A Brief History of the Bible

All Scripture is breathed out by God…
(2 Timothy 3:16)

Two of the great interests of my life are the Bible and history. It is only recently that I brought these two loves together to dive into the history of the Bible. Maybe it is because I am a gigantic nerd, but as I dove in I became fascinated by how God has preserved His Word over the centuries. I decided to share a brief overview of my journey, because I thought that some, like me, might be interested in how we got the Bible we hold in our hands.

The majority of the information that follows came from How We Got the Bible (3rd Edition) by Neil R. Lightfoot. I would strongly recommend Lightfoot’s book as it is greatly informative and easily accessible. One additional note to the reader before beginning, all dates unless otherwise indicated are AD.


The Tools to Write the Bible

I believe it is helpful to begin with a brief look at the tools used in the writing of the Bible. First, the Bible was written using many different materials. We find five writing materials mentioned in the Bible: stone (i.e. Exodus 31:18), clay (i.e. Ezekiel 4:10, wood (i.e. Numbers 17:2-3), metals (Exodus 28:36), papyrus (i.e. 2 John 12), and parchment (i.e. 2 Timothy 4:13).

The last of which, parchment, was the primary material for transcribing the biblical text from the early church through the reformation. Beginning in the 2nd-century, these parchments and papyri began being collected into a codex. The codex was a collection of writings bound in the form of a book (the precursor to modern day books).

Second, the Bible was written in different languages. The Old Testament was primarily written in Hebrew, with a few sections written in Aramaic (the common language of the Jews after the exile). The New Testament was written in Greek, which was the most common language throughout the Mediterranean world during the days of the early church.

Third, the transmission of the Bible has heavily relied upon scribes. While the content of Scripture was originally passed from one generation to the next orally, as they began to be written, scribes took up the painstaking work of copying the text word-for-word in order to pass the Scriptures to the next generation. As a result, scribes made the second most important human contribution to the Bible next to the original writers.


The Writing of the Bible

The Apostle Peter wrote in 1 Peter 1:21, ” for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” This verse, taken in connection with 2 Timothy 3:16-17, provides the foundation for the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture. That is, the Biblical writers were inspired by God to write His Word. It is unclear exactly how this process occurred, but that it did occur is testified in Scripture.

There were at least forty different human authors of Scripture writing over 1600 years. The books of the Old Testament were collected over centuries and were solidified into an accepted collection by the time of Jesus. The New Testament was collected over a shorter period of time (approximately 50 years) and the accepted collection of New Testament books was finalized by the end of the 4th-century.


The Canon of the Bible

The word ‘canon’ means a standard or rule, but came to be used of the books acknowledged to be uniquely inspired by God. When we speak of the canon, we are talking about which books belong in the Bible and which do not belong. Each testament had its own unique canonization process.

The Old Testament Canon. Little is known of how the Old Testament canon came to be recognized; however, it is clear that it was recognized by the time of Jesus. Jesus and the apostles quoted from nearly every book of the Old Testament canon and Jesus spoke of the three-fold division of the Hebrew canon: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. The Hebrew canon consisted of 22 books. Now this might be surprising since the English Bible consist of 39 books; however, this issue is easily resolved. The modern English canon divides the book of Samuel into 1 & 2 Samuel, likewise with Kings and Chronicles. Also the Hebrew canon combines Judges & Ruth, Jeremiah & Lamentations, Ezra & Nehemiah, and all 12 of the minor prophets. Thus resulting in 22 books in the Hebrew and 39 in the English.

The New Testament Canon. More is know of the canonization process of the New Testament. In the early church, the church predominately read the Old Testament Scriptures. However, beginning in the middle of the 2nd-century, churches began reading more extensively from the writings of the apostles. As this change began to occur, disagreements arose over which of these writings were authoritative (canonical) and which were not. By the 3rd-century, lists of canonical books began to circulate. The earliest list included the four gospels, Acts, the 13 letters of Paul, 2 letters of John, Jude, and Revelation, along with the Wisdom of Solomon and the Apocalypse of Peter. Over time, these last two books were dropped because they did not have wide acceptance among the churches, and five additional books were added as they received wide recognition of canonicity: Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, and 3 John. In 367, a list of the 27 books of the New Testament were published as accepted by the church as canonical.

Before moving on, a brief word needs to be said about the canonization process. As Lightfoot notes, “It is important to emphasize that no church council made the canon of Scripture. No church by its decrees gave to or pronounced on the books of the Bible their infallibility.” The canonization process was not to place authority on these books, but rather to recognize their inspiration and authority.


The Manuscripts of the Bible

One of the greatest misunderstandings of the history of the Bible is there are original, complete copies of the text. The ancient nature of the writings means there are only copies of the original available. These copies are generally referred to as manuscripts. The task of scholars is to compare and contrast the manuscripts to create the best representation of the original text.

Old Testament Manuscripts. Scholars have historically relied on five Hebrew manuscripts for transcribing and translating the Old Testament.

  1. The Aleppo Codex is a 10th-century manuscript that contains a majority of the Hebrew Old Testament.
  2. The Leningrad Codex is the oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible and dates to the early 11th-century.
  3. The Cairo Codex is a late 9th-century manuscript that includes most of the prophets.
  4. The Leningrad Codex of the Prophets dates to the early 10th-century and includes many of the prophets.
  5. British Library Codex of the Pentateuch is believed to date to the 9th-century and contains a majority of the first five books of the Old Testament.

While many of the Old Testament manuscripts are rather late (over 1000 years after the originals were written), the nature of the scribal process for the Old Testament provides confidence in the transmission of the Old Testament manuscripts. The Massorestes painstakingly transcribed the Hebrew Old Testament for over 500 years. The reason for the absence of older Hebrew manuscripts is that once a new copy was available, the Hebrews destroyed their older, more worn copies because of the absolute confidence in the transcribing process.

Our confidence in this transcribing process is also aided by an unintentional discovery in 1948. In March of that year, a young boy was looking for a lost goat and stumbled across some old scrolls in a cave near the ancient Qumram community. These scrolls found their way to a couple of Hebrew scholars who recognized them as old manuscripts consisting of parts of the Old Testament. These scholars then made their way back to these caves near the Dead Sea to look for more manuscripts. In all about 200 manuscripts of the Old Testament were discovered dating between 200 BC and 100 AD, thus providing Hebrew manuscripts that were 1000 years older than any previously known Old Testament manuscript. As the scholars began comparing and contrasting these older manuscripts with the newer manuscripts, they found the overwhelming majority were identical to the later manuscripts they had been using for centuries.

New Testament Manuscripts. The New Testament has primarily relied on three Greek manuscripts which provide the oldest and most complete copies of the New Testament.

  1. The Vatican Manuscript contains the majority of the Old and New Testaments and dates to the 4th-century. It is believed to be the most exact copy of the New Testament in existence.
  2. The Sinaitic Manuscript contains the complete New Testament and much of the Old Testament and also dates to the 4th-century. It contains the oldest complete copy of the New Testament.
  3. The Alexandrian Manuscript contains most of the Old and New Testaments and dates to the 5th-century. It was the first of the three major manuscripts to be discovered.

Along with these three primary manuscripts, modern archeology has uncovered a host of papyri codices and fragments that have aided in understanding the ancient Greek language and the text of the New Testament. In 1750, over two thousand papyrus rolls were discovered near Mount Vesuvius. In the late 1800s, a large number of ancient papyri were discovered being used as wrappings for several mummies. Around the same time, two archaeologists found fragments of a papyrus codex dating back to the 3rd-century. In the 1930s, Chester Beatty announced the discovery of eleven ancient manuscripts. Finally in the 1950s, Martin Bodmer found a large number of papyrus fragments written in Greek and the Coptic language. These fragments proved valuable in that while many of them were older than the three primary manuscripts, they also largely supported the text as has been passed down for centuries. As Neil Lightfoot comments, “Discoveries of this kind make us more certain than ever of the reliability of our modern text.”

Textual Criticism. Before moving on, a brief word about textual criticism is necessary. The science of evaluating the various manuscripts is called textual criticism. The goal of textual criticism is to get as close to the original text as possible. This is accomplished by comparing and contrasting the various manuscripts. Let’s take John 7:52-8:11 for example, because it is a disputed text. While many of the later manuscripts contain these verses, the earliest and best manuscripts do not. Therefore, textual critical scholars make the reasonable inference that these verses were added sometime later and are most likely not original to the text. If you look at these verses in your Bible, they are most likely separated by brackets or at the very least there is a footnote stating something to the effect of “the verses do not appear in the earliest manuscripts.” While there are many of these variations, it is comforting to know that none significantly affects Christian theology.


Ancient Translations of the Bible

As noted earlier, the Bible was written primarily in Hebrew and Greek; however as the gospel spread to other parts of the world, it became necessary to translate the Bible into other languages.

Old Testament Translations. While the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic, the Old Testament began to be translated into additional languages very early. The earliest and most important translations were in Greek, Aramaic, Syriac, and Latin.

  1. The Septuagint was an early Greek manuscript of the Old Testament. It is, perhaps, the most important translation ever made of the Old Testament, because it was the primary text the New Testament writers used as they studied and quoted the Old Testament.
  2. The Targums were an Aramaic translation of the the Pentateuch and the Prophets.
  3. The Peshitta was a Syriac translation of the Old Testament which almost uniformly agrees with the Massoretic Hebrew text.
  4. The Vulgate was a Latin translation of the Bible. Although the translator originally intended to translate the Old Testament from the Septuagint, he would learn Hebrew and translate from the Hebrew manuscripts available to him. 

New Testament Translations. Much like the Old Testament, as the New Testament began to be widely read, it was also translated into other languages. The oldest translations are found in three languages: Syriac. Coptic, and Latin.

  1. The Diatessaron is a late 1st-century translation of the four gospels in Syriac. It is believed to be the oldest copy of any portion of the New Testament.
  2. The Sahidic and Bohairic Versions are Coptic translations of the New Testament that date to the early 3rd-century. The Coptic translations are especially valuable because they have been well-preserved.
  3. The Vulgate, as noted earlier, is a Latin translation. Portions of the Bible began to be translated into Latin as early as the late 2nd-century. However, Bishop Damasus of Rome decided to compile the various Latin portions of Scripture into a single codex in the late 4th-century. Damasus commissioned Eusebius Hieronymus (a.k.a. Jerome) for this task. While Jerome was not the only editor, his work led to what would eventually become known as the Latin Vulgate. The Vulgate is especially important because it became the official Bible of the Catholic Church.

In the early 16th-century, many Christians desired a definitive Greek text of the New Testament. In 1516, Erasmus published the first printed Greek New Testament. In the 1550s, Robert Estienne printed his own Greek New Testament. His version finds it’s importance in that he was the first to divide the text into verses. Then in the late 16th-century, Theodore Beza published several editions of a Greek New Testament that became known as the “Received Text” and became the official Greek text of the New Testament. However, all of these versions suffered many of the same flaws. Each was translated from later Greek manuscripts, while many older Greek manuscripts had been discovered. These flaws led Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort to publish a new Greek New Testament using the oldest and best manuscripts in the late 19th-century. Since then, the Westcott-Hort Greek New Testament has proved consistently reliable, even amid new discoveries of older manuscripts.


The English Translation of the Bible

While the Bible has been translated into 698 languages (as of October 2019, according to Wycliffe Global Alliance), as an English speaker writing to a predominately English-speaking audience, I will focus exclusively on English translations. 

The English translation of the Bible began in the 7th-century, though the first English translation of the entire Bible would not be published until John Wycliffe in 1382 (Wycliffe translated from the Latin Vulgate). Following Wycliffe, William Tyndale translated an English version from the original Greek and Hebrew in the 16th-century. Several other English translations followed Tyndale, of special note is the Geneva Bible in 1560 and the Bishop’s Bible in 1568. However, less than 100 years after Tyndale’s translation would come the translation that became the primary translation of the English-speaking people for the next three centuries, the King James Bible.

In 1604, at the Hampton Court Conference, the king of England and several representatives of various Christian groups met to discuss religious tolerance. During this conference, a call was made to produce a new English translation. Three years later, 48 Hebrew and Greek scholars began revising the Bishop’s Bible. Four years later, the Authorized Version of 1611 (a.k.a. the King James Version) was published and distributed. Two years after the Authorized Version of 1611 was released, a new edition with over four hundred corrections was published. Since that time the Authorized Version has seen countless more corrections as knowledge of Hebrew and Greek has increased and as older, better manuscripts have been discovered.

It must be remembered the goal of the Authorized Version of 1611 was to create a Bible that was as closely aligned as possible to the original manuscripts, as well as being readable for the common man. Since then, many updates, revisions, and new translations have been published over the last two centuries based on the discovery of older, better manuscripts and the evolution of the English language. At the same time, different methods of translations have also been utilized. Until the 19th-century, the primary method of translating and publishing the Scriptures was literal, word-for-word translation. However, over the last century, many dynamic translations have also been published which provide a thought-for-thought translation (most notable is the NIV). At the same time, many paraphrase translations have also been published (though these are not strictly speaking translations). The good news is that our Bibles are now closer to the original manuscripts, more accessible to the common reader, and translated into more languages than at any time in recent history in fulfillment of Jesus’ promise: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”



All quotes: How We Got the Bible (3rd edition) by Neil R. Lightfoot (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2003).

All Scriptures: The Holy Bible : English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001).



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