What is the Bible?

So just what is the “Bible”?


What does your Bible look like?

I had a surreal experience once. I was on a plane. In the window seat was a young man, probably in his twenties. He was wearing torn jeans. He pulled out of his backpack a large tattered paper-back, and started reading. In the middle seat was another young man, in impeccable clerical costume. I assumed he was a young priest. He took out of his briefcase a leatherbound missal. I was in the aisle seat.

The young man in the window seat began chatting with his neighbour. It was obvious he was trying to “convert” him. This was too much for me. I reached into my purse for my little leatherbound Greek New Testament.

(I didn’t even have an iPhone at that time.)

Three passengers, three Bibles.

The authors of those Bibles wouldn’t have recognized any of them. 

How the books of the Bible were first written

When the various books were written that make up the Bible we have today, they would have written on scrolls, cumbersome and unwieldy.  

A large part of the Bible consists of writings before Jesus came (Old Testament). It begins by telling us how God created the world and everything in it, how people sinned and how everything went wrong. It looks forward to Jesus’ coming and tells us how God chose a particular people to be his own and carry the knowledge of him into all the world.

The part of the Bible that tells us about Jesus’ life on earth is called the New Testament. It describes his birth, ministry, death and resurrection. The New Testament tells us about his return to the Father and how he promised to come back one day. Then it goes on to describe what happened in the early church.

The people who wrote it didn’t speak English, not even the magnificent English of the King James Version. English didn’t even exist when the Bible was first written.

The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, the Jewish language, and the New Testament in Greek, the language which people could understand all over the Roman Empire.

So what we read in the English-speaking world today is a translation.

English didn’t even exist when the Bible was first written. So what we read in the English-speaking world today is a translation.

Annabel Robinson


A word about translations


Even if you know only the tiniest bit of French, you probably know that the French for “hello” is “bonjour.” “Bonjour” is, literally, “Good day.” “Bon” = “Good,: “Jour” = “Day.” But if you met your best friend in the mall you wouldn’t say in English, “Good day.” You’d say “Hello.”

So if we’re translating that phrase from French to English, the literal translation isn’t the best translation. The best translation is the one that communicates what a person in that language would say.

That’s a simple example. But you can imagine how much more complicated it is to translate something written two thousand years ago in another part of the world.

Another example: You may know that the French for “What’s that?” is “Qu’est-ce c’est que ça?” (literally, “What is it that that is?)  Eh? That’s just the way that a francophone would say it. They’re not being ridiculously long-winded. We have thousands of things like that in English. We say “Where in the world did I put my keys?” without implying that I could have left them in Africa. All languages are full of examples like this.


So what makes a “good” translation?


There’s no one answer to that question. It depends on what you want, and what you are using the Bible for. Most readers want one that reads smoothly in English. If you’re studying a passage in detail, you might want one that’s less literal. If you want the full emotional impact of a passage, you could turn to something that’s more of a paraphrase, like The Message.

Many people have a copy of the “King James Version.” This was translated in 1611—400 years ago, Shakespeare’s time. The language is beautiful, and for a long time it was the only English translation in common use.

But language changes. Words don’t mean what they used to mean. Some fall out of use entirely. “Eschew evil,” says the KJV. I once met a missionary who thought that meant that we should contemplate evil. Chew on it, she thought. (In case you’re wondering, “eschew” means “deliberately avoid” and the verse is 1 Peter 3:11).

The last century has brought us a pile of new English translations. The ones most widely used are the New International Version (NIV) for smooth English, and the English Standard Version (ESV), more literal. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is somewhere in between.

Language changes. Words don’t mean what they used to mean.

Annabel Robinson

Scripture Union doesn’t endorse any particular version. The SU daily devotional (theStory) is based on the NIV, but can be used with any translation. Encounter with God and Daily Bread works well with any translation as well.

Christians believe that when we read the Bible, God speaks to us. There’s a lot to unpack here that we’ll explore in future posts.


Related Posts: 20 Interesting Facts about the Bible, Ten Descriptions of the Bible

© Scripture Union Canada, 2021

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