The History of the Bible

Introduction: 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.

From God

To further understand the transmission of the Bible, we need to examine the Bible’s source and essence, and the means by which God conveyed His speaking to us.

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.

Essence: “The words which I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.”—John 6:63
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.

Means of 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.

To Man

“Men spoke from God while being borne by the Holy Spirit.”—2 Peter 1:21

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 source1. The source of the Bible is God, by whose Holy Spirit men were borne to speak out God’s will, desire, and wish2. 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

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.

Aramaic

During the time that some of the Old Testament was being written, Israel fell into captivity in the lands of Aramaic-speaking people3. 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

Greek

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.

Media

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

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

Translation: How Did the Bible Survive and Spread throughout All of Human History?

The Sacrifice of the Translators

It is no small matter that today we can read the Bible in a language we understand. Although the Word of God had been completely transmitted and recorded for hundreds of years, for a long time almost no one was able to read it.

“Our Savior God, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the full knowledge of the truth.”—1 Timothy 2:3b–4

For all men to receive salvation and come to the full knowledge of the truth, they must be able to apprehend the salvation revealed in the Bible and understand the truth God desires them to come to the full knowledge of. And since different people speak different languages, it was necessary for the Bible to be translated into various languages in order to make it accessible to all. The goal of translation is to provide all men with a translation of the Holy Word in their own language.

Beginning in the late Middle Ages, the endeavor to translate the Bible from its original languages into languages people could understand was fraught with opposition and undertaken at great sacrifice. As translators first began to translate the Bible into vernacular (common) languages, such as German, French, and English, fierce resistance arose at that time from the Roman Catholic Church. Since much of what the Roman Catholic Church taught and practiced was not mentioned in the Bible or was even forbidden in the Bible, to allow the common people access to the pure Word of God would damage the system of the clergy with all of the benefits to those who were in its ranks. The Catholic Church, working directly with secular (non-religious) sovereigns and nations, slaughtered thousands of believers who disagreed with its doctrines and practices. Thus, for anyone to translate the Bible into the vernacular languages of the day was to risk one’s life.

Nevertheless, such adversity and opposition did not deter those who sought to make God’s Word available to all. The words of Martin Luther are apt testimony of the resolve of those who risked their all for the Word of God: “The body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still.”7 Today, as the benefactors of their labor and sacrifice, we do well to treasure, read, and assimilate the fruit of all their labor.

Literacy of the General Population

Although faithful men labored and risked their lives so the Bible could be made available to all, literacy among the common people also needed to increase.

Prior to the fourteenth century, literacy was rare and often limited to the clergy. But with the new culture of the Italian Renaissance, literacy began to be promoted as a social endeavor rather than a skill limited to the clergy. By the beginning of the fifteenth century, the clergy’s monopoly on literacy was being decisively overthrown. The ability to read and write was highly esteemed and regarded as being immensely important, and more and more people became literate. Reading developed into a matter of personal enrichment. As a result, the demand for books soared. One scholar noted that “the rise in literacy created a virtually insatiable appetite for reading material,” yet the supply of books lagged far behind.8

The Mass Publication Revolution

In order to spread vernacular translations of the Bible so that people could read them, a technology that could produce copies of the Bible in large numbers was needed. Before the invention of the printing press, book production was labor intensive, costly, highly inefficient, and time consuming. Trained scribes painstakingly copied text and illustrations by hand. Because of the rise in literacy and the corresponding high demand for books, entrepreneurs began to search for a way to improve the process of book making and to reduce the cost. Johannes Gutenberg was the first to achieve a breakthrough with a new technology: movable metal type. Having completed his monumental invention, the first modern printing press, Gutenberg proceeded to print a book—the Book. In 1456, Gutenberg produced the first Bible that was printed by moveable type.9

It is impossible to quantify the effect the printing press has had upon humanity. One historian relates, “Now copies of books could be reproduced more rapidly, more cheaply, and with a higher degree of accuracy than had ever been possible previously.”10 Of particular importance is the profound effect printing had on the journey of the Bible. Without the printing press, the translated Bible would not have been as widely available to the common man. Gutenberg’s invention made the goal of those who labored to translate the Bible into vernacular languages achievable.

Translation Spotlight: William Tyndale

William Tyndale, to whom we owe the first printed English Bible,11 was greatly used by the Lord to make His Word accessible and understandable to ordinary men. For many centuries, governments and religious entities severely limited the layperson’s access to the Bible by confining it to languages requiring scholarly study. Tyndale was driven by the belief that “the root cause of much confusion in people’s minds [in Biblical matters] was ignorance of the Scripture. If this ignorance could be corrected, the eyes of all would be opened and the truth made clearly known.”12

Armed with such a conviction, Tyndale devoted his life to properly translating and widely distributing the Bible in the language of the common man. Despite the repeated confiscation and destruction of his work and constant threat to his life, he remained faithful to his service in the face of immense opposition, even until his death as a martyr.

An inspired and prolific translator, William Tyndale faithfully rendered the original Greek text into the first complete printed New Testament in English, the 1526 Worms New Testament. Two copies still exist today.13 He was the first to translate anything from Hebrew, a language virtually unknown in England at the time, into English when he published the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) in 1530.14

Although Tyndale spent much of his life working amid relentless persecution from the king of England, ironically, the highly regarded King James Bible, published only 80 years after his own version was printed, borrowed from Tyndale’s work almost word for word.15

William Tyndale’s effect on the English language is immeasurable, even to the extent that some claim, “Without Tyndale, no Shakespeare.”16 Tyndale’s masterful work demonstrates his greatly admired talent for balancing accuracy and clarity, the latter affording him great variety of expression. His unique ability as a translator was rooted in his technical skills of fluent and accurate Greek, Hebrew, Latin, German, and four other languages, and from his complete understanding of the complex art of rhetoric.17 His unadorned poetic style in structuring the English translation can be seen in many widely recognized phrases, such as “let there be light” (Gen. 1:3); “my brother’s keeper” (Gen. 4:9); “the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13); “give us this day our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11; King James Version); “for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:32, King James Version); and “the powers that be” (Rom. 13:1, King James Version).

William Tyndale was born in Gloucestershire, England, circa 1494 (the exact date of his birth is unknown), into a prosperous, well-connected family. He studied at the University of Oxford, obtaining his bachelor of arts degree in 1512 and his master’s degree in 1515, which permitted him to read theology for the first time. He was appalled that this official study did not include studying the Scripture.18

He later attended Cambridge University and may have gained his competency in Greek there. For a short period he was a tutor to a Gloucestershire family, where at the dinner table he engaged local church officials in lively discourse over what were often conflicting views of biblical truths. He was even summoned before the diocese on a charge of heresy, which was dropped. John Fox, in his Book of Martyrs, describes one debate during which Tyndale announced to a clergyman that he meant to translate the Bible into English so that even a farmer could know more of the Scriptures than the clergyman himself.19

Since Tyndale could not translate the Word of God in England without episcopal license, he went to London where he appealed to the Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, to support his work. His appeal was unsuccessful. It was difficult, if not impossible, to independently translate the Bible in England with King Henry VIII, a Catholic “Defender of the Faith,” on the throne. So Tyndale sailed for continental Europe and began translating the New Testament into English there in early 1524. By August 1525, the work was practically complete and prepared for printing in Cologne, Germany. The local government, alerted to the progress, forbade the printing, causing Tyndale to gather his work before it was seized and flee up the Rhine to Worms. The first complete printed New Testament in English appeared in February 1526, and copies began to reach England a month later.20

For the first time, the whole New Testament, faithfully translated from the original Greek (rather than from the erroneous Catholic Latin version), could be read by anyone who could read English. This alarmed the English authorities, and Bishop Tunstall himself sent out a prohibition of the book, labeling it a “pestiferous and most pernicious poison.”21 He gathered all the copies he could find for public burnings and bought large quantities of the books in Europe before they reached England. Ironically, Tyndale used much of the money he received from these bulk orders to revise and print updated versions. Though the Church authorities tried to prevent the spread of Tyndale’s New Testament, they did not succeed. There is evidence that in many parts of England, groups of people met to read and hear the Word.22

William Tyndale spent the next few years working freely in Antwerp. However, in the spring of 1535 a young Englishman befriended him and then treacherously betrayed him for money. Tyndale was kidnapped and imprisoned in the fortress of Vilvorde, just north of Brussels. He was tried for heresy before 17 commissioners and chose to defend himself, not by legal maneuvering, but from the Scriptures. He wrote his defense in a book entitled Sola fides justificat apud Deum, meaning “Faith alone justifies before God.”23

Eventually Tyndale was condemned to death, and after 16 months in prison, he was “brought forth to the place of execution…tied to the stake, strangled by the hangman, and afterwards consumed with fire, at the town of Vilvorde, 1536; crying at the stake with a fervent zeal, and a loud voice, ‘Lord, open the king of England’s eyes!’”24

Surely Tyndale would have rejoiced to know that his prayer was heard: within months of his martyrdom, a complete English Bible, two-thirds of it his own work and licensed by King Henry VIII himself, was circulating in Britain.25

Interpretation: Unlocking the Bible’s Full Meaning

By the step of transmission, God’s breath, from its intangible reality, was received and recorded as written text, readable and knowable by mankind. The next step, Bible translation, involved the process of freeing the written manuscripts from the confines of their ancient tongues and rendering them into modern languages.

The capstone of receiving and freeing the Bible is understanding the intended meaning of its the contents. It is not sufficient for the Bible to be translated into our language; for us to comprehend the text, we need proper interpretation so we can understand what we are reading.

God’s Word is food to us (Matt. 4:4), yet for it to nourish us we need the Word to be opened to us, bringing us into proper understanding. Therefore, the Psalmist delighted not only in the Lord’s word (Psa. 119:16) but also in the “opening of [the] words,” which “gives light, / Imparting understanding to the simple” (verse 130). Proper spiritual interpretation opens the Word so that we can perceive its proper meaning.

Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics, the study of the methodological principles of interpretation, has historically involved precise attention to the grammar and logic, as well as to the psychological and historical contexts, of the Bible. The objective of hermeneutics is to develop an interpretational key, a governing principle that stands apart from individual passages, to present the central message of the Bible.

It is necessary to interpret the Bible guided by a hermeneutic key, particularly in rendering challenging passages, resolving apparent discrepancies, and assembling the central message of the Bible developed through various passages. Throughout history, interpreters of the Bible have developed different hermeneutic keys, touching on various aspects of God’s interactions with and activities related to man. The highest and best hermeneutic should ultimately reveal not only what God does but also who God is according to His intrinsic being.

Tools of Interpretation

A major deficiency of written text is its inability to convey the tone or sense of dialogue as fully and clearly as an animate speaker could. For this reason, in the Old Testament time when the Scriptures were read aloud, the reading was accompanied by “interpreting and giving the sense” so that the people “understood the reading” (Neh. 8:8).

Written translation by itself is in one sense a very elementary form of interpretation; however, with this by itself it is as if we were left with a transcript of a discussion without a clear sense of the speaker’s tone, inflection, pacing, volume, even gestures and movements. Communications studies regard such paraverbal and nonverbal elements of speech as accounting for 90 percent of what is understood and perceived.26 Thus, we can begin to understand the necessity for not only an accurate translation but also an accompanying proper interpretation to fully communicate the sense of a passage of Scripture.

The hermeneutic study of Scripture is not a cursory process of interpretation, but the establishment of a solid and “complex set of rules for finding and expressing the true sense of the inspired writers.”27 While formalizing and standardizing a basis for interpretation cannot eliminate discrepancies among different interpretations, it can expose a host of illogical, irrelevant, or otherwise improper interpretations. An external framework for evaluating passages in a work as complex and rich as the Bible, which contains the writings of over 40 authors in an array of literary genres, draws out a central line in the Scriptures as a context for assembling the intended meaning of the Word.

The object of hermeneutics is to capture the sincere and full sense of each passage of the Bible. Hermeneutic study includes the following:

1) the language of the text—presupposing a knowledge of the original languages of the sacred texts and examining their grammar and logic;
2) the context of the text—the relation of a particular passage to its surrounding verses and the overall context of its book;
3) the psychology of the writer and the historical context; and
4) the items of truth discussed by the particular passage, for example, justification, sanctification, salvation, etc., according to their full definition and development through Scripture.

Therefore, word studies, lexicons, and commentaries are tools used in hermeneutical study.

Then, based on these textual elements, hermeneutics will tend to expound a passage along particular lines of meaning: (1) literal, (2) moral, (3) allegorical, or (4) anagogical (prophetic).

Parallelism, interpreting the Scriptures by means of the Scriptures based on the belief in the unity of Scripture, is another prevailing hermeneutic principle.

All of these approaches to interpretation suggest that there is a view that underlies the text of the Scriptures, stands apart from individual passages, and unifies the message of the Bible. The body of these principles applied to one’s reading of the Word supplies the hermeneutic key by which one interprets and understands the Bible.

Historical Progression of Interpretation

Through 2,000 years of church history, we can see a spectrum of interpretations that guided the understanding and teaching of prominent Bible teachers. Several interpretational keys have greatly advanced our understanding of the Scriptures:

  • Law and Gospel: Martin Luther, long heralded as the “father of the Reformation,” applied the distinction between the law and the gospel as the governing principle in his understanding and teaching of the entire Bible. In fact, Luther summarized the entire Old Testament as being the law, representing God’s demands upon man and exposing his inability to fulfill these demands, and the New Testament as the gospel, being a book full of the glad tidings of God’s promises through Christ, particularly to justify man by faith. Luther clearly stated that “[t]here is no book in the Bible in which both are not found. God has always placed side by side both law and promise.28 Luther encouraged others to read the Bible based on this principle: “Therefore, hold to this distinction, and no matter what books you have before you, be they of the Old or of the New Testament, read them with a discrimination [of law and gospel].”29
  • Covenants: Reformed theology, grounded in the teachings of John Calvin, interprets the Bible based on two covenants—the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, which advocates an extreme view of predestination. While there are passages that seem to support Calvin’s covenant theology, this particular interpretation needs proper balancing and the understanding of the richness of the divine truth.
  • Sanctification: John Wesley’s interpretation of the Bible introduced the teaching of the eradication of sin through instantaneous and gradual sanctification. Thus, man is both justified by faith and sanctified by faith.
  • Dispensations: John Nelson Darby, a leader of the Plymouth Brethren, greatly advanced the understanding of dispensations whereby God deals with man in different ways in different ages according to His purpose in that particular age. The Brethren understood the cutting straight of the word (2 Tim. 2:15) to be the dividing of the Bible into its various dispensations: innocence, conscience, human government, promise, law, grace, and kingdom.

All of these interpretational keys have Scriptural basis, and for the most part, advanced our understanding of the Bible. The simultaneous existence of multiple valid interpretational guides—not to mention many conflicting ones as well—suggests that an interpretation’s basis in Scripture and its logical soundness are insufficient in rendering a fully satisfactory hermeneutic key. An interpretation of Scripture, while generally applied to the entire text, may be 100 percent correct, but its scope may only pertain to 10 percent of the revelation in the Bible.

This leads us to search for an ultimate interpretational key to the Scripture, one that not only does not invalidate other sound interpretational keys but that also is entirely supported by the text of the Scripture and encompasses the Bible’s full revelation.

For example, some interpretations of the Bible may account for God as the Righteous Judge, as the Creator, or as our Heavenly Father, but do not offer an explanation for God’s being triune.30

What then is the master key to unlocking the full meaning in the Bible? The key is God’s economy, which reflects the intrinsic being of the Triune God: God is triune—the Father, the Son, and the Spirit—in order to dispense Himself into our being as our life, life supply, and everything to produce and constitute us as His corporate expression.31

God’s speaking has passed through the incredible journey of transmission and translation. Not only so, but by the step of interpretation, especially with the discovery of the master key, mankind can understand the Bible’s intended meaning. The economy of God as this master key opens our understanding, allowing us to see the central revelation of the entire Bible. We can see that throughout the Bible the Triune God—the Father, the Son, and the Spirit—dispenses Himself into man. By this dispensing, God attains His purpose of having an expression of Himself through man for eternity.


  1. 2 Pet. 1:21, note 2, The New Testament Recovery Version, 2nd ed. (Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministry, 1991). 
  2. Ibid. 
  3. Witness Lee, On Knowing the Bible (Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministry, 1990), 28. 
  4. Ibid., 27. 
  5. F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 17-18. 
  6. Lee, On Knowing the Bible, 34. 
  7. Martin Luther, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” No. 886 in Hymns (Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministry, 1980). 
  8. Alister McGrath, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture (New York: Anchor Books, Random House, 2002), 8, 14. 
  9. Ibid., 9-15. 
  10. Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 3rd enlg. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 95. 
  11. F.F. Bruce, History of the Bible in English, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 28. 
  12. Ibid., 28-29. 
  13. Ibid., 31. 
  14. David Daniell, The Bible in English (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 147-148. 
  15. David Daniell, William Tyndale: A Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 2. 
  16. Daniell, The Bible in English, 158. 
  17. Ibid., 133. 
  18. Ibid., 140. 
  19. Bruce, History of Bible in English, 28-29. 
  20. Ibid., 30-31. 
  21. Alfred W. Pollard, Records of the English Bible: The Documents Relating to the Translation and Publication of the Bible in English, 1525-1611 (London: Oxford University Press, 1911), 109. 
  22. Daniell, The Bible in English, 144-146. 
  23. Ibid., 154-155. 
  24. John Fox, Fox’s Book of Martyrs, ed. William Byron Forbrush (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1978), 184. 
  25. Daniell, The Bible in English, 157. 
  26. A. Mehrabian and M. Weiner, “Decoding of Inconsistent Communication,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 6, no. 1 (May 1967): 109-114; A. Mehrabian and S. Ferris, “Inference of Attitudes from Nonverbal Communication in Two Channels,” Journal of Consulting Psychology 31, no. 3 (June 1967): 248-252. 
  27. Anthony Maas, “Hermeneutics,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 7 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910), http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/ 07271a.htm. 
  28. Richard Bucher, ed., “Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent, Matthew 11:2-10,” in The Sermons of Martin Luther, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1983), 100, last modified March 25, 2007, http://www.trinitylutheranms.org/MartinLuther/SermonsPage.html. 
  29. Ibid. 
  30. Kerry S. Robichaux, “A Prolegomenon to a Hermeneutic of the Bible According to the Intrinsic Being of God,” Affirmation and Critique 4, no. 3 (July 1999): 12-14. 
  31. Witness Lee, The Economy of God, mass-distribution edition, (Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministry, 2004), 8-15. 

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