Did Biblical Authors Know They Were Writing the Bible?

Do you ever wonder about stuff like this? I know I do. And I know that at least a few other folks know, too. So, even though this doesn’t represent a reader-question per se, it could still be a lot of fun!

I think the first thing we need to establish is what we mean when we talk about “The Bible” for different groups in different times. For most of us, The Bible is a written document or documents that contain much of the history, theology and traditions of our faith. Whether that includes stories or conversations about Jesus is perhaps the simplest difference between Jewish and Christian Bibles, but I think that should be enough to help us think through this questions.

The Bible, itself, is a little squishy when it comes to self-consciousness. Much of the Old Testament is completely deviod of references to written sources or even people reading in the context of religious ritual. Obviously, people where writing things down, and increasingly so by the time of the prophets, but there is very little reference to people reading what was written in the ways that we would normally think of people reading, studying or using the Bible. This is largely because the worship of most of the folks in the Old Testament was centered on the sacrificial life of the Temple. Text-based religion would come later.

The first record of the reading of a portion of what we might consider the Bible in the Bible was in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Jews, like Daniel and others, living in the Babylonian Exile were forced to figure another way to encounter God, cut off as they were from the Temple. When they ultimately returned to Judea, they brought with them the tradition of reading scrolls of texts as a form of worship – what we might call proto-Bible.

By the time of Jesus and Paul, this practice was fairly common and formed the core of what is usually called Synagogue- (rather than Temple-) Judaism. Jesus, himself, practices this type of worship and has a working knowledge of a set of written works that form a core of religious understanding for him. He reads aloud in the synagogue at Capernaum and quotes liberally from the texts in other parts of his teachings.

Moreover, both the narrators of the Gospels (the voices that offer descriptions between stories about Jesus), St. Paul and most of the other authors of New Testament liturature also use the Jewish Scriptures as source material for their Christian works. they are not always the most accurate quotes. So, we are lead to wonder whether they read with great frequency or accuracy or if they simply heard the scriptures read to them. But they also treat the scriptures with a sense of familiarity that suggests that they expect their readers to know the texts, too. The authors were certainly users of the Bible, but did they understand themselves to be writing in that same tradition? Did they think they were writing the Bible?

Maybe. Or, perhaps more descriptively, “Some yes and some no.”

I think that most of the time, the authors of the New Testament were mostly interested in getting their message of hope across to the one or several folks that they were writing to or for. But on occasion, we get a glimpse of writing that either in the way it invokes the style and imagery of the Old Testament of touches on grander and more universal themes, seems to have a self-understanding that it might be of use to more than just a narrow audience.

I won’t bore you with a list of texts. I’ll simply encourage you to read closely as you read your own Bible. As yourself whether or not you think a certain passage or book has a glimmer of intent that suggests that author might have understood her/himself to be a part of the long-line of Biblical Authors.

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