Ask Augustine with Dr. Paul Tambrino
Ask Augustine is a weekly column where professor/author Dr. Paul Tambrino discusses various theological questions with wit, clarity and substance.
Question #15 – How Did We Come To Refer to the Scriptures as the Bible?
The Bible, as the name of the Jewish-Christian sacred writings as a whole (you may be surprised to learn), is comparatively a new term.
This term would have meant nothing to the Jews in the time of Jesus. In those days the Hebrew Scriptures were thought of, not as one book, but as many books.
The canonization of the Old Testament was a gradual process that was not completed until 40 or 50 years after the crucifixion Jesus.
At that time the Jews divided their sacred writings into three grand divisions: The Law which are the first five books of Moses; The Prophets which are Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the 12 minor prophets; and The Writings which are the rest of the Old Testament sacred books.“The canonization of the Old Testament was a gradual process that was not completed until 40 or 50 years after the crucifixion Jesus.”
Since Jesus referred to the sacred writings as only “the law and the prophets” some theologians have concluded that the writings were not yet canonized.
The word Bible comes to us from ancient Egypt by way of Greece, Italy and France. Biblios was the Greek name for the inner bark of the Egyptian papyrus reed, the material from which paper was first made and on which books were written in New Testament times.
In time biblios came to signify not only paper but a book, roll or scroll in general. The diminutive of biblios is biblion, and the plural of biblion is biblia, meaning “little books.”
However, at an early date the singular and plural were used interchangeably. For example, in the Greek of Matthew 1:1 biblios occurs in “the book of generations,” while in the Greek of Luke 4:17 biblion occurs in “the book of the prophet Esaias.”“It was not until the 13th century that the English form Bible occurred as the name of the Old and New Testament.”
The Latin borrowed this word, transcribed it biblia and treated as a singular. In I Maccabees, which is regarded as canonical by Catholics and Apocryphal by Protestants, biblia is employed in reference to the Hebrew sacred writings.
John Chrysostom, patriarch of Constantinople, in the fourth century A.D. referred to the general collection of Jewish and Christian writings as biblia, “the books,” but which was probably construed as a singular.
It was not until the 13th century that the English form Bible occurred as the name of the Old and New Testament, and even then it was used in the general sense of “the book” or the “book of books.”
Chaucer, writing in the 14th century, continued to use the term in the sense of any book, and its original meaning is retained in such compounds as bibliography (a list of books), bibliophile (a lover of books) and bibliopole (a seller of books).
In the million plus words attributed to Shakespeare, the word Bible does not appear once. The words Holy Writ, Scripture, Scriptures, Gospel and similar terms do appear in the writings of Shakespeare.
The word Bible is not used in either the text or in the Epistle Dedicatory of the King James Version of the Bible.
The Jews had generally referred to their sacred writings by a name meaning the books. The New Testament writers referred to them by the Greek hai graphia meaning the writings.
In Latin this became scripturae from which we get our word scriptures. It came to be applied to the Bible without qualification because that book or collection of books was looked upon as “the writings.”
To read more Ask Augustine articles like this one by Paul Tambrino about Bible history, subscribe to our email list.
Are you a Christian writer looking to publish? Learn more.
Purchase Paul’s book, Ask Augustine here. Purchase his other books here.
Miniature from a Latin Bible: St. Luke, c. 1100. France, Burgundy, Abbey of Cluny, early 12th Century. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund 1968.190.