Chapter 1: The Bible: What<I> </I>It Is

The Bible Today
by C. H. Dodd

Chapter 1: The Bible: What<I> </I>It Is

What is the Bible?

An obvious answer would be that it is the sacred book of the Christian religion (and, in part, of Judaism) , as the Koran is the sacred book of Islam, or the Vedas sacred books of Hinduism. If we were finding a place for it in a well-arranged library, we might put it on a shelf labeled ‘Sacred Books’. So far, so good. But the term ‘sacred’ is too vague to tell us much about the Bible, and in fact the suggested parallel with the Koran and the Vedas is far from exact.

From another point of view, the Bible is not a book, but a collection of books commonly bound up between the same covers. Among these books there is a great variety, both in form and in contents. There is prose narrative, both historical and fictitious; there are legal codes; there are proverbs and moral maxims; there is even personal correspondence. Again there is lyrical and dramatic poetry; there is the peculiar genre of literature which can only be described as ‘prophetical’; and there is liturgical literature, designed expressly for use in public worship. This list suggests, but does not exhaust, the range of variety.

If, therefore, we are to place the Bible appropriately on the shelves of our library, we might have to arrange different parts under different headings. Some of these would not be noticeably religious. There are large sections of the biblical literature which reflect the ordinary secular interests of mankind. In some of the greatest historical narratives of the Bible the specifically religious element is quite in the background and the secular human interest is to the fore; for example, in the moving story of David and Absalom. (II Samuel xv-xviii) Again, if we isolate those parts which in our proposed classification would have to be labelled ‘Religion’, some of them do not appear to have any particular relevance to the religious life as it is understood by civilized men in our contemporary world; such as the detailed regulations for the ritual slaughter of animals in the Book of Leviticus.

But in fact any such dissection of the Bible into its component parts destroys the distinctive flavour which makes it what it is. It is characteristic of this sacred book, or religious literature, that in it the religious element emerges directly out of the crude stuff of human life as it is lived in its many phases; and few of these phases are unrepresented. Whatever may be the religious purport of the Bible, it is to be found in the whole range of the biblical presentation of life, human and secular as it is. Neither ‘elegant extracts’, nor a selection of texts for ‘devotional’ reading (though no doubt each may serve a purpose) could convey the rare, indeed the unique, character of the Bible as a body of religious literature.

With all its variety there is after all a real unity in this literature. It is not readily discovered by ‘dipping’, but forces itself upon the serious and persistent reader. When we begin to search for the principle of unity, the first thing we observe is that the whole of the varied material is strung upon a thread which consists of narrative. This narrative gives a kind of ‘cavalcade’ of human life through many centuries, beginning in the cloudy realms of myth and legend, and emerging into straightforward history. Upon investigation, it turns out to be the history of a single community, or social group, through many stages of development. The other parts of the Bible relate themselves naturally to this main thread of historical narrative.

Thus a first approach to the unity of the whole is the recognition that the different parts have their origin in the life of a community conscious of a continuous history.

This continuity persists through changes of the most far-reaching kind. When the community first comes into view, it is a Semitic clan, or group of clans, wandering between the two great civilizations centred upon the Euphrates and the Nile. Next it appears as a nation, bearing the national name of ‘Israel’, settled in its own territory, and governed by its native chieftains and kings. The petty kingdoms decline and fall, and the community ceases to exist as an independent state. With the Babylonian conquest it is absorbed into the all-embracing empire of the Middle East, which under various dynasties persisted through many centuries of the ancient world. Then it reappears in a new form. A small group of returned exiles organizes itself as a partly autonomous community under the suzerainty of the imperial government. The restored community is neither monarchy nor republic. Its rulers are priests. Its legal code is the Law of God. It has its centre in the Temple at Jerusalem with a small amount of contiguous territory, but the writ of its ecclesiastical government runs through hundreds of Jewish colonies, spread over the whole civilized world, and owing political allegiance to various secular states. It is a unique kind of social and political unit, whose actual principle of cohesion is almost entirely religious, though it retains some attachment to a national and geographical centre. In the last phase of all, the national and geographical attachment disappears altogether, and we have the Christian Church. This is a ‘catholic’ or universal community, transcending all national distinctions in its membership; and yet it is the same community that we have traced all through.

At the very point where the continuity seems decisively broken, where the Old Testament gives place to the New, the continuity of the society is the most emphatically affirmed. It is true that the writers of the New Testament are quite clear that Christianity is a new thing, indeed a ‘new creation’ (II Corinthians V. 17.) of God’s hand; and yet it is ‘the Israel of God’. (2 Galatians vi. 16) They make use of the old historical name. They speak of ‘Abraham our father’. ‘Our fathers’, they say, passed through the Red Sea; received the Law from Moses; tempted God in the wilderness. (I Corinthians x. 1-11.) There is a singularly impressive testimony to this sense of continuity in the eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, where the writer claims not only Moses and the patriarchs, but such splendid savages of a primitive age as Gideon, Samson and Barak, as fellow-members of the ‘heavenly Jerusalem’, (Hebrews xii 22-23.) one timeless community running through history but transcending it.

The Church (‘Christ’s Holy Catholic Church, that is, the whole congregation of Christian people dispersed throughout the whole world.’ This definition [from the 55th Canon of the Church of England] is presupposed throughout this book) in its worship still preserves this consciousness of continuity. We sing Hebrew Psalms. We read lessons from both Testaments. The language of our prayers is drawn from all parts of the Bible. On Easter Eve, in those churches which follow the traditional Western rite, they sing the hymn called Exult, which commemorates God’s dealings with His people in history. ‘This is the night in which Thou didst first lead our fathers, the children of Israel, out of Egypt, and didst make them to pass dryshod through the Red Sea.’ ‘Our fathers’: the Church means it seriously. That is part of our history. The doings and sufferings of these people are of a piece with our experience within the Church of God at the present day. (See, further, chap. VII, pp.155) When in the New Testament the old historic name ‘Israel’ is applied to this continuous community, it means now not any racial or national group, but simply ‘the People of God’; that is to say, a community defined solely by its relation to the eternal King of the Universe. It is this conception which in the end gives the Bible its unity.

The Church, then, conceives itself as the continuing embodiment of the historic ‘Israel of God’; and we receive the Bible from the hands of the Church. We cannot receive it from anywhere else. If you ask why this particular collection of just these sixty-six books (or eighty, if you count the Apocrypha), and no others, form the unity which is the Bible, the only answer is that these have been handed down by the Church as its ‘Scriptures’. These writings have their being, as they had their origin, within the life of a community which traces its descent from Abraham and Moses, from prophets and apostles, and plays its part in the history of our own time; and the Scriptures not only recall its past, but serve the needs of its day-to-day existence in the present.

It is possible to isolate for study one portion or another of these writings. Some have been studied as records of folklore, or as documents for the history of primitive culture. Some parts are valuable as sources for oriental history, others for social conditions under the Roman Empire. The modern study of the ‘forms’ of literature, their origin and early development, has found an exceptionally rich field in the biblical literature, so varied as it is, and extending over so long a period of time. In fact, the several biblical documents are a treasury of materials for scholars in various fields of study. In recent times this specialization has resulted in brilliant illumination of biblical problems from many points of view. But it has also tended to obscure the important fact that the Bible is a definite body of literature, with its own intrinsic unity. Having grown up with the life of a social-religious group, and bearing its stamp all through, it can be adequately understood only in relation to that group-life in its changing phases, including the life of the Christian Church down the centuries and in the present age.

It is a misfortune that in the course of controversy since the Reformation the authority of the Bible has been set over against the authority of the Church, and the Church against the Bible. (See chap. xx, pp. 20-23) In reality, the very idea of an authoritative Canon of Scripture is bound up with the idea of the Church.

Let us examine that statement, with the New Testament in view, to begin with. Here we have twenty-seven writings, comprehended under that one title. Why are these particular twenty-seven here? They are not the whole of early Christian literature, by any means. They are a selection out of a larger body of writings, some of which have come down to us, while others were lost, though some of these have been re-discovered by modern archaeologists. It is probable that the impulse to the selection and definition of this particular body of literature was a part of the general impulse towards consolidation which we can trace in the history of the Church in the period after the apostolic age. At that time the continuity of the Church was threatened by extravagances and eccentricities of belief and practice within, as well as by persecution from without. In response to these dangers the Church set out to consolidate its own life and beliefs. (See chap. xv, pp. 68-69) Its organs of consolidation were the Rule of Faith (which underlies the historical creeds), the Ministry, and the Canon of Scripture. The term ‘canons means ‘norm’, or ‘standard’. The twenty-seven writings are the norm or standard of Christian faith and life, set forth as such in response to the need for clear definition.

It would, however, be misleading to imagine this process of selection in terms of a panel of experts reviewing a great mass of existing writings, admitting this and excluding that. It is true that some of the minor writings were the subject of long discussion before they were admitted, and in the course of this discussion some writings which are now outside the New Testament were for a time tentatively admitted into it, but finally rejected. But the important writings, those which give the New Testament its character (about twenty of them) , already form a distinct body of literature as soon as we have dear light upon the Church in the second century. Some of the steps by which they came together can be dimly traced; but we can say with confidence no more than this, that the Church intuitively acknowledged the authority of these particular works. It did so quite naturally, because the impulse to select was no different from the impulse that had originally led in various ways to the composition of the works. In the language of the New Testament itself, it was to ‘bear witness’ to certain central realities that the New Testament writings were first composed, and subsequently compiled into a Canon of Scripture.

The idea which underlies the compilation is well indicated by the title given to the twenty-seven writings. We speak of ‘The New Testament’, or, more properly, ‘The Holy Scriptures of the New Testament’. The word ‘testament’ here represents an expression which occurs frequently in the Hebrew of the Old Testament and in the Greek of the New. It is usually rendered, in our current versions, by the word ‘covenant. A covenant is a transaction, an agreement or contract between two parties, by which relations between the two are regulated, and by which a certain status is established. The biblical writers, in both main parts of the Canon, speak of a ‘covenant’ between God and man. (See chap. in, pp. 39, 41-42, 45-46; chap. xv, pp. 79, 96-97.) In the nature of things, such a covenant cannot be exactly like an agreement on equal terms between man and man. The idea is that God, the eternal King of the Universe, intervenes in human ‘affairs to set up a certain enduring relation of a unique character between Himself and those men who will accept His terms. It is a relation going beyond that fundamental creaturely relation which all His works necessarily bear to their Creator. The Scriptures of the New Testament, or in other words, the documents of the New Covenant, are the authoritative record of that act of God by which He established relations between Himself and the Church; and they are the charter defining the status of the Church as the people of God, the terms upon which that status is granted, and the obligations it entails.

You will observe that in the attempt to answer the simple question, What is the Bible? (or in particular just now, What is the New Testament?) we have been led inevitably to the profound religious conception of God’s ‘covenant’ with man. We cannot avoid it, if we are to find a definition which expresses its specific character, and assigns the grounds upon which these particular writings were formed into a canon.

Before proceeding further, there is one point which should be made clear. From what has been said, it is clear that the Scriptures of the New Testament grew up within the life of the Church. Their selection out of a larger body of writings was a function of its growing corporate life, in response to a developing situation. Consequently the Church is prior to the Scriptures of the New Testament. On the other hand, the ‘covenant’ (‘testament’) itself, that act of God which is attested in the Scriptures, is prior to the Church, for without it there is no Church. This mutual relation between Church and New Testament is fundamental.

To proceed: the ‘New Covenant’ implies an older covenant with which it stands in contrast. It is as ‘The Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament’ (covenant) that we receive the thirty-nine books which form the first part of the Canon.

It will be well here to clear up the question of the place of the so-called Apocrypha, those fourteen books (Fourteen as reckoned in our English version. There are some variations in the count.) which are, so to speak, half in and half out of the Old Testament. The Old Testament properly so called is the corpus of books, written and handed down in Hebrew (or in the kindred Aramaic) , which were received as Scripture in the first century of our era by Hebrew-speaking Jews, representing the central tradition of Hebrew and Jewish religion. The ‘apocryphal’ writings were handed down in Greek (though some of them were originally written in Hebrew) , and they were accepted by Greek-speaking Jews, as part of their authoritative ‘canon’, along with the Hebrew Scriptures in a Greek translation. The attitude of the Church to what we may call the Greek-Jewish canon, as distinct from the Hebrew-Jewish, has varied at different periods and in different communions. What is important is the fact that the intention was to acknowledge as authoritative the sacred canon of the Jewish religion, whether this canon was defined more narrowly or more broadly. In fact, the Canon of Holy Scripture in the early Church, before the New Testament writings were collected, or even written, was simply the body of sacred writings taken over from Judaism. When New Testament writers refer to ‘the Scriptures’, they always (with two exceptions, in late-written books) mean what we call the Old Testament (with or without the Apocrypha). To this they refer with the greatest respect for its authority.

The Scriptures of the Jewish religion, then, are received by the Church as the sacred documents of the Old Covenant, setting forth God’s relations with His people in the centuries before the coming of Jesus Christ. They record the inception of the covenant in the calling of Abraham, its establishment under Moses in the giving of the Law, and the vicissitudes, changes and developments in the relations of the covenanted people with their God, before the coming of Christ. Such is the main theme of the Old Testament, alike in narrative, poetry and prophecy.

In many of its writings we meet with a recurrent suggestion that the existing relations between God and His people under the covenant are in some measure incomplete or inconclusive. This sense of inconclusiveness grows, partly through the shock of a series of national calamities and their challenge to faith, and partly through deepening apprehension of what is implied in the idea of a covenant between God and man. It is put into words by one of the greatest of the prophets. Jeremiah spoke of a ‘new covenant’ which God would establish the other side of the disaster which he saw approaching. (I Jeremiah XXXI. 31-34. See chap. iii, pp. 45-46.) The course of history gave to these words outstanding significance. The New Testament writers are unanimously of the belief that they have witnessed the establishment, by act of God, of the new covenant by which the relations between God and man escape all inconclusiveness and enter into their final phase. The new covenant does not simply supplement or modify the old; nor does it simply supersede it. It ‘fulfils’ it.

This idea of ‘fulfilment’ illuminates the paradox of newness and continuity to which I referred earlier. It carries two implications regarding our understanding of the biblical writings.

First, it is in the process of fulfilment that the Old Testament becomes intelligible. We of the present age are not the first to find difficulties in the Old Testament, for they are patent. The defective morals of some of its personages have caused much embarrassment. It contains incongruities and contradictions, not merely in matters of fact, but in spiritual outlook and moral valuation. The attempt to explain them away satisfies no alert and intelligent reader. We begin to understand them when we see them in their place in a process making towards an end. The road takes strange twists and turns, and leads through rough and uncertain places, but at any rate it reached the goal which is represented by the New Testament; and in view of that goal the incidents of the way disclose their meaning. The incongruities themselves illustrate the manner in which through trial and error men came to apprehend the truth; and the defects and limitations of which we are aware serve as background to the growing light which, as if evoked by them, shone upon the human scene. Thus the Old Testament is not to be read as an odd collection of curious stories and ideas from a remote and primitive world, any more than it should be taken, on all its levels indiscriminately, as a definitive statement of unchanging truth. It is to be read in view of that for which it prepared and towards which it led. Of this more presently.

But, secondly, the New Testament, equally, is not to be understood apart from the Old. That needs to be said quite as emphatically as what I have just been saying. In the second century, at the time when the Canon of the New Testament was beginning to be formed, there was a controversy about the place which the Old Testament should occupy in the Church. There was a strong movement for abolishing it, just as there has been in more recent times; and largely on the same grounds -- its defective morality and the inadequate or misleading conceptions of God which are to be found in it. A plausible case was made out for abandoning the Old Testament altogether and making the writings which we call the New Testament (or some of them) into a single and sufficient canon of Scripture. This proposal was emphatically rejected; and rightly so. It is its relation to this large and far-reaching background that gives depth to the New Testament presentation of religion. In modern times the tendency to study the New Testament in isolation from the Old has often distorted the perspective, and led to unnecessary difficulties about some of its leading ideas (such as, for example, the ideas of the Kingdom of God, of ‘redemption’ and ‘justification’) whose true meaning stands out clearly when they are read in the light of all that went before.

It is, in a word, essential to our understanding of the Bible that we should hold its two parts together, as being mutually dependent.

The Bible, thus constituted of Old and New Testaments in unity, is the sacred book of the Christian religion; and we are now able to give a clearer sense to that definition than we were when it was enunciated at the beginning of this chapter. It is the book which the Church recommends people to read in order to know about God in His relation to man and the world, to worship Him intelligently, and to understand the aim and the obligations of human life under His rule. In other words, it offers this book to us as a ‘revelation’ of God. It refers us for this purpose to a long series of extremely various documents, containing many contradictions and incongruities, subject to the flow of time and change through many centuries of human existence.

This combination of ‘things new and old’ sets up a tension in the mind. But tension gives depth. And in fact, a tension of this kind is inseparable from our historical existence in a physical universe. The Bible reflects, with an astonishing realism, the existence of man as a creature living in the realm of time and space, and subject to change and development; and this makes it curiously relevant to human life, in its complexity, as we have to live it.

What do you take to be the terms of our own problem, whether as individuals or as a community, in this world, in the middle of the twentieth century? Is our problem simply that of yourself at twenty and myself at sixty, confronted with the world as presented in the pages of this morning’s Times? If anyone thinks that no more than these factors are concerned in our problem, he is living in an illusion. Your problem and mine involves all the endeavours and achievements, failures and sins, that are covered by all the years we have lived. The living past survives into the present, as a deep stratum in our own minds. The child, they say, is father to the man, and any psychologist will tell you that the child within us may be a downright nuisance to the man, unless he has been put in his place.

Or consider the problems of the community. Think (to make the matter concrete) of the various conferences which are now beginning for the re-settlement of the world after the war. There will be certain persons visible at the conference table -- representatives of contemporary nations in their corporate capacity. But there will be a much larger invisible concourse: kings and statesmen and adventurers of the past, Holy Roman Emperors and mediaeval Popes, Vikings and tribal chiefs, Czars, mandarins and shoguns, and all the dumb multitudes of the dead, whose actions, deliberate or undesigned, went to make up the world of nations as it is today. These unseen presences will press their claims through the enduring facts of history, which we cannot alter for our convenience.

The complexity of our problem, in short, arises from our situation in an historical process subject to time and change, irreversible in direction, in which the past is never wholly dead, but remains unalterably part of the situation we have to face in the present.

It is here that the Bible is so singularly appropriate to the conditions of our problem, individual and corporate. It is offered to us by the Church as a revelation of God; not, certainly, as a sort of inspired encyclopaedia, where chapter and verse can be turned up and questions settled out of hand. On the contrary, it first makes us aware of the depth and range of our problem, rooted as it is in the remote but still living past. It plunges us into the stream of history in a peculiarly significant part of its course. It makes present to us crucial events of the past by which the stream cut for itself the channel in which it still sweeps us along -- such events as the call of Abraham, the Exodus and the giving of the Law, the Exile and return of the Jews, and that climax of the whole drama recorded in the Gospels, which, as we shall presently see, controls and interprets it all. It is history, of the same stuff as our contemporary history; of the same stuff as our individual experience of day-to-day happenings. But it is so presented that it is seen to be full of meaning, as our lives are not, as contemporary history is not, so far as we can see. The biblical history is meaningful because it is related at every point to the fundamental reality which lies behind all history and all human experience, which is, the living God in His Kingdom; and because it moves towards a climax in which the Kingdom of God came upon men with conclusive effect.

In this presentation of the movement of history the oddities and incongruities of the record have their indispensable place, because they correspond to the real complexities of human experience in this world. It all reaches unity through fulfilment, and in the light of this fulfilment we are invited to recognize the hand of God in the whole process.

The way in which we are to pass from the recognition of God in the biblical history to the recognition of Him as speaking through it to us, is a subject which must occupy us later. For the present, we may answer the question propounded at the beginning by saying that the Bible is a unity of diverse writings which together are set forth by the Church as a revelation of God in history.