What is “Bible”? – from the Perspective of “Text” [the Christian Connections]

[For Landau Germany Conference, 31 May 2010]



Abstract/Precis:-- In relation to the anthology that became “the Bible” in the development of Judaism and, in a separate process, Christianity, “text” has been used in various connections. The entire Bible collection viewed as a single text (e.g. Masoretic/Hebrew, Septuagint/Greek, Vulgate/Latin, “textus receptus”) is a late development that depends in part on “canonical” concerns (which writings are included?) and in part on technological matters (how are the writings kept together and transmitted with textual integrity? lists, libraries, codex). Maintaining textual consistency also requires control of the quality of reproduction (e.g. in a scribal school, a copying establishment, by printing press) and the support of an authoritative voice or influence in the dissemination of the text (e.g. an authorized publisher-distributor). Once such a concept of “Bible” is in place, each of its individual works or sub-groups of works may be termed “biblical texts” by extension, although from a historical perspective this may be quite anachronistic in many instances, especially with reference to origins and early transmission of those texts. Historically, at least for the period prior to the 4th century of the common era, “scriptures” (plural) is a more satisfactory designation than “Bible” (singular), and “scriptural” is preferable to “biblical” as being less misleading. All this is part of what has been called “ the tyranny of canonical assumptions” [[Kraft, SBL Presidential Address, 2006]].


[Sidnie Crawford: Jewish Connections]


[Robert Kraft: Christian Connections]


Strictly speaking, a complete “bible text” would require there to be an approved collection of acceptable writings accessible for consultation and/or copying. Replication and transmission of such a text would require careful copying and the ability to continue to keep the results together (textual integrity). Identification of appropriate writings involves the question of “canon.” That the writings are, individually and together, recognized as appropriately special involves authoritative acceptance, and acceptance of that authority. The designation of the entire collection as “the bible” – that is, a single work – rather than the plural “scriptures” or the like is an important element in using such language as “bible text.” The existence of “bible text” in that sense, however, may understandably give rise to the looser “biblical text” language often used anachronistically of subsets of the whole, with reference to the text of a scriptural writing or section that later became included in “the bible.”


In collections consisting of multiple works, such as what became “the bible” for Christians (and, somewhat differently, for Jews), textual integrity of the whole anthology would have been difficult to establish and to maintain prior to the development of the mega-codex format around the turn of the 4th century (Vaticanus originally contained about 1660 vellum pages). Even with works attributed to specific authors such as Homer, preserved in multiple scrolls (traditionally at least 24 in number) and deemed to be exceptionally significant, the process of collecting, evaluating, establishing, and controlling the text was nearly impossible as attempted already by Alexandrian scholars in the three centuries before the common era. They tried, with some success, to standardize the available textual variety. Possibly something similar took place early on in Jewish circles somewhere with respect to the pentateuch of Moses, although such information has not survived and textual fluidity was not completely overcome. Josephus at the end of the first century is well aware of a  multiplicity of special Jewish books and of past efforts to control some of those texts


Even the availability of the mega-codex format was no guarantee of textual integrity, unless supported by an authoritative judgment (“this is the approved text”) and control in producing copies (reproduction and verification of a master text). While there is plenty of evidence that individual authors were concerned about their own works being copied accurately, and some indications that attempts were made to control the text of special works such as Homer or Moses (as noted above), surviving information about textual control of the larger corpus that we now call “bible” are sparse at best for the early periods. Claims that there has been textual tampering with scriptures also survive.


On the Christian side, Melito of Sardis around the end of the second century of the common era is reported (letter to Onesimus quoted in Eusebius HE 26.12-14) to have claimed to travel “east” to the area where the events in the scriptures took place to learn the number and order of the “ancient books” of “the old covenant” (including the “law and prophets”) and to make extracts in six “books” (presumably scrolls, or small codices). Exactly where he traveled, whom he consulted, and how the correct number and order of books was determined he does not reveal. But if we accept this testimony as accurate, somewhere in Syro-Palestine at that time there was sufficient attention to such textual matters that an ordered list (like a library catalog or table of contents) and probably a physical collection of the relevant materials was available (from which he could make the excerpts), presumably in some sort of official library setting, whether Christian or Jewish (or neither – we are much in the dark about the role of book sellers).


A similar set of problems pertains to the next Christian representative with whom an attempt at some sort of textual control is associated, namely Origen in palestinian Caesarea in the first half of the third century. Origen attempted to create a tool for evaluating textual differences in the Greek Jewish scriptures at his disposal, compared with the Hebrew text (or texts) available to him. Exactly where he obtained his texts (presumably scrolls and small codices) and determined their order (presumably from some list and/or collection similar to what Melito consulted) is unknown. Even the format of the multi-columned tool his project produced (the “Hexapla” and related materials) is not known. He operated in the period when both scrolls and relatively small codices were in use, on the threshold of the use of mega-codices that we find in the 4th century, and it is not clear how many volumes of whatever format would have been necessary to contain the entire project, or how the resulting materials were disseminated and/or controlled. Apparently longer and shorter versions eventuated, as well as translations into other languages (e.g. Syriac). Thus we speak of “the hexaplaric text,” while also recognizing degrees of variation even within that designation.


We are on the doorstep of the possibility of physical textual homogeneity when we come to Eusebius of Caesarea in the early 4th century and the Christainizing Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (Eusebius, Vita Const. 4.36.2). Constantine requests 50 copies of “the divine scriptures” for the new (and/or reconstituted) churches of his empire centered in Constantinople. Exactly what was meant by “divine scriptures” in this context is unclear (Gospels? New Testament? Jewish scriptures? all scriptures?), but clearly there is a corpus involved and it is assumed that Eusebius has access to the materials (parchment) and workers (skilled, accurate copyists) available to fulfill the request. Some modern scholars think that one or both of the great “biblical” codices of the 4th century, Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, may somehow be connected to this imperial assignment. In any event, it is in that world of the early 4th century that the ingredients for creating “biblical text” (in the singular) come together – a number of originally disparate works (“scriptures”) in a defined order (listed) copied as a unit in a portable format (not just on library shelves or in bulky book containers with limited capacity) under recognized authority (civil and ecclesiastical). After this, it can make some historical sense to speak of “biblical text” in a physically controllable form, although the problem of variety continues to exist. We have no definite evidence that Sinaiticus became a model for copying (it is very unlikely), or that the similar but not identical Vaticanus codex was used that way. These are “bible texts,” but only to a limited degree produce and establish an ongoing “biblical text” strictly speaking.


The Latin churchman, Hieronymus/Jerome, had access to some form (or forms) of Origen’s textual tool(s) when he pursued his task of producing an edition of the Latin scriptures in the late 4th century (see Adv Rufinus 2.27, Pref. in Paralip., etc.). Existing Latin translations of scriptural materials at that time (categorized, somewhat deceptively, as “old Latin” by modern scholars) were varied and confusing to users. Jerome was also aware of other Greek textual streams that he identified with “Lucian” (in Syria) and with “Hesychius” (in Egypt), contemporaries of Eusebius in the early part of the century, to whom were attributed scriptural editions, again in unknown formats. Whether Jerome or his sponsors ever actually published his Latin “Vulgate” as a single codex, or whether the church authorities attempted to control the textual integrity of these new Latin translations of scriptural works, is unknown. The oldest surviving codex of “the Vulgate” is the 8th century codex Amiatinus, and even then, copies of pre-Jerome Latin scriptural works remained in circulation (“old Latin” texts of varied scope and pedigree) along with Jerome’s two different Latin versions of the Psalms. The resulting Latin “biblical text” was far from homogeneous, despite the developments in that direction.


Although it had promising potential, mega-codex technology alone did not prove to be a panacea for correcting or controlling textual complexity. Surviving complete copies of Christian scriptures (“pandects”) are relatively rare in any language prior to the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, and often differ significantly among themselves. Occasional references are found to "the book" of scriptures in the singular -- e.g. in Latin catalogues of library contents such as.from Lindisfarne (1095) and Dunelm (1266). After the development printing press, publication of complete bibles became routine, and new textual editions appeared, although sometimes covering only parts of the “biblical” collection. Precision of identification became easier – the Sixto-Clementine Biblia Sacra Vulagata (1592), Westcott-Hort NT text (1881), Bibia Hebraica (1905), Rahlfs’ Septuaginta (1935),  and the like. At an even more specific level, one could refer more atomistically to “the Goettingen text” of a particular book of Greek Jewish scriptures, or perhaps Legg’s editions of Mark (1935) and Matthew (1940).


Indeed, in a sense the very concept of “the Bible” as a single book readily available and widely used is the product of the printing press era, aided and assisted especially by Protestant Christian emphasis on “sola  scriptura” and the counter-reformation responses such as the canonical and textual decisions at Trent.  Luther’s translation of 1534, entitled “Biblia: dass ist die ganze Heilige Schriffe Deudsch,” helped highlight “Bible” as the title of a physical entity available widely in a replicated form – and a point of debate. In the English speaking world, “Bible” as a title is attested in publications such as the "Great Bible," the “Geneva Bible," and the “Bishops Bible" in the mid 16th century, the Douay-Rheims version (1609) and of course the “King James Bible" of 1611. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that the term “scripture” or “the scriptures” tends to dominate the discussion at all levels in that period, rather than “bible” pure and simple. The further (conservative) Protestant focus on “the original text” of scriptural writings as inspired and authoritative created a “textual” emphasis, even perhaps an obsession with “bible text,” seldom replicated in earlier times.


Similar anachronism and confusion exists also for the uses of “Septuagint/LXX” for the imagined Greek form of Jewish Scriptures prior to the advent of the mega-codex in the 4th century CE. We do not know whether any “official” body in Greek Judaism ever gathered the writings that are now included in editions of “the LXX” into a corpus – Philo, for example, knows some of the writings but probably not as a unit, and probably not all of them. Before that, Ben Sira’s grandson knows general categories of “law,” “prophets,” and “other,” in Hebrew, but does not comment on how these may have been represented in Greek. Even less clear is what happened on the “old Latin” side of things, where Jewish translational activity is certainly likely to have occurred, but to what extent and under what auspices cannot be determined. A further mystery is the early development of Syriac scriptures, where again a Jewish context can be safely inferred, but no reliable details survive. “Bible” and related terms that suggest unified collections (e.g. “the LXX,” “the old Latin,” “the Syriac Bible”) are equally anachronistic and misleading for the early period, and we would do well to avoid them in favor of more precise designations.


Appendix: Greek texts suggesting scriptures constitute a single book:

Origen, on symbolic unity of scriptures

Pseudo–Macarius Scr. Eccl., Sermones 1–22, 24–27. {2109.003}

διαθήκη γρ ατν κα νόμος κα βίβλος ατν πνεμά στιν, καθώς φησι τ πνεμα δι το προφήτου· κα σται ν τας σχάταις μέραις «διαθήσομαι διαθήκην καινν» τ οκ ακώβ, [Their covenant, law, and book is spirit, as the spirit says through the prophet "and it shall be in the last days I will make a new covenant with the house of Jacob"]


Joannes Chrysostomus Scr. Eccl., De paenitentia (sermo 1) [Sp.]. {2062.269} Volume 60 page 697 line 72.

πο κρυβήσεσθε π προσώπου το λαλήσαντος πσαν θείαν Γραφν, κα πσαν ερν βίβλον συντάξαντος; [Why do you hide from the face of the one who spoke every divine scripture, and who organized every divine book?]



authorized Latin Vulgate (Clementine, etc.)

(liturgical?) Byzantine text (LXX/OG)

scribally consistent Masoretic text (Jewish Scriptures)

institutionally Authorized Versions (English KJV, etc.)

scholarly critical editions


What we Know for Sure (Starting Points)

starting point is individual respected texts (“scriptures”)

bible as text” is a relatively late development (earlier in Judaism?)

what could “bible text” mean before the development of the mega codex (technology)

who authorizes specific “bible texts”? (authority)

when is the term “bible” (singular) applied to a large collection? (concept)

are the terms “scripture” (singular) or “scriptures” (plural) ever used similarly?

what about “canon” in this sense?

lists were created of scriptural works (conceptual bibles)

collections of scrolls and codices were kept in cabinets/libraries (physical bibles)

development of mega codex made “textual bibles” possible

churches and leaders adopted collections from Jews (Melito, Origen)

Christian collections (e.g. 4 gospels, Paul) existed by ca 200

the existence of Jewish and Christian varieties complicates matters


What we Suspect (Probable)

details of collecting, standardizing, authorizing remain mysteries

Jewish institutions may have had canonical collections (pentateuch at least)

Rabbinic Judaism moved to standardize text(s)

Christians may have imitated Jews (and/or pagans) in creating collections (gospels, Paul)

the emergence of Rome/Constantinople as seat of authority may be crucial

the development of scriptoria helped standardize text


What we Conjecture (Possible)

the Jerusalem temple may have “canonized” a collection (Josephus?)

something similar might have happened in connection with other libraries such as Alexandria

Christians might have taken over Jewish textual practices based in Palestine (Melito, Origen), and in Alexandria (Origen), and elsewhere

as technology developed, conceptualization shifted accordingly even as things remained complicated in actuality

the printing press brought concept and reality together