Understanding the Background of the Bible

 The Bible—The world’s “Best Seller”

The Bible is the greatest publishing success of all time. It was the first book that came off the printing press invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440. It’s amazing to think that this one book has been translated into more languages (about 350 at last count) and has sold more copies than any other book in all of history (about 100 million annually).


The Bible can be intimidating and frustrating

In spite of the Bible’s great popularity, many who read it for the first time end up somewhat confused and frustrated. The sheer size of the Bible, with its approximately two thousand pages, can leave the novice reader feeling quite intimidated. However, most who read the Bible on a regular basis claim that it’s like no other book that they have read, leaving them with a sense of awe, inspiration, and spiritual enlightenment.

Oftentimes the problem first-time readers encounter stems from a misunderstanding of the Bible’s nature, purpose, origin, authorship, and composition. Understandably, many attempt to read it like they would a novel, where one becomes immersed in the storyline as the plot develops through interactions between the major and minor characters. The problem with approaching the Bible this way is that it simply doesn’t work—it isn’t a novel!

Taking the time to learn the Bible’s background and nature will go a long way toward enhancing the experience of reading it, and will greatly aid us in avoiding confusion and frustration.


Why is the Bible called “The Bible?”

One of the first questions many people have about the Bible is, “What does the word Bible mean?” “Bible” comes from the Latin word biblia and the Greek word biblios, both of which mean “book” or “scroll.”  Books as we know them today, with many individual pages bound together in one text, didn’t exist in the ancient world. People wrote on rolls of animal skins or plant material (called papyrus), and these rolls were often sewed together, in which case they became fairly long.

Byblos, an ancient city located in what’s now Lebanon, was famous for the valuable papyrus reed scrolls made there. These “paper” scrolls were used throughout the ancient world, and eventually the name “Byblos” became synonymous with the papyrus scrolls that were produced there. This is similar to how nowadays people often refer to any small adhesive bandage as a Band-Aid, despite the fact that Band-Aid© is the official brand name of one particular product.

Nowadays, we still see the original sense of “Bible” retained in the Spanish language with its use of “biblioteca,” meaning a library—a place where many books are kept. In English we also use “bibliography,” which is a list of the various books an author cites as reference sources. Thus, the word “Bible” simply means “book.” As you progress in your knowledge of its contents, you will likely discover, as many others have, that it’s truly “The Book” of the ages.


The Bible’s role in the history of writing

Although we have the benefit of reading our modern Bible as a single book, this present form is actually a relatively recent development. The fact that it is a single volume is somewhat misleading because it wasn’t originally produced this way; instead it is a compilation of many individual writings.

Today we live in a highly literate world, but throughout the majority of human history this hasn’t been the case. The advancement of writing was a huge turning point for mankind, and the Bible is right at the epicenter of the development of writing, especially in the use of an alphabet instead of picture-writing. As writing first developed, it was practiced primarily by an elite few. The entire writing process was a fairly costly endeavor, with the great price of the parchment—whether papyrus or animal hide, which required a very time-consuming process to make—as well as the time required to dictate and the cost of a professional scribe to write the information down. The high costs involved meant that writing wasn’t a frivolous matter, so, for the most part, what was written was considered enormously important.

The ability to retain information in written form in very ancient times was highly valued by rulers and religious leaders, as it aided their ability to transmit information accurately, even from one generation to the next. The great regard placed upon these scrolls meant that they were safeguarded, even treasured by many, depending upon the nature and authorship of the contents.


The Bible’s diverse background

The Bible is a compilation of many scrolls from 40 different writers written over a period of more than 1,500 years. These writers varied widely in their cultural backgrounds, historical settings, and occupations, which included shepherds, nobility, prophets, priests, and laymen. The content they wrote was equally diverse, covering religious practices, morals and ethics, history, poetry, music, personal letters, and prophecy. When we consider all of these factors, it helps us to understand the range of the writing styles, stories, and other information contained in the Bible.


The uniqueness of the Bible

One of the central tenets of the Bible is that, although there were 40 different writers, God was the single Author because He was the one who inspired the words those people wrote. Another very unique aspect of the Bible is that despite there being so many different writers whose works encompassed more than a 1,500 year period, it remains a cohesive story about the plans and purposes of God for mankind and His moves throughout history to bring those plans about.

As a “religious book,” another exceptional feature of the Bible is that many of the characters it describes are far from “perfect.” In fact, there is a great moral diversity in the stories. Even within the first pages of the Bible we read about disobedience, family breakdowns, murder, and rebellion. It can be said that the Bible is a book that depicts the good, the bad, and the ugly of mankind as the stories reveal triumph and failure, faithfulness and futility. One thing that makes the Bible so believable—and so easy to relate to—is the writers’ refusal to sugarcoat the characters and their human frailty. God includes adulterers, embezzlers, traitors, and villains as well as the meek, strong, honorable, and victorious in telling the story of mankind—and sometimes these good and bad traits are present in the same person! This is clearly a book that covers the whole gamut of human emotion from utter despair to joyous elation.


(This article was taken from Dan Gallagher’s book “Learning to Enjoy the Bible“)

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1 comment

  1. Thank you. I like it and it is helpful.

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