This is the first post in a special, three-part series on the history of the Bible. Where did the Bible come from? How did it come to be in English and so many other languages? Knowing the history of this most precious Book will increase our appreciation of the written Word of God and its availability to us today, and will motivate us to treasure the Bible and read it regularly.
The Journey of the Bible and the Struggle to Unlock Its Meaning
The Bible is the greatest book in the universe. Much more than merely a Christian book of morals and stories, the Bible is the speaking of God to man. But how did the Word of our God, recorded so long ago, reach us in its written form? The Bible has taken an incredible journey—from God’s mouth to our hands. To grasp the magnitude and preciousness of this journey, we will look into the three major steps by which the Bible reached us:
By the first step of the journey, transmission, God communicated His word to man by speaking to man; this speaking was recorded and preserved in written form.
By the second, translation, the Bible was made available to all men in the languages common people could understand. Thousands willingly risked and even gave up their lives to translate the Word from Hebrew, Greek, and Latin so that all could read it.
Finally, by the step of interpretation, as the culmination of the first two steps, God used faithful men to extract the profound and hidden truths in the Bible through its proper interpretation.
These three steps of the Bible’s epic journey have brought forth the transmitted, properly translated, and properly interpreted Bible. Today the Bible is unlocked and more accessible than ever before.
Transmission: Where Did the Bible Come From?
Our God is a speaking God (Heb. 1:1-2). He has given us a great treasure—His speaking—recorded in physical form as the Holy Bible. By speaking, God has manifested Himself, thus revealing His very being and His purpose to humanity. Men recorded what God spoke, preserving God’s speaking for all mankind. The transmission of the Holy Bible is the process by which man obtained, preserved, and passed on God’s speaking through time.
To further understand the transmission of the Bible, we need to examine the source and essence of the Bible, and the means by which God conveyed His speaking to us.
Its source: “All Scripture is God-breathed”—2 Timothy 3:16a. The Bible being the very breath of God proves God Himself is the source of the Bible.
Its essence: “The words which I have spoken to you are spirit and are life”—John 6:63b. The very essence, the constituent, of the Word is also God as the Spirit. God is Spirit, hence, the Word is the embodiment of God as the Spirit; when you touch the Word, you touch God as the Spirit.
The means of its conveyance: God’s breathing is not only the source of the Bible but also the means by which God conveyed His word to man.
As a book, the Bible is unique; its source, essence, and means of conveyance to man set it apart from all works written by human authors.
“Men spoke from God while being borne by the Holy Spirit.”—2 Peter 1:21b
God used certain men to record what He spoke to them. Although it was men who physically recorded the words of the Bible, man’s will, desire, and wish, with his thought and exposition, were not the source.1 The source of the Bible is God, by whose Holy Spirit men were borne to speak out God’s will, desire, and wish.2 Therefore, while the source of the Bible is God, man was the means by which God recorded and preserved His word. Mankind is also the intended recipient of God’s Word.
The Languages of the Bible
God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the full knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4), so the Bible was written in languages understood and spoken by human beings. The Bible is one book. However, because of the tumultuous history of the Jews, the people to whom God entrusted the recording of the Bible, the Bible was written in three languages—Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.
Hebrew was the original language of God’s chosen people, Israel. God caused the first Hebrew, Abraham, to leave Babylon and the Babylonian language, and to dwell in the land of Canaan where he acquired a new language, the language of Canaan, which eventually developed into Hebrew.
During the time that some of the Old Testament was being written, Israel fell into captivity in the lands of Aramaic-speaking people.3 Thus, a few portions in the Old Testament were recorded in Aramaic. At the time of the Lord Jesus, the Jews spoke Aramaic among themselves, and a few Aramaic words were recorded in the New Testament.4
The majority of the New Testament, recorded during the Roman Empire, was originally written in Greek, a rich, concise, and expressive language. From a linguistic point of view, Greek was not only the best language for recording and conveying the richness of the Bible but also the lingua franca (universal language) of the Roman Empire, which at that time encompassed most of the known world. Because the New Testament was recorded in Greek, the revelation contained in the Scriptures was widely spread throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond. The Bible’s being recorded and preserved in human languages shows that what God conveyed in the Bible was meant for mankind to understand and enjoy.
During the time the Bible was being written, writing materials were costly and difficult to obtain. In general, the most durable, cost-efficient, and accessible materials were used to record and reproduce the text of the Bible. In the ancient world, the media that met these requirements progressed from stone to clay tablets, to papyrus, leather, parchment, and, eventually, paper.
If the Bible had not been recorded upon suitable media that could be preserved and disseminated with relative ease, the revelation of the person and purpose of God would have been available and beneficial only to the people living at the time it was recorded. However, because God desires that all mankind have access to His Word, the Bible was recorded on the most suitable and durable materials available. Today, the revelation contained in the Bible continues to be accessible to everyone.
Canonization is man’s recognition that what was written down and recorded by God-inspired men was in fact God’s own speaking.
The word canon has two basic meanings in relation to the Scripture: (1) the list of books accepted as being the Holy Scripture, and (2) a rule or standard. The Bible is the rule or standard against which all Christian beliefs and practices are measured.5
It is important to understand that regardless of whether or not mankind recognizes the Bible as the speaking of God, it is still, in fact, the speaking of God. The Bible neither requires nor benefits from man’s acknowledgement of it.
Historically, however, from man’s standpoint, the last part of the Bible’s transmission was its recognition by men as its being the Word of God. The Bible’s canonization over time attests to its authenticity as God’s Word. One author describes the process of canonization by saying:
“There is no need to declare a tree by its name. It only needs to grow up gradually, to bloom, and to bear fruit; spontaneously men will recognize what kind of tree it is. In the same way, whether or not the books of the Bible were from God is best answered by the test of time. The values and authority of the books spontaneously manifest themselves.”6
Read part 2 of The History of the Bible to learn about the translation of the Bible into English.