When you go to your shelf or nightstand to read the Bible, what do you grab? (You do grab something, right?) You take down one bound volume — a book. If you read Sacred Scripture on your tablet or computer, you almost certainly downloaded one ebook. It’s understandably easy, then, to think of the Bible as a single book.
It is one book in the sense of a single bound volume, yet we also talk about the books (plural) of the Bible. That speaks of the origins of our Scriptures. No one person sat down to write the entire thing (no human person; of course the third person of the Trinity inspired it). No publisher commissioned all the chapters of a divine anthology. These books were written at different times by sometimes very different people. No one confuses Paul’s polemics with the lofty John. They were written for different audiences. The Jews Matthew wrote for cared deeply about Jesus’ genealogy; the shortest Gospel, Mark’s, was written for his gentile audience — the people of Rome shared our modern Western attention spans.*
The formats, especially, are different, and they tell us much about what to expect. The Gospels bare the marks of ancient biography, like you’d find in Plutarch or Suetonius. They tell us about Jesus, about the key events of His life and their significance today. Just as Plutarch drew moral lessons from his biographies, so the Gospel writers teach us. They catechize us in Christian morality, spirituality, and liturgy. Saint Paul’s letters, in contrast, are just that — letters. Letters troubleshoot problems. They lay out immediate plans. They deliver praise and correction, promises and regrets; they build relationships.
I’ve long thought of producing an edition of the epistles as modern letters, complete with postmarks showing the sequence and gaps. When you open an envelope and read a letter from a friend, when that friend talks about the subject of a biography, you can hear the implied question: “Did you read that book I told you about?” Likewise, if you opened the bound biography written by John and saw that copyright notice dates years after the other three Jesus biographies you read (We have four. Good news indeed!), you’d never question the details left out. Why would he retread old ground? Why cover what you–and he!–read years ago, what’s been documented and available already. No, this new biography had better deliver something new, something deeper. It ought to answer the call, “I want to know more!”
We are in an enviable position. You and I can carry the Scriptures (and commentaries, spiritual books, etc.) in our pockets on devices. We can buy a hard copy easily, in a pocket edition or large print. We can have them delivered right to our door, if we want. Yet this ease and compact presentation has tempted us to forget what we hold — a collection of biographies, histories, prophecies, and letters. It is not a single book but many sources in many styles and formats, written over many years and compiled over many more.
Copyright 2017, Joe Wetterling
* They got bread and circuses; we have Pizza Hut and Dancing with the Stars.