The Bible: Part I – What is the Bible?


This first part of our exploration of the Bible is not an exhaustive response to the question ‘What is the Bible?’, but is instead a brief introduction that we hope will shed some light on the subject.

The word ‘bible’ comes from the Greek word τὰ βιβλία (tà biblía) meaning ‘the books’. The Christian Bible, as we know it, is a collection of religious texts that were written over a period of some 1600 years, by more than forty authors in three different languages and across several continents. Because of such diversity, the context and purpose of each one of the individual books in the Bible varies. In the Christian tradition, we believe that the Bible has special value in our lives because it tells a story of God’s interaction with the world and of the people who follow God.

A list of books chosen to be part of the Bible is called a ‘biblical canon’, with the word canon derived from the Greek word κανών (kanón), meaning ‘rule’, as in ‘an instrument by which to measure’, like a ruler. Queen’s Park Govanhill is part of the Church of Scotland, which is part of the Protestant tradition, and in the Protestant biblical canon, the Bible consists of 66 books, divided into the Old and New Testaments. Different Christian traditions make use of different biblical canons, such as the Catholic Church (whose Bible includes 73 books) and the Greek Orthodox Church (whose Bible includes 76 books).

The Protestant Old Testament consists of books from one version of the Hebrew Bible (some Hebrew traditions only consider certain books in our Old Testament to be part of the Bible). In the Hebrew tradition, the books are ordered differently, but in the Old Testament they are grouped into the following categories:

  • The Pentateuch (or the Five Books of Moses, also called the Torah in the Hebrew tradition)
  • History
  • Wisdom
  • Major Prophets
  • Minor Prophets

This general ordering of books was developed when the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek (the Septuagint, or Septuaginta in Latin). It’s important to keep in mind that the books (both in the Old and New Testaments) are not ordered by the date in which they were written.

Even within each of the five categories above, the authorship, purpose and context of the various books can differ widely (and the same can be said for the New Testament). It might be helpful to start from the beginning…

The Pentateuch begins with the Book of Genesis (from the Greek word γένεσις [génesis], meaning ‘origin’ or ‘beginning’), which itself begins with a narrative of the creation of the universe from the perspective of the Jewish tradition. But from the onset, the Book of Genesis highlights for us some of the difficulties we face when reading the Scripture in our 21st century, Scottish context. We will explore some more of these difficulties in greater detail in Part II, but perhaps the first and most obvious hurdle we face when reading the Bible as a whole is the meaning that is lost in translation.

Like the vast majority of the Old Testament, the Book of Genesis was originally written in the Hebrew language. Whenever translating from one language to another, certain interpretive decisions must be made. For instance, just as we have idioms in contemporary English, Scots and Gaelic, the Hebrew tradition also has its own idioms. In English, to say that someone is ‘pulling your leg’ doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is pulling your leg in a literal sense. In the act of translation, some idioms or ambiguous phrases are difficult (or impossible) to translate into other languages. In Spanish, the phrase ‘tomar el pelo’ is used to express that sense of someone ‘pulling your leg’. But the literal translation of ‘tomar el pelo’, ‘to take the hair’, isn’t used as an idiom for being tricky or cheeky in English. Idioms are just one example of why translation is very difficult and sometimes imprecise.

English translations of the Bible also vary based upon the intention of the translator. Sometimes a translator will have a preference for one particular interpretation of a text over another. For instance, in the Hebrew version of the Book of Isaiah (a book in the Major Prophets section of the Old Testament), the author is writing of a time when the prophet Isaiah was speaking to Ahaz, the King of the Jewish Kingdom of Judah. In this version, Isaiah is telling Ahaz of a child to be born of a ‘young woman’ in his lifetime who will be a sign that God is with them.

When Isaiah was translated from Hebrew into the Greek-language Septuagint, the translators replaced ‘young woman’ (Hebrew: עַלְמָה [almá]) with ‘virgin’ (Greek: παρθένος [parthénos]). In the New Testament, the Gospel of Matthew, which itself was written in Greek, uses this particular Greek word in order to emphasise that the prophet Isaiah was also referring to Jesus, who, according to the Gospel, was ‘born of a virgin’. Some later translators, even those working from the Hebrew text (rather than the Greek translation), chose to use the word ‘virgin’ instead of ‘young woman’ in order to demonstrate the promise of Jesus in the Old Testament. We can see these differences reflected in some popular translations of Isaiah 7.14:

  • New International Version (NIV) Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
  • New Living Translation (NLT) All right then, the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’).
  • Good News Bible (GNB)Well then, the Lord himself will give you a sign: a young woman who is pregnant will have a son and will name him ‘Immanuel.’
  • The Message (MSG) Watch for this: A girl who is presently a virgin will get pregnant. She’ll bear a son and name him Immanuel (God-With-Us).
  • New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

That last version, the NRSV, is considered to be among the more accurate English translations of the Bible, but it too reflects interpretive decisions. One of the most obvious examples of these is reflected in the decision to use gender-inclusive language where applicable. In the New Testament, some ‘books’ are actually letters written from early Church leaders to local churches. When addressing these churches in writing, the custom in this ancient patriarchal society was to use masculine pronouns. When an address is intended for a group of men and women, the translators of the NRSV decided to reflect that in their work. Compare this verse from Romans 15 in the King James or Authorised Version (KJV or AV) with the NRSV:

  • KJV – And I myself also am persuaded of you, my brethren, that ye also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another.
  • NRSV – I myself feel confident about you, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able to instruct one another.

Another valuable point to make in this discussion is the fact that different translations are trying to reach different audiences. For example, the NIV was first translated in the 1970s in order to provide a more readable version in contemporary language as an alternative to the popular KJV.

It is important when reading the Bible in English, Scots or Gaelic to consider the challenges faced when these texts have been translated. This doesn’t mean that we should approach the Bible with apprehension, but rather, that we should approach it with awareness and appreciation.

Some questions for discussion

  • What are some idioms we use that have a very different meaning from their literal words?
  • What might be some obstacles that face non-Christians and new Christians when first approaching the Bible?
  • What might be some of the pros and cons of different translations of the Bible?

Church Language » Bible » Part I | Part II – How do we read the Bible? (coming soon)