Psalm 119: 9-16, Nehemiah 8: 1-4, 8-12, Colossians 3: 12-17, Matthew 24: 30-35
Today is Bible Sunday, a day in the year when we especially give thought and reflect on the importance and meaning of what we know today as ‘The Holy Bible’. For us it usually comes in the form of a book, though for many today it may be online or in another digital form.
With estimated sales of over 5 Billion it has been the best selling book of all time, still selling around a 100 million copies annually. The Times newspaper once said the Bible “has done more to shape literature, history, entertainment and culture than any book ever written”. Yet in many households it possibly also collects more dust than any other book on the shelf.
If we were able to ask the early Christians, who followed Jesus’ teachings, what the Bible was, they would not have known. For Jewish Christians of the 1st Century the Bible as we know it today simply did not exist. Scripture did exist, and the scrolls, on which it was written, were regularly read publicly, as we heard in our reading from Nehemiah, when the Scripture, the Word of God, was not only read to those gathered but also explained. You might say an early form of Bible study; Father Peter would have been in his element!
The Jewish collection of books, which we today refer to as The Old Testament, or Tenakh in Hebrew, was not fixed in place until well into the 2nd Century. Then, there were 5 Torah Books, which were the books of the Law, 13 Prophet books and 4 collections of hymns or psalms, 22 books in all.
The New Testament as we know it, was argued over for years and years. Consensus being difficult to reach, was not agreed upon until the end of the 4th Century. In fact, further deliberation came in the late 16th Century and only then was the New Testament Canon agreed. However, even this excludes the situation that some churches, even today, think that the Apocrypha, as found in some of your Bibles, is, or is not, acceptable, and so we go on! Yet those first early Christians had no New Testament, and indeed as we have heard on other occasions, when Jesus visited the synagogues, it was scrolls of writings from the Hebrew Bible that he read, as those from the prophet Isaiah. Scrolls were the way of recording the spoken word, remembering that the printing press was not invented until 1440.
The other important thing we learnt from our reading from Nehemiah, that we touched on earlier, is the need not only to read the Bible but also to understand its meaning. Yet how can we understand without ‘interpretation’? This has always been key to scripture in both Judaism and Christianity. Biblical Scholarship particularly from the 19th century onwards has opened the pages of scripture even further. In our recent times ancient texts have been discovered, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Our current Bible is thus sourced from hundreds, if not thousands, of different textual sources, words that have been poured over, and studied for years to bring fresh understanding to a text that many have believed to be set in stone.
As it is written in Hebrews, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” The Bible is truly fascinating and gripping, every ‘soap opera’ ever written rolled into one, but it requires us to both read, study and learn about its intricacies.
The Bible has forever been a text formulated and interpreted by countless believers in countless situations over many, many centuries. Yet it is a lifeless thing without the people, you and I, who read it and live through it. It is then that the Bible truly does become a living and active force. The Bible without a believer is empty! I remember a very poignant quote, “Be careful how you live. You may be the only Bible some person ever reads.”
On this Bible Sunday let us give thanks for God’s word living and breathing through us. And let us all remember the text is nothing without the believer. As was read at the end of our Gospel reading, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away”. Amen