How can a collection of ancient manuscripts written by numerous people over thousands of years tell one unified story? In this episode, Tim, Jon, and Carissa dive into how the Bible was written and how such a diverse collection of authors, literary styles, and themes can form one divinely inspired, unified story.
We don’t encounter the Hebrew Bible in the form of what Moses was writing in the wilderness or what Isaiah or Jeremiah were originally writing. What we have is a highly polished, interconnected museum exhibit created by a set of hands at the very end of the process, which created a polish or a glaze over the whole thing to make it unified. … It helps to think of these editors as also filled with the Spirit. It’s not just the original authors, but it’s the authors and editors that shaped the story later too that are part of this Spirit-filled community [that wrote the Bible].
In part one (00:00 - 13:30), Tim, Jon, and Carissa recap the series so far and discuss how the paradigm through which we view the Bible—that the Bible is one unified story that leads to Jesus—is composed of seven axioms (or attributes).
In the last episode, we talked about the first of these axioms: the Bible as both human and divine. The second element we’ll explore is the Bible as unified literature. This means that although the Bible has many authors, literary styles, and themes, it tells one story about God’s plan to rescue humanity and make them his partners in ruling the world.
The Bible itself features two collections (Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and New Testament), each with their own unifying characteristics, under the banner of one governing narrative that spans both collections.
In part two (13:30 - 22:00), Tim, Jon, and Carissa discuss the literary structure of the Bible, focusing on the unity of the Hebrew Bible specifically.
Because the literary styles within the Bible are, at face value, so diverse, the more we understand both the organization and the origins of the Bible, the more we can truly grasp the unified nature of the Bible’s storyline. The Bible is more than an anthology (a collection of literary works unified only by their inclusion in the same volume), it’s one story composed of interwoven narrative threads.
The Hebrew Bible is a collection of scrolls more than 1,000 years in the making, bringing together literature from many periods of ancient Israelite history and culture. The scrolls include what Jews call the TaNaK, the Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim. (For more information on the structure of the Hebrew Bible, check out our How to Read the Bible series.)
In part three (22:00 - 36:00), the team explores the process by which scribes compiled the final form of the Hebrew Bible.
In the 300-200s B.C.E., as Israelites returned to their land from exile in Babylon, they brought with them the texts that would become the Hebrew canon. In the process of completing the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish people did far more than create a complex work of literature—they created something that informed their national culture and identity (and, in large measure, still does).
The writers of the Hebrew Bible weren’t just the named leaders we usually think of (Moses, Isaiah, etc.). The disciples and students of these leaders continued to work on unifying God’s words to his people. The New Testament writers were people formed by this same culture, and they had studied the Hebrew Bible from childhood. So while the style of the New Testament writings is different, it all riffs on the same themes as the Hebrew Bible.
Tim shares an illustration he adapted from Julius Steinberg and Timothy Stone in their book, The Shape of the Writings. The Hebrew Bible is like a grove of aspen trees. They are from the same root ball, genetically identical and interconnected on a deep level, but they sprout in various places and at different sizes and rates.
Our understanding of divine inspiration must be defined by the way it’s talked about in the Bible itself. It was authored by a community of scribes and prophets who saw themselves as part of the ongoing effort to compile God’s words to his people.
In part four (36:00 - 45:40), Tim, Jon, and Carissa discuss the prolific nature of the Jewish people at the period of history when the Hebrew Bible was being compiled (known as the Second Temple period). Israelite authors wrote other literary works that never ended up in the canon of Scripture even though they traced many of the same themes from the Hebrew Bible. These works became what we call the Deuterocanon or the Apocrypha.
Although Jesus and the New Testament writers considered only the TaNaK to be divinely inspired, they clearly valued the contributions of the Deuterocanon. For instance, Jesus’ famous lines in Matthew 11:28 are his adaptation of similar ideas from an apocryphal book called The Wisdom of Ben Sira, but he doesn’t attribute divine inspiration to this work. However, Jude notoriously quotes from the book of Enoch in a way that implies that Enoch was part of the scriptural canon in his community.
Because the biblical authors valued these extra-biblical books to varying degrees, we should consider their value in shedding light on the history and culture of which the biblical authors were a part.
In part five (45:40 - end), Tim, Jon, and Carissa conclude by talking about the unifying literary themes of the Hebrew Bible.
The themes presented in the earliest chapters of Genesis set the pace for the rest of the Old Testament collection—every story after the opening narratives riffs on the same themes, repeating them and adapting them to make different points.
The Hebrew Bible traces the story of humanity as God’s image-bearing partners who corrupt their true vocation to rule the world with God and share in eternal life. Their corruption results in a kind of de-creation, to which God responds by raising up a chosen one: the promised seed of Eve who will bring vindication and victory for a restored humanity, but at the cost of his own life. Over and over again, Israel fails in their calling to be that seed, which leads to their exile. But just as frequently, God proves his eternal loyalty to his promises and his people.
Knowing that this is the storyline of the Hebrew Bible can help us to “read sympathetically,” as Carissa calls it. This means to read with an eye toward the authors’ intended meaning and an awareness that we should be able to identify the threads of this overarching story in every individual story.
Show produced by Cooper Peltz, Dan Gummel, and Zach McKinley. Show notes by Lindsey Ponder.
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