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Bible

 

Either the Christian Scripture or the Jewish Scripture, those works recognized as sacred and authoritative writings by the respective faiths. The Christian Scriptures are divided between two testaments : the Old Testament (which corresponds roughly to the canon of Jewish Scriptures), and the New Testament. The Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, is a collection of writings originally composed in Hebrew, except for parts of Daniel and Ezra that are in Aramaic.

 

These writings depict Israelite religion from its beginnings to about the 2nd-c BC. The New Testament is so-called in Christian circles because it is believed to constitute a new 'testament' or 'covenant' in the history of God's dealings with his people, centring on the ministry of Jesus and the early development of the apostolic churches. The New Testament writings were in Greek.

 

The process of determining precisely which writings were to be accepted in the Jewish or Christian Scriptures is known as the formation of the canon of Scripture. The earliest step towards establishing the canon of Jewish Scriptures was probably the fixing of the Law, viz the Pentateuch (the Books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), in about the 4th-3rd-c BC. In addition, a group of writings known as the Prophets appear to have been recognized by the grandson of Ben Sira (c.117 BC).

 

The remaining books of the Hebrew Bible are called the Writings (eg the Books of Psalms, Proverbs, Job) and were seemingly the last to be settled. It was only AD c.100 that the final selection of authorized Jewish Scriptures was complete, following a decision taken by the council at Jabneh. The Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint) contained some other writings which were not accepted at Jabneh.

 

The early Christians largely accepted the Jewish Scriptures, but frequently had access to the larger collection of writings in the Septuagint and some other translations of the Hebrew Bible. Debates about the precise limits of the 'Old Testament' continued into the Reformation period, with a difference emerging in the Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches.

 

At the Council of Trent (1546), the Catholics accepted as deuterocanonical several works which Protestants labelled as Apocrypha and considered outside the canon. Protestant Churches in general have accepted only the writings of the Hebrew canon in their versions of the Old Testament.

 

Early Christians, however, also began to collect specifically 'Christian' writings. In the 2nd-c, Irenaeus testifies to a growing recognition of exactly four Gospels, the Acts, and 13 Pauline letters as authoritative for the Church. Soon this was the basis for a 'New Testament', although a number of other disputed works were also considered.

 

The first evidence for a canonical list which completely matches that widely accepted for the New Testament today was the 39th Easter letter of Athanasius (367), which designates 27 books of the New Testament alongside the canon of the Old Testament, although debate continued for some years in the East about the Book of Revelation, and in the West over the Letter to the Hebrews.

 

While the limits of the canon were effectively set in these early centuries, the status of Scripture has been a topic of scholarly discussion in the later church. Increasingly, the Biblical works have been subjected to literary and historical criticism in efforts to interpret the texts independent of Church and dogmatic influences.

 

Different views of the authority and inspiration of the Bible also continue to be expressed in liberal and fundamentalist churches today. What cannot be denied, however, is the enormous influence which the stories, poetry, and reflections found in the Biblical writings have had, not only on the doctrines and practices of two major faiths, but also on Western culture, its literature, art, and music.