This curious ambiguity between implied pluralism and effective singularity is as typical of the Bible structurally as it is historically. Our English word 'Bible' is derived, via the French word bible, from the late Latin biblia, a feminine singular noun that meant simply 'the book'. In its older Latin form, however, biblia was not read as the feminine singular, but as the (identical) neuter plural form, which was, in turn, derived from the Greek ta biblia, which meant 'the books'—essentially no more than a collection of individual works. This shift in meaning reflects the changing physical conditions of the book (or books) themselves. Before the invention of the codex, or bound manuscript volume, the biblical texts were held as individual scrolls stored together in a wooden chest or cupboard. Under such conditions the question of the precise canon of what works did, or did not constitute the 'holy book', or the exact order in which the constituent works should occur, though it might have been a matter of doctrinal debate, was not an immediately practical question. Just as today, one would rarely read from more than one section at once, and the individual scrolls (representing what we would now call the biblical 'books') could (in theory at least) be assembled in more or less whatever order one chose. With the invention of the codex, however, with its immediate practical advantages of compactness and ease of handling and storage, that potential flexibility of sequence was lost. From then on the books had to come in a specific order—and it is significant that the final decisions both as to what constituted the canon of the Hebrew Bible and of the New Testament coincide historically with the widespread introduction of the codex form. What began as 'the books' had, literally and physically, become 'the book'.
As was to happen again later with the invention of printing, that change in physical conditions with the production of the codex was to have incalculable consequences on the meaning and reception of the Bible as a holy book. To begin with, as we have just seen, this loose collection of very different kinds of material composed over a period of almost nine hundred years—including in the Old Testament, history, prophecy, law, devotional verse, proverbs, and even love poetry and fiction, as well as, in the New, letters from named individuals—all had to be placed in a specific order. Juxtaposition always has implied meaning. The ordering necessary for the codex revealed that there were, in effect, not one but several Bibles—and the relationship between the various canons is extremely complex. Indeed, it is a moot point whether we can say the Hebrew Bible is actually older than the Christian one. The work of creating the Hebrew canon did not really begin until after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE—by which time certainly some of the New Testament books (Paul's letters, for example) were already in existence. Anyone who doubts the political nature of the creation of these rival canons, Hebrew or Christian, needs only to look in detail to see the reasons why they were found necessary and how the final choices were made. It is significant that the first known list of Christian books—in effect a putative New Testament—was made by a second-century heretic, Marcion. That we now so label him is an indication that he was the loser in just one of the many political struggles of the period—as is the fact that all his works were subsequently destroyed. Nevertheless, we know of the Marcion canon from the attacks that were made upon it: it consisted of one Gospel (Luke's) and some of Paul's letters. Marcion also took the quite logical step of dropping the Hebrew Scriptures altogether from the Christian canon. It was in response to Marcion that the early Church, led by the redoubtable Irenaeus, then had to define orthodoxy by making its own canon and declaring it to be a single, sacred and unalterable corpus. It is true that, as Robert Car roll has remarked, 'Canons are about struggle and community conflict.Much persecution helped to create the illusion of uniformity, and the arrow of time allowed the mythology of the victors to write the history books' (Carroll, 1991:7)—but it is also true that these 'victories' were not always as clear cut and decisive as such political theories of history might suggest. The process of canon-formation was accompanied by intense and often acrimonious debate, and only finally completed (though still not quite in its present form) by Eusebius after the Council of Nicaea—which had been summoned by the Emperor Constantine with an interest in formulating Christian doctrine and defining heresy not altogether unconnected with the political objective of defining the role the Emperor was to play in the new Christian state (Romer 1988:196-7).
It is hardly surprising therefore that the arrangement of the Old Testament as it emerged from various councils, including finally that of Nicaea, is significantly different from that of the Hebrew Bible, from which all its constituents are taken. The latter is divided into three sections: the Torah (the five books of Moses corresponding to what Christians have traditionally called the Pentateuch); the Prophets (traditionally sub-divided into the 'Former
Prophets', or what Christians know as the 'histories' from Joshua to Kings, excluding Ruth, Esther, Chronicles, and Ezra-Nehemiah, and the 'Latter Prophets', comprising the books also known as the Prophets in the Christian Bible); and a final grouping known simply as Writings, which includes the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, the five Megilloth (or 'Scrolls': Song of Songs, Ruth. Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther), and Daniel, ending with Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles. In contrast, the Christian Old Testament is commonly divided into four sections: the Pentateuch, the Histories (which include Joshua to Kings, with Ruth following Judges, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther); the Poetical Books (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs); and the Prophets (including Daniel). The difference implied by this rearrangement is striking.
For Jews, the Torah is the foundational document which defines who they are as a people; the histories from Joshua to the fall of the monarchy are combined with the prophetic texts as historical illustrations of God's promises or threats to his people; while the Writings are a more open-ended group of texts, relating to the practice of the Jewish religion after the Babylonian exile. The effect is at once timeless and open. The ending of the Torah, for instance, with the death of Moses outside the Promised Land, rather than including the book of Joshua and the triumphant conquest of Canaan, can be seen as a clear signal as to how the whole Hebrew Scriptures are to be read. It points not least to the pattern of perpetual exile and questioning that has now characterized the Jewish people for thousands of years. The Christian rearrangement of the Hebrew Scriptures to form the Old Testament, on the other hand, is a polemical and even a doctrinal pointer to what is to follow it in the New. All the historical books are now put together, as if to place the history of Israel firmly in the past; the poetical books occupy a kind of timeless space reserved for prayer and meditation; while the prophets come last, pointing to the future and the coming fulfilment in the New Testament. It suggests a dynamic and purposeful sequence, rather than an open quest.
It also means that among the political moves that underlay the formation of the Christian Bible was the emerging idea of the Bible itself as a holy book of a quite new kind. As re-created from the Hebrew Scriptures, it encompassed the history of the world from its creation, through the Fall and redemption of mankind, to the final judgement. Given the implied completeness of this grand sweep, it is difficult to imagine what else another holy book, in addition to or complementary to itself, might contain. The exclusiveness of the Bible was thus a direct concomitant of the exclusiveness of Christianity. For Irenaeus and those like him there could be no compromise with paganism—and, unlike the first generations of Christians, that meant no compromise either with the local penumbra of gnostic sects or with Jews. Unity was an essential ingredient of the formula, not an extra. Yet the mere fact that the unity of this exclusive holy book was composed of such a wide range of apparently miscellaneous parts necessarily meant that right from the first formations of the Christian canon our sense of the Bible has, as we have seen, involved an inherent tension between singularity and pluralism, unity and diversity. The traditional phrase 'the Book of Books', contained an ambiguity that implied both that its contents somehow contributed to a mysterious and God-given unity greater than its constituent parts, and, at the same time, as has already been suggested, that it was the pre-eminent and superlative book: as it were, the class-definer, the book by which all other books were to be known as books. Historically it is not so much that the Bible is a member of an exclusive sub-species of book— the 'holy book'—as that all books are in some sense 'holy' in that they belong to the same category of objects as the Bible.
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