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News and views from St. Mary's Woodbridge
Issue 7 Winter 2008

The making of a bestseller

John Rogerson

What is the Bible? How and when was it made? Who produced it and why? Which translation to read? And how do we understand it today?

John Rogerson gives us some answers

The most remarkable thing about the Bible is that we have it at all! Consider the Letters of Paul, which make up around a quarter of the New Testament. The originals were written on pieces of papyrus. Several copies were then made and sent by messenger to small house-church type groups around the Roman Empire that met in secret. Never intended to become part of a Bible, they were meant to offer advice and admonition to Christian groups known to Paul. Yet their content was felt to be so important that the churches preserved them and even began to collect them together. An early collection, including all the letters ascribed to Paul, plus the Letter to the Hebrews, is dated around AD 200. The case is all the more remarkable for parts of the Old Testament. The sayings of prophets, for example, often delivered in Hebrew poetry, were written down on materials prepared from animal skins, and safeguarded by groups of prophets disciples. They existed not in books, but on scrolls, which were very vulnerable to wear and tear and variations in climate. To make further copies was an extremely expensive and time-consuming business. Yet copies were made and preserved, and eventually the contents of various scrolls were collected together to form a kind of library. The story does not end there. Translations of the Old Testament were made into Greek from the middle of the 3rd century BC; and in the late 4th and early 5th centuries AD, Jerome translated the whole Bible into Latin. Reformers such as William Tyndale in the 16th century were martyred for daring to translate the Bible into vernacular languages such as English.

The Creator speaking

Why should people go to such great trouble and expense to preserve writings that emanated not from a great empire or civilisation, but from an obscure Middle Eastern people, and an even more obscure group of followers of a Galilean artisan who had been executed by the Romans on a charge of sedition? The answer is that the content of these writings was such that people believed that God, the Creator and Lord of the universe, had spoken in and through them, and that he continued to do so as the writings were read and re-interpreted. It is not necessary to have a detailed knowledge of the Bible to appreciate how much the poorer we should be without the Parable of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son or, in the Old Testament, the vision of Isaiah and the hymn of the seraphim, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts (Isaiah 6). And, time and again, the content of the Bible has led to great renewals that have profoundly affected human history.

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