What Is the History of the Bible?

What Is the History of the Bible?

What happened to give us the Bible we have today? What is its history?

Recent books, such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, have proposed that those who believe the Bible are victims of an elaborate cover-up about its true creation and character.1 Should anyone have confidence in the historical and ostensibly human process that culminated in this collection of books called the Bible?

The history of the formation of the best-selling book of all time is a fascinating story that covers not just centuries but millennia.

Who Wrote the Old Testament

The thirty-nine books of today’s Old Testament were composed over a period of about one thousand years by as many as forty different authors. Yet they tell one complete, unified story: the history of the Israelites, God’s chosen people.

Ancient writers did not share our modern preoccupation with detailed documentation. Yet the literary nature of these books demonstrates that they were composed by people with remarkable skills. In addition, the people, places, and periods they chronicle are often attested by other reliable ancient sources from history and archaeology.

Who Wrote the New Testament

Soon after the crucifixion and reported resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, around 60–90 CE, several written accounts of his life and ministry (some of which became known as the gospels) began to circulate. These were composed by some of his first followers.

But decades earlier, a Jewish scholar named Saul, who had persecuted Jesus’ followers, had come to believe that Jesus was in fact the promised Messiah (at this point he became known as Paul). From approximately 40 to 60 CE, he wrote many letters to early Christian churches in order to teach them, encourage them, and address specific problems they were facing. Several of these letters are included in the New Testament.2

The remaining New Testament books were written in the second half of the first century CE3 Internal and extrabiblical evidence suggests they were written by Jesus’ disciples Peter and John and other well-known followers such as James and Jude.

Authorship and dating debates about New Testament books are ongoing. Yet the goal of each New Testament book is to explain and hand down the teachings of Jesus and his first followers.

The Preservation of the Bible

Professor Bart D. Ehrman has said, “Even if God had inspired the original words, we don’t have the original words.”4Many have claimed that centuries of translation and editing may have affected the content, leaving us with something that barely resembles the original writings. So how were the books of the Bible preserved? How could we possibly know what the original text said?

The books that comprise the Old Testament were carefully copied by hand over the centuries. There are some variations in the available manuscripts, but these involve mostly minor details.

Let’s take a look at the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example. Written and copied during the second century BCE and discovered in 1947 CE, the Dead Sea Scrolls are invaluable witnesses to the manuscript history of the Old Testament. Specifically, let’s examine the two copies of the book of Isaiah that were included in the scrolls.

Each copy of Isaiah was almost one thousand years older than the previously known oldest copy. Amazingly—if not miraculously—the more modern text was 95 percent word-for-word identical to the copies included with the Dead Sea Scrolls. And the disparities introduced in that other 5 percent are spelling variations and obvious slips of the pen. When compared, these copies demonstrate the diligence of the scribes in preserving the wording of the Bible.

The hand-copying method was utilized in the preservation of the New Testament as well.5 Again, there are variations and seeming contradictions in some manuscripts, but there is substantial agreement in the essentials. New Testament Greek text scholar Bruce Metzger has concluded, “Even in incidental details one observes the faithfulness of scribes.”6

The Books of the Bible

But where did we even get the books of the Bible in the first place? Jews and early Christians believed these books to be the result of God guiding the human authors and editors. A fundamental difference between the Bible and the sacred literature of most other major religions is the claim that the Bible was a cooperative creation between God and multiple human authors.

However, it’s a fair question to ask how human councils in the early church could authoritatively decide which books belong in the Bible. The biblical canon is the recognized and official list of Scriptures believed to be the product of divine revelation. A scholarly consensus is that the current twenty-seven books of the New Testament were already in use by the Christian Church as early as 150 CE.

While an official decision regarding the canon came later, the majority of churches operated with a relatively fixed canon from the second century CE onward.

The Translation of the Bible

Over the past two thousand years, translation into numerous languages around the world has characterized the Bible’s legacy. A Greek version of the Hebrew Bible was prepared in lengthy and uneven stages starting around 250 BCE. Originally created for Greek-speaking Jews living in Egypt, this Greek version, known as the Septuagint, became the “Scripture” used by the early Christians.7

As Christianity gained traction, the Bible—both Old and New Testaments—was translated into various other languages. The first English translation was created in the fourteenth century.

Though each version is created with much care, preparation, and research, no translation is able to retain perfectly the meaning of the original text. Christians are therefore encouraged to select a Bible with care. It is also recommended that Bible readers use more than one translation in their study in order to get a more rounded presentation of biblical interpretation.8

Relevance of the Bible’s History

The Bible’s content alone testifies to its character as a unique book, and its historical development supports this characterization. Of course, legitimate questions may indeed be raised about the nature of the Bible. Certain Bible passages continue to stump even the greatest scholars. And even for faithful Christians, it remains a mystery how God could speak his Word through fallible people.

However, the Bible’s own history and its enduring influence on the world compels us to take a closer look at its message. Its impact demands its content not be ignored.

  1. For further examples, see Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Bart D. Ehrman’s The Judas Gospel and Whose Word Is It? See also the works by Bart D. Ehrman cited below.
  2. David B. Capes et al., Rediscovering Paul (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007).
  3. Some scholars argue that a few of the New Testament books like 2 Peter and 1 Timothy were written in the early decades of the second century CE. See, for example, Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 5th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). Others, however, disagree and date all New Testament books to the first century.
  4. Bart D. Ehrman, Whose Word Is It? (London: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006), 211.
  5. With the invention of the printing press around 1450 CE, handwritten manuscripts eventually became obsolete.
  6. Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 206.
  7. The word “Scripture” is a direct reference to the Old Testament books. Christians believe that the biblical writings (both Old and New Testaments) were ultimately sourced in God’s work of revelation, although he used free human agents. Verses such as 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:21 suggest that the Bible was not “dictated” by God but that the authors were directed by his Spirit, writing from their own God-given personalities. While the biblical text is said to be “inspired,” this is never said of the authors
  8. See Gordon Fee and Mark Strauss, How to Choose a Translation for All It’s Worth: A Guide to Understanding and Using Bible Versions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007).
  9. Photo Credit: samzsolti / Shutterstock.com.