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1.1 Introduction

The Bible is a very valuable book and not only from a religious point of view. It is extremely well conceived and as such can be classified among the best books ever written; it is a master piece of literature. It is also indispensable for the study of the history of its time and, obviously, it is important to the study of religions.

The Old Testament (called also Hebrew Scriptures) is the base of the Jewish faith. That same book and the New Testament are the sacred books of the Christians. Islam, the third monotheist religion, uses the teaching of the Bible in its sacred book, the Koran.

The Bible answers the basic and timeless questions that Man has always asked: Who are we? Why are we here? Is there a God? What is the goal of life?

The Bible is not a single book but a collection of sixty-six (or eighty-one if we include the Apocrypha) documents put together in a book of about a thousand pages. There are two parts (three with the Apocrypha):

  • The largest one is the Old Testament that contains thirty-nine books
  • The New Testament has twenty-seven books
  • The Apocrypha has fifteen books

The Old Testament is a collection of stories, legends, historical records, songs, prayers, law-codes, speeches, prophecies, observations, parables, creeds, liturgies, poems, … All these writings bring to us some aspect of the life, traditions, and faith of ancient Israel and of the Christian Church of the beginning. The Bible introduces to us a large number of people starting with Adam and Eve. Most of them are not fictions but, on the opposite, real people who are part of our history. They range from beggars to kings, from fools to prophets, from thieves to honest persons and from the silly to the Saints. All of these talk to and about God. They question Him, they complain and they pray to Him. All these stories are dealing with a single theme and this links them together. The Bible declares that the world belongs to God who created it. He is a living God acting in continuation in human affairs and guiding his people in justice and mercy.

The New Testament proclaims that through his son Jesus, God brings the revelation of Himself to humanity. (1)

Matthews Gospel part of Ethiopian-Bible held at the British Library
Matthews Gospel part of Ethiopian-Bible held at the British Library (Wikipedia)

Initially the Scriptures consisted of the Old Testament only. After Jesus’s time the Christians added the New Testament. The principal groups of people using the Bible (Jews, Catholics, Protestants) consider that the whole document is the Word of God. However these three groups do not agree on the content. The Jews know only the Old Testament while the Catholics and Protestants include in it the New Testament. In addition the Protestants have omitted some books from the Old Testament: Judith, Tobit and the two Maccabees. Although the Jews and the Protestants consider these books as Apocryphal, the Protestant Bible known as The King James Version included them until 1628. The Catholics, as the Jews before, decided which books were to be part of the Bible and which ones were rejected. This decision was assumed to have been guided by God himself. Later on the Protestants did the same in rejecting some books that the Catholics had accepted. As a result the term Bible means a different book content to these three religions, even if each of them states that their officially approved book is sacred and complete. To avoid error of interpretation this book will refer directly to the Old and New Testaments. The term Bible is used to mean the collected works.

The main difference of belief between Jews and Christians relates to the nature of God. The Jewish point of view is expressed very clearly in a prayer contained in Deuteronomy: “The Lord is our God, The Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4). The Christians, on the other hand, accept the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, but they add to it the New Testament that deals with the life and work of Jesus, the Messiah or Christ, who is the Son of God. Christians believe in the Trinity. This means that the Deity is composed of three principles: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost).

The Christians developed a calendar based on the supposed date of the birth of Christ. BC means “Before Christ” (or “Before the Common Era”) and AD is the Lain for “Anno Domini” (Year of Our Lord). However it is not quite certain that the official year of Christ birth is correct. A mistake of four to seven years is very possible.

Up to a century ago many scholars thought that the Old Testament was only a collection of myths, folk tales and legends without any historical connections. However new research, in particular in Archaeology, has shown that most events mentioned in the Old Testament are relevant from a historical point of view. It is only necessary to mention Noah and the Flood (an important flood is known to have submerged a large part of the world then), the crumbling of the walls during the battle of Jericho (an earthquake is recorded at that time and place),

Many important documents related to the time of the Old Testament have been found in 1947 in the Qumrân caves near the Dead Sea. Up to then the oldest document known was a copy of the Book of Isaiah from about 900 AD. In the Qumrân cave one has found a copy of the same document from about 125 BC. The difference between the two texts is very limited and this tends to prove that the Old Testament, as we know it today, is similar in content to what it was 4000 years ago.

The same can be said of the New Testament. Most of the stories are relevant too from a historical point of view. The well-known Star of Bethlehem is now thought to be the result of a triple conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn and Venus that occurred at that time. This conjunction would appear to the layman as a star of extreme brightness and would attract the attention of educated people, as the Three wise Men of the East mentioned in the Gospel of Saint Matthew. The Jewish writer Josephus, who was born in Jerusalem a few years after the death of Jesus, confirmed many of the stories told in the Gospels and he certainly cannot be described as a pro-Christian. (30)

The Gospel of Saint Mark was probably written first, even if Matthew’s is placed before it in the New Testament. It was written in Greek for the Greek-speaking Christians between 64 and 85 AD. It is considered to be the base of Matthew and Luke’s Gospels and was helpful to John too. The Gospel of Saint Matthew was written between 75 and 95 AD. It was intended for the Jews who had become Christians. His aim was to prove that Jesus was the Messiah of the Old Testament that the Jews had been expecting. The Gospel of Saint Luke is from about 75 AD. It was written for the Gentiles or non-Jewish Christians, and especially for the Roman officials and other readers outside Judea. It aims to allay suspicion from this new sect. The Gospel of Saint John is supposed to have been written between 95 and 195 AD. While the other three Gospels were mainly historical, this one has a stronger mystic appeal and is intended to solidify its readers’ faith. It is John who mentions three Passovers and that proves that Jesus’ public ministry lasted about three years and a half. It also mentions names and events omitted in the first three. The identity of the real authors of the Gospels is the base of many controversies. But it is admitted that they told the stories best adapted to prove their points of view. Luke’s Gospel was initially part of the Acts of the Apostles. He wanted his readers to understand the events that shaped Christianity including how Jesus spent his early life. (30)