The Bible… what do make of it? Clearly, it’s been a huge influence on world culture for two thousand years, and on culture in the Middle East for many hundreds of years before that. How should we read it, and use it, today?
It makes sense that a loving God would try to communicate true ideas to us, so that we could consider them in our rational minds, and decide what to do with them. With early people, before the development of written language, there’s plenty of evidence from their art, and from oral traditions, that they felt a communication with God. Later, as writing developed, we find written works – notably the Old Testament of the Bible – that demonstrate God’s drive to reveal truths to us.
The Bible, as it has come down to us, is a revelation of God’s mind, his plan, his truth, and his love for us. It’s a guidebook that we can use to live good lives. It’s ancient, but still fresh and relevant. Its inner meaning has been the subject of many explorations.
The Bible is divided into two testaments, Old and New. Each testament is divided into “books”, each of which has a name, e.g. Genesis, Exodus, etc. Each book is divided into chapters, and each chapter into verses. The Bible has been translated into many languages, by many translators, some from long ago, and many working still today. By and large, the divisions into books, chapters and verses are fairly standard. There’s some variation, partly because the original texts come from scrolls that differ amongst themselves, but overall it’s a surprisingly consistent, well-preserved set of work.
The Old Testament was written in Hebrew. Its earliest stories, starting with the creation story, and Adam and Eve, are very ancient. At the time of Moses, perhaps 1300-1500 years before Christ, those early stories were written down and preserved, but they were already part of a much older oral tradition.
The New Testament, written shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, was written in Greek. The four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the Book of Revelation, form the core of it, and they are supplemented by letters – epistles – written by early church leaders: Paul, Peter, James, John, and Jude.
Should we call this work the Bible, or the Word?
In New Christian theology, we tend to use the term “The Word”. Why? In his many volumes of theology, Emanuel Swedenborg uses the term “The Bible” only a handful of times, and most of those instances are in reference to ancient writing styles. On the other hand, the term “The Word” appears more than 15,000 times, and it is crucially important to the doctrinal system Swedenborg illustrates.
What’s the difference?
In Swedenborg’s works, “The Word” in its deepest sense means divine truth in its fullness, the infinite expression of the Lord’s infinite love, shining on us the way light shines from the sun. In fact, since the Lord’s essence is love itself and love cannot exist without taking form, Swedenborg’s works say that The Word actually is the Lord, and that the Lord actually is the Word (think about John 1:1: “The Word was with God, and the Word was God”).
Divine truth is, to be sure, an expansive thing: It is the agent and force of creation, and is reflected in all aspects of humanity and of the natural world. If we understood enough we could gaze on fields and trees and see the nature of the Lord’s love and the spiritual world. But that is a fluid expression; we can cut down a tree and change it. The ultimate expression of the Lord’s love is permanent and safeguarded, hidden away within the stories and prophecies of the Bible where only those who love the Lord can begin to understand. Understood at the most internal, symbolic level, those stories and prophecies are completely about the Lord Himself, unveiling His love in its infinite forms, and by reading it we open ourselves to Him and let Him flow into our hearts and minds.
In a sense, then, the Bible is a container for the Word, a compilation of natural language that is divinely ordered so that it can hold and express spiritual ideas. That’s one reason churches based on Swedenborg’s works have traditionally called even the physical book itself “The Word” instead of “The Bible.” They want to be open to the love the book contains, not just the external meanings of the text.
The other reason is more controversial. Swedenborg says that only 34 of the Bible’s books are written with a complete and continuous internal sense, and thus only those 34 are truly part of the Word. The 34 are the five books of Moses, Joshua, Judges, the two books of Samuel, the two books of Kings, Psalms, the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, the four Gospels and Revelation. This leaves out some treasured books of the Old Testament: Ruth, Job, Proverbs, Song of Solomon and others.
But the exact contents of the Old Testament have been debated for millennia and there are already variations in the Jewish, Catholic and Protestant Bibles. What most people find harder to accept is the idea that the works of the early Christian Church — Acts and the various epistles of Christian leaders – are not filled with the divine.
But consider the difference between how the Gospels were written and how the Epistles were written. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were simply trying to record the words and deeds of Jesus, telling what they new of these things in their most outward form. The Lord was able to guide that outward form so that inwardly it could be filled with spiritual correspondences. The epistles, on the other hand, were really the first human attempts to interpret Jesus’s teachings and develop them into a consistent doctrine. The fact that the writers were already trying to find deeper meanings meant that their work could not be used to contain deeper meanings. It doesn’t mean their doctrinal conclusions are wrong – they had vast insight – but they are not divine.
(References: Arcana Coelestia 1403, 1405; Doctrine of Sacred Scripture 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 24, 26, 31, 56, 77, 97, 110, 111; Doctrine of Sacred Scripture 23 ; Heaven and Hell 241; The White Horse 16)