It contains old tribal traditions reaching back into the second millennium B.C. One of the supposed sources behind the Pentateuch may have been composed as early as the tenth or ninth century B.C. “The Court History of David” (II Sam. 9-20 and I Kings 1,2), unquestionably the finest piece of historical narrative in the Old Testament, was written probably in the age of King Solomon–centuries before the rise of historical writing among the Greeks.
The books of the Old Testament were created to meet the needs of the ancient communities in which they first appeared. A proper interpretation of them requires that we see them primarily as written for the circumstances of the author’s own time.
The prophets of the Old Testament were declarers of the divine will for the people of their own age. They were not primarily predictors of the future for our benefit.
Paul’s letters were practical directives for the church of his day. He did not write, as one scholar has put it, “with the thought that posterity [was] looking over his shoulder.” Another writer has remarked that if Paul had possessed a magic carpet, he would not have written his letters at all.
Even a book like the Revelation to John–so loudly claimed in some circles today as having been incomprehensible until now by any but ourselves, who live in the time of the final fulfillment of prophecy–was actually “tailored” for the church in Asia Minor at the end of the first century A.D. Its first readers certainly understood it far better than we can.
Furthermore, these ancient books, addressed to ancient people and situations long gone, were transmitted through the centuries by copyists who reproduced them by hand. The original manuscripts of animal skins and papyrus soon perished. The thousands of copies showed variations due to inaccurate copying. Scholars have been at work for some two hundred years comparing the many manuscripts and recovering as far as possible the original text of the biblical books. The Bible is an heirloom of great antiquity, bequeathed to us by countless people who produced it and passed it along to us.
Yet, when all this has been said, the Bible remains a strangely modern book, often strikingly relevant to our contemporary life. This is so in part because the human situation in every age remains fundamentally the same. We are born, grow up in families, marry, beget children, and work for a living in a natural order often hostile to our best efforts. We struggle against human enemies and cringe before the leering face of death. In every age people are tempted to worship the creature rather than the Creator and to seek self-gratification rather than the well-being of all people. Though the cultural setting of human life varies from age to age, its basic situation remains the same.
Thus Abraham, who desperately wanted what life had denied him (a son), who sought by devious means to obtain an heir, and who at length learned to trust in God in the face of human impossibility, holds up a mirror in which we see our own frustrations, lack of faith, and need of divine help. Thus Job, whose life was reduced to ashes in overpowering disasters and who found God at the end of his questioning, comforts us in our tribulations. Thus Jesus and Paul, who left father and mother, brothers and sisters, and houses and lands in obedience to the divine call and the claims of the kingdom of God, draw us after them.
The early church and Christians through the centuries have found that, under the Holy Spirit as teacher (John 14:26; 16:13-15), the sacred writings are “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (II Tim. 3:16).