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2. Terms Used for the Bible


Our English term bible is from the Greek word biblion, which means “book” or “roll.”

The name comes from byblos, which denoted the papyrus plant that grew in marshes or river banks, primarily along the Nile. Writing material was made from the papyrus plant by cutting the pith of the plant in one foot strips and setting it in the sun to dry. The strips were then laid in horizontal rows with rows of vertical strips glued to the horizontal rows in a criss-cross fashion similar to the way plywood is constructed today. The horizontal rows were smoother and became the writing surface. Sections of these strips were glued together to form a scroll up to thirty feet in length. Eventually, the plural form biblia was used by Latin-speaking Christians to denote all the books of the Old and New Testaments.5


Another term used for the Bible is the word, “Scripture,” from the Greek grafh, meaning “a writing, that which is written.” The plural is used collectively of the sacred writings as a whole, the Scriptures (i.e., the Old Testament, Matt. 21:42; 26:54; John 5:39; Rom. 15:4). The singular is sometimes used of the sacred writings as a whole (Rom. 4:3; John 7:42) and sometimes of a specific passage (Mark 12:10; 15:28; Luke 4:21). In the New Testament this term is used exclusively of the Scripture.

In the Old Testament this writing was recognized as carrying great authority (e.g. 2 Kings 14:6; 2 Chron. 23:18; Ezra 3:2; Neh. 10:34). The “writings” of the Old Testament were eventually collected into three groups called the law, prophets, and writings (or psalms). This was originally organized in a twenty-four book division beginning with Genesis and ending with 2 Chronicles. It contained the same books or content as the present thirty-nine book arrangement of the Old Testament, but with a different arrangement and division. These writings were formally combined into Old Testament canon. The statement, “the Scripture says,” is equivalent to “God says” (cf. Rom. 4:3; 9:17; 10:11; Gal. 4:30; 1 Tim. 5:18). To stress the character of these writings as sacred and unique, they are also described as “holy” or “sacred” (Rom. 1:2; 2 Tim. 3:15), and stated to be “inspired of God,” literally, “God-breathed.” Consequently, with God as the author behind the human authors, the Bible is both profitable and authoritative. The noun form, scripture, occurs fifty times in the New Testament (used mostly of the Bible) and the verb form, often found in a form meaning “it is written” or “it stands written,” is used about ninety times.

The Word of God

“The word of God” is another title used of the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments. This expression highlights the nature of the Bible as the revelation of God in written form as well as its source; it is the revelation from God. The Greek term used is logos, which means “a word as embodying a conception or idea, speech or discourse.” But it is also used of the “revelation of God, of God’s word, God’s command.” In Mark 7:13, “the word of God” is used of Moses’ command regarding honoring father and mother and is seen as equivalent to the phrase, “the commandment of God” (vs. 8). In Matthew 15:6, this expression is used specifically of the Law of Moses. In John 10:35, it is used of the Old Testament and further defined as Scripture. In Hebrews 4:12, the “word of God” is used of all Scripture, referring to both the Old and New Testaments.

The Oracles of God

Another term used of the Bible, especially of the Old Testament Scripture, is logion, a diminutive form of logos meaning, “an oracle, divine response or utterance.” It is used of Scripture in Romans 3:2 and Acts 7:38 where it is translated oracles. In Acts 7:38 the Old Testament law received on Mount Sinai is referred to as the living oracles.


A less common term for Scripture is the word testament. The Greek word is diaqhkh, “covenant, testament, will.” This term is used to distinguish between the Old and New Covenants, the Old Testament and the New Testament. In particular, the word is used in dealing with the specific, unique covenants of Scripture, but since these covenants are contained in God’s revelation, it is a synonym of the Scripture. Paul wrote about the “reading of the old covenant” (2 Cor. 3:14).

The Law

Another term often used in the New Testament for the Old Testament Scripture is the law. On the principle that the most authoritative part gives its name to the whole, sometimes the expression the law refers to the entire Old Testament. Under this principle and because the whole of the Old Testament is authoritative as God’s Word of instruction to men, Jesus quoted from Psalm 82 in John 10:34 and referred to it as the law. In John 12:34, the multitudes answered Jesus and said, “We have heard out of the law that the Christ is to remain forever.” Here again the law is used of the entire Old Testament for the passages in mind included other portions like Psalm 110:4, Isaiah 9:7, and Ezekiel 37:25, and the first five books of Moses.

The Law and the Prophets

Another expression used for the entire Old Testament is the law and the prophets. This particular expression looks at the Old Testament from the standpoint of its divisions—the law, the prophets, and the writings. Compare Matthew 5:17; 7:12; Luke 16:16; Romans 3:21. See also Luke 24:27 and 44.

Other Terms Used of the Old Testament

Psalm 19:7-9 presents us with a number of synonyms in a six-fold description of God’s special revelation, the Word of God. It is called law, God’s revealed direction, or will; testimony, a witness of God’s person and purpose; precepts, a general term for the responsibilities of God’s people; commandments, God’s authoritative words of instruction; fear, reverential trust that the Word produces in God’s people; judgments, specific directions relating to different human circumstances.

Psalm 119, where devotion to the Word of God is the dominant theme, has even more terms used for the Word of God. The multiple terms used by the Psalmist convey the truth that the Word of God contains all we need for the life God wants to give us. At least nine different terms may be seen in Psalm 119—law, testimonies, ways, precepts, statutes, commandments, judgments, word, and path. Focusing on eight of these terms, the NIV Bible Commentary comments:

The psalmist uses eight words for God’s law:

1. “Law” (torah) occurs twenty-five times. In the broad sense it refers to any “instruction” flowing from the revelation of God as the basis for life and action. In the narrow sense it denotes the Law of Moses, whether the Pentateuch, the priestly law, or the Deuteronomic law.

2. “Word” (dabar) is any word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord. It is a general designation for divine revelation.

3. “Laws” (mishpatim) pertain to particular legal issues (“case laws”) that form the basis for Israel’s legal system. God himself is the Great Judge.

4. “Statute(s)” (eduth/edoth) derives from the word that means “witness,” “testify”; “testimony” is often synonymous with “covenant” (cf. 25:10; 132:12). The observance of the “statutes” of the Lord signifies loyalty to the terms of the covenant between God and Israel.

5. “Command(s)” (mitswah/mitswoth) is a frequent designation for anything that the Lord, the covenant God, has ordered.

6. “Decrees” (huqqim) is derived from the root for “engrave,” “inscribe.” God reveals his royal sovereignty by establishing his divine will in nature and in the covenant community.

7. “Precepts” (piqqudim) occurs only in the book of Psalms and appears to be synonymous with “covenant” (103:18) and with the revelation of God (111:7). Its root connotes the authority to determine the relationship between the speaker and the object.

8. “Word” or “promise” (imrah) may denote anything God has spoken, commanded, or promised.6

5 Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, Moody Press, Chicago, 1989, p. 153.

6 NIV Bible Commentary, Zondervan New Media, Grand Rapids, 1997, electronic media.

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word)

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