How did the Bible, in English, come down to us? This post dives deeply into the underlying text history as well as translation history.
Christian scripture is compiled into a book known as the Bible. The word bible is simple: it means book. In fact, the bible is a grouping of books in two parts: The Old Testament which contains at its core the Jewish Bible, and the New Testament which contains at its core the Gospel accounts, Acts of the Apostles, letters from early Christians, and the Apocalypse of John (also known as The book of Revelation).
Each Christian denomination has at its core books that it officially views as “authoritative”. This set is known as the Biblical canon of the group. Some denominations include more material, often known as the Apocrypha (meaning hidden or obscure) which are good reading but not authoritative. Some include authoritative works written in Greek yet pertaining to the Old Testament known as “second canon” or deuterocanonical. The most extensive core is likely the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Canon which includes books completely separate from the traditional Bible.
In some cases, there are distinctly different sources for the translations we read. For instance, the Orthodox Study Bible uses a ca 200 BCE Greek text (the Septuagint; see below) as the source for its Old Testament. In some cases, different endings for the Gospel according to Mark are used depending on the Greek Manuscript being translated. Likewise other books have different renderings in Greek or manuscripts that provide additional material that may or may not be included in a specific Bible. All of this is one reason to make a clear distinction between the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament. The Hebrew Bible is the Jewish canon; the Old Testament in a Christian Bible may include books not in the Jewish canon and whose source language may not be Hebrew.
These variations notwithstanding, the common core of the Bible is one of the greatest literary collections on earth. It includes genres such as poetry, songs, history, moral teaching, fictive stories, parables, wisdom literature, prophecy, apocalyptic writings, and more. Some believe it to be the word of God, others believe it to be inspired by God, others view the text as a mixture of God’s inspired word and other information, and still others find it an interesting collection of ancient writings. Most agree that it is an amazing work of art.
I attempt to use modern scholarly dating nomenclature in my posts. BCE stands for Before (the) Common Era and CE stands for Common Era and both of which genericize the Christian notations BC meaning Before Christ and AD meaning Anno Domini (Year of our Lord), with respective years being the same, e.g., 200 CE = AD 200 and 200 BCE = 200 BC. Those who, like me, read material from the period when this transition originally occurred in the 1700’s CE know that the original meaning of BCE was Before (the) Christian Era and CE was Christian Era, which always makes me grin at the emphatic secularism claimed by those using the “new” notation.
One should also note that the change in notations is also a correction. We now believe that the events surrounding the Birth of Christ, notably the death of Herod the Great, mean that Christ was born in 4 BCE or slightly earlier. Having Christ Jesus born in the year 4 Before Christ of course wouldn’t do, ergo a change of eras rather than a demarcation of when our Lord was with us.
Please do forgive me if I slip into BC/AD notation and miss it.
All of the books of the bible were in wide, and often separate, distribution long before the advent of controlled source or the printing press. We know this from carbon dated manuscripts of some books of the bible of both the Old and New Testaments. Most of these are fragmentary but despite numerous lacunae what we find matches what we have quite well.
A commonly held misconception regarding the bible is the “drunk monk” theory that a single oaf could have changed the text to say whatever they wanted it to. This line of thought implies that single source copies were maintained by the church and that the church had full control of the contents of the books in the bible. Such notions are incorrect and, in light of the evidence, absurd.
To say that the manuscripts we have are identical is inaccurate and incorrect, and we’ll discuss that towards the end of this post. By and large, however, the variations are very minor and do not change the character or meaning of the written text. Interpretations, however, vary wildly with the same source material.
That notwithstanding, as with any piece of art, its pedigree and provenance in terms of whence it came becomes very important in assessing the authenticity and value of that artwork. How does one know with a good degree of certainty that a statue was crafted by Michelangelo or a painting produced by DaVinci or Picasso? As time passes, proof becomes harder to come by and tradition or purchase records become the proof. Sometimes, comparative scientific studies of brush strokes, carbon dating, how colors are made, and distinctive quirks of a specific artist are also used to make a determination.
In discussing the pedigree of scripture, we must face the stark reality that we do not know exactly who wrote most of this text, when it was written, or exactly what any given author wrote. We rely on the authority of the message within the text established by our ancestors in faith, and every generation has a few folks like me who dig outside of the canon to explore other material not included in the canon generally coming to the same conclusions as our ancestors. While I lament the huge loss of ancient literature through wars, fires, intentional destruction, and the ravages of time, there remains an enormous amount of literature available for study from about 700 BCE forward, and the Bible is a rare gem indeed.
The Hebrew Bible
The oldest portions of the Bible come from the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh. How old is it? The characters in modern Hebrew give us a clue.
We know that the current “square” Hebrew characters arose while the Jewish People had close contact with the Neo-Assyrian and Persian empires. Those societies used Aramaic as a universal business language lingua franca. Hebrew after this period adopted the square Aramaic letters to write the Hebrew language. Prior to that time, ca. 700 BCE, Hebrew letters were Paleo Hebrew much more like ancient Phoenician letters. The point is that the use of Paleo Hebrew continued as a mark of authenticity in certain areas including the name of God in the dead sea scrolls (ca. 100 BCE. and some scrolls are completely in paleo Hebrew) and on certain coinage up through the Bar Kokhba revolt (135 CE). The clear message being that the Torah is older than the letters imply.
The Hebrew Bible is tripartite meaning that it is organized in three parts: The Torah (teaching), the Nevi’im (prophets) and the Ketuvim (writings). It is known in Jewish society as the Tanakh, an acronym derived from the name of its parts.
The Torah consists of the first five books also known as the Pentateuch or the books of Moses. The Nevi’im consists of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve Minor Prophets. The Ketuvim includes everything else: Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles, and so forth. This traditional tripartite organization has been with us at least from 200 BCE, and the dating of the topics addressed within the three parts is roughly sequential. That is, the Torah deals with events prior to the Prophets and the Writings deal with events after the Prophets. We should note that while the topics in the book of Daniel are contemporaneous with the major prophets, the book itself appears to have been written much later.
Who cares? Well, knowing the form helps us to understand the New Testament because Jesus makes reference to the Hebrew Bible by its parts. For instance, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17 NRS) refers to the Torah and the Nevi’im but not the Ketuvim. See also Matthew 7:12, 11:13, 22:40, Luke 16:16, 24:44 (Luke adds the Psalms in this verse), John 1:45, Acts 13:15, 24:14, Sirach 1:1, 2 Maccabees 15:19, 4 Maccabees 18:10.
Accordingly, one may consider that the New Testament places much less emphasis on the providential nature of the Ketuvim than on the Nevi’im and Torah. This seems to have been somewhat true in many ancient Jewish groups, however, the Babylonian Talmud (ca. 400 CE) views the entire Tanakh as writings which one must strive to understand and live.
But what about dating the text itself? This is problematic until we reach the latter part of Kings where extrabiblical sources correspond in name and action to the Biblical text, sometimes loosely and sometimes quite directly. That notwithstanding, the correspondence gives us an earliest date, not a latest date for the text.
Still, one assumes that for the Nevi’im to have had the desired impact on the readers, the contents must have been written during events that correlated with the text, making the earliest datable portion of the Nevi’im date to roughly 730 BCE. Books like Isaiah appear to have multiple authors, perhaps the man himself and, later, followers, spanning the book from about 732 BCE to about 515 BCE. Since the major prophets pick up with the impending overthrow of the Northern Kingdom “Israel” and the Babylonian exile of the Southern Kingdom “Judah”, the information provided by the writings in Samuel, Judges, and Kings would of course historically predate the major prophets, but exactly when these stories took from in a written text is unclear.
Dating the Torah is hotly debated and notoriously difficult. Text, form, and historical criticism of the text has not yielded clear consensus except inasmuch as there are clearly several schools of thought or authors involved, generally known as the Yahwist source, the Elohist Source, the Deuteronomist Source, and the Priestly source. Scholars once thought that the text was produced from the merger of several books from different sources (this notion is called the documentary hypothesis and involves the sources I’ve listed) but it is quite clear that the original hypothesis involving multiple complete sources is not correct because the resulting narrative is neither seamless nor entirely coherent with stories that don’t match and so forth, and no one source is present throughout all books of the Torah.
This compiling of sources can be seen throughout the Torah, starting with Genesis Chapters 1 and 2 where two creation stories exist yet we are told of different orders if we read carefully. In the first story, God creates the heavens and the earth and lush garden for his creation followed by animals and mankind. In the second story (Genesis 2:4 ff.), God creates man, then brings forth the lush garden, then creates the animals, then creates woman. These are two stories, both preserved, as cherished pieces of cloth put into a quilt. Those familiar with the text know that there many such instances throughout the Hebrew Bible, and that these have been the topic of debate and the fuel for much exegesis notably Pesherim and Midrashim which became literary genres by the first century CE.
If we seek neighborly correspondence for help in dating, the flood story of Genesis chapters six through nine is similar to the Mesopotamian Atra-Hasis flood myth which can be dated at 2500 BCE or prior. Similarly, the Gilgamesh flood myth and epic date from about 2100 BCE albeit surviving fragments (in clay) date from about 700 BCE. Ancient Egyptian creation myths of the earth emerging from the primordial chaos and waters date from 2800 BCE or earlier. Assuming some cultural connection for the earliest part of the text, it is at least reasonable to peg the ideas in Genesis chapters 1-9 from about that point, say 2100 BCE, from which point we can pick up the chronology in my post Egypt to Babylon: What happened?
Before we exit our discussion of Hebrew bible, it is important to note that there is no consensus on what I’ve written. Indeed, some scholars such as John Van Seters “see no reason” why the Torah could not have been a post exilic composition based on the Nevi’im and a desire to keep rigid obedience to the rules lest the horrible experience with the Babylonian exile be repeated. I personally give credence to the text of Kings inasmuch as I believe that Josiah did indeed conduct religious reforms based on a book of the law found in the temple meaning that the Torah, or at least the book of Deuteronomy must have existed long before the Babylonian Exile (597 BCE). If that is correct, then the text is likely much older than Van Seters and others may suppose.
As I will discuss with the New Testament, the turbulence of the times also impacted what remains of ancient literature related to the Old Testament but, perhaps, that very turbulence and the diaspora it caused led to the survival of texts in copies produced in a larger geographic area and by more, and smaller, groups of Jewish people. It is an evil wind that blows no good as the saying goes.
Of course, at the end of the day, we simply cannot know the exact provenance of the text. But we can know, from the text we have and what we’ve found through archaeological digs and scouring the world over, that there is no evidence that the Hebrew Bible proceeds from a now lost perfect “original”. It appears to have been a compilation of material, including the so called oral Torah, from the start. The bible scholar must deal with what we have, not fantasies of what it might have been, at least that’s my approach, meaning that tending to history and other extracanonical works including the dead sea scrolls, the Talmud, and a host of other roughly contemporaneous Jewish, Greek, Roman, and Christian literature is in order if we are to begin to understand the magnificence of this gem we call the Bible.
The New Testament
The New Testament exists in various manuscripts, the oldest of which are scientifically dated to roughly 150 CE (Rylands Library Papyrus 52 for example). We believe that the earliest surviving content was created by Paul of Tarsus around 50 CE in his letters, the Pauline Epistles. Other New Testament letters range in dates from here to about 80 CE. The Gospel accounts themselves, while relating things that occurred in about 30-33 CE, seem to have been originally produced from about 66 to 110 CE. It is very hard to date these accounts given that we have an abundance of copies but no original manuscripts, and the times were indeed tumultuous and making much more literary noise than the early church.
We know from Paul of Tarsus that the early church was centered in Jerusalem which was a hotbed of revolt and rebellion. Roman Rulers changed frequently. Pontius Pilate (Roman Prefect) was replaced by Marcellus in 36 CE, Marcellus by Marullus in 37, and Herod Agrippa was named King by Caligula in 41 after Herod Antipas confessed in 39 to a conspiracy to support Parthia and a Galilean rebellion. Riots raged in Alexandria during this time ca. 40, some caused by Flaccus’ placement of statues in local synagogues, statues of Caligula.
Caligula intended to have his statue installed in the temple at Jerusalem ca. 40, which would have sparked an all out revolt, which Herod Agrippa I averted by delaying his friend’s foolish intention (until Caligula had been killed in 41 CE). Relative calm existed under Herod Agrippa until his death in 44 CE. A string of Procurators followed including those mentioned in the book of Acts: Felix (52-60) and Festus (60-62).
Rome, too, was impacted by Jewish fervor as Suetonius reports that emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome sometime around 48 CE for causing trouble at the behest of Chrestus – a name that likely means that these very Jews were, in fact, Christians. Tacitus refers to the Christians as Chrestians which essentially means the “do gooders”.
The great fire in Rome occurred in 64 CE, the First Roman Jewish War raged in Judea from 66-70 CE resulting in the siege and destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 CE, the siege and fall of Masada in 74 CE.
Nero lost support of his guard and committed suicide in 68 CE, which was followed by a murderous the year of the four emperors in 68-69 CE. Nero’s Golden House, the Domos Aurea built on the land he’d seized after the fire was mostly dismantled and the land appropriated by the new Flavian dynasty for the Colosseum in Rome (“The Flavian Amphitheater”) which was built in 70-80 CE.
The destruction of the temple was far more than the loss of a building. The temple was the center of the Jewish, and indeed Christian, communities, the cultures. The temple was also key to the nature of Judean political structure inasmuch as the High Priest wielded great power and scripture required a King of Davidic descent as well as a High Priest from the tribe of Levi narrowed to the lineage of Aaron narrowed to the lineage of his descendant Phinehas, narrowed to the lineage of his descendant Zadoc. This lineage had not been followed for some time beginning with the Hasmonean Dynasty and leading, inter alia, to the rejection of the Temple by the community at Qumran.
After the Temple was destroyed, everything was wrong and struggles continued among the Jewish community and between the community and Rome. The Sadducees had no raison d’etre and vanished (or were killed). The Essenes gradually disappeared (or were killed). The settlement at Qumran (dead sea scrolls), probably a branch of the Essenes, was abandoned, or its inhabitants killed – probably both.
One more major revolt was in the offing. Emperor Hadrian planned to rebuild and rename Jerusalem Aelia Capitolina honor of himself Publius Aelius Hadrianus Augustus and Jupiter Capitol, with a temple to Jupiter on the temple mount. That sparked a revolt albeit it didn’t take much of spark. War raged from 132-136 CE between Jewish forces led by Simon Ben Kosiba (also Kosevah) and Rome. Rabbi Akiva declared Bar Kosiba to be the Messiah giving him the name Simon Bar Kokhba “son of a star” alluding to the star prophecy during this period, hence the name Bar Kokhba Revolt. A brief period of independence was followed by a decisive Roman victory and an attempt by Hadrian to destroy the Jewish state and all of hits peoples. Hundreds of thousands were slaughtered, millions died by the sword, famine, and disease.
Like the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament, it is likely the diaspora caused by these events along with the missionary nature of both the Christian Church and Pharisaic Judaism the ensured the survival of scripture. It’s a wonder that anything is left.
The history of bible content and translations is long and complex and we must keep in mind that English comprehensible to modern English speakers has come into being only in the last 400 years or so with some radical changes from the English of the King James Version of the bible to modern English. The history contains many elements that are often played off against each other because the meaning of some words and especially idiomatic expressions has changed over time and seems like gibberish without understanding the vocabulary (lexicon) in use at the time that the original text was written. For texts that exist only in translation, this presents an additional challenge inasmuch as the translators themselves may not have understood the idioms of the source languages. A brief history in chronological order:
150 BCE: The Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek sometime between 250 and say 150 BCE. We know this translation as the Septuagint because of its Latin name “versio septuaginta interpretum” (translation of the seventy interpreters), or by the Roman Numerals for seventy, LXX. We should note that the legend has 72 interpreters, 6 from each of the twelve tribes, not seventy but who’s counting? We should also note that this version was fluid so that there was not a single codified LXX but rather a flowing LXX until it reached the final form now in use. See further detail at 383 CE below.
100 CE: The Targumim (Targums – “Translations”) Aramaic translations (of portions) of the Old Testament were created by the Jewish community ca 35-120 CE.
125 CE: The New Testament books vary in date. Paul’s earliest writings date to about 50 CE. As far as physically dateable documents, we have fragments of the Gospel of John in 125 CE and literally thousands of fragments dating from this point forward. We have fragments of manuscripts (manual copies) of all of the New Testament books dating from 125 CE to about 300 CE meaning that the books were completed in that time frame.
200 CE: By about 200 CE, the Syriac Bible “mappaqtâ pšîṭtâ” (“Peshitta” peSHEtah) was in use in Syriac speaking countries. The name means “Simple Translation”, and we should note that Syriac and Aramaic are very close cousins.
200 CE?: An Old Latin version of the entire old and new testaments (books that were in use at that time) was compiled over time and we really don’t have a fixed date per se except that it was before the Vulgate (below), and that the Old Testament was based on the LXX rather than the Hebrew. This Old Latin version is known as the “Vetus Latina” (Old Latin)” text, and this version was produced as individual books, not an entire bible. Manuscripts dating from 350 CE survive.
300 CE: The New Testament was translated into Gothic (ancient German language) by Ulfilas in the 300’s CE.
ca 400 CE: Also in the 5th century CE New Testament translations into Syriac, Coptic, Old Nubian, Ethiopic, and Georgian came into use.
ca 700 CE: By the 8th century CE, the (Latin) Vulgate had replaced the Vetus Latina owing to Charlemagne’s efforts to standardize teaching and teaching material in the Church.
1083 CE: In 1083, Pope Innocent III banned unauthorized translations of the Bible with the stated purpose of preventing heresy (such as the Cathars [Gnostics] and the Waldensians [reformers])
ca 1300 CE: By the end of the 1200’s, the entire Bible had been translated into Old French, followed by a complete translation into Czech by about 1360 CE.
1383 CE: In 1383 CE, Wycliffe’s translation of the entire bible into Middle English appeared as well as a translation into Hungarian Hussite
1500’s CE: With the Reformation and split of the church, numerous translations appeared: The Bible of Luther in German in 1522, The Bible of Luther in Dutch in 1526. The Czech Bible of Melantrich in 1549, The Polish Bible of Brest in 1563, The Czech Bible of Kralice in 1593, the (Catholic) Douay Rheims (translation of the Vulgate into English) New Testament in 1582.
1600’s CE: The Douay Rheims English Old Testament was being published in 1610 & 1611 and the (Protestant) King James Bible in 1611.
Along with the aforementioned and debunked drunk monk theory, there are always questions about the text we have now and how well it corresponds to what the people who wrote the text created. From time to time, new ancient texts are discovered, quite often heralded as more authoritative than the texts which we possess before those new texts are completely reviewed.
Such was the case with the rediscovery in the by western scholars of the Samaritan Pentateuch also known as the Israelite Samaritan Torah in the 1700’s (the Samaritans, who still exist, never lost it!). Having read, in English, the side by side comparison of the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Masoretic Hebrew Text, I can say that there is little difference except that the Samaritan version states “the place that God has chosen” rather than “the place that God will choose” in several places which corresponds to the Samaritan belief that Mt. Gerizim is the chosen site for God’s name to dwell and temple to be built, not Jerusalem. Benyamim Tsedaka’s parallel KJV translation and explanation of Samaritan beliefs is well worth a read, but nothing earth shatteringly different is to be found. Many grammatical corrections are made, the text is smoother perhaps, but this is in the nature of polish rather than significance. The same can be said of the LXX.
Likewise, questions regarding the Masoretic Hebrew Text (MT) are put to bed by the dead sea scrolls, the LXX, the Samaritan Torah and other writings that quote older versions of the Hebrew. These questions arise because the earliest copy we have of the MT dates from about the 10th century CE, and changes were made to the text to assist in reading it. The Masoretes developed a system of “vowel points” or Niqqud to aid in pronouncing the text (Hebrew has no vowels).
Imagine if the simple English word bird were written BRD. Without some help, or knowing what the text is meant to say, picking out bird from bird, bard, bored, board, beard, and so forth and so on merits some help. That help takes form of adding these diacritical marks to the Hebrew letters creating “pointed Hebrew” from the 10th century on. That notwithstanding, the MT corresponds quite well with much older finds from 200 BCE and earlier. Again, I have read the English translation and comparisons of many of these texts including the dead sea scrolls, the Peshitta, the Samaritan Torah, and the LXX so my opinion is well educated.
Proponents of Aramaic / Syriac New Testament Gospel primacy over the Greek manuscripts also present a challenge to the traditional bible. The first translation of the entire Syriac Bible into English was undertaken by George Lamsa and I have read the resulting Lamsa Bible. Again, much ado about very little. “Easier for a Camel to pass through the eye of a needle” in the Greek might read “Easier for a rope to pass through the eye of a needle” in the Syriac, and “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me”, the start of Psalm 22, might read “My God, My God, for this I was spared”, although this reading of the Syriac/Aramaic is quite controversial. Regardless, there is nothing significantly different in Lamsa’s rendering of the Syriac Peshitta.
The most significant variation I’ve run across in my studies is in Exodus 21 in the LXX as compared with every other version of the text.
Hebrew Text-Exodus 21:22-25 NKJ: If men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman’s husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
In the Hebrew text, “harm” is ambiguous – is it harm to the prematurely born child or the mother? Is the child dead in both cases and the amplification of the penalty due to the nature of the injury to the mother only?
The Greek text has focused completely on the fate of the child and has introduced the notion of quickening – the point where life begins – in the assessment of harm to the unborn child. In my opinion, this is the result of a form of ancient bible interpretation known as the rewritten bible which we find in many authors most notably Josephus and Philo.
On the New Testament side, the most significant variation beyond what books are included is of course the alternate endings for the book of Mark. Wikipedia does a much better job than can I on that topic, so please follow the above link if you’d like more. I am satisfied that Mark 16 ends with verse 8.
There are still other variations in terms of additional material that I’ve not discussed, such as the LXX Additions to the book of Esther, and the LXX Additions to the book of Daniel. And of course there’s a long list of roughly contemporaneous literature that was not selected for inclusion in the Jewish or Christian Canon, or at least not many Christian canons. As with all additional material, interpretation might be changed but the original content is not. I’ve found nothing excepting Exodus 21 that changes interpretation either.
Well, that’s about it for a short history of the Bible. Why bother? Every time I read a translation from different source material, I read more closely and I learn more. Even variations in translation from the same source material can shed light on topics that we gloss over because we’ve read it so many times and feel free not to really read every word. Go pick up a Jewish Publication Society Tanakh and give it a read, cover to cover. Try a good Catholic Bible (the 1966 Jerusalem Bible is my favorite) and enjoy the extended canon. Look at this magnificently beautiful work of art from multiple perspectives and you’ll be thrilled at what you find.