, the Word of Truth, the Word of God, the Revelation of God, Divine, and the like.  I consider these expressions to be heightened poetic or figurative language, which expresses a religious opinion about the texts.  By elevating the language used to refer to the texts, one thereby puts them into a special category.  The terminology used to describe the books, however, says nothing about the essential nature of the books; it only describes how the one using the language feels about the books, or the regard in which one holds the books.  Is the Bible (of whichever community) the "Word of God"?  It is if one believes it is; but that confession says nothing about the content of the texts.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
[1] C. K. Barrett, The New Testament Background: Selected Documents (London: SPCK, 1957), 208-13.

Monday, January 12, 2015

What does the Term “Word of God” as applied to the Bible Signify?

The word "Bible" means simply "books."  The term is applied to a Jewish collection of books (ta Biblia) in the ancient Greek translation of Daniel 9:2.  These books included Jeremiah, which was treated as a prophetic book with special hidden meanings.
            In the early first century the content of the Jewish Bible was debated.  All Jews accepted the Torah as word of God.  Pharisees also included Prophets and Writings in their Bible, but Samaritans and Sadducees did not. When Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed in 70 CE by the Romans, in the postwar reconstruction of Judean religion led by the Pharisees, the Jewish Bible came to include: Law, Prophets, and Writings.  These Books were regarded as divinely inspired.
            Early Christians used the Jewish Bible in Greek translation (i.e., the Septuagint) as their Scripture.  The Septuagint also included certain other texts not in the Jewish Hebrew Bible.  Christians referred to the Greek collection with the additional writings as the sacred Scriptures (2 Tim 3:15-16), which were inspired by God.
            Early Christians associated these books with the "old" covenants that God had made with ancient Israel.  They conceived of themselves, however, as a people with whom God had established a new covenant (Hebrews 8:8-12; quoting Jeremiah 31:31-34).  On the basis of Jeremiah's "prophecy" the old covenants were found to be obsolete, meaning "inadequate" for the new covenant people of God.  Nevertheless they retained the Old Covenant books (i.e., Old Testament), since they considered them inspired, reading them from a Christian perspective.  Eventually a new collection of Scripture emerged for the Christians; it included the Old Testament Books plus a smaller collection of New Covenant books (i.e., New Testament).  The New Testament Books used today were first listed by Athanasius in 367 CE.  The Old Testament collection of the Protestant Bible was brought into accord with the Hebrew Jewish Bible by Martin Luther in his 1534 German translation.  Collecting the non-Hebrew language texts in the Old Testament at the end he designated them "Apocrypha" ("hidden), a designation Jerome had used.
            Hence the Bible is comprised of three parts (Law, Prophets, and Writings), if you are referring to the Jewish Bible.  It is comprised of two parts (Old Testament, the same as the Jewish Bible, and New Testament), if you are referring to the Protestant Bible.  It is comprised of two parts (an expanded Old Testament, which includes the Apocrypha, and New Testament), if you are referring to the Roman Catholic Bible. The Apocrypha was declared to be inspired in all its parts at the Roman Catholic Council of Trent in 1560.  Today Protestants do not include the Apocrypha in their Scriptures, although it was part of the Old Testament in the first edition of the King James Version of 1611.
            The expression "word of God" appears in the New Testament, although it is unclear in many instances what the phrase signifies.  In those instances that are clear "word of God" refers to a number of things: to something preached (Acts 4:31; 11:1; 13:5, 46; 1 Thess 2:13; Heb 13:7; 1 Pet 1:23-25), to the word God spoke in creating the world (2 Pet 3:5-7), to the resurrected Christ (Rev 19:11-18), to God's son Jesus (Heb 1:1-4), to the Torah (Mark 7:13).
            In an essay entitled "In Praise of Books Richard Aungerville, Bishop of Durham (1287-1345) refers to "Scripture inspired by God."  In his introduction to the 1382 English translation of the Bible John Wycliffe referred to the Bible as the "Word of Truth," and in the later version of 1388 as "Holy Writ."  William Tyndale in 1534 refers to his translation of the New Testament as "Scripture" and "word of God."  The Coverdale Bible of 1535 on its title page refers to the Bible as "the word of God."  The introduction to the King James Version of 1611 and 1769 says: the Bible "contains the word of God, nay is the word of God," but also seems to regard the act of "preaching" as the "sacred word." Another statement suggests the idea that the Scripture communicates the word of God, apparently meaning that the Scripture in some way contains the "word of God."
            During the Reformation of the sixteenth century, the reformers (Luther and Calvin) referred to the Bible as the Word of God, but they "did not mean that the book and the revelation were the same."  The authority of the Bible as the Word of God derives from its content.  "There was no acceptance of the Bible simply as 'sacred book.'"  To put it differently: the word of God is contained in the biblical content; the Bible is not a written icon.
            This hasty and incomplete survey through Christian history suggests that that the phrase "word of God" can refer to a number of things: writings containing the word of God, an act of preaching, Jesus, the word God spoke at the act of creation, the resurrected Christ, the Torah.  In the Judeo-Christian tradition the term Holy Scripture or inspired Scripture is applied in one tradition exclusively to the Jewish Bible, in another exclusively to Jewish Bible and New Testament, and in another exclusively to Jewish Bible, Apocrypha, and New Testament.
            It appears that the phrase "Word of God" can be applied to whatever one wants.  If you believe that it (whatever it is) is the word of God, then so it is.  As applied to a collection of books, the phrase "word of God" carries with it a claim that books so designated are special religious literature, having an unspecified divine authority.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

For the Reformation see Dillenberger and Welch, Protestant Christianity (Scribners, 1954), 45-46.