In my Father’s house are many rooms. In the body are many parts. In the vine are many branches. In the books of the Bible there are many genres – the poetry of the psalms, the narrative of the gospels, the exhortation and encouragement in the letters, the visions of the dreamers. Each is an important, separate, strand in its own right, while also playing its part in the whole. So how did the Bible come to us?
Adapted from a resource written by Barbara and David Calvert.
The Old Testament
The books that make up the Old Testament were originally written in Hebrew, and are part of the history, laws, poetry and prophecies of the Jewish people. At first, much of this material was the spoken word, layer upon layer of material passed on by word of mouth and interpreted afresh by each generation. Scholars are not sure when the books were first written down, but the period of writing covered several centuries. By the first century AD, Jewish religious leaders had laid down that certain books were ‘holy’ – directly inspired by God – and it is these books which now make up the Old Testament. No original manuscripts of the Old Testament have been found – we have only copies of copies of copies. The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in 1947, are the earliest Hebrew Bible manuscripts known.
The New Testament
The first New Testament books to be written were Paul’s letters. They were kept by the churches that received them, but other churches soon wanted copies. Before the end of the first century AD they were collected together, copied and circulated, along with some other New Testament letters, and Acts and Revelation.
Of the Gospels, Mark’s is usually thought to be the first to be written, followed by Matthew’s and Luke’s. Some scholars say John’s Gospel was the last to be written in about AD 100, but many now believe that the earliest edition of John’s gospel was written very early on and maybe even as early as Mark’s.
Each of the four Gospels is, in a different way, an answer to the question that Jesus poses to Peter: ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Matthew offers us a picture of Jesus as a messianic teacher, asking for faithful obedience of his followers. Mark offers us an edgy, secretive Messiah, who reveals his identity erratically to a confused band of disciples. Luke portrays Jesus as a social prophet with a humanitarian message. John shows us a cosmic Messiah who appears from the time before time, revealing himself in bold signs and gestures. Therefore from the very beginning, ‘gospel truth’ has been made up of a rich diversity of voices, stories and images. The New Testament invites us to engage with it in a journey of exploration and discovery.
Barbara is a retired Methodist Minister.