The best way to begin studying the Bible, to paraphrase Augustine (A.D. 354-430), is to pick it up and read it. (Latin: Tolle lege, “Take up and read.”) There is no way to know Scripture other than by becoming familiar with its text. But since it is a very ancient text, one that is actually a library of more than five dozen volumes composed over many centuries, as we get to know it we discover an amazing complexity within its unity—layers of history, culture, and language and connections to the people and literature of the nations among whom God’s people lived—parts that help us understand the whole better as we learn more about them.
The Bible is actually a library of books written by many authors over many centuries. Many of these books identify their authors. The authors of others are sometimes identified by various ancient writers. Several books, however, are completely anonymous.
By conservative estimates, the last book of the Bible was completed some 13 centuries before the invention of the printing press. Therefore, not only was it composed and originally published in the form of handwritten manuscripts, but it was copied and recopied by hand during all those centuries (far more than 13 centuries, in fact, since it began during Old Testament times) until printing made that process obsolete.
The Old Testament was composed mostly in Hebrew, with portions of it written in the related language of Aramaic. The New Testament was written in the common form of Greek spoken in the eastern Mediterranean world of the first century (known as Koinē, or “Common” Greek).
The Bible is saturated with history and culture. The people of the Bible moved through a social world of culture, politics, economics, and religious and philosophical pluralism just as people do today.
Of all the ancient literature produced by Jews and Christians, on 66 books are recognized by Christians everywhere as being part of Holy Scripture.
The Bible began to be translated into other languages before it was finished being written—even before the first book of the New Testament had been composed and published.
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