So, where did the Bible come from? For a book that’s pretty much everywhere, it’s not a question that gets asked very much. But unlike that one U2 album you never asked for, that old book didn’t just magically appear in your life. Below, we try to find an answer to that question as quickly and simply as possible.
No matter what you believe, it’s hard to argue the Bible is anything less than the most influential book in history. That’s not hyperbole. It’s completely changed civilization—from the laws we make, to the words we use, to the lives we lead. It’s basically the Sgt. Peppers of human history, minus the creepy mustaches. Chances are, you’ve got a copy in your house right now. A recent study found nearly 9 out of 10 American households have at least one copy of the scriptures, despite their religious affiliation (or lack thereof).
Let’s be real, though. To fully represent the story of the Bible, we’d need more space than we have here. That’s because, for all its holy content, the history of the Bible is messy. Stretching across millennia and multiple languages, it involves vulgar translations, rampaging monarchs, and more than one burned heretic.
In the interest of your attention span (and mine), this is going to be a flyover—the 30,000-foot view. Before we take off, let’s be clear about where we’re going. This is the story of the Good Book, of how ancient words from the Middle East came to rest on your coffee table in middle America. This is not a defense of the authenticity or authority of the Bible. That’s a different topic for another day.
Now, if you’d be so kind, place your seat backs and trays in the upright position and pop that last second Dramamine. We’re taking off!
OLD WORLD LIVING
The oldest section of the Bible—the very aptly named Old Testament— consists of 39 separate books that tell one story: how God created the world, grew a nation, and began to use it to bless the world.
Before anyone called it the Old Testament, though, these writings formed the text of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Tanakh. The writings, which range from history to law to erotic poetry (making moms blush since 900 BC), were original recorded on scrolls of parchment. We’re talking way before the advent of bookbinding here, people.
Historians believe these scrolls might have started being collected into a volume during the reign of King Hezekiah of Judah (8th century BC). Overall, it’s believed as many as thirty-three different authors helped pen the 39 books of the Old Testament over the span of about 1,000 years. And you thought George R.R. Martin wrote slowly.
While generations came and went, these scrolls were incredibly important touchpoints for God and His people. We even see Jesus Himself (circa 30 AD) reading from one during a visit to the temple, recorded in Luke 4:16-20. Speaking of Jesus…
NEW WORLD STYLE
That brings us to the second half of the Bible, the New Testament. While it begins with four accounts of the life of Christ, those weren’t the first books to be written. That designation goes to our man Paul.
A pioneering missionary, Paul began writing letters about 20 years after the resurrection. Addressed to churches that were sprouting up all over the Middle East, he used the letters to encourage, teach, and even reprimand the early followers of Jesus. The texts proved so valuable, the churches went to great lengths to preserve and share them. As far as pen-pals go, Paul was on top of his game.
As the original followers of Jesus began to age and die, it became imperative that the stories of Christ be recorded. The first accounts of Jesus’ life, written by (and from) first-hand accounts of his disciples, began to be penned about 60-70 AD. Likewise, they were used by the early churches in worship and teaching.
Because Jesus Himself proclaimed the importance of what we currently call the Old Testament (Matthew 5:17-18), his early followers continued to revere both the Hebrew Bible and the then-modern letters and gospels written by the disciples of Jesus.
The need for an authorized Biblical canon became incredibly apparent following the aftermath of back-to-back heresies that rocked the early Church.
About 140 AD, a man named Marcion, who had been raised in the Church, became the chief of a movement to remove the Jewish backbone of the faith. Believing the God of the Hebrew Bible to be different than Jesus, he rejected the Old Testament, along with any “new” writings that appeared Jewish-centric—the books of Matthew, Mark, Acts, and Hebrews (among many others). What was left was a mutilated version of Luke’s gospel and about ten letters written by Paul.
Twenty years or so later, a man named Montanus tried to move the needle in the other direction. The leader of a Holy Spirit centered movement within the Church, Montanus was focused on new revelation. He believed himself to be the new prophetic mouthpiece for God, foretelling the speedy return of Christ, downplaying the importance of the Old Testament, and rejecting Jesus as the most important revelation from God.
Two sides of the coin were in play for the early Church. Marcion wanted to remove books from Scripture, while Montanus looked poised to add himself into the mix. The need for an authoritative canon for the faith was paramount. As the movement of Jesus continued to spread, there would be an ever-growing need for a central message for His followers to hold onto.
The one-two punch of Marcion and Montanus pushed the leadership of the churches to begin settling the canon. Archeological evidence shows that by 190 AD, they had begun to do so, establishing a New Testament very close to the one we know today and accepting the Jewish Bible as part of their holy set of texts. Despite Marcion’s ravings, the Church continued to teach that the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament were complements to each other, one fulfilling what the other had long promised.
OUT OF THE FRYING PAN
The burgeoning church movement continued to grow, despite on-again, off-again persecutions at the hand of the world superpower, Rome. Each Caesar took a different approach to the people of Jesus. Some, like Nero, were ruthless in their efforts, using the Christians as scapegoats for societal ills and systematically putting them to death. But many other Caesars simply chose to ignore the faith, assuming it to be just another religion among their pantheon. The persecutions perhaps took their most violent turn under the emperor Diocletian.
In 303 AD, Diocletian issued his first “Edict Against the Christians,” ordering the confiscation and destruction of the Christian scriptures and places of worship across the empire. It also led to the gruesome and public executions of many church leaders. I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say, the ancient Romans would have loved the Saw movies.
The fact that the emperor’s edict mentions the scriptures shows just how important the collected writings were to the Church. Despite heresies, political turmoil, and the difficulties of ancient life, the people of God were people of the book—in spite of the fact that most of them couldn’t read and probably didn’t own a copy. But the first dominoes in that chain would soon begin to fall.
THE VULGAR TRANSLATION
Three or so years after the rampage of Diocletian, the persecution of the early Church abruptly stopped with the ascension of Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor. No longer fearing for their lives, the believers of Jesus were free to come out of hiding. Still needing to create some guardrails for the faith that was continuing to spread, church councils were routinely called to settle matters of theology.
In 397 AD, the Council of Carthage established the orthodox New Testament canon, stamping their approval on the 27 books we still have to this day. In deciding which sacred writings made the cut and which were left behind, church leaders considered whether the writing was (a) directly tied to an original follower of Jesus (the disciples, Paul, etc.), (b) already used in Christian worship and (c) known to have a transformative influence over readers.
But just because the list of books was set doesn’t mean everyone had access to them. The world was continuing to change, and the Greek language of the New Testament, written some 300 years earlier, was giving way to the growth of Latin. Even within that language, there was a divide. Scholars typically used “classical Latin,” while commoners spoke “vulgar Latin.”
Enter St. Jerome. The priest and theologian spent over twenty years translating the whole of Scripture into the common Latin tongue. Because of the style of Latin he employed, Jerome’s translation came to be known as The Vulgate. For the next thousand years, Jerome’s vulgar translation was the most commonly used text in Christianity.
This was wildly important. At this point in history, Biblical ownership was exceedingly rare—there might be a Bible in the local church or a few copies in a nearby monastery. Because most people didn’t have the ability to read, the most common way to engage with Scripture was by listening to someone else read it (most likely a local priest). Jerome’s translation ensured common people had access to the scriptures by putting it in a language they could audibly understand.
HYPERSPEED FROM JOHN TO JAMES
I can see you starting to fade. Wake up. Stay with me. We’re going to make the jump to lightspeed and fly through the next 700 years of Bible history. Ready? Punch it, Chewie!
For the vast majority of the Middle Ages, Jerome’s Vulgate translation was the chief Bible engaged by followers of Jesus. But big changes began to occur in the late 1300s when a philosopher named John Wycliffe undertook a translation of Jerome’s Vulgate into English. The motivation was similar to Jerome’s—to put the words of God into a language common men and women could understand. While portions had been translated before him, Wycliffe’s Bible was the first full text in the English language.
At this point in history, and since the first followers of Jesus, there had only been one hurch—the Catholic church (catholic being a term derived from the Greek word for “worldwide”). While the common man suffered through the Middle Ages, the Church grew rich and powerful. Wycliffe, along with getting the Bible into a common language, began to question the state of privilege, wealth and power afforded to the clergy and the Church. He argued that Scripture was the only authoritative guide to the truth about God. This put him into the bad graces of Church leadership, including the Pope.
In 1384, Wycliffe suffered a stroke while conducting mass and died a few days later. But his death only propelled his ideas forward. So much so that, 31 years after his death, a Papal council declared him a heretic, excommunicated him, and insisted all his writings be burned. For good measure, they also dug up his bones, burned them to ashes, and threw them in a river. But the work of Wycliffe couldn’t be undone.
Jump to the mid-1400s, when a German inventor, Johannes Gutenberg, introduced the world to moveable type for mass printing. It changed human history. And so did the first book he chose to print: The Bible. Up until this point, copies of the Bible had to be completed by hand—an obviously grueling and time-intensive task. Gutenberg’s press set the stage for Bibles to be mass produced. Doubled up with the efforts of Wycliffe and others to get the Bible into common languages, the chess pieces for how that ancient text got onto your bookshelf were finally beginning to move.
Another jump, to 1525, to meet William Tyndale, an English scholar who undertook the task of completing an English translation of the scriptures from the original Hebrew and Greek (Wycliffe translated his version from the Latin). Tyndale undertook this task despite the fact that the death penalty was the punishment for anyone found in unlicensed possession of the scriptures in English. But Tyndale was determined. It’s said he once proclaimed that, if God gave him enough years, he’d see to it that common laborers would know more of the scriptures than scholars.
Tyndale’s English translation would be the first to take full advantage of the printing press. His actions were seen as a direct threat to the Catholic church, and made him a leader in the coming Protestant Reformation. But he was an equal opportunity offender—he also ran afoul of King Henry VIII of England for decrying his annulment of marriage to Catherine of Aragorn. After being betrayed by a friend, Tyndale was found guilty of heresy and sentenced to death. He was tied to a stake, choked to death, and then burned. His dying words were a prayer: “God, open the King of England’s eyes.”
Apparently, God did just that. Within four years of his death, four English translations of the Bible had been published in England at the king’s behest. Each one was based on Tyndale’s work.
As the Bible got more into the public life, thanks to the printing press and tireless work of translators, multiple editions of the Bible were produced. So much so that it began to get a bit confusing. Jump to 1604, when King James of England requests a definitive English translation of the Bible be completed and printed. Itself going through a few iterations, what we know now as The King James Version of the Bible has been the most widely printed book in history, influencing English language to an incalculable degree.
Like that rash on your arm (you really should go to the doctor for that), the Bible keeps silently growing and spreading. Walk into a bookstore now, and you’ll find as many Bible translations as Stephen King books. These different translations each have their own specific filter—some are translating from the original Hebrew and Greek, others from the Latin; some translate word-for-word, others translate for contextual meaning; you can pick up The Message, a paraphrase of the Bible in modern English and also, apparently, a Klingon and LOLCat versions (those last two not recommended for serious study).
As of today (seriously, you can track it right here), the full Bible has been translated into 704 different languages. When you add in partial translations, the number jumps to a whopping 3,415 different languages. Amazing! And yet, with over 7,000 unique languages identified on earth, that leaves nearly 3,500 languages, estimated to represent 255 million people, with no portion of Scripture in a language they can understand. The work of Jerome, Wycliffe, and Tyndale continues to be done to this very day.
Look out the window—I think I see runway lights. The seatbelt light is on, and they’re calling for the tray tables to go back into their upright position. This plane is ready to land. Did we see everything we wanted? Not even close. But I hope the vantage point of history does two things for you.
First, I hope it awakens you to the awareness that men and women have given all they have, even their very lives so that you could own a copy of the scriptures. I love Tolkien more than most, but I can tell you one thing, I ain’t dying, so you can read The Hobbit. But these titans of faith saw a value in you reading the Bible for yourself. Every time you pick it up, you honor their lives and legacies.
Second, and more importantly, there is a God behind these words. You may question its divine inspiration, you may cite worries about translations, you might scratch your head at confusing passages—but the fact remains, no other book has transformed so many lives, my own included. I have found the Bible to be my most direct line to God. And as I’ve gotten to know Him, I’ve found Him to be completely trustworthy, undeniably loyal, incredibly generous, and abounding in love.
Dare to crack the spine of that old book, even with its messy history, and I’m willing to bet you’ll find the same.