For most of my childhood, I pictured a man writing the Bible by candlelight, alone in his room. As he wrote, God spoke the exact words to him. That was Scripture. However, that’s not exactly what happened. In fact, scholars around the world still debate exactly how the Bible got into our hands.
Scholars do know that the Old Testament came to us largely by oral tradition. Jewish children in the time of Jesus usually memorized the first five books of the Bible or the Torah, by the age of 12. By adulthood, many Jews would have the entire Tanach (Old Testament) memorized. However, following Jesus’ death, writers drew from first-hand accounts to assemble their Gospels. As a result, oral tradition was virtually eliminated in the recording of the Greek Testament (New Testament).
The Time Before the Greek Testament
Jews and most Christians believe that God gave the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai during the 40 years of desert wandering that followed the Jews’ imprisonment in Egypt. The Torah is the basic law and basis for Jewish customs. The Tanach then traces the history of these people through stories, poetry, prophetic letters and explorations of faith. By the time of Jesus, the Tanach was well established.
Several traditions such as the Catholic and Greek Orthodox added books into their Bibles that were not added into the Jewish Tanach such as Solomon’s Wisdom and the stories of the Maccabees. These were often understood as sacred stories (even in Protestant Bibles) bound in the Bible, but were relegated to a section called the Apocrypha. Thus, they walked a fine line between divine inspiration and divine influence.
Meeting the People that Hiked with Jesus
According to Paul Wegner, the Greek, or New, Testament was finished by the end of the first century. After Jesus was killed, Paul began writing letters to established churches across the Roman Empire. Following this, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John began interviewing people for their respective versions of the Gospels. There is still some debate as to who wrote their gospel first, because they may have borrowed text from one another. Letters like Peter, James and Hebrews were written a little later. Within the 50 years following the death of Jesus, a strong body of work had been already established.
Some scholars have asked how anyone can know that these works are valid? Given that there were still witnesses to Jesus’ death at the time the writings were circulating, it would be hard to write something false. If stories were being circulated today about John F. Kennedy being raised from the dead, this point would be easily refuted by the many witnesses to his death and burial. In the same way, the writings about Jesus occurred shortly after His resurrection. In addition, historians like Josephus and Tacitus, as well as other Christian writers wrote about the early church and its influence.
Setting the Standard
However, as the witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection started dying, people began to “discover” lost gospels or “writings” of the apostles. In fact, in order to push their own agendas, many put an apostle’s name on their own writings to give them credibility. This wasn’t new. This had occurred centuries earlier when some obscure writings surfaced that were falsely attributed to Moses or other Jewish prophets.
As a result of this kind of confusion, the early church needed to find a standard for canonizing, or authenticating, specific scripture. If a new writing was found, and actually had the divine stamp on it, they didn’t want to reject it. However, if a new writing was fake, they didn’t want to accept it either.
Paul Wegner reported that there were four criteria in the early church that helped them make this decision:
Was the book written by an apostle, or at least someone of recognized authority?
Did it agree with the canon of truth?
Did it enjoy universal acceptance?
Did it have a self-authenticating divine nature?
Following these criteria, numerous books were unapproved for the Greek Testament and a few were kept. Examples of those that did not make the cut: The Shepherd, The Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Mary Magdalene and Acts of Andrew. In fact, there are over 75-recorded New Testament Apocryphal books!
As early as 60 CE, Clement of Rome quotes six books from the Bible. The significance of this cannot be over expressed. By showing that books were canonized early in the Christian history, it increases the overall validity. There are at least 13 major Christian scholars that quote scripture from the Greek Testament between 60-296 CE. In fact, Clement of Alexandria gives a comprehensive list of canonical Scriptures in 220 CE. Thus, a firm foundation of what had been accepted happened quickly after the writings.
The Bible Goes Latin
St. Paul’s letters were distributed and rewritten quickly. In fact, he even asks that his letters be circulated (Colossians 4:16). Thus, to the people of the time, keeping the original copy was not as important as getting the message out.
By 250 CE, Latin had become the main language of Christian theologians. Thus, by 382 CE theologians were anxious for a Latin version of the Bible. As a result, The Latin Vulgate was compiled by Jerome, the secretary to Pope Damasus I. This was between the years of 382-405 CE. This version of the Bible was used for over a thousand years. The Reformers used this as their main translation when putting the Bible into a language that the people could understand.
The Roman Catholic Church believed that due to illiteracy and lack of educational pursuits, that it would be dangerous for the common person to have access to the Bible in their own language. Thus, it was not translated into the language of the people for nearly a thousand years. They believed that only a trained theologian could properly interpret the Bible.
Translating to a Foreign Culture
Between the years of 1471-1521, many new translations of the Bible were created. Numerous world events sparked these changes. The invention of the printing press made it more cost effective to make the Bible available on a large scale. The Fall of Constantinople gave more original Greek manuscripts to the West. The Renaissance created a revival in the interest of knowledge.
An interesting dynamic began when numerous translations were being released. When an official came to power, they wanted a translation that reflected their own theology. Often a new king or queen would burn many of the old versions and then reinstate their approved version. Despite this, versions around the world survived. Monks would hide their oldest copies or manuscripts would be hidden in caves. Also, churches would often protect their ancient versions of the Bible.
In 1947, a shepherd boy discovered parts of the oldest complete Hebrew manuscript of the Tanach. Eventually parts of all the Tanach were found except Esther and Nehemiah. These came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Researchers found that the current translations were very accurate and consistent with later texts. In the 20th century numerous versions were released. Improved knowledge and further archeological evidence confirmed translations and helped to offer stronger translations. As archeology and academia continue to make new discoveries, each generation gets an increasingly more accurate translation of the Scripture.