Heaven is mentioned in the Old Testament

How did the Bible come about? Much more than a book

How did the Bible come about? A question that - let it be said at the beginning - can probably never be fully answered. Because the Bible didn't just fall from heaven. But on the contrary.

"The Bible was written by a great number of authors. And above all, it came into being over a long period of time: through processes of transmission and the compilation of scriptures," says Jens Schröter. He is Professor of the New Testament at the Humboldt University in Berlin:

"So that you shouldn't imagine it that way: a few people sat down there and wrote the Bible. Rather, it is a very complex work of which only specific authors are actually known for some of the writings. We know it for others nor who exactly wrote it. "

"The Bible is not just a book"

Nevertheless, Jens Schröter knows a lot about the origins of the Bible. Because he has reviewed the current state of research and summarized it in a compact book - together with his colleague Konrad Schmid:

"The Bible isn't just a book, it's a library of books."

Konrad Schmid is Professor of the Old Testament at the University of Zurich. He is connected to the interview in Berlin via Skype:

"The Old Testament was essentially written in the first millennium BC. This time period mainly relates to the writing of the texts. It is possible that certain stories and traditions have oral preliminary stages that go back even further."

Earliest texts from the ninth century BC

So from the beginning: In the proverbial "biblical times" there was still no Bible. The oral beginnings of the Bible are lost in the unscriptural past. But when is the first biblical text from, and which is it?

Schmid: "Yes, it has long been believed that the so-called 'Little Red Sea Song' in Exodus 15, 21 ..."

"Sing to the Lord, for he is exalted high. He threw his horse and driver into the sea."

Schmid: "... so that this little piece could perhaps be the oldest fragment. But that has actually changed completely today in the assessment. Today we are of the opinion that the earliest written texts may have been written in the ninth or eighth century BC. So it was a long time after David and Solomon. "

"Has to do with the development of the written culture"

The theologian Konrad Schmid (private) The Bible itself gives the impression that the first texts of his were already written at the time of Moses, by Moses personally around the 14th century before the turn of the century. But even if Moses and his people existed then - they most likely could not write yet. Hardly any book in the Bible is as old as it claims to be.

Schmid: "That has to do with the fact that it is only from the ninth or eighth century onwards in ancient Israel and Judah that we have the possibility to write texts that are somewhat more extensive - due to the development of the written culture."

The Hebrew script first had to be invented and developed - a logical prerequisite for the creation of the Bible. And so one learns a lot about the context of the Bible in the book by Konrad Schmid and Jens Schröter: the historical, political, theological and cultural circumstances. For example, that the texts were initially written without periods and commas, and also without spaces or gaps. A pure body text.

Is the Debora song the oldest text?

Later the biblical texts were then put in a reasonably meaningful order. But they were not written chronologically, according to the Old Testament scholar Konrad Schmid:

"A text that today is assumed to be an old text is the so-called Debora song in Judge 5."

"Thank the Lord because leaders led in Israel, because the people volunteered. Listen, you kings! Listen up, you princes! I want the Lord, I want to sing to him, I want to play for the Lord, the God of Israel!"

Schmid: "This is also a poetic text, which also has some archaisms in linguistic terms and is also very ancient in its Hebrew spelling."

The last word in the bible?

But whether it really is the oldest text in the Bible - researchers will probably be puzzled about that for ages. The question about the most recent text of the Christian Bible can be answered much better, explains New Testament scholar Jens Schröter:

"One can assume with a fairly high degree of probability that the second letter of Peter is the most recent document of the New Testament and thus of the entire Bible, which was written around the middle of the second century AD."

The youngest word of the Christian Bible - not the last word - the youngest word is then:


Reconstructions are difficult

But how does it even work: How can you reconstruct which passages of the Bible were written when, where and by whom? Not an easy task, according to Konrad Schmid:

"One must first admit that the tradition for such reconstructions is difficult. The oldest complete manuscript of a Hebrew Bible dates from the year 1000 AD."

View of the oldest Bible in the world, the Codex Sinaiticus, shown in the British Library in London. (AP archive)

So it is almost 2000 years younger than the first texts in the Bible. But none of them have survived, or at least have not yet been found.

Schmid: "So you have to rely on reconstructions to reconstruct which text was written when and for whom. And there are various ways of making such reconstructions."

"It's about circumstantial evidence"

Schröter: "It is about clues to date writings. For example: Are certain historical events mentioned, are they presupposed? Or one can consider more likely that certain historical events have not yet occurred because there is no reaction to them in any way will. That would be evidence. "

Some particularly striking historical events that have left their mark on the Bible are the two destruction of the Jerusalem temples and the Babylonian exile. The names of real rulers are also mentioned again and again, making it possible to date the biblical texts.

And with the help of linguistics, you can unravel some biblical secrets, says Konrad Schmid:

"There is a certain guideline: These are the inscriptions that have been found from ancient Israel. They show, for example, how Hebrew developed diachronically, i.e. how the history of the language developed. That too allows certain things Inferences about which texts could have been written at which times. "

"You can only get approximate dates"

Reconstructing the origins of the Bible is like detective work, for which one has to use very different aids.

Schmid: "In the case of the biblical texts, one must always reckon with the fact that larger text areas, let alone entire books, can be assigned to a certain period of time. Rather, most of the texts and books have grown over centuries to their present form, so that So one will come to different judgments for certain parts of the text. "

Or even to no judgment, because not every biblical word can be conclusively dated, says Jens Schröter:

"You only get approximate dates. So you can't say with certainty that the Gospel of John was written in the year 91. That could have been five years earlier or eight years later. There is always a certain blurring."

"No targeted process"

Knowing when, where, why and by whom the biblical texts were written is only half the story of the Bible. At least as important is the question of how and why the texts then got into the Bible. Because they were initially written as individual texts.

Jens Schröter is Professor of New Testament at Humboldt University Berlin (private)

Some were then combined into collections, others were gradually sorted out. Because there are also many other texts that are very similar to the biblical ones, but which ultimately did not make it into the canon of the Bible.

Schröter: "You shouldn't think of it as a goal-oriented process that at some point had to lead to exactly this volume of biblical writings. So the decision would have - or: the decision is not right at all. The result of such developments could have been different. "

Why were scriptures included in the Bible?

The canonization of the Bible did not go according to plan. The Bible - or rather: the Bibles, because there are many different ones in the various Jewish and Christian currents - the Bibles could look completely different today: with more or fewer books or in a different order.

So what was decisive in getting some texts into the Bible and others not? On the one hand, there are political reasons, explains Konrad Schmid:

"The Torah has probably become canonized and binding primarily because the laws it contains have been felt to be authoritative."

"The main factor seems to have been that the books were needed"

The Torah, the five books of Moses, contains the Ten Commandments and hundreds of other instructions. And these were then used in the 6th to 4th centuries before the turn of the times, when all ethnic groups were supposed to legislate for themselves under the rule of the Persians.

Schmid: "The Jews evidently produced the Torah, and that was the decisive point at which the Torah then had a status of binding and then gradually achieved holiness."

Facsimile of a Torah scroll from the 13th century in the Old Synagogue in Erfurt (picture alliance / dpa / photo: Michael Reichel)

So here it was political constraints that led to the five books of Moses opening the Bible today. In the case of other texts, however, very practical reasons led them to become part of the Bible.

Schmid: "The main factor seems to have been that the books were used - that they were used in the church service. And if that is the case, then it became necessary that these books were included in the inventory of the literature on which you wanted to leave yourself. "

Weeded out for theological reasons

Schröter: "With other writings it is the case that they represent views which have formulated by Christian theologians who have formulated decisive convictions of Christianity - that they contradicted these convictions and were therefore rejected."

In these cases, theological reasons decided whether a scripture made it into the Bible or not, explains Jens Schröter, referring to the Christian Bible.

First Christian full Bibles - i.e. with the Old and New Testament in a similar form as we know them today - Christian full Bibles have been around since the 4th century. And here, too, political reasons played an important role. Because Christianity had become the state religion in the Roman Empire.

Schröter: "And in this context it is indeed the case that the Roman emperors were interested in promoting and implementing Christianity as a unifying religion of the empire to make these the authoritative writings of Christianity. "

"The Jewish and Christian Bibles arise in dialogue"

Now one could assume that the Hebrew Bible, i.e. the Bible of Judaism, already existed at this point, because in Christianity it is called the Old Testament. But it wasn't like that. The texts of the Old Testament are all older than the texts of the New Testament. Jens Schröter emphasizes that the two parts of the Bible develop simultaneously as collections of scriptures:

"I think that is also a novelty that we have worked it out in such a way that the Jewish and Christian Bibles arise in dialogue, debate, and competition with one another. That the Jewish Bible is not simply a prerequisite and then continued or recorded on the Christian side or is interpreted. Rather, these processes of authorizing scriptures in Judaism and Christianity run parallel to one another - and also run in contact with one another and separate from one another. I think that is important to see. "

So the Bible grew over 1500 years to what we know today. At some point Judaism and Christianity considered their "Holy Scriptures" to be complete - but without any formal agreement: Now the Bible is ready.

"There was never anything like this in antiquity. There is no synodal resolution or anything like that about the scope of the binding writings of Judaism or Christianity," says Jens Schröter, a New Testament scholar from Berlin.

The Bible as a process

The question of the origin of the Bible, which Schröter investigated together with the Zurich Old Testament scholar Konrad Schmid - this question also leads to another question: What is it, the Bible?

The Bible is not just a book. The Bible is a process. There are dozens of books, many small and large stories, innumerable authors, perhaps women too. The Bible is: narrating, writing down, revising, deleting and adding, adapting and putting together, sorting out and preserving.

This and much more can be learned by studying the book by Jens Schröter and Konrad Schmid. It makes you sensitive to the Bible. And it produces so many aha moments that I seldom had in such a short time while reading a book.

Konrad Schmid and Jens Schröter: "The Origin of the Bible. From the First Texts to the Holy Scriptures."
C.H.Beck, 504 pages, 32 euros.