A Bit of Quaker Bible Study Part I

There has been some recent talk on the list about the Bible being an objective authority for Friends. I believe the Bible is a valuable, even vital spiritual resource for Friends. But an objective authority? No.

There are many difficulties with such a notion. One of the most serious can be put as a simple question:

WHICH Bible are you talking about?

After all, the word “Bible” comes from the Greek “biblos,” meaning simply “the books.” It refers to a time when the Jewish scriptures were a loose collection of scrolls, or “books,” kept in synagogues and used in worship.

There were many religious books circulated among early Jewish communities. How some of them were set apart as “scripture” was a long, complicated, and poorly documented process. We don’t really know when, where, how or by whom it was decided which books should be part of the “Old Testament.” (Except we’re pretty sure it was all MALES who did the deciding. Of this more later.)

Among Christians, the process is somewhat better documented: bishops, patriarchs and councils–again, all males–debated for 350 years exactly which of the scores of gospels and epistles in circulation ought to be considered “inspired by God” and thus set apart as sacred scripture.

Four of the gospels proved easy to agree on. Others, like Revelation, various epistles, and some of the Old Testament books, were accepted only much later, if at all. This process in the Western church was largely concluded by 367 A.D., when a bishop named Athanasius issued a list corresponding to the present New Testament.

Even then, the Eastern Orthodox and the Syriac Christian Churches both adopted versions that differ significantly from those familiar to non-Catholics in the West.

Nevertheless, the books thus chosen make up the “canons” of the Old and New Testaments. The term CANON comes from the Greek for a measuring rod. That is, the books in the Bible are those which “MEASURE UP” to the standards of the two religious communities.

But debate over the canon didn’t stop in 367 A.D.

Almost 1200 years later, in 1534, Luther left several Old Testament books(what many call the “apocrypha”) out of his version of the Bible, publishing them separately. The Catholic Council of Trent rejected Luther’s changes, insisting in 1546 that all the excluded books were just as inspired as the rest, and they stayed in Catholic Bibles.

The biblical canon has also been revised by Muslims, Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists and Christian Scientists, to name but a few groups which have produced their own additional sacred books.

Thus, when one speaks of “THE Bible”, one also needs to make clear WHICH of the many canons of scripture one is referring to. That’s because in fact there is no objective, authoritative definition of “THE Bible,” or even any agreed-upon criteria by which it might be defined. The various versions of it reflect the differing histories and convictions of various Christian, Jewish and Muslim bodies.

This observation is not new among Friends. Robert Barclay knew it. As he says in The Apology, “…it is impossible to prove the canon by the scriptures themselves. There is no place in any book where it is stated that these books–these and no others–are canonical.” (Freiday, p.64)

In that case, the question soon arises as to WHO in a religious community gets to decide, what is “THE Bible” for us, and what does it mean?

We will look at this question in the next Quaker Bible Study.

A Text to ponder: Luke 18:10-14.

(Note: the views expressed here are solely my own. Copyright © 1995 by C. Fager.)

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