Have you ever wondered how we got the Bible that we have today? If so this course may have the answers that you seek. We will discover the origin of the Bible and how it came to us in the form we have today. Let’s learn about the risks and sacrifices people have made over the centuries so that we could have access to this wonderful book!
We live today in a world filled with books! Books are everywhere and they are available on almost any subject you may be interested in. The book we call the Bible is an amazing book. Its name comes from the Greek word biblia (pronounced bib-li-a) which, translated into English, means "books". This is fitting because the Bible is actually a collection of books. Sixty-six to be exact!
Many people today, young and old are interested in finding out just how the Bible has come to us. Some of the questions commonly asked are the following:
A) How and when did the books of the Bible have their origin?
B) How have these books been preserved?
C) When and by who were they translated and made accessible to us?
D) What has been the effect of recent discoveries on these books?
Every one of these questions has an answer, but before we answer these questions, we must first learn something about the development of writing and ancient books. The reason for this is because the message of the Bible was written long ago and has been transmitted through the years by means of writing.
The first known system of writing is from Mesopotamia dated around 3000-4000 BC (6000+ years ago!). In Mesopotamia, the earliest form of writing was done in pictures and was called cuneiform (left side). This same system of picture writing was used in Egypt and called hieroglyphics (right side). You may have seen hieroglyphics before because of pictures from tombs of Pharaohs. If you have seen picture writing you might have noticed that this system of writing is such that it cannot express many of the ideas and concepts found inside the Bible. It was necessary, then, that an alphabet be developed.
In the region of Mount Sinai (which we read about in the book of Exodus) examples of the first known alphabet were discovered.
The inscriptions on rocks in this area are dated about 1500 BC (more than 3500 years ago). This discovery is helpful in understanding the origin of the Bible.
The belief that Moses was the author of the first books in the Old Testament was formerly disputed by Bible critics because they said that writing was unknown in Moses' time. But we know from the discovery around Mount Sinai that, an alphabetic script was in use in that area near the time that Moses lived
The Bible itself makes reference to a number of writing materials used by people of ancient times including stone, clay, leather and papyrus. Let's take a closer look at these materials.
Stone: Stone inscriptions have been found all over the ancient world. In Palestine the earliest known examples of writing have been found on stone. These include what is known as the Gezer Calendar from the 10th century B.C. and the Moabite Stone which is from around a century later (the 9th century B.C.). This agrees with what the Bible says about early writing because, as you may already know, the Ten Commandments were first written on stone tablets.
Clay: Clay was a writing material that was readily available in the area of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. It was also the cheapest writing material that could be found. Huge libraries containing thousands of clay tablets have been unearthed in this part of the world. The clay would be formed into tablets when it was still soft.
The writer would take a tool that looks very much like a pencil, called a stylus, and imprint his message upon the clay. The clay would then be baked in an oven or laid in the sun until it hardened. There is a reference to this writing material in Ezekiel 4:1 where the prophet Ezekiel was told to draw a plan of Jerusalem on a clay tablet.
Leather: Leather is the material that was used to write down the law in the Old Testament times. This practice is continued today.
The Jewish Talmud required that the law be copied on animal skins. Figure 7 shows such a copy in scroll form.
Papyrus: Papyrus however was the most common writing material during the time that the New Testament was being written. Papyrus got its name from the papyrus plant which used to grow abundantly along the Nile River in Egypt.
Thin strips of fibers were cut from the stem of the papyrus plant and laid side by side to form a sheet. A second layer was then laid across the first in the opposite direction and joined to it by moisture and pressure. After drying the sheet was ready for use.
Papyrus was so widely used that it is almost certain that the original New Testament books were written on papyrus sheets. Often an individual sheet of papyrus would be used when a person would write a receipt or a short letter. The New Testament books of 2nd and 3rd John would have only taken single sheets of papyrus.
For longer letters or manuscripts individual sheets of papyrus would be joined together to be stored in scroll form just as with leather. The maximum length of a usable papyrus scroll was about 40 feet. A roll of about 35 feet could hold one of the longer books of the New Testament such as Matthew, Luke or Acts.
As long as the scroll was used as a method of storage it was never possible to have all the New Testament in one volume because the whole New Testament written out would require a roll of more than 200 feet in length! If you lived in the early centuries and had a copy of the New Testament it would be composed of several scrolls and you would store it in a cabinet, bucket or similar container.
Around the 1st or 2nd century AD papyrus scrolls began to give way to what is known as the papyrus codex. A codex is an early form of what we know today as a book. For early Christians who copied and circulated the New Testament writings, the codex form clearly had great advantages. No longer would it be necessary to carry around bulky scrolls.
Instead, the separate pages of leather, vellum (another more refined material made from animal skins), or papyrus would be stacked together and sewn along one edge. This method is very similar to our modern day book binding.
Now let us investigate further the origin of the Bible. The fact that all these 66 books are bound together in a way may confuse us about its origin. The Bible is, in fact, a library of books and, like a library, it did not come into existence at one time or place. The 66 books of the Bible were written at different times, places and under varying conditions.
The Bible we have today is divided into two major parts known as the Old and the New Testaments. The basic structure of the Bible is based on the fact that God has made two “testaments”, or “covenants” with his people and that the second has replaced the first.
The Old Testament contains 39 books and they are divided into 4 groups according to their contents. The first group contains the 5 books of law; the second has 12 books of history; the third contains 5 books of poetry, and the fourth is made up of 17 books of prophecy.
The five books of the law from Genesis to Deuteronomy are also called the Pentateuch. These five books form the basis of all the Jewish laws.
They contain some of the best known historical events recorded in the Bible such as the creation, the flood, the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Jewish law through Moses.
The twelve books of history from Joshua to Esther continue the record of the history of the Israelite nation. They include the Israelite's settlement into the land of Canaan, the time under the kings, the years spent in Babylonian captivity and their ultimate return from exile.
The five books of poetry from Job to Song of Solomon are usually known as poetical works. But these books written by various authors are also strong in ethical emphasis and content.
The seventeen books of prophecy are the last books in the Old Testament and are from Isaiah to Malachi. These books are sometimes sub-divided into 5 books of Major Prophets and 12 books of Minor Prophets. This distinction has nothing to do with the importance of the books but is only a matter of length.
In these books you can read about how Isaiah and other prophets like him brought God’s word to their people and foretold the coming of the Messiah.
The New Testament contains 27 books which are also divided according to their contents. They are in a certain chronological sequence. The first are 5 books of history, second are the 21 letters or books of apostolic teaching and third, 1 book of prophecy.
The five books of history are Matthew through Acts. These five books are probably read more than any other books of the Bible.
The first four of these books tell us about the life of Christ. The fifth, the book of Acts, tells us about the establishment of the church and its early progress.
The twenty-one letters from Romans to Jude were written to congregations and individual Christians with instructions for the church and Christian living.
The book of prophecy known as Revelation is the only book of this type in the New Testament. It portrays the continual struggle between the forces of good and evil.
We have seen the order in which the books of the New Testament have been arranged but in actuality, the letters from the apostle Paul were among the first to be written. Paul was a devout Jew who earned his living making tents. Immediately after becoming a Christian he began to preach Jesus as the Messiah and dedicated the remainder of his life to the task of spreading Christianity.
He traveled all over the Roman world and wrote letters to various congregations. These letters always came about because of specific problem or situation at that time.
For example, in the Roman province of Galatia a system of Jewish legalism was becoming very strong and so, to warn and instruct the churches, Paul wrote a letter, probably by dictation. This letter he wrote was written at about 49AD and was perhaps the first of all of Paul’s letters to be preserved in the New Testament. The letter we know as the book of Galatians.
Other letters of Paul were to follow to the Christians at Rome, Corinth, Ephesus and so forth. These letters must have been highly treasured by early Christians because they were copied and circulated, and thus collections of these writing were made by various congregations and individuals.
But, when were the accounts of Jesus’ life put into writing? At first there were only oral accounts by eye-witnesses, men who had been with Him in life and had seen His death. But as years passed, eye-witness accounts became fewer and insufficient. Then the demand was for authoritative written narratives.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John filled this need. Their writings are called gospels because each one announces the Good News of God as shown in Jesus Christ. In John 20:31 we can read about one of the reasons for these narratives. “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ the son of God and that believing you may have life in his name.” This was the message of the apostles.
Everywhere, publicly and from house to house they preached Christ.
When the apostles would preach people would be prompted to go to the Old Testament Scriptures and see if what they heard was true.
The first generations of Christians did not have the “New Testament” as we have it today but the letters that make up the New Testament were considered authoritative and, if you read 1st Thessalonians 5:27 you will see they were even read in public assemblies.
So, the New Testament was added to the Old Testament as an apostolic witness to Christ, from century to century, book by book, the unique library of our Bible came into being.
Original text and slides of lessons 1-4 from "How We Got the Bible", ©1970 Gospel Services, Inc. Used by permission. Various edits and new audio recordings by the Bible Study Center 2006-2014.
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