Bible Origins – How did we get the Bible?
Bible Origins – Where and How did we get the Bible?
What about texts and translations?
The Bible as it is today is in two parts, the Old and the New Testament. The Old Testament was written mainly in Hebrew with a few passages in Aramaic, on papyrus or parchment. It consists of 39 books. The number of writers and the dates that the various books were written is uncertain.
Apart from the named books there may have been several scribes who contributed to Books of the Kings and Chronicles and although David composed most of the Psalms, some are attributed to other writers, and it is not known exactly how or when they were collected together into one book.
Job was probably the first book to be written, followed by the books of Moses, but Moses may have had access to earlier written records and verbal tradition. He wrote about 1500 BCE. The last writer to contribute was the prophet Malachi who wrote after the return from captivity in Babylon about 400 BCE. Many copies of the Old Testament would have been made during this period, particularly copies of the five books of Moses, known as the “Torah”. From these copies scribes in Alexandria translated the Old Testament into Greek sometime between 270 and 130 BCE. Christ and the Apostles quote from this Greek translation known as the Septuagint in their preaching, but they would also have had access to the original Hebrew scrolls in the local synagogues.
Nearly a thousand years later Hebrew scholars produced what is called the Masoretic text which updated the ancient Hebrew written language which by this time was only imperfectly understood by scholars, and which was no longer in common use.
The 27 books of the New Testament were written in Greek. With one exception the writers are all as stated. The exception is the Letter to the Hebrews which is not named, but the majority view is that it was written by the Apostle Paul.
About the year 400 CE. A scholar named Jerome translated into Latin a complete Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek documents, and this is called the “Vulgate”. It was generally available only to the scholars of the Roman Catholic Church. In the 13th and 14th centuries translations were made into French and secretly circulated, and in England John Wycliffe made a translation into English. In 1516 CE. the Dutch scholar Erasmus revised the New Testament from Greek and Latin documents not previously available, which resulted in a more accurate text. (There was an earlier translation into Latin which was copied and used in parts of Europe and North Africa).
In 1526 CE William Tyndale translated into English a complete a New Testament with part of the Old Testament. Ten years later Coverdale completed the Old Testament, and for the first time complete Bibles in English, known as the “Great Bible” were “Appointed to be read in churches” by King Henry VIII. With the return of Catholicism under Queen Mary Tudor, work on revising and improving the translation became impossible in England and was transferred to Geneva in Switzerland, where refugees from Mary’s persecution had settled. In 1560 the “Geneva Bible” was published. The Geneva Bible was a Calvinist publication and it was heavily annotated with anti-clerical comments, and it became the preferred translation in Protestant England. This translation also coincided with improvements in printing which made its production and distribution easier. In 1611 King James I commissioned the “Authorised Version” which was a revision based upon all previously available scholarship and this has remained in common use until the present day. The Geneva Bible continued in use under Cromwell and the Puritans, but when the monarchy was restored the marginal notes made it politically incorrect, and the King James Authorised Version gradually took over as the only Bible in production and in common use in England.
Meanwhile in Europe translations had been made into German, French and other European languages, but the Roman Catholic Church felt that it was not wise to have the Bible in the hands of the common people who would misunderstand it. Its distribution was suppressed, and existing copies seized and burned. Far from the Bible being misunderstood, the real fear of the Church was that reading the Bible would expose the way in which it was being misused and neglected.
In the 19th century the discovery of more ancient Greek texts, particularly the Codex Sinaiticus found in the Convent of St Catherine at the foot of Mt. Sinai in 1844, brought pressure for another revision and in 1885 the Revised Version was produced. This is still reckoned by many to be the most accurate translation available today, but this will always be a matter of opinion. About the same time Christian missionaries realised the need for the Bible to be available in all languages and in every country where they were preaching the gospel.
Gradually and persistently even the most obscure languages came to be understood and translations were made and printed. Now the American Bible Society reports that the Bible is available in over two thousand languages.
Following two world wars and the inevitable changes in the way people talked and used language, there were several attempts to produce Bibles that simplified the language and made the Bible easier to read and understand. This received great impetus in 1947 when a massive horde of very early manuscripts known as “The Dead Sea Scrolls” was found in caves in the Jordan Valley.
These date back to pre-Christian times, and are therefore of prime importance. Among the documents are parts of every Old Testament book except Esther. After years of scholarship devoted to these scrolls, scholars have concluded that after making careful comparisons, there are very few errors in our current versions of the Old Testament, and that the few they have found are not significant.
The version of the Bible which has found most favour in recent years is the New International Version which has a readable text suitable for the 21st century. First produced in 1979 it is constantly being revised and with each new printing the text changes slightly as current scholarship comes up with preferred readings. It has copious footnotes giving alternative renderings where translations are disputed, or the manuscript text in doubt. In recent years The New King James Version has come on the market, which is the 1611 Bible with minor corrections, and the language brought up-to-date.
Many other versions, particularly of the New Testament, have been published over the last hundred years or so, most of them aimed either at more accuracy in the text, or making the text more understandable to the modern mind. We must always bear in mind that there is one original inspired text which is the work of God, which we do not have, and that our Bible, whichever version we use, has been copied and translated by man. We must therefore make allowances for the differences we find from version to version. It is also reasonable to believe that God who gave us the Bible in the first place that we might understand and obey Him, would have continued to guide and protect His work through the many copyings, translations and revisions which it has undergone through the ages.
The Bible we have in our hands today is as much the Word of God now as it was when it was first written so many years ago.
To learn more see this article: THE HISTORY OF THE BIBLE