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History of the Bible

Learn About This Lesson

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, you will be able to:

  • List the forms of writing used in the Bible.
  • Describe the differences between the Old Testament and New Testament.
  • Explain the importance of biblical translation in the growth and expansion of Christianity.
  • Identify major biblical translations of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Inquire: The Importance of the Bible for Christians

Overview

Decorative: Closed Bible on a reading standAs the core sacred and authoritative text for Christianity, the Bible is essential to Christian understanding of the relationship between God and humankind.

It plays a central role in the worship and lives of Christians all over the world. Christians use Scripture in church worship or liturgy to put themselves in relationship with God’s saving acts. In their personal lives, Christians rely on the Bible to provide a framework for their spiritual development and behavior. The Bible also informs how they view and understand the broader human existence.

In this lesson, we will take a deeper look at the Bible. We will identify and describe its different components and discuss when and how the different parts of the Bible were written. Finally, we will examine the process through which the original biblical texts were made available in vernacular languages via translation.

Big Question

How and when was the Bible written and translated?

Read: The Different Kinds of Writings in the Bible

Introduction

For Christians, the Bible is a sacred text that records the relationship between God and humankind. Christians believe that the writings collected in the Bible are divinely inspired and authoritative.

The word Bible, from the Greek word biblia, means “books.” The Bible consists of two sections. The first, the Old Testament, includes the content of the Jewish Bible, or the Tanakh. The second section of the Bible is called the New Testament. It consists of gospels that recount the life and teachings of Jesus, a history of the early church, letters – or epistles – written to instruct Christians, and a text from the tradition of apocalyptic literature.

Old Testament

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BHS Hebrew Tanakh

For Christians, the Old Testament sets the scene for the coming of Jesus, who fulfills its leading themes and institutions and brings redemption to humankind. It consists of 39 books, which correspond to the 24 books of the Tanakh, and additional books that split texts in the Christian Bible into separate books.

The Old Testament was written almost entirely in Hebrew, the language of Israel, with some brief sections written in Aramaic, an international language used for diplomacy in the ancient Near East. Traditionally, the different books of the Old Testament are divided into four types of writings.

The Books of the Law — These books are also referred to as the Five Books of Moses –  reflecting the tradition that Moses authored these texts – and the Torah, or Pentateuch. These books include Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  Genesis describes the creation of the world, the establishing of the nation of Israel, and God’s covenant with his chosen people. The books tell the early history of the people of Israel, including their exodus from Egypt and eventual entry into the promised land, the giving of the Law to Moses and the implications of the Law for Israel. The historical pattern of covenant, fall, judgement, and redemption that begins in Genesis remains consistent throughout the Old Testament.

The Historical Books — This division includes Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. Together, these books can be thought of as telling one long narrative lasting approximately 1,000 years. This narrative recounts the life of the people of Israel from their experiences in the promised land of Canaan to subsequent exiles due to their unbelief and disobedience. These books also tell about the reigns of the judges, the establishment of kings, and the division of Israel into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. The descriptions of events in these books are more often concerned with an important religious teaching about God and God’s relationship with Israel than they are about the historical facts of the events themselves.

The Prophets — These 17 books contain the writings of individuals, inspired by the Holy Spirit, who cried out over the moral struggles and failings of the Israelites. The books are arranged roughly in historical order and include the five books of the major prophets and the 12 books of the minor prophets. The major prophets include: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel. The minor prophets include: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. The use of the terms “major” and “minor” is not a reflection of the relative importance of the different prophets. It simply refers to the length of the books.

Wisdom Literature — This division consists of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. These books deal with the a genre of writing that focuses on existential questions about God, humanity, creation, and the nature of evil and suffering. Wisdom literature could take the form of short, memorable insights (as in the book of Proverbs) or a dialogue (as in the book of Job, where Job, Job’s friends, and God engage in a conversation that teaches and enlightens the reader).

New Testament

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Colored version of the Whore of Babylon illustration from Martin Luther’s 1534 translation of the Bible

The New Testament consists of 27 books and deals primarily with the significance, life, and teachings of Jesus, as well as the establishing of the early church and the lives of Christians following the death of Jesus. The New Testament was written in Koine Greek and consists of four types of writings: gospels, history, letters or epistles, and a text from the tradition of apocalyptic literature.

Gospels — The word gospel comes from the Old English godspel, meaning “good news.”  This term was used to translate the Greek word euangelion. Gospels, as a tradition of writing, are a form of ancient biography that focused on providing examples from a person’s life, as well as their teachings, in order to preserve that person’s memory and reputation.  The gospels in the New Testament consist of the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These books focus on the life and teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. For Christians, this is the “good news” that forms the foundation of their faith.

History — The Book of Acts tells the story of Christianity in the 1st century, beginning with the ascension of Jesus to Heaven. Acts can be neatly divided into two sections, the first dealing primarily with the ministry of Peter in Jerusalem and Samaria (Acts 1–12) and the second following Paul on his missionary journeys throughout the Roman Empire (Acts 13–28). In its early chapters, set in Jerusalem, Acts describes the Day of Pentecost (the coming of the Holy Spirit) and the growth of the church in Jerusalem. Initially, the Jews are receptive to the Christian message, but soon, they turn against the followers of Jesus. The later chapters tell of Paul’s conversion and how, primarily through his ministries, the gospel reaches the Gentiles.

Letters or Epistles —An epistle is a letter, or message, and is part of the letter-writing genre of the ancient world. In the Hellenistic traditions of Ancient Greece and Rome,  epistles were a primary form of written communication. There are 21 epistles in the New Testament, written as letters to churches or individuals. 13 of these letters are attributed to the Apostle Paul, and eight are regarded as “general” epistles. The epistles in the New Testament usually follow a familiar format. Most of Paul’s letters, for example, begin with an introduction that identifies him as the author (along with any associates), specifies his audience, and provides a greeting. This introduction is followed by an introduction of the main topic of the letter, and then the main body.

Apocalyptic Literature — The Book of Revelation, or the Apocalypse, is the last book of the Bible. Its title is derived from the first word of the text, written in Koine Greek: apokalypsis, meaning “unveiling” or “revelation.”  The Book of Revelation is part of a genre of prophetic writing, called apocalyptic literature, that developed in post-Exilic Jewish culture. Apocalyptic literature details the authors’ visions of the end times as revealed by an angel or other heavenly messenger.

It begins with John, on the island of Patmos in the Aegean, addressing a letter to the “Seven Churches of Asia”. He then describes a series of prophetic visions, including figures such as the Whore of Babylon and the Beast, culminating in the Second Coming of Jesus. This book contains an account of visions in symbolic and allegorical language borrowed extensively from the Old Testament, especially Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Daniel.

Reflect: Biblical Forms Familiar to 21st-Century Readers

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In your opinion, which of the different forms of writing contained in the Bible is most familiar to readers in the 21st century?

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Expand: The Writing and Translation of the Bible

Writing and Collection of Original Biblical Texts

It is not possible to know exactly when all the books of the Old Testament were finally assembled. Some of the writings in the Jewish Scriptures may go back as far as 1100 B.C., but the process of bringing the books together probably didn’t begin until the 5th century. This collection process continued for multiple centuries while new books were still being written.

As early as the 3rd century BCE, a group of Jewish scholars began translating the Books of the Law into Koine Greek, which had become a shared language around the eastern Mediterranean and into Asia Minor as a consequence of the conquests of Alexander the Great. This translation was known as the Septuagint, and its translations of Hebrew Scripture continued into the 1st century BCE. This was the main version of the Jewish Scriptures used by early Christians.

The New Testament books, authored c. 50 CE – 95 CE, were written in Koine Greek. They were passed on and read as single books or letters and collected into the standard Christian canon of 27 books over a period of approximately 300 years. Early church leaders and councils argued about which New Testament writings should be considered sacred and inspired until, in 367 CE, the bishop of Alexandria (named Athanasius) wrote a letter that listed the 27 books he said Christians should consider authoritative. His list was accepted by most of the Christian churches.

The Translation of the Bible into Vernacular Language

New Testament Cover Page, 1579.

While the Bible was written in the classical languages of the ancient world — Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic — the spread of Christianity throughout the world, as well as its influence on Western cultures, can be attributed in large part to its translation into vernacular languages.

We have already mentioned the Septuagint, which translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Koine Greek, the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean and into Asia Minor. This was the version of the Old Testament known to early Christians.

In the late 4th century CE, the priest, theologian, and historian named Jerome translated the Old Testament into Latin from the original Hebrew. He also updated existing Latin texts of the New Testament Gospels using available Greek manuscripts. This Latin translation was known as the Vulgate and was the primary version of the Bible used throughout the Middle Ages.

The first English translations of the Bible were carried out under the direction of John Wycliffe, an English seminary professor at Oxford, and appeared over a period from approximately 1382 to 1395. Wycliffe’s idea was to translate the Bible into the vernacular, saying “it helpeth Christian men to study the Gospel in that tongue in which they know best Christ’s sentence.”1 The translations of the Wycliffe Bible were made from the Latin Vulgate and not from Greek or Hebrew manuscripts.

The 16th century CE heralded a new era of biblical translation. This work began with efforts by the Dutch Catholic priest and humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam. Erasmus sought to produce a textually accurate Greek New Testament based on available manuscripts. To that end, he compiled several handwritten Greek manuscripts and oversaw their printing in 1516. Erasmus made alterations to his text, and subsequent editions were produced in his lifetime, in 1519, 1522, 1527 and 1535. This edition of the Greek texts served as the foundation for a number of important translations generated in the 16th century CE. These include: (1) the Luther Bible (1522-1534), a German-language Bible translation from Hebrew and ancient Greek by Martin Luther; (2) the Tyndale Bible (c. 1494–1536), the body of biblical translations by William Tyndale, and the first English translation to work directly from Hebrew and Greek texts; (3) the Coverdale Bible (1535), compiled by Myles Coverdale and the first complete Modern English translation of the Bible;  and (4) the Reina-Valera translation (first edition 1569), a Spanish-language Bible that served as the main Spanish-language translation for the next 400 years.

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King James Bible 1612-161, cover.

At the beginning the 17th century CE, King James I of England commissioned a new translation. More than 50 scholars were assembled for the task, working at Westminster, Oxford, and Cambridge. Their final translation was published in 1611 and became known as the “Authorized Version,” or the “King James Version” of the Bible. It was the standard and most widely used English translation of the Bible until the end of World War I in 1918.

 

Translations in the 20th and 21st Centuries 

Two occurrences precipitated the growth of new translations, as well as revisions of older ones, in the 20th and 21st centuries. First, the languages targeted by older translations changed over the years. New words developed, and old words changed meanings. New linguistic structures developed. These changes necessitated revisions of existing translations to ensure that biblical texts remained understandable. Such changes led to revisions of the King James Bible, such as the English Revised Version (British English, 1885), and the American Standard Version (American English, 1901).

Opportunities for new translations also arose from the abundance of ancient manuscripts made available through archeological works. One particularly significant find was the discovery of The Dead Sea Scrolls in a series of 12 caves around the site known as Wadi Qumran near the Dead Sea in the West Bank (of the Jordan River) between 1946 and 1956.

Toolbox

How the Bible Came to Us

An overview of the formation, writing, collection and translation of Scripture.
The Learning Bible

Bible

An extensive introduction to the Bible, its origins, history, and different versions.

Watch: The Bible Explored: A Brief History (8:14)

A video that provides a brief overview of the history of the Bible.
Canadian Bible Society

Glossary

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  • apocalyptic literature
    A genre of prophetic writing, called apocalyptic literature, that developed in post-Exilic Jewish culture. Apocalyptic literature details the authors' visions of the end times as revealed by an angel or other heavenly messenger.
  • epistles
    An epistle is a letter, or message, and is part of the letter-writing genre of the ancient world. In the Hellenistic traditions of Ancient Greece and Rome, epistles were a primary form of written communication.
  • gospels
    A form of ancient biography that focused on providing examples from a person’s life, as well as their teachings in order to preserve that person’s memory and reputation.
  • Koine Greek
    The common supra-regional form of Greek spoken and written during Hellenistic and Roman antiquity and the early Byzantine era, or Late Antiquity. It served as the lingua franca of much of the Mediterranean region and the Middle East following the rule of Alexander the Great, and was the(...)
  • Tanakh
    The Hebrew Bible, or the canonical collection of Jewish texts, which is also a textual source for the Christian Old Testament.