What Do I Mean When I Say “Bible”?

A thoughtful reader noticed that I frequently leave the word “bible” uncapitalized in my blog posts and podcast transcripts and asked me to explain my thinking. For example, I might write about “what the bible says” or “bible authors.” While I do not deny that this is a conscious stylistic choice, I actually had to think long and hard about precisely why I do it, as I developed the habit some time ago. So am I grateful to my friend for the opportunity to self-examine.

My choice to leave “bible” uncapitalized is never an overt theological, doctrinal, or political statement, though it surely has all sorts of ramifications. Primarily, it has to do with what I mean by the term “bible,” and more often than not I am using the word as an umbrella or category rather than a proper title. I employ standard capitalization when referring to a specific text (“Revelation,” “Qohelet”), a specific collection (“Hebrew Bible,” “New Testament,” “Catholic/Protestant Bible”) or a published version of a Bible (“NIV Bible,” “ESV Bible”), but I intentionally type “bible” when referring to the broad category of biblical texts. In this way, in my mind, it’s interchangeable with a word like “scripture,” which just means “writings.” I’m talking about the texts we know as the canonized books of our “Bible,” but which also feature historically in other collections and contexts.

When I write “The Bible,” it activates certain presuppositions in the mind of a reader, most likely involving the printed English translation of the Protestant canon that is sitting on a nearby bookshelf. That’s not a bad thing in itself, but one of the major thrusts of my writing is the appreciation of texts in their original settings, with an emphasis on origins and first meaning. Using “bible” as a category rather than a proper name is my attempt to avoid getting stuck in some of our Christian presuppositions. Maybe a quick, practical example would be helpful.

I’ve talked about Daniel 12 in a couple of blog posts and podcasts. This is a passage about resurrection and judgment. In the context of the Protestant canon, it often serves as a proof text in discussions of rapture, heaven and hell. In the context of the Hebrew Bible, however, it is primarily about vindication for Israel and punishment for pagan empires in the wake of the exile. A robust discussion will consider a full range of context and possible meaning, and by referring to Daniel 12 as a “bible text” or “scripture,” I am inviting readers not to bypass its rich history and consign it by default to a modern post-Protestant context.

This distinction isn’t only important across Testaments or canons. In 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul tells a young pastor that “all scripture (sacred writing) is breathed by God and is useful for teaching, for rebuke, for improvement, for training in righteousness…” Far too often, I have seen this verse used to self-authenticate and self-validate the Protestant Bible, as if the author was aware that he was writing one of the sixty-six books of the Christian canon. Of course, not only was there no Christian canon at the time of writing, there wouldn’t even be a Jewish canon for another generation. There was some standard by which texts were considered “scripture,” but it is unknown to us. Paul is talking about “bible,” but not “The Bible™.”

This is not a hill that I will die on. It is not a stand that I’m taking against any traditional conceptions of the Bible. It is just my own attempt to navigate the often messy and complex straits of biblical literature without losing sight of the big picture. It’s the forest and trees and whatnot. I have no idea if it’s actually constructive or helpful. For all I know it might come across as obtuse or even disrespectful, but that was never my intention. I hope this gives you a little more insight into my crazy bible brain.