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What Is the Bible?

I think if you ask people what image comes to mind when you say, “The Bible”, most folks are going to tell you, are going to imagine something like a big, black, leather-bound book; and it’s probably going to have gold leaf; and it’s probably going to be closed.  Most people imagine the Bible as a book.  In fact, most people imagine the Bible as ‘The Book’, even ‘The Book of Books’, even ‘God’s Book’; and that’s understandable.  Bible means book; it looks like a book, most versions of it that we see around these days; but, in fact, it’s really not a book at all. 

With a book, you start on page one and you read to the end.  With a book, you have something written by a single author that’s univocal, that’s of one voice with itself.  It’s bound and closed and self contained; and each copy of it is the same as the next, right?  So, the Bible isn’t like that at all, with the Bible, you don’t start on page one and read to the end; you read around in it.  Often, reading very small snippets and pieces and fragments; and it doesn’t start on page one and go to the end.  It doesn’t tell a single story that starts one place and finishes another place.  In fact, it’s not of one voice with itself; it’s a polyvocal, collection of writings.  So, I like to think of it not so much as a book, but as a library, a collection, a place to raise questions, a place that hosts questions and makes us think about things in different ways.

Sometimes I describe the Bible as an accidental book.  That’s because it wasn’t always a book and it’s not always going to be a book.  In fact, early Christians for centuries used and engaged and circulated scriptures that we now think of as the Bible in scrolls and little notebooks called codices for centuries, before there even was such a thing as the technology that we now think of, the media technology, that we now think of as a book. 

Scriptures existed for centuries before there was such a thing as a book big enough to hold them all in a single volume.  I think now we are moving into an age where the era of the book is in its twilight years and we’re going to see scriptures circulating and being engaged and being used in very different forms that don’t look bookish at all.  So, the bookishness of the Bible, is really an accident of media history. 


  • Tim Beal

    Timothy Beal is the Florence Harkness Professor of Religion at Case Western Reserve University and editor in chief of the forthcoming Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and the Arts. He has published several books, including The Rise and Fall of the Bible (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), Biblical Literacy: The Essential Bible Stories Everyone Needs to Know (HarperOne, 2009), and Roadside Religion (Beacon, 2006). He has written essays on the Bible and culture for the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Huffington Post, among others.