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.


Anonymous said...

In American history, Joseph Smith claim to have found golden tablets bearing inscriptions from an ancient society. In the mid 20th century the Celtic religion made a resurgence based on the imagination and creativity of a very eccentric lady in Scotland. In each case, the start of the new religion was predicated on having access to ancient wisdom. More recently, people had some anxiety about the potential end of the world because the Mayan calendar had run out of space. For some reason, there is an ipso facto conviction that an ancient document bears more authority than a modern document. I've never understood why the opinion of people who don't know where the sun goes at night is given so much authority.
(let me apologize in advance for typographical error is in this post. This dictation program does not allow me to edit.)
Roger Ray

Anonymous said...

I keep in mind what the new-deceased John Shelby Spong wrote: "Catholics want an infallible pope; Protestants want an infallible Bible." It's not about truth but security. The majority of the planet is not even Christian and the "word of God" becomes an even broader subject. At any rate, people are bound by human limitations and the Ground of Being is much broader, deeper, and more timeless than minds can comprehend. No human text can emcompass everything.