Do We View the Bible Correctly?
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Revelation 22:18-19 says,
I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book.
What is “this book” that the passage is warning readers not to alter? “The Bible, of course!” someone replies. But is that correct?
In actuality, it cannot be correct. The above passage is from the Book of Revelation, an independent document, composed by the apostle John under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and sent to the seven churches of Asia. The apostle wasn’t writing this document so it could serve as the final item in a book of 66 writings called the Bible. He was writing to encourage particular groups of Christians in the first-century province of Asia. At this early period, these believers may not even have possessed copies of all of the apostolic writings that were being circulated among Christian communities, and that we now have in our Bibles. The above passage is warning readers not to add to, or subtract from the Book of Revelation itself. Though the principle of this warning would be applicable to any Biblical book or message from God (cf. Deut. 4:2), it is a mistake for someone to think that Revelation 22:18-19 is specifically referring to the entire Bible.
The books that comprise our Bibles were all inspired by God, and collectively they provide us with a full knowledge of His will. But we make a glaring mistake if, when we read the Bible, we forget that the text was originally separate documents, written to different people on different occasions. The Bible is an anthology of inspired writings. We must not think of the Bible format as the original form of these writings.
From Scrolls to a Bible
It was easier for ancient people of God to keep this in mind than it is for us today. The Old Testament books were written and preserved on scrolls and, except for smaller books like Ruth or the minor prophets, only one book could fit onto a single scroll. Ancient Jews normally called God’s revelation “the Scriptures” (e.g., John 5:39)—a plural term that indicated multiple writings were in view. The same was true of other designations like “the sacred writings” (2 Tim. 3:15) or “the oracles of God” (Rom. 3:2). On some occasions, Jews used singular terms to denote the entire corpus of inspired works, but doing so did not obscure from their minds that God’s “Scripture,” or “Law,” or “word” had been delivered to Israel through a plurality of documents (2 Tim. 3:16; John 10:34-35; Mark 7:13).
As the books of the New Testament began to be composed, copied, and distributed among early Christians, the standard writing format continued to be the scroll. The codex, or book form, which allowed multiple documents to be placed together under one cover, was a recent invention and did not come into common use until the second century. It was not until the fourth century that all of the Old and New Testament books began to be incorporated into a single large codex, and it would be a century or two more before the use of scrolls ceased entirely. Throughout the Middle Ages, a codex containing all 66 of God’s inspired writings could be found in a typical church building, but few Christians possessed their own codex of God’s inspired writings.
All of this changed in the 15th century with Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. Before long, “Bibles” as we know them began to be printed in mass quantities and became available to the general public. Now people had all of God’s Scriptures in a single volume, conveniently arranged in a standard, fixed order from Genesis to Revelation. As useful as this change was, it also created a problem—one that continues to this day: The single-volume format of a Bible tends to disguise the individual nature of these works, obscuring the fact that they were composed as separate documents and written to distinct audiences. Printed Bibles make it easy for us to think of God’s word as if it were a single composition written at the same time to the same persons, instead of as a collection of independent writings written on different occasions to different people.
In addition, the terminology we use today to denote God’s word has changed from ancient times. When Christians of the early centuries spoke of God’s written communication to man, they used the term biblia—a Greek and Latin word meaning “writings.” But this plural word happened to be spelled the same as its singular form in the phrase biblia sacra, or “holy writing.” As a result, the plural word biblia began to be thought of as singular, and it gave rise to our English word Bible, meaning “book”—not books. This shift in terminology, along with the mass printing of the Scriptures in a single-volume format, has made it easy for people to think of the Bible as one book, instead of as a collection of many books. Exacerbating this problem is the fact that we also now use the phrase “Old Testament” to denote the Biblical books relating to the old covenant, and the phrase “New Testament” to denote those relating to the new covenant. Here again, we have grouped multiple documents under a singular term, perhaps blurring in people’s minds the individual nature of each document.
It is true, of course, that thinking of the Bible as one book helps us to appreciate that the Scriptures have a thematic unity; all of these 66 writings come from God, and together they reveal His entire message. Also, calling Genesis–Malachi “the Old Testament” and Matthew–Revelation “the New Testament” helps us categorize these writings according to their respective covenants. But we can so stress the unity of these documents and the covenant to which they relate that we lose sight of their individual nature and purpose.
A Slip in Our Thinking
Many people today never think about the fact that the format of their Bible is not the original format of God’s word. They do not consider that the initial recipients of a Biblical book did not have the other Biblical books in hand as they read—nor were they expected to. Paul did not expect the recipients of his letter to the Romans to turn over to the Book of James to figure out what he meant by saving faith. (Yet many modern Bible students act as if a study of James is the primary way to grasp what Paul was saying in Romans.) Nor did Paul expect Timothy to have to read Titus 1 in order to learn additional elder “qualifications” that he failed to list in 1 Timothy 3.
I do not mean to suggest that one inspired document cannot give us information that will illuminate the teaching of another inspired document; it certainly can. Nor am I saying that one Biblical document necessarily contains all of the information we will ever need to know about a given subject; that is certainly not the case. But we must always remember that each Biblical book was an independent composition, and it was not initially collected together with other inspired documents so that all of them could be distributed as a whole. The intention was not for one apostolic writing to be read alongside another apostolic writing in order for it to be understood. I know of cases where modern Bible students assume that one Biblical book must be alluding to what another Biblical book says, failing to realize that the latter book was not written until years after the former. Surely we must question the clarity of a man’s thinking who states—as does one recent commentator—that the reason why James 1:25 called God’s law “the perfect law of liberty” was for the express purpose of directing a reader’s attention to the discussion of “that which is perfect” in 1 Corinthians 13!
The Bible, in its entirety, is the inspired word of God. But the format of our Bibles is not how God originally communicated His will to man. If we forget this as we read the Scriptures, we will probably misread the text and draw incorrect conclusions. It is not disrespect for the authority of the Bible that causes us to conclude that “this book” in Revelation 22:18-19 refers not to the Bible, but to the Book of Revelation. It is respect for the authority of the Bible that compels us to conclude this. We seek simply to be good Bible students, which is what God wants us to be. Therefore, we must read the books of the Bible as God originally intended them to be read.