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History of The Bible

by StarStuffs 1997

This page deals with the history of the Bible and how the modern Bible came to be. You will find some interesting historical information on how various books came to be included. You will discover information about the Old Testament, New Testament, Manuscripts and Translations.

I think the important thing to remember is the Bible has to be looked at as a whole collection of literature. The Bible is a great piece of history that we cannot overlook. The words inspired by God, you decide. When you learn about the literature and all that is contained in it, and understand the completeness of the Bible, you might see the beauty in it. An open mind, regardless of faith or belief, is a growing mind that learns.


The word "canon" is derived from the Hebrew term meaning "cane" or "reed". Since the reed was one of the first instruments of measurement used by man, the term carries with it the idea of a norm or pattern by which other things are measured. In the Christian church it has been used to refer to that collection of writings which comprised our Bible and which has come to be regarded as the authoritative and inspired word of God. When efforts were made to destroy all extant copies of the writings which the Hebrews and Christians held sacred, it became a matter of no small importance to determine which of these writings were to be singled out as especially precious and worthy of all efforts at protection. In addition, the appearance of fraudulent and heretical documents claiming for themselves divine inspiration called for the comprehensive formulation of a list of  books to which the church could appeal in matters of faith and practice.

Old Testament Canon

In the first century A.D. there was a body of Jewish sacred literature which bore the general term, "scripture", which believers regarded as inspired of God, but whose limits were not as yet precisely determined. The general Jewish consensus was in favor of the list of books found in the Protestant Bible. In Alexandria, however, there was a tendency to include a larger number of books in the Old Testament canon, the additional writings being those designated by Protestants as the Apocrypha. The books of the Apocrypha originated in the "inter-testimonial period" - the time around 400 B.C. and the coming of Christ. Up until 1546 A.D., the Protestants rejected the apocryphal books. The council of Trent supported the Alexandrian view thus including the Apocrypha in the canon recognized by the Catholic church.

Although there are thirty-nine books in the Old Testament, the Jews consider the same books to be only twenty-two. Several books are combined and counted as one instead of two.

New Testament Canon

The development of the new Testament canon was somewhat more complex than that of the Old Testament. A primary reason for this was that while the entire Old Testament was produced within a small geographical area, the various New Testament books has widely divergent origins. This being true, it was only natural that there should be great difference in opinion among the churches as to which books were truly sacred, each church giving preference to those with which is was most familiar. It became commonplace for the churches to correspond with each other about letters they received from the apostle or from other outstanding Christian leaders. From this a group of writings developed which achieved a place alongside the Old Testament scriptures. As early as 95 A.D., Clement of Rome wrote a letter to the Church of Corinth where he uses the language and references from Matthew, Luke and several Pauline epistles (New Testament). The writings of Ignatius in 115 A.D. are also seen to contain such material.

The real landmark of the period is a document found by an Italian scholar Muratori in 1740. The Muratorian Fragment dates near the end of the second century and lists those books which were considered as canonical. It included the Apocalypse of Peter, but admits that it was rejected by some of the churches at that time. Until the first quarter of this century, some church historians still had reservations about parts of the New Testament.

The fourth century marks the final stages of the development of the New Testament canon. The voice that was clearest in shaping and reflecting a definitive statement of those things that which it believed was Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria. He sent out letters in 367 A.D. which he listed the books that were to be recognized as scripture. Just as these men reflected the views of the church as a whole rather than their own opinions, the councils which ultimately fixed the canon were doing little more than putting the official seal of approval on what had already become standard in the churches. In 397 A.D., the council of Carthage ratified the list of books as we now have them.


The Old Testament books were standardized before the time of Christ and we can be sure that there are texts practically identical to those used by the early church. The case is different with regard to the New Testament. Unfortunately, there are no original manuscripts of the New Testament writings which are known to be in existence. Nevertheless, enough manuscripts of high quality have been found to furnish us with a text which must be quite close to that possessed by the early Christians.

In the second century A.D. the papyrus "codex" was found. The codex is  that form used in our own books; that is, pages were fastened together to form a volume. These could contain a larger amount of information than a scroll. Papyrus was not extremely durable. It rotted easily or became brittle and disintegrated over time. For this reason there were few fragments of any significance preserved on this material until a large group of extremely valuable papyri dating to the second century A.D. were discovered in this century in Egypt (Dead Sea Scrolls).

Before this discovery, all of the ancient manuscripts were written on vellum, which was simply a fine quality of animal skin prepared for writing on both sides. Vellum manuscripts have been found dated to the fourth to the fifteenth centuries. There are literally thousands of manuscripts of the Bible or parts of it in existence. Many codices have been found. One example:   In 1844, Tischendorf, a German scholar, discovered in a monastery, a booklet containing 43 leaves of the scriptures dating back to the fourth century. Over fifteen years he tried to locate the remainder of the writings in which he finally located the rest of the 347-page manuscript.   There is also other another 4th century book of scriptures that was housed in the Vatican library. Both of these manuscripts now reside in the British museum.

Apart from the manuscripts themselves, scholars are able to ascertain the original text by the use of the ancient translations from the Greek, from citations of the scriptures by early Christian and Jewish writers and lectionaries. Through the use of these materials Biblical scholars have been able to reconstruct a text unrivalled for accuracy and integrity by any other ancient writings. Making it a very complete historical text.


The Old Testament which was used by most of the early church was not in its original Hebrew but was a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures known as the Septuagint. The Jews of the Dispersion were allowing Hebrew to fall into disuse and were in need of a translation into their vernacular. The need for translations into the languages of the readers resulted in numerous versions. The second century version was written in Coptic (the Egyptian language) and Latin. Due to the widespread separation of the churches and the rise of heresy, The Bishop of Rome commissioned a Latin scholar Jerome, to produce a Latin version. The first translation of the Old Testament was made from the Greek Septuagint, however in 405 A.D., a translation of the OldTestament from the Hebrew text was made. The first English Bible, that of John Wycliffe(c. 1384), was based on the Hebrew translation.

The most famous of all the English versions is the The King James Version (Authorized Version) of 1611. A remark regarding mistranslations in the existing Bibles was made at a conference on religious grievances in 1604. King James chose 54 scholars that were divided into six groups, each being assigned a section of scripture for translation and revision. Each individual in a group was to make an individual translation of the section assigned to his group. When this was done they were to compare their work and formulate a translation which was acceptable to all. The group as a whole had to agree upon it. In addition, all learned individuals in the churches rendered aid in helping eliminate obscurities in the text. When the work finally begun in 1607, only forty-seven men were available to work on the project.

The translators received certain general instructions to help regulate them in their work.

  • They were required to abide by the translation of the "Bishop's Bible" as much as the original text would allow.
  • They were to retain proper names in their original form.
  • When several words might fit equally, to use that which had been preferable to the best ancient writers.
  • To use current chapter and verse divisions.
  • To use no marginal notes, unless to explain particular Greek or Hebrew words.
  • To cite references to parallel passages insofar as it seemed desirable.

As one can see, this was no easy undertaking. These forty-seven men struggled with the version for over three years, finally bringing it to publication in 1611. King James did not bear the expenses of the project and there is no record of an official "authorization". However, there are certain facts that should be noted. The Authorized Version was based upon the faulty Greek text of Erasmus which was compiled without the better manuscripts which have since been discovered. It was never intended to be the final revision of the scriptures. In fact, no one today reads the English version in which it was originally written because it would sound foreign to modern ears. Yet, it was the language of the common man in the 1600's.

The original authors of the Bible did not divide their writings into chapters and verses as we have them today. This came later in the 1445. The division of the Bible was never intended to govern the sense of a passage. A verse or chapter division may often occur in the middle of a narrative or train of thought, thus giving the impression the topic has ended, when such may not be the case. One should make certain that he reads the context in which a verse or chapter is situated.

Sources: various Bibles, biblical-historical accounts