The sacred scriptures of Judaism and Christianity which are possibly the most influential writings in Western and Middle Eastern history. For Christians and orthodox Jews the books of the Bible are sacred texts regarded by many as the “word of God.” Apart from its religious significance, the Bible is a rich source of literary treasures and is studied secularly in universities. The Bible comprises of two sections, the Old and the New Testaments. The Old Testament is a record of Jewish history and religious, moral and secular instruction; the New Testament is an account of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples. It needs to be noted that the Roman Catholic version of the Bible contains books that are not in the Protestant version. Also there are differences between these two and the Jewish Bible which does not, of course, include in its canon the New Testament. This article will present an outline of the contents of the Protestant Bible and an indication of the theosophical views of it as represented by various writers. For books of the Bible that are not considered canonical, see APOCRYPHA.
Old Testament. The Old Testament consists of a collection of books that were written over a period of many centuries and in a number of languages, namely, Hebrew and Aramaic. It may be divided into the Pentateuch, the Prophets and the Hagiographa or writings concerning the saints. The chronology is a matter of debate, but it may be said that the larger part of the Old Testament covers a period of about 1,000 years, beginning with Exodus around 1,300 BCE and ending at approximately 400 BCE.
In the Pentateuch or Torah (Law), there is an account of the creation of the universe and of the human race presented in dramatic terms. What is termed “man’s fall into sin” is graphically described with the expulsion from the Garden of Eden followed eventually by the draconian destruction of all earth dwellers by the flood. After the flood there is a new beginning. While this “beginning” is dealt with in Genesis, it is in Exodus with the account of the escape of the Jews from bondage in Egypt, that the true history of the Jewish tribes begins. Exodus recounts the giving of the law at Sinai. Now the covenant of God with the Jews takes place, only temporarily interrupted by the episode of the worship of the golden calf. Exodus and Leviticus epitomize the establishment of Israel and the laws that were to govern Israel in perpetuity.
Numbers and Deuteronomy may be taken together in which the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness is described; also it contains a symbolic account of world history.
Prophets. There is disagreement between the listing of books of Prophets by the Jews and the Christians. The former list eight and the latter 21. In Joshua the conquest of Canaan takes place; the tribes begin to take on a national identity; Judges gives an account of the Jews in Palestine before the establishment of a monarchy. In Samuel and Kings the monarchial system is formed. The prophet Samuel it is who anoints Saul as the first king of Israel and the rest of the book of Samuel recounts the details of his reign and his ultimate downfall. In II Samuel the story of David begins with an account of his biography and continues with his life which is not entirely flattering. I and II Kings deals with the decline of the monarchy after the death of David and the reign of Solomon. After the death of Solomon the kingdom of Israel is divided into two, Judah and Israel. These books conclude with the story of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. These are classed as minor prophets, the major prophets being Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
Hagiographa. This section of the Bible contains those works that cannot be included in either the Pentateuch or the Prophets. First in order we have the Psalms, Proverbs and Job. These are considered to be the most important poetic literature of the Bible. Psalms contains a collection of poems and hymns used in public worship. Proverbs is entirely devoted to sayings and maxims and is a distillation of the wisdom of the Jewish sages. Job is a character well known for his multitude of tribulations and the endless series of disasters visited upon him. The book Job ends with the conclusion that the ways of the Lord are mysterious.
Next in order are the Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther. Opinions vary regarding the allegorical meaning of the Song of Solomon, but some scholars suggest that it deals with the relationship between God and Israel. Ruth is primarily the account of the marriage of a Moabite woman to an Israelite, who became an ancestress of David. Lamentations (of Jeremiah) deals with the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 585 BCE.
Finally the Hagiographa contains Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles. Daniel deals, as might be expected, with the story of Daniel and the coming of God to his rescue; also a symbolic account of world history. The remaining books are thought to be the work of one author. Ezra describes the return of the Jews from captivity in Babylon and the rebuilding of the Temple and Nehemiah continues with this account. Chronicles I and II are largely historical with book I dealing with the story of David. II Chronicles tells the story of Solomon and the division of the kingdom.
New Testament. Although the New Testament (NT) is much smaller than the Old, on it is based the beliefs of Christians and the Christian Church, therefore its importance greatly outweighs its size. Dating of the various texts has been the subject of much research and debate, but can only be approximate due primarily to the very short time span dealt with. It has been theorized that the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are based on an earlier document called the Q (abbreviation of “Quelle,” German for “source”) manuscript which is lost.
The Gospels. The gospels, in canonical order, are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The term “Gospel” originally meant the oral preaching about Jesus’ death and resurrection, but now refers to the books in the NT. Although it comes first in the NT, the Gospel according to Saint Matthew is not the oldest; it is preceded in age by Mark. It is probable that Matthew was written between 75 CE and 100 CE. Much of the contents of Matthew are taken from Mark, with additional material in the nature of sayings or teachings; these teachings are in the form of ecclesiastical instructions coming from Jesus. The gospel of Matthew might be described as a “guide to discipline” for the church.
The authorship of the Gospels has not been established with any degree of certainty. It is unlikely, for various reasons, that the ascribed authorship by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is correct, although it is not impossible that the actual writers of Mark and Matthew had close association with the apostles. The earliest versions of the Gospels were published anonymously and the now familiar authors’ names were not adopted until about 200 CE, possibly to invest them with an air of authority.
The main themes of Matthew are:
1. Presenting Jesus as the divine Messiah.
2. Presenting Jesus’ teachings and his interpretation of the Law.
Matthew emphasizes the divinity of Jesus in a variety of ways. He makes frequent reference to the prophecies contained in the Old Testament and of course the account of Jesus’ birth emphasizes his divine origin.
As has been pointed out, the Gospel according to Saint Mark is the oldest of the synoptics. The most commonly accepted dating is 70-80 CE and if this is correct then the gospel was written about 50 years after Jesus’s death. The last verse considered authentic is 16:8, the remainder, dealing with the resurrection, being a later addition by a different author.
The Mark Gospel includes very little historical or geographical detail which is the reason why dating is uncertain. The disciples, the “crowd” and other personages seem to be introduced more as a backdrop to the episodes involving Jesus rather than essentials. The central theme is the Passion, or Jesus’ agony on the cross and at Gethsemane. Other important events included are: the calling of the twelve disciples; various healings and miracles; the death of John the Baptist; problems of discipleship; cleansing of the temple; the Last Supper; and the trial and execution of Jesus.
The Gospel According to Saint Luke contains more material than the earlier two Gospels of Matthew and Mark and is written in a more literary style of 1st century Greek. It is interesting to note that when arranged in the assumed chronological order we find that the later the writing the more detail is added to the narratives. Luke contains nearly forty significant episodes that are not found in Matthew or Mark. Here again the dating of the Gospel is uncertain, but it was probably written about 80 or 90 CE. Tradition ascribes the Gospel to Luke the Physician, an associate of Paul. It is certain that Luke did not know Jesus and relied on the existing writings and oral tradition for his data.
Some significant events that are in Luke but not found in the earlier Gospels are:
2:1-52: the nativity of Jesus.
5:1-11: Peter’s haul of fishes.
10:29-37: parable of the good Samaritan.
11:27-28: blessedness of Christ’s mother
17:11-19: healing of the ten lepers.
22:15-38: a more detailed account of the Last Supper and last words to the disciples.
23:39-43: the two crucified criminals.
24:50-53: the Ascension.
In addition there are quite a few healings and parables which are unique to this Gospel.
The Gospel according to Saint John the last of the synoptics contains material that is not found in the first three Gospels. It is probably the latest to be compiled and a notional date of 100-110 CE has been assigned to it. Although the writer is said to be “the beloved disciple,” John, son of Zebedee, his identity is not disclosed in any way in the Gospel.
The majestic opening lines of the John Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” and “In him was life; and the life was the light of men,” are perhaps unparalleled as a succinct statement of faith. Although the uniform style suggests a single author, the arrangement of the chapters has been the subject of considerable debate. Probably the most noteworthy difference between John and the other three Gospels lies in John’s insistence on the humanity of Jesus rather than his divinity; indeed, the term “Son of Man” is used to describe him.
Some of the differences between John and the other Gospels include the washing of the disciples feet and the farewell discourses after the Last Supper. From 13:1 this Gospel conveys an intensity of expression, unparalleled elsewhere, as Jesus prepares the disciples for his coming death on the cross. In John’s account of the crucifixion Jesus does not cry, as is stated in Matthew and Mark, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.”
Acts. The Acts of the Apostles constitutes a continuation of the Gospel According to Saint Luke and forms a link between the Gospels and the Epistles, the penultimate books in the Bible. The most important or dominant person in the early part of the Acts is Peter, who acted as the leader of the Apostles. After the death as a martyr of Stephen, the main body of this book deals with the ministry of Paul to the gentiles. Two heavenly visions occur; one to Paul which converts him to Christianity and one to Peter that convinces him that Christianity can be offered to the gentiles in addition to the Jews. The remainder of the book relates, primarily, the missionary work of Paul and his associates.
Epistles. The 21 Epistles comprise by far the greater part of the NT. Although most of them are ascribed to Paul, doubt has been thrown on the authorship of some. The Epistle to the Romans contains quite a comprehensive account of Paul’s teaching and 1 Corinthians describes some of the trial and tribulations experienced by the early Christian congregations.
Revelation. This book describes a number of visions experienced by the author which he communicates to a number of Christian congregations in Asia Minor. The gist of this highly allegorical book concerns matters that have been the subject of much debate. Some theologians think it was intended to give encouragement to the early congregations.
Theosophical Views of the Bible. Quite a number of eminent theosophists wrote about the Bible. For the most part they view it as part fable, part allegory, part history.
Gottfried de PURUCKER in a discussion about the opening lines of Genesis drew attention to the very great difficulties faced by the early translators of the Hebrew texts. He points out that the method of writing did not include either spaces between words or any characters for vowels. Thus it was possible to arrive at radically different interpretations according to the way in which the text was divided. He implies therefore that anyone adopting a fundamentalist stance in relation to any particular version of the Bible is on dubious ground. Purucker gives as an example that the word “God,” singular, is a mistranslation occurring in the early part of Genesis and considers that the Hebrew word Elohīm should be translated in the plural as Gods (Studies in Occult Philosophy, pp. 129-30). In another work Purucker states, “As Jesus taught in parables, so the Bible was written in tropes, in figures of speech, in metaphors” (Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy, p. 7).
Helena P. BLAVATSKY in an article that deals with the Bible’s extensive borrowings from other religions concludes with, “It is a grand volume, a masterpiece composed of clever, ingenious fables containing great verities; but it reveals the latter only to those who, like the Initiates, have a key to its inner meaning; a tale sublime in its morality and didactics truly — still a tale and an allegory; a repertory of invented personages in its older Jewish portions, and of dark sayings and parables in its later additions, and thus quite misleading to anyone ignorant of its Esotericism. Moreover it is Astrolatry and Sabaean worship, pure and simple, that is to be found in the Pentateuch when it is read exoterically, and Archaic Science and Astronomy to a most wonderful degree, when interpreted — Esoterically” (CW XIV:76).
Blavatsky did not think highly of the Authorized King James version of the Bible. She wrote, “. . . Add to this the fact that out of the forty-seven translators of King James I of England’s Bible ‘only three understood Hebrew, and of these two died before the Psalms were translated’ (Royal Masonic Cyclopaedia), and one may easily understand what reliance can be placed on the English version of the Bible” (SD I:128).
In Isis Unveiled, Blavatsky wrote, “For years we have repeatedly noticed that the same esoteric truths were expressed in identical symbols and allegories in countries between which there had never been traced any historical affiliation. We have found the Jewish Kabala and the Bible repeating the Babylonian ‘myths,’ and the Oriental and Chaldean allegories, given in form and substance in the oldest manuscripts of the Siamese Talapoin (monks), and in the popular but oldest traditions of Ceylon” (IU I:577).
Still in Isis we find, “In the Bible the very opening tells us that before the sons of God saw the daughters of men, the latter lived from 365 to 969 years. But when the ‘Lord God’ saw the iniquities of mankind, He concluded to allow them at most 120 years of life (Genesis vi. 3). To account for such a violent oscillation in the human mortality-table is only possible by tracing this decision of the ‘Lord God’ to its origin. Such incongruities as we meet at every step in the Bible can only be attributed to the facts that the book of Genesis and the other books of Moses were tampered with and remodeled by more than one author; and, that in their original state they were, with the exception of the external form of the allegories, faithful copies from the Hindu sacred books. In Manu, book i., we find the following: ‘In the first age, neither sickness nor suffering were known. Men lived four centuries’” (IU II:467-68).
A nineteenth century theosophist who was highly regarded by Blavatsky was Anna Kingsford. In her book The Perfect Way she wrote, “It may be noted in this relation that the Gospels represent their typical Man as at first speaking explicitly to the people, but afterwards, warned by experience, addressing them in parables only. Of the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension, also, notwithstanding that these have a physical correspondence, the significance intended to be enforced, and which alone is valuable, is spiritual. Wherefore, the Gospel narrative, though told of an actual particular person, is a mystical history only of any person, and implies the spiritual possibilities of all persons. And, being thus, it represents, designedly, that which is general rather than that which is particular, and makes no pretense to an accuracy which is merely historical, the object being, not to relate facts, but to illustrate doctrines” (5th ed., 1923, p. 330).
The above examples illustrate what was, most likely, the prevailing view by theosophists of the Christian Bible in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Writing much later, Geoffrey HODSON maintained that authors of World Scriptures concealed beneath veils of allegory and symbols profound truths, and this was done lest the knowledge conveyed, which would give the student great psychical powers, was misused (The Hidden Wisdom in the Holy Bible. Wheaton: TPH, 1969, Vol. II, p. xv). So it would appear that little change of opinion has occurred in later years.
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