The history of the English Bible
The Old Testament contains 39 books written from approximately 1500 to 400 BC, and the New Testament contains 27 books written from approximately 40 to 90 AD. The Jewish Bible (Tanakh) is the same as the Christian Old Testament, except for its book arrangement. The original Old Testament was written mainly in Hebrew, with some Aramaic, while the original New Testament was written in common Greek.
The history of the “Bible” begins with the Jewish Scriptures. The historical record of the Jews was written down on leather scrolls and tablets over centuries, and the authors included kings, shepherds, prophets and other leaders. The first five books are called the Law, which were written and/or edited primarily by Moses in the early 1400’s BC. Thereafter, other scriptural texts were written and collected by the Jewish people during the next 1,000 years. About 450 BC, the Law and the other Jewish Scriptures were arranged by councils of rabbis (Jewish teachers), who then recognized the complete set as the inspired and sacred authority of God (Elohim). At some time during this period, the books of the Hebrew Bible were arranged by topic, including The Law (Torah), the Prophets (Nebiim), and the Writings (Ketubim). The first letters of these Hebrew words – T, N and K — form the name of the Hebrew Bible – the Tanakh. 1
Beginning as early as 250 BC, the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek by Jewish scholars in Alexandria, Egypt. This translation became known as the “Septuagint”, meaning 70, and referring to the tradition that 70 (probably 72) men comprised the translation team. It was during this process that the order of the books was changed to the order we have in today’s Bible: Historical (Genesis – Esther), poetic (Job – Song of Songs), and prophetic (Isaiah – Malachi). 2
Although the Jewish Scriptures were copied by hand, they were extremely accurate copy to copy. The Jews had a phenomenal system of scribes, who developed intricate and ritualistic methods for counting letters, words and paragraphs to insure that no copying errors were made. These scribes dedicated their entire lives to preserving the accuracy of the holy books. A single copy error would require the immediate destruction of the entire scroll. In fact, Jewish scribal tradition was maintained until the invention of the printing press in the mid-1400’s AD. As far as manuscript accuracy, the recent discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has confirmed the remarkable reliability of this scribal system over thousands of years 3 (I’ll get back to the Dead Sea Scrolls later).
After approximately 400 years of scriptural silence, Jesus arrived on the scene in about 4 BC. Throughout his teaching, Jesus often quotes the Old Testament, declaring that he did not come to destroy the Jewish Scriptures, but to fulfill them. In the Book of Luke, Jesus proclaims to his disciples, “all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” 4
Starting in about 40 AD, and continuing to about 90 AD, the eye-witnesses to the life of Jesus, including Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, Peter and Jude, wrote the Gospels, letters and books that became the Bible’s New Testament. These authors quote from 31 books of the Old Testament, and widely circulate their material so that by about 150 AD, early Christians were referring to the entire set of writings as the “New Covenant.” During the 200s AD, the original writings were translated from Greek into Latin, Coptic (Egypt) and Syriac (Syria), and widely disseminated as “inspired scripture” throughout the Roman Empire (and beyond). 5 In 397 AD, in an effort to protect the scriptures from various heresies and offshoot religious movements, the current 27 books of the New Testament were formally and finally confirmed and “canonized” in the Synod of Carthage.