What is the Bible?

The first two chapters of the book are organized into one introductory unit. These chapters provide essential terms and concepts that are critical for situating the Bible in its proper historical and literary context. Chapter 1 discusses how the Bible was formed, organized, and accepted as sacred literature in both Judaism and Christianity. Chapter 2 provides an introductory overview of the full historical arc of the Hebrew Bible.

Chapter 1 explains how the books of the Hebrew Bible became scripture for Jews and Christians. As a starting point, it is important to note that the books of the Hebrew Bible are an anthology that was written and collected over a thousand years. However, this collection is not organized by date of composition. The first “dozen or so” books cover the period from creation to the sixth century BCE, while the remainder of the books are organized by theme. This is a very general description, however, given the variety among the canons of the Hebrew Bible.


Different religious communities vary both in the books that they include in the Hebrew Bible and in the order in which the selected books are arranged. The term for the official list of books that makes up the Bible of a religious community is canon, from the Greek word for “rod.” The remainder of Chapter 1 discusses processes through which both the Jewish and different Christian canons were developed.

The Jewish Canon

The Jewish Bible is traditionally divided into three parts, the Torah, the Prophets, and Writings. Tanakh, the frequently used term for the Jewish Bible, is an acronym that comes from the first letters of the Hebrew words for these parts (Torah, Neviim, and Ketuvim). The Torah is made up of the first five books of the Bible, and it was the first part of the Bible to be considered authoritative and canonical. The Hebrew word torah means “law” or “teaching,” and it has been traditionally accepted as the “teaching of Moses.” However, most modern scholarship does not agree with the view that Moses actually composed these texts. The Prophets is the second part of the Hebrew Bible; these books are separated into two further divisions known as the Former Prophets and the Latter Prophets. The Former Prophets includes the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings. These texts cover the period from Moses’s death to the fall of Israel in 586 BCE. The Latter Prophets include the books named after the individual prophets. The Latter Prophets may also be further divided into the Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel) and the Minor Prophets (the twelve books from Hosea to Malachi). The third and final division of the Hebrew Bible is known as the Writings. This part of the Bible contains a variety of different literary genres, including historical narrative (Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah), historical fiction (Ruth, Esther, Daniel), poetical works (Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon Lamentations), and books about the human condition (Job, Ecclesiastes). 

Process of Canonization

It is important to note that the acceptance of the individual books of the Hebrew Bible as authoritative was a long and uneven process. Perhaps as early as the fifth century BCE the Torah gained canonical acceptance because of its association with Moses. Since the Torah follows a narrative chronology, these books are always ordered as follows: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Prophets acquired canonical status by the second century BCE. The Major Prophets are traditionally ordered chronologically. However, there is sometimes variation in the ordering of both the Major Prophets and especially the Minor Prophets in different sources. The Writings were the last group to be designated canonical, occurring as late as the second century CE. The books included in this group were “somewhat fluid” and were often arranged in different orders.  

            For a book to be recognized as a part of the canon it had to meet certain criteria. As a starting point, the book should have been written before the fourth century BCE or attributed to an author who lived before that time. Also, the book needed to be written in Hebrew, or at least mostly in Hebrew. The final criterion involved how frequently a book was used. Many other works were produced by Jewish authors from the third century BCE to the second century CE, and in some communities these texts also became authoritative. Likewise, some Jewish groups used different versions of scriptural works that were in circulation. However, most of these books were ultimately rejected from the canon as it was developed and textual diversity was minimized. Ultimately, the standard version of the Hebrew Bible came to be called the Masoretic Text.

Christian Canons

By the end of the second century CE early Christians had adopted the Jewish canon as part of their own sacred literature. The Christians had also adopted about a dozen additional books as part of their Old Testament that had not been included in the Tanakh. These texts, which are known as the Apocrypha, ultimately were excluded from the Jewish canon because many dated to later than the fourth century BCE and originally were written in Greek. However, Christians accepted these texts in part because they were preserved in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint. Since most Christians were also Greek-speaking, the Septuagint became their Bible. Furthermore, several of these books were alluded to in the New Testament, giving them an important scriptural authority. These books have a variety of different genres, including historical narratives, historical fiction, and long poetical works. It is also important to note that many other Jewish writings that are not considered canonical were produced during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Most notable are the works known as the Pseudepigrapha, texts that are falsely attributed to biblical figures such as Adam, Abraham, and Jacob.


Christians not only accepted different books as a part of their Old Testament but also placed the books in a different order. Like the Jewish canon, Christians arranged the Old Testament into three parts. The first division included both the Torah and the Former Prophets. The Christians added books to the Former Prophets that they considered historical, including Ruth, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. Also included into this group were several books from the Apocrypha that were deemed historical: Tobit, Judith, and 1 and 2 (and sometimes 3) Maccabees. The second division included most of the remaining works from the Writings (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon) plus the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach or Ben Sira. The final division was the Latter Prophets. This included all of the books of the prophets found in the Tanakh with the addition of the books of Daniel and Lamentations. The purpose of this rearrangement was to give a “distinct rationale” to the Christian Old Testament. From the Christian perspective, the first division covers the past, the second may be applied to the present, and the last division is about the future.

Further Revision

These changes to the Christian canon took place by the fifth century CE, and there were no additional changes for the next thousand years. However, after the Protestant Reformation, the books of the Apocrypha were no longer considered canonical and were excluded from Protestant Bibles. The main reason for this was that only works composed in Hebrew were considered to be authoritative. At the Council of Trent in 1546 the Catholic Church responded by decreeing that all forty-six books of the Old Testament (including the Apocrypha) are authoritative. The result is that there is a division among Christians that persists to this day concerning which books of the Hebrew Bible are canonical.

The Study of the Bible

Textual Criticism

English translations of the Bible are several steps removed from the original Hebrew manuscripts.  In order to reconstruct the original Hebrew text, modern scholars compare ancient biblical manuscripts and account for changes made to the text, a process call textual criticism.  Textual critics also make use of ancient translations of the biblical text into other languages.  The Greek Septuagint is the earliest such translation and an important source of evidence for reconstructing the original Hebrew text.

English Translations

The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.  Its translation requires knowledge of these languages and textual criticism and, therefore, is a monumental task for an individual to undertake.  Although individuals, like Jerome and Martin Luther, have successfully translated the Bible into their native languages, translations of the Bible are more frequently produced by committees of scholars.   The most important example of a translation by committee in English is the King James Version.  Since the original publication of the King James Version in 1611, both the English language and scholars’ expertise in biblical languages and textual criticism have changed dramatically.  Since the late nineteenth century, committees have been producing translations that modernize the language of the King James Version and introduced changes based on new linguistic and textual evidence.  In some Protestant circles, these revisions were considered too liberal, which led to the production of more theologically conservative versions, like the New King James Version, published in 1982.

Redaction Criticism

While text criticism seeks to peel off layers of additions and errors in order to recover a more original version of the biblical text, redaction criticism endeavors to uncover and chart the development of a biblical text from its earliest written form to its final canonical form.  By comparing manuscripts of biblical books, the redaction critic attempts to account for the editorial processes that produced the text.

Other Approaches

 In addition to textual and redaction criticism, biblical scholars have also made use of other academic disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, linguistics, folkloristics, and literary criticism, to study the Bible.  Ideological approaches, like feminist, ethnic, and postcolonial interpretations, have also offered another avenue of biblical exploration.

Implications for Our Study

Chapter 1 explains the complex processes through which the Old Testament was produced and handed down through history. The chapter provides important grounding going forward as it demonstrates that the Bible was brought together only after a series of “decisions . . . made over many centuries by the leaders of the different religious groups.” In this chapter the reader will see how historical events, social factors, and even the very survival of religious traditions often dictated the shape and content of the Bible itself and the individual books in it.