The Bible has a fascinating history. Over the centuries some have sought to destroy copies of Scripture in hopes of curtailing its influence, while others have given their lives so that people could have a copy of the Bible in their own language. What would cause such passionate reactions? It is the fact that the Bible is the very Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16–17; 2 Peter 1:20–21), and its content is vital to living a life pleasing to God.
But the Bible was not just dropped from Heaven. More than 40 human authors were “carried along” (pherō) by the Holy Spirit to produce the Word of God (2 Peter 1:20–21). This Word of God is said to be “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12, ESV) and has been changing lives throughout history.
Scripture begins in Genesis with mankind living in perfect harmony with God and creation, until sin entered and disrupted this harmony. The rest of Scripture reveals how God remedied the problem by sending His own Son to restore the broken relationship between mankind and God.
In spite of its age, the Bible is the best-selling book of all time and continues to show how we can have a personal relationship with God and be transformed into the likeness of Christ. The Bible we hold in our hands is an overwhelmingly accurate and trustworthy representation of the divinely inspired words that the Biblical writers were moved to write, meticulously copied and preserved through the ages.
How Did We Get the Bible?
Old Testament: Jewish tradition maintains that Moses wrote the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy). This means that portions of the Old Testament were copied and passed down by scribes beginning shortly after Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Several Biblical passages indicate that from this early period parts of Scripture were recorded and honored as authoritative (e.g., Exodus 17:14–16; 24:3–4, 7; 25:16, 21; Deuteronomy 10:2–5; 31:24–26).
However, the first mention of a collection of Biblical books is found in Daniel 9:2: “I, Daniel, understood by the books the number of years specified by the word of the Lord through Jeremiah the prophet” (NKJV). From this we can conclude that by the time of Daniel, the Book of Jeremiah was part of a larger collection of authoritative works that he literally calls “the books.”
Jewish sources suggest that by about 300 B.C. the canon of the Old Testament in all its essentials was set. While minor discussions about certain books continued well into the Christian era, they had little effect on the formation of the canon. Jesus accepted the authority of the Hebrew canon and taught His disciples to reverence it as well (Matthew 5:17–18).
New Testament: The early Christian church, rooted in the Jewish nation, maintained the same Hebrew canon (Matthew 23:34–36; Luke 11:50–51), adding to it the New Testament works to form the canon we have today. Because the Jewish nation accepted neither the New Testament nor Jesus as their expected Messiah, a rift developed between the Jews and Christians. Initially there was even some debate among Christians as to which New Testament books should make up their canon. While the majority of the New Testament books were accepted as canonical by the middle of the second century, by the end of the fourth century A.D., all of the New Testament books had been recognized as divinely inspired.
Much later debates, however, gave rise to the inclusion of books into the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox canons that were declared to be apocryphal by the reformers and rejected by the Jews and many of the early church fathers.
Who copied the manuscripts? There are no original manuscripts—called autographs—of either the Old Testament or New Testament, but the histories of their transmission differ. Old Testament autographs were most likely written on scrolls made from papyrus or leather (see Jeremiah 36). When the scrolls began to show signs of wear, they were meticulously copied, then reverently buried (since they contained the sacred Name of God).
Initially the priests (or a special group of priests) maintained the sacred traditions, but from about 500 B.C. to A.D. 500, various groups of specially trained scribes took on the role of manuscript transmission.
Finally, the Masoretes (Jewish scholars) preserved the Hebrew texts from about A.D. 500–1000 and thus our Hebrew Bible is commonly referred to as the Masoretic Text (hereafter MT).
These scribes made extensive notations in the margins of the Hebrew text and counted nearly everything that could be counted (e.g., the number of letters in each book, the middle point in each section). It is largely because of the detailed work of these scribes that their Old Testament copies replicate so closely Old Testament manuscripts dating 1,000 years earlier.
Jesus and the apostles often quote from the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures—but sometime during the first century A.D., something called the proto-MT appears to have become the dominant Hebrew textual tradition. The proto-MT paved the way for the Masoretic text.
The New Testament, by contrast, had no special group of scribes dedicated to copying its texts. Anyone who found a copy of a Greek text and had any ability to write, however poorly, could copy a manuscript. Thus we have even more Greek New Testament manuscripts (about 5,800), some dated to less than a century from the originals.
How accurate are the texts we have today? No single witness perfectly reproduces the original texts of the Bible; therefore, it is important to carefully examine every piece of evidence. This is called textual criticism (or lower criticism), a process that is both science and art that seeks to determine the most reliable wording of a text. It is a science because specific rules govern the evaluation of various readings, but it is also an art because these rules cannot be rigidly applied in every situation.
Since the texts were transmitted over such a long period, minor variations exist in the various manuscripts. The goal of textual criticism is to try to work back as closely as possible to determine the final form of the text that was maintained by the scribes and later canonized.
At present there are more than 3,000 Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament, as well as 8,000 manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate, over 1,500 manuscripts of the Septuagint and over 65 copies of the Syriac Peshitta. Upon careful examination, only about 10 percent of the Hebrew text has any question about its readings, and of that percentage only a small portion is concerned with any significant difference in the meaning of the text. As for the New Testament, less than 1 percent of the text has any significant question about what is the correct reading and of these variations, none alter or call into question any doctrine of Scripture.
The Printing Press
Hand copying manuscripts was a tedious and difficult job, but with the arrival of movable print in the West, things changed considerably. Johannes Gutenberg determined that he could reuse individual letters to print various pages of a manuscript. Gutenberg is said to have prepared about 46,000 wood blocks to set the first printed Latin Vulgate in A.D. 1456. Within 50 years, many books were being printed throughout Europe—most important, Bibles.
One of the earliest English translations was made by John Wycliffe (mid-1320s–1384) from the Latin Vulgate more than a century before the invention of movable print. The established church in England was furious and outlawed his Bible. But with the availability of an English translation came a surge in literacy—people wanted to know what God’s Word said—especially a translation that was outlawed by church leaders.
Other translations followed Wycliffe’s, but the first translation to go back to the original Greek texts was William Tyndale’s New Testament (1526). This translation was also viciously opposed, and Tyndale fled to Germany to make his translation. It was sent back to England in cotton bales and other innocent-looking containers, but when Cuthbert Tunstall, bishop of London, found out, he gathered up as many of them as possible and burned them at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Tyndale was eventually arrested and executed because of his work to translate God’s Word into the English language.
In time, translations of the Bible into the common language were accepted, and today there are many versions of the Bible. Some offer a more literal translation of the original Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. Others attempt to convey the original meaning in contemporary language expressions. And still others seek to reach a balance between the two approaches. But the most important version is the one that you read daily. ©2017 Paul D. Wegner
Paul D. Wegner is professor of Old Testament studies at Gateway Seminary (formerly Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary) and is the author of numerous books, including The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible.
The Bible verse marked NKJV is taken by permission from The Holy Bible, New King James Version. The verse marked ESV is taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. The verse marked NIV is taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version.