Chapter OneThe Book Called
I. THE MEANING OF "BIBLE"
A. The Name of a Plant
When we call the Holy Scriptures
"the Bible" we are actually using a
word that in ancient times designated
the papyrus plant. This reed plant,
which grew on the banks of rivers, was
particularly abundant in antiquity
along the marshes of the Nile and in
There are several references to this
plant in the Old Testament (Exod. 2:3;
Job 8:11; Isa. 18:2; 35:7), but Greek and
Latin authors have more to say about
it. The Hebrew word for the marsh
plant is gome-a word that is translated
into Greek as papuros (the Latin
spelling is papyrus) Clearly our English
word "paper" (French papier,
German Papier) is derived from
papyrus, the writing material of the
Another name given to this fibrous
plant was bublos (the later spelling isbiblos), a which has given us the Greek
word for book, namely biblion. Since
large quantities of papyrus were used
and shipped from the Syrian port of
Byblos it is surmised that the Greek
word for book may have been derived
from that place-name.
Until the third century A.D., writing
was commonly on papyrus. This was
made from the pith of the papyrus
plant, which could be as thick as a
man's arm. It was cut in strips about a
foot long, placed on a flat surface and
glued together crosswise like plyboard.
When dried the whitish surface
was polished smooth with a stone or
On the front (recto) side the fibers
ran horizontally, on the back (verso)
side vertically. Since the front side was
smoother than the back, one normally
wrote only on that side. Only rarely
was the back side, where the fibers ran
vertically, used for writing. If it was,
then the scroll was called an opisthograph.
The roll that John saw in the
hands of the One seated upon the
throne, had "writing on both sides"
(Rev. 5:1), to indicate the fullness of
God's plans and purposes.
Sheets of papyrus, and sometimes
entire rolls, were called chartes (Latincharta-from which we get chart,
charter, etc.). This word is translated
as "paper" in 2 John 12-the only
place it occurs in the New Testament.
Papyrus, biblos (or bublos) andchartes all refer to writing material
made from the reed plant.
B. The Name of a Roll
Although single sheets of papyrus
served a variety of literary purposes,
longer documents demanded that
sheets of papyrus be spliced together
to form rolls. Even though papyrus
sheets were somewhat thicker than
modern writing paper, they could be
rolled quite easily. Rolls up to thirty
feet in length were not at all uncommon.
They were normally rolled
around a stick, called the navel. The
writing on these rolls of papyrus was
done in columns.
This roll (or scroll) was then called a
"book," a biblion-a word which was
derived from biblos, the name of the
rush plant. The New Testament wordbiblion (book) is really a diminutive ofbiblos. However, it lost its diminutive
force, and another diminutive is used,
namely, biblaridion. John the apostle
was bidden by an angel to swallow
such a "little scroll" (Rev. 10:9). The
rolling up of a scroll provided this
apostle with a vivid figure of speech,
for in Revelation 6:14 the sky is described
as vanishing "like a scroll(biblion), rolling up."
Papyrus rolls were often wrapped
with cloth or parchment and stored in
some kind of container, which at times
had the author's name and the title of
the book on it.
A major literary production called
for several scrolls to be used. A single
roll of a multivolume work was called atomos (our "tome") or logos ("word,"
as Luke calls his Gospel in Acts 1:1).
The entire work might be called ateuchos (our word Pentateuch means
C. The Name of a Book
As we have just seen, the word biblos,
from which our word book (Bible)
is derived, at first designated the
papyrus plant, and then the sheets or
rolls produced from papyrus. Eventually,
however, the word was used for
the book or codex as we know it today.
The roll form of a book was in many
ways inconvenient, and this led to the
development of the codex. Four or
more double-size sheets were laid on
top of each other, folded in the middle
and bound together, forming a codex.
The Latin word codex originally
meant the trunk of a tree, and then a
block of wood split up into tablets or
leaves. Such wooden tablets (perhaps
coated with wax) were bound together
to make a book. The same was done
with leaves or sheets of papyrus. A
codex, then, is a leaf book.
While rolls and codices existed side
by side for some time, eventually the
codex won out over the roll as the better
book form. One advantage of the
codex was that one could more easily
write on both sides of the individual
leaves, and so the codex was cheaper
to produce. Also it was much easier to
locate passages in a codex than in a
scroll, which had to be rolled back to
locate the appropriate place.
It is believed that Christians helped
to accelerate the changeover from
scroll to codex. For example, Luke's
Gospel would demand an entire scroll.
With a codex, however, all four Gospels
could be brought together in a
single codex book. Moreover, with the
development of the codex, papyrus fell
more and more into disuse and more
durable material, namely parchment,
began to take over.
So then, the Greek word biblion
(book) was first the name of the
papyrus plant, second the name of the
papyrus scroll, third the name of a
codex. Finally, the Greek plural, biblia,
was used by Latin-speaking Christians
as a singular to designate the collection
of the books that comprise the Old
and New Testaments, our Bible.
II. TWO BOOKS IN ONE
A. The Meaning of "Testament"
If someone unacquainted with the
Bible were suddenly introduced to a
copy of the Scriptures and this person
looked through it rapidly, he would
soon discover that it falls into two unequal
parts, called "The Old Testament"
and "The New Testament" respectively.
What would not be immediately
obvious to such a novice is
the reason why these two parts are
called "testament." As the word is
used in English today it reminds one
of someone's "last will and testament."
But the names of the two divisions of
the Bible have little to do with that
meaning. In fact it is a bit unfortunate
that the word "testament" was ever
applied to these parts of the Bible, particularly
since there is a more suitable
word in English, namely "covenant."
The blame for the use of "testament"
to designate the two collections of sacred
writings in English Bibles rests
with Latin Christianity. In the
standard Latin version of the Bible the
two collections of books are called respectivelyVetus Testamentum andNovum Testamentum. The Latin wordtestamentum translates the Greek
word diatheke. This word can have the
meaning of "testament," as we use it in
English today, but it can also mean
Diatheke is the word the translators
of the Old Testament used to render
the Hebrew berit (covenant) into
Greek. There was another Greek word
(syntheke = covenant) that they might
have used, but it has the connotation
that a covenant is made between
equals. Diatheke was better suited to
the biblical idea of a covenant that God
initiates by his saving grace and freely
bestows on his people.
When we speak of the Old Testament
we mean the collection of those
books that were produced by writers
who were members of the covenant
established by God with Israel. By New
Testament we mean the writings of
apostles who were members of the
new covenant people, the church.
"Old" is not a pejorative term; it simply
refers to the books written prior to the
time of Christ, who inaugurated the
new covenant. From a chronological
point of view the books of the New
Testament are very old also.
In the Greek-speaking church the
two parts of the Bible came to be calledpalaia diatheke (Old Covenant) andnea diatheke (New Covenant). Latin
Christians bequeathed on us the
translation Vetus Testamentum (Old
Testament) and Novum Testamentum
(New Testament), and we will have to
live with those titles.
However, whether we speak of
covenant or testament, a new reader of
the Bible may still ask why these two
collections should be so designated.
And so we must inquire into the background
of these titles.
B. Old and New Covenants
1. The Historical Background. The
two pivotal points in redemption history
that form the historical background
for calling the two parts of the
Bible "old" and "new" covenants are, if
we may speak geographically, Sinai
and the Upper Room. When Jesus in
the high hour of his passion took the
cup and said, "This cup is the new
covenant in my blood" (Luke 22:20), he
linked his death with the covenant
made at Sinai in the days of Moses-a
covenant ratified by blood. In that
more distant past Moses was the
mediator of a covenant; in the Upper
Room Christ was the Mediator of a
new covenant between God and humanity.
But why a new covenant? Why did
not the old remain? Did God's promises
to Israel fail? No, God was faithful;
Israel broke the covenant. Did God not
foresee that a sinful people would fail
in its obedience to the demands of a
holy God? Indeed he did, but he had
made gracious provisions for his
people to renew its covenant with
Yahweh and to remain in fellowship
with him. Israel, however, became