THE COMPILING OF THE BIBLE
What is the Bible? What process did the Bible undergo before it became the volume that we possess today? These are more than academic questions because they involve the authenticity of the Scriptures as God’s Word:
“The Bible being to us what it is, it is of the highest importance that we should be satisfied of the authenticity of the title-deeds of our faith; that we should be able to accept them, not with a blind and unintelligent belief, but with a clear understanding of the manner in which the several books came into existence, and of the means by which they have been handed down to us.” Sir Frederick Kenyon (Director and Chief Librarian of the British Museum, 1909-1930) in “The Story of the Bible”.
1: The Bible Defined
The word Bible stems from the Latin Biblia meaning “the books”. While this is not inaccurate, it would be more precise to call the Bible by the singular, The Book (Psalm 40:7, Hebrews 10:7).
In 2nd Timothy 3:16-17, Paul identifies the Bible by two names; “the holy scriptures” and “all scripture”. While these words appear similar they are actually quite distinct in the Greek original. “The holy scriptures” is a translation of hieros gramma which literally means “sacred writings”. All scripture, on the other hand, is constructed very differently; pas graphe. Both Vincent and Vine in their word studies show that graphe is often used of the individual passages of a book as opposed to the entire volume. What is interesting, however, is that gramma is often employed as the word meaning “letter”; Galatians 6:11. Therefore Paul may well have been stating that all the holy letters of the Bible were known by Timothy and that all the passages of the sacred writings were inspired. William Hendrickson, however, suggests that the “sacred writings” were all the letters of the Old Testament whereas “all scripture” included the Old Testament plus the body of New Testament inspiration. What is notable here is that Paul was emphasising the importance of every letter, every passage as well as every book within the volume of Scripture.
The word Scripture itself is a most important term defining what the Bible is. That word also is derived from the Latin and means “the writings”. There are numerous examples from within the Bible which indicate that it was ever emphasised as the book which God wrote (Hosea 8:12, Exodus 32:16, 2nd Kings 17:37). Our Lord constantly rebuffed Satan with the words “It is written”. Also the Bible is referred to as being The Word of God. This marks it out as being a powerful book and quite distinct from the words which man records (Ephesians 6:17, Hebrews 4:12).
2: The Bible Preceded
What would the world be like if we did not have a Bible? For the Christian this is a solemn question, yet there was no Bible in any form until the time of Moses who was born in 1500 BC approximately. Therefore for an astonishing 2500 years there were no sacred oracles. Did that mean the Lord’s people had no revelation during that period? Evidently not because throughout those years some of the godliest people in all history lived and worked; Abel, Seth, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. All of these people benefited from visions and dreams where God revealed himself. Also in the absence of an inspired history there was an oral tradition where the details of their past was passed from generation to generation, until the days of Moses when this was formulated into the inspired record of Genesis.
3: The Bible Inscribed
God employed approximately forty authors in the writing of the scriptures. Together they laboured for more than 1500 years until their record was completed with the “Amen” of John’s Apocalypse. These authors were diverse in education and experience yet their work was a unity which depicted Christ from beginning to end, “the alpha and the omega” (Revelation 1:8). We observe Christ in Abel’s simple offering, in the various sacrifices of the Levitical economy, in beautiful character types, in the glorious messianic prophecies in the Psalms and Isaiah, in the facts of his life in the Gospel, in the high doctrine of Paul and in the foretelling of the second advent. He is the prime subject without whom there would be no Bible. This blessed theme of redemption by Christ highlights the divine nature of the Book:
“You see, then, it was sometimes the artless and sublime simplicity of John; sometimes the impassioned elliptical, rousing, and logical energy of Paul, sometimes the fervour and solemnity of Peter; it was Isaiah’s magnificent and David’s lyrical, poetry, it was the simple and majestic narratives of Moses, or the sententious and royal wisdom of Solomon – yes it was all this; it was Peter, it was Isaiah, it Matthew, it was John, it was Moses; yet it was God.” Dr L Gaussen, “Theopneustia, The Plenary Inspiration of The Holy Scriptures.
The Scriptures were originally written on a variety of materials consistent with the learning of the age. We know for example that Moses would have inscribed his works on earthen clay, which was the material employed by the ancient Egyptians. Long before Christ, however, writing was inscribed onto Papyrus Scrolls. The Papyrus was made from the leaf of a delicate plant grown in Egypt. Each scroll was no longer that 40 feet, which would have corresponded to one Gospel. There have been been discoveries of manuscripts, however, showing that the skill was developed whereby these papyrus leaves could be bound into a volume as opposed to a scroll. By the 2nd Century vellum, which was leather material had superseded the papyrus and the codex, or the modern book form had become the norm.
The original writings by the pen-men of scripture are known as the autographs. They do not exist today as they have passed away into the dust of time. By virtue of a process of copying the words of the autographs, were passed on from generation to generation. What is particularly comforting is that no ancient book has the multitude of manuscripts corroborating the text as the Bible. It was a book used, accepted, loved, studied and copied with the greatest care. It was a book written by God and preserved by Him.
4: The Bible Completed
The completed Bible is divided into two major sections, The Old and The New Testaments. The word testament refers to a covenant which is an agreement. In order to redeem man God entered into a covenant with Christ. The Bible is the unfolding of this covenant which secured redemption for fallen man. The Old Testament contains details of the Law which was the covenant God made with Israel. Israel and indeed all humanity have failed to keep this covenant, which illustrates the necessity of a Covenant of Grace rather than of Works (Galatians 3:23-24).
A word key to our understanding of the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments is “Canon”. The word means a rule or a line. It was a matter of great concern for the ancient Jew and subsequently for the early Church that they identified those writings which were written according to the special rule, divine inspiration. Ultimately we believe that the Jews and the Church were guided by the Holy Spirit to discern what writings were canonical (inspired )and which were non- canonical (not inspired). The product of their deliberations were the 66 books in our English Bible.
The Old Testament was completed 400 years before Christ when Malachi wrote his prophecy. The Jews in an authoritative manner closed the Old Testament Canon about 100 years before Christ’s birth at a Council just south of modern Tel Aviv. They did not consider the Apocrypha to be inspired.
There is abundant historical evidence that all of the writings in the New Testament were written before 70AD, which corresponds with the generation of the Apostle’s of our Lord. It was some time, however, before they were gathered together into one volume. From the writings of Clement, Bishop of Rome, we know that this process was beginning before the close of the 1st Century. There is considerable evidence that in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries all of the writings in the New Testament were collected and considered as inspired. Miraculously these works were preserved despite the concentrated efforts of successive Roman Emperors to kill Christians and burn their sacred books. By the 4th Century Church leaders such as Jerome, Augustine and Athanasius were citing the 27 Books of the New Testament. There were, however, some disputed books; Hebrews, James, Peter’s letters and one of John’s epistles. It was at the 8th Council of Carthage, North Africa, in 397 AD that a decision was formally taken ratifying the New Testament we possess today. There were 3 simple tests that were used to determine whether a Book was inspired or not; (1) The writing had to be written by an apostle or under the influence of an apostle; (2) The writing must be consistent with the teaching of the apostles; (3) The writing had be used by Christians from the 1st Century.
5: The Bible Translated
An introduction to the Bible would not be complete without a look at the history of translation. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew with the exception of a small number of passages which were penned in Aramaic. As a consequence of the conquests of Alexander the Great (died in 323BC), however, the world was given a unified language, Koine or Common Greek. Many Jews could no longer speak or read Hebrew. The time had come for the first Bible translation. 72 scholars working in Alexandria, Egypt, produced a Greek version of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. This was the translation our Lord quoted from and read and it was the version which the apostles quoted as they wrote the books of the New Testament. In the providence of God the way was prepared for the New Testament age.
By the 4th Century the same problem arose again, because by this stage Latin had superseded Greek as the language of the empire. While there were some Latin translations of the Old and New Testaments most were certainly unreliable. It was a scholar called Jerome, who was commissioned by the Bishop of Rome, who undertake the mammoth task of translation. The product of Jerome’s work was the Latin Vulgate. While this work became a blessing to many it subsequently became a curse. As the Church plunged into the Dark Ages with the ascendancy of the Papacy, Jerome’s Vulgate became the only version countenanced. As Latin gradually became an extinct language the peoples of Europe were plunged into a darkness as they became a people without a Bible. To translate the Scriptures into the vernacular was deemed a crime punishable by death.
Nevertheless in England there was a desire to translate the Scriptures into the Anglo Saxon. Two of the most famous of these translators were “The Venerable Bede (674-735) and King Alfred (849-899). The first English translation of the Scriptures was completed by John Wycliffe in 1382. With Jerome’s Latin Vulgate as his manuscript he succeeded amid much opposition and earned himself the title “The Morning Star of the Reformation”.
Few inventions have been blessed more spiritually than the printing press, pioneered by a German called Johann Gutenberg. The Bible was major source of his business as he printed 200 copies on paper. Throughout Europe printing presses sprang up; the age of ignorance was nearing an end.
Before the Bible would be translated into the language of the people, one more piece of jigsaw had to be completed; a printed edition of the Greek New Testament where all the manuscripts would be compiled into one volume. Two scholars worked on this task; Erasmus (1527) and Stephanus (1550).
With all the tools necessary the Reformers considered it their life’s work to give their people the Bible. Luther led the way with his German Translation. Foremost among the English translators is William Tyndale who was martyred for his work. Throughout the 16th Century the Bible passed through a number of translations. These were all based on the work of Tyndale; Matthew’s Bible ‘s (1537), Coverdale’s Bible (1539, also known as the Great or the Chained Bible) and the Geneva Bible (1557). The crowning achievement of this golden period of scholarship, however, was the King James Version.