Millions of people around the globe put their faith in a collection of books called the Bible. They consider it to be the Word of God, endeavor to live by its standards, and fervently believe its stories. Indeed, even nonreligious people value the Bible’s accounts of ancient history and admire many of its moral teachings.
But how did we get the Bible? What are its origins? Who wrote and compiled its books? Did they have a hidden agenda? Perhaps they made up stories or covered up certain embarrassing facts as Dan Brown suggests in his novel The Da Vinci Code.1
These are important questions to consider. It’s hard to trust anything we read without first knowing where it came from; in fact, we shouldn’t just blindly trust anything.
In the case of the Bible, we should remember that it is not really one book, but a collection of sixty-six different books written by numerous authors. Let’s explore how these books originated and eventually formed the Bible we have today.
The Old Testament
Israel emerged as a solidified nation in the ancient Near East when the Israelites escaped slavery in Egypt and settled in the Promised Land of Canaan. During the course of their history, from about 1200 to 400 BCE, the Israelites produced and collected certain writings that were of great significance to their identity and faith.
This literature includes historical documents that trace their origins as a people, the events their ancestors experienced, and how and why they understand themselves to have a unique relationship with the one true God. It also comprises the moral teachings and legal codes that governed Israel’s society, such as the Ten Commandments; poems, songs, and wisdom literature; and the recorded messages of prophets who guided and corrected the people.
Some of the original authors are known; some names have been lost to history. In all, twenty-four different books made up this collection of sacred Hebrew writings.
Before the time of Christ, this collection was translated from Hebrew into Greek—creating a version called the Septuagint—for the sake of Jews living outside Israel who were more familiar with the Greek language. In this way, they could remain linked to their Jewish identity.
By the time of Jesus’ ministry (about 28 CE), most Jews considered this written anthology to be authoritative for their faith. It came to be known as the Tanakh (also known as the Masoretic Text). Today it is also called the Hebrew Bible. Among Christians, it is known as the Old Testament.
Since this time, some of the books in the Old Testament have been ordered differently and divided into smaller books (hence most versions of the Hebrew Bible now consist of thirty-nine books instead of twenty-four). In spite of this, the content remains basically the same.
There were other Jewish books written during this time, some of which are collected into an anthology known as the Apocrypha. However, there is no evidence that either Jews or early Christians considered them especially sacred; therefore they were not included in the Hebrew Bible.
The New Testament
The writing of the books of the New Testament took place over the course of the first two hundred years of the Christian movement. Shortly after Jesus’ death (about 30 CE), writings that were authored by early followers of Jesus began to appear. These followers believed that Jesus was God’s son, sent from God to be Israel’s Messiah and Lord over the entire world.
The first writings to be collected were letters, many from a traveling Christian leader named Paul.2 Others were written by early disciples named James, Peter, and John. The letters included in the New Testament were written to various churches or individuals and often addressed specific problems these early Christians faced.
As the Christian movement grew and stories about Jesus were told and retold, some decided to document the events of Jesus’ life so that accurate chronicles would exist for posterity. Tradition records that Matthew and John—original disciples who were eyewitnesses to many of the events they describe—each wrote one of these gospel accounts (gospel means “good news”) of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Two other gospels—that of Mark and Luke—were written by men who had direct access to the early followers of Jesus. They did research to verify the truth of their accounts as best they could.3
Luke also wrote a second book, known as the book of Acts or the Acts of the Apostles. This work details the history of the early Christian movement—that is, what happened after Jesus’ death and resurrection. John also wrote a second book, the apocalyptic text known as Revelation.4 Together with Paul’s letters and the gospels, these writings were widely circulated and read by churches across the Roman Empire by the end of the first century CE.
Additional writings about Jesus and the Christian movement appeared in the centuries that followed. The legitimacy of some was dubious; others were more clearly reputable. As with the Hebrew Bible, there are some texts that have been collected within the Apocrypha but are not included in the general canon of the Bible.
Most Christians believed that the earlier writings were inspired by God in a distinctive and compelling way. These earlier texts were authored by those in the first generation of Jesus’ followers—those who had actually seen Jesus after he rose from the dead. They gained universal acceptance among the vast majority of Christian groups and were consistent with the general beliefs and practices recognized in the early churches. These qualities motivated church leaders to begin identifying a “New Testament” that fulfilled what had been written in the “Old Testament.”5
By the end of the second century CE, numerous books were universally accepted as biblical: the four Gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John); Acts; the thirteen letters attributed to Paul; 1 Peter; and 1 John. The books of Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation faced a bit more scrutiny but were ultimately accepted as authoritative biblical texts.
In 367 CE, the respected church leader Athanasius published a universal list of the twenty-seven New Testament books. Together with the Old Testament, this canon forms the Bible we have today, which has been translated into numerous languages.
It’s important to understand that the compilation of the Old and New Testaments was not hugely controversial in the ways some modern writers have alleged. There were no closed-door meetings of powerful Jews or Christians who voted certain books in or out based on political agendas. And contrary to Dan Brown’s entertaining novel The Da Vinci Code, Emperor Constantine did not control the outcome.
Rather, the Bible slowly emerged as a sacred book because people of faith found purpose and meaning in its writings. Recognizing its lasting value, they preserved its writings for the generations that followed.
- Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (New York: Doubleday, 2003).
- See David B. Capes and Rodney Reeves, Rediscovering Paul: An Introduction to His World, Letters and Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007).
- For example, note the beginning of the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:1–4): “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”
- “Apocalyptic” means simply that it deals with the end times.
- The word “testament” might be better translated from the Greek as “covenant.” Early Christians believed that the Hebrew Bible described God’s “old covenant” with Israel, while the new writings described the “new covenant” God had offered to all people through Jesus.
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