The term Bible comes from the Greek ta biblia, which means “the scrolls.” The name conveys the Bible contains a collection of scrolls, books. As such, it is a library of books written over hundreds of years. But before we can understand how the Bible came to us, we need to answer, “Whose Bible are we referring to?”
The Judeo-Christian traditions preserves five Bibles used by different Jewish and Christian groups. The Jewish Bible, the Tanak (which stands for Torah, Prophets, and Writings), parallels the Christian Old Testament. It contains the same books, but in a different order. The Samaritans use their Pentateuch known as the Samaritan Pentateuch. It contains the Five Books of Moses but has differences from Jewish Bible-Old Testament versions of the books. The Samaritan Pentateuch preserves interpretations which reflect Samaritan ideological and theological ideas.
The Catholic Bible comprises the Old Testament, New Testament, and the Apocrypha. These are books written by Jews from the fourth/third century B.C. to the first century A.D. Catholics view these books as deuterocanonical, meaning they are useful for study and instruction, but they do not carry the same authority of the Old and New Testaments.
The Orthodox Bible is like the Catholic Bible except for some differences within the collection of apocryphal works. But within the Orthodox Church, each community—Greek, Slavonic, Georgian, Armenian, Syriac, and Coptic—uses a Bible with slight variations, beyond language. Most of us are familiar with the Protestant Bible, which emerged from the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Bible consists of the Old and New Testaments.
A survey of the different Bibles used within Judeo-Christian traditions helps us to define what is the Bible. The Bible is a unique fixed, closed collection of ancient literature, written over hundreds of years, comprised of different genres—narrative, poetry, prophecy, wisdom sayings, letters, and apocalypses—collected as divine revelation for the community of faith as a rule of faith and practice. This definition holds for any of the Bibles within the Judeo-Christian tradition.
The Bible serves as the Canon for the community of faith. The word “canon” originally meant a “straight bar” and came to mean “standard” or “rule.” Applied to literary collections, Canon means a collection of works which are the standard. Within a community of faith, the Canon serves as the rule of faith and practice.
The establishment of a Canon of sacred literature forms the final step in a process of transmission. There was an initial event, utterance, teaching, psalm, which were transmitted orally or written snippets. The writers of the biblical books collected these, organized them, and composed their book—the book of Isaiah, the Gospel of Luke. Scribes copied and transmitted these manuscripts of books, sometimes for hundreds of years.
Communities then began to form collections of these books, such as the Five Books of Moses. These collections circulated prior to the bringing together of all the books. Finally, the community brought the entire collection of books together, which then circulated within the community, until eventually the community treated that collection of books as closed or fixed. The Bible now serves as the Canon for the community of faith.
Marc Turnage is President/CEO of Biblical Expeditions. He is an authority on ancient Judaism and Christian origins. He has published widely for both academic and popular audiences. His most recent book, Windows into the Bible, was named by Outreach Magazine as one of its top 100 Christian living resources. Marc is a widely sought-after speaker and a gifted teacher. He has been guiding groups to the lands of the Bible—Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy—for over twenty years.