The Glossary of Terms

The Bible Bible Commentary


Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms,, or

Bible. The English word ‘Bible’ is derived from the Old French bible, which is in turn based on Latin biblia and Greek biblia (‘books’), plural of biblion, diminutive from biblos. Most commonly the term refers to the Scriptures of the Christian church, but it may also denote the canon of Jewish scriptures.

The Bible has been handed down to us in more than one form. The Hebrew Bible, often called the Masoretic Text (mt), is a collection of twenty-four books written in Hebrew (but including also a few passages in Aramaic). Its form is as follows:

The Law (Heb. torah): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (the Pentateuch)

The Prophets (Heb. nebi'im):

The Writings (Heb. ketubim): Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles

A translation of the Jewish scriptures into Greek, commonly called the Septuagint (lxx), probably had its earliest form as a translation of the Pentateuch into Greek in the third century b.c. This collection came to contain, not only the books of the Hebrew Bible listed above, but also a number of other writings (although there are variations in the manuscripts): 1 Esdras, the Wisdom of Solomon, the Wisdom of Jesus, the Son of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Judith, Tobit, Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah, the four books of Maccabees, plus certain additions to books in the mt, notably the additions to Daniel (Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, the Prayer of Azariah, and the Song of the Three Young Men) and to the book of Esther.

The Christian Bible consists of the Old Testament (ot) and the New Testament (nt). In the Roman Catholic and Eastern Christian communities (e.g., Greek, Syriac, Armenian), the ot is based on the lxx, while most Protestant churches accept only the books of the Hebrew Bible as their ot canon. The nt canon we have inherited now consists of twenty-seven books: the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John; Acts of the Apostles; Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon (all attributed to Paul); Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation.

Development of the Biblical Canons: The development of the various biblical canons was a long and complex process. Prior to the fall of Jerusalem in a.d. 70, the working canon of Jewish scriptures in Palestine seems to have been rather open-ended and inclusive. After 70, however, there was a narrowing tendency, so that by about the time of the Council of Jamnia (ca. a.d. 90) the rabbis had rejected the larger canon that continued in the lxx in favor of the twenty-four-book collection we have labeled the Hebrew Bible. Ultimately this Jamnian canon became the canon for Judaism as a whole.

We are unable to reconstruct with confidence precisely which lists of books were considered authoritative by Jesus and his earliest followers. By the second century, it was not uncommon to find church fathers using books found in the lxx but not in the Jamnian canon. Yet a few writers (e.g., Origen, Jerome) distinguished between the books of the Hebrew Bible and the remainder in the lxx tradition; indeed, the latter group they labeled ‘Apocrypha’ (‘hidden’ or ‘outside’ books), a group they considered edifying but not authoritative. On the whole, however, Eastern and Roman Catholic tradition generally considered the ot ‘apocryphal’ books to be canonical. It was not until the Protestant Reformation that these books were clearly denied canonical status (in Protestant circles). The Roman church, however, continues to affirm their place in the canon of Scripture.

The nt canon also has an uneven and complex history. Each of the books of our presently accepted nt achieved early recognition in some circles, but no canonical lists appear before around a.d. 150, when the heretic Marcion proclaimed a canon consisting of his version of Luke and ten Letters of Paul. By the end of the century, more inclusive lists of authoritative nt writings were advanced, e.g., the Muratorian Canon (listing at least twenty-two of our present twenty-seven), Irenaeus, a bishop of Lyon in the mid-second century a.d. (clearly naming twenty-one), and Tertullian, a North African presbyter of the same period (twenty-two). The inclusion of Revelation was a matter of considerable disagreement. The second and third Letters of John, 2 Peter, and Jude were often not included, and Hebrews was sometimes omitted. At the same time, writings not found presently in our canon of twenty-seven were sometimes cited. The twenty-seven-book Latin Vulgate (Vg.) of Jerome (late fourth century) exerted considerable influence upon what books were generally recognized; moreover, provincial church councils held at Hippo (393) and Carthage (397) recognized a twenty-seven-book nt canon. Unanimity in the Western church was not fully achieved, but the twenty-seven-book canon was predominant. In the east, the Syrian church achieved a twenty-two-book canon by the fifth century, although later christological controversies created division, resulting in some erosion of the fifth-century consensus.

Formation of the Hebrew Scriptures: The question of which books were to be considered canonical represents only the later stages of the formation of the canonical collections. The oral and literary process by means of which the biblical literature was formed took well over a thousand years, according to the best estimates of biblical research.

Scholars have argued that the Pentateuch is the final product of the interweaving of several literary sources, called J, E, D, and P. The Yahwist source (J) is generally considered to be the earliest, dating from the period of the early monarchy (ca. 1000 b.c.). It is a narrative source that contains tales of the patriarchs, the Exodus, Sinai, and wilderness wanderings. Its most distinctive characteristic is its use of the divine name Yahweh (or Jahweh), from which comes the designation J or Yahwist. The Elohist source (E), which is characterized by its use of Elohim for the divine name prior to the theophany at the burning bush (Exod. 3), is a narrative strand in many respects quite similar to J. Its portrayal of God is less anthropomorphic than that of J, however, and it betrays special theological concerns, such as an interest in prophecy and a belief that the name Yahweh was first known when revealed to Moses at the burning bush. Scholars generally date E about a century later than J. The Deuteronomic source (D), dating from the period of the late monarchy (ca. seventh century b.c.) is confined largely to the book of Deuteronomy. Its concerns lie chiefly in its radical opposition to the worship of Baal; indeed, its program of restricting sacrifice to the Jerusalem Temple was developed for the purpose of stamping out Baal worship by outlawing sacrifice anywhere but Jerusalem. The Priestly source (P), dating from the period of the Babylonian exile (late sixth to early fourth centuries b.c.) emphasizes the cultic institutions of Israel: the Sabbath, circumcision, the role of Aaron (and, by implication, his priestly line), and the detailed legislation about cultic matters reportedly received at Sinai.
Attached to Deuteronomy was a Deuteronomistic edition of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. This narrative of Israelite experience from the conquest of the land to the Babylonian exile reflects the Baal polemic and the program of centralization of sacrifice characteristic of Deuteronomistic theologians.

By the early postexilic period (late sixth century b.c.), the first two parts of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah and the Prophets, were almost complete. The section of the canon called the Writings was not finally completed until the second century b.c. The books of the Apocrypha (so-called) were written during the first two centuries b.c. and the first century a.d.

Formation of the Christian New Testament: The nt also underwent a complex history of development. Scholars generally agree that much of the material in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) originated in oral traditions, only later finding its way into written Gospels. Most scholars believe that Mark was the first of the Gospels to be written. The compilers of Matthew and Luke used both Mark and what may have been a source of Jesus’ teachings labeled Q, according to the prevailing view. A minority of scholars, however, doubt the priority of Mark and the existence of Q. It is widely accepted that John is the latest of the four Gospels, though early traditions may be contained within it. The synoptic Gospels were probably written between a.d. 70 and 100, with John coming in the late first or early second century.

The Letters of Paul were probably written in the 50s and 60s. Many scholars doubt that Paul wrote Ephesians (some doubt Colossians and 2 Thessalonians also), and there is a widespread belief that the pastoral Letters (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus) were written perhaps after the turn of the second century by someone speaking in the name of the revered apostle Paul. The ‘catholic (or general) epistles’ (James, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude, 1, 2, and 3 John) probably emerged in the late first and early second centuries. It is likely that Hebrews and Revelation stem from the late first century.


All glossary terms
Copyright 1996-2002 Robert Nguyen Cramer
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