Bible

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What is the Bible?

"The Bible" is an anthology of "books" written at different times spanning centuries, at least, by different people covering broad range of subjects and forms. Individual works cover such genres as: mythology or folk tales, history, spy and adventure stories, legislation, poetry, theology, political commentary, open letters, biography, as well as unique forms such as prophetic visions. Many of the books of the Bible show signs of more than one hand involved in the writing or editing process.

"The Bible" has two significations. For Jews, "the Bible," often referred to by the Hebrew acronym TaNaKh -- includes (i) the Torah, in this usage, the first five books of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles; (ii) Prophets, or Nevi'im, also including such books as Joshua and Judges; and (iii) Writings, or Ketuvim, such as Psalms, Proverbs, etc. (The term "Hebrew Bible" is preferred to the more familiar "Old Testament" because the latter term is polemical, embodying the view that it has been superseded by the "New Testament.")

For Christians, "the Bible" refers to two canonical collections of sacred texts: the Hebrew Bible (with certain differences noted below) and the New Testament. The order and inclusion of texts in the Christian Bible varies by denomination. Jewish sacred scriptures make up most, but not all, the texts in the Christian Old Testament. See here for more exact information on the composition of the Hebrew Bible. Discussion of how the Hebrew biblical canon was developed is also found here. The formation of the New Testament canon is discussed here. The earliest works contained in the Bible were probably first set down about 1000 BCE (Before the Common Era), and the latest in the Christian Bible around 110 CE (Common Era).

What Does the Bible Mean?

Because of this diversity, it is generally not safe to assume a particular "biblical perspective" on any given subject. Nor is it safe to assume that the Bible sets forth a single, systematic philosophy. The many voices of the work lead inevitably to contradiction and imprecision. Indeed, the Bible records many internal debates within its religious communities that are never synthesized or reconciled.

One of the most important of these debates, of course, is the nature of Jesus, the man of Nazareth. A formative belief for Christians is that Jesus is the Christ, or Messiah, promised in Hebrew Bible writings, and those books are read accordingly. Most other religions see Jesus as a prophet, if they even believe that he existed.

Likewise, even when there is an exact consensus on the text of a passage, its meaning may be strikeningly different in different faith traditions. For example, the term "Lucifer" or "Morning Star" in the Book of Ezekiel, shared by Jews and Christians alike, is read simply as a metaphorical reference to the meteoric rise and fall of the King of Babylon in the Jewish tradition, but is often read as a statement that the King of Babylon was possessed by an evil presence in the nature of "the devil", when read with the gloss of a Christian tradition which is more prone to cast earthly affairs in the light of a cosmic struggle between good and evil powers external to the human world.

That the entire Christian Bible was written by God and transcribed by the faithful has never been an orthodox belief. Rather, the majority view is that while God may have inspired the writing, the Bible is a record of human experience with the divine, written from the human perspective, with all the fallibility and bias that implies.

Along with the diversity mentioned above, the human perspective of the Bible strongly suggests that biblical viewpoints are not in themselves complete or sufficient measures of the life of faith. John Wesley suggested a "quadrilateral" guide to discerning God's will: faith, reason, experience and scripture. Classic Catholic theology asserts that the Bible needs to be read in community to be fully understood. Attempts to simplify religious arguments to the level of "the Bible clearly states that..." are often ill-conceived attempts to conceal personal bias and prejudice. At worst, this can descend to the level of bibliolatry, the belief that God is bound by the words of the Bible, and cannot change or act outside them.

It should also be noted that the Bible carries with it a broad range of themes: holiness (living as people set aside by God), redemption, reconciliation, love of God and neighbor, the true meaning of faith, ethical life, etc. Too often, the message of the Bible is reduced to themes of personal salvation from sin. This can obscure the social aspects of scripture, such as God's demands for the protection of the poor, or Jesus' calls to refrain from judgment and make peace.

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