The history of the Bible
How did we get the Bible? When was the Bible written? How can we trust the Bible?
We sat down with Ryan Reeves, Professor of Historical Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and instructor for the Know How We Got Our Bible online course, to discuss the origins, history, and misconceptions about the Bible.
How we got the Bible
The Bible we have in our hands and on our phones comes through a series of very faithful copying and translating throughout the centuries.
We also have discovered older manuscripts that we thought were lost, earlier versions of certain texts, like the Greek Bible. But in general, what we have is a series of faithful transmissions.
Translations, in some ways, are just copies of the existing Bible. They go from a trickle in the Middle Ages, where they can only produce a couple of Bibles a year in certain locations, to the present, when we can print off millions of copies every year.
But the process is the same. The words are translated, they’re copied over, and they’re reworked and they’re checked and they’re re-checked against the originals. You end up with a copy of the Bible.
The history of the Bible
The history of the Bible begins with the person of Moses, because we understand that the Pentateuch, the first five books of the entire Bible, were written down by Moses.
Over the centuries there are numerous different authors that write these things down.
The formation of the Old Testament was a centuries-long process—a long, slow development.
But the writing of the New Testament is a very punctuated process, written within one lifetime of the apostles’ history.
That’s the history of its writing.
Learn more in Wayne Grudem’s article:
Where Did the Bible Come From?
The history of the Bible itself is much, much longer and much more complex. As I like to say, the Bible has been abused and used in the hands of oppressors and it has been used in the hands of the liberators.
The Bible has this long track record throughout the centuries of always being there, being shaped, and waking the church up to the call of God to the gospel.
Its history is first in its formation in the Bible times, but in the course of its history since, the Middle Ages and other things, what you end up having is a Bible that is really diverse, that has gone through a lot of change over the years.
Can we trust the Bible?
One of the sort of more important questions that is always being asked today is: can we trust the Bible?
How did the canon get formed? I think it’s just simply unsettling for many people to hear that at certain points in the early church certain books were being disputed.
It makes it sound like a disputed book is a despised book.
But the fact is that the Bible wasn’t necessarily despised for it to be disputed.
There were reasons why people wondered if the book was wrongly attributed to a certain apostle.
The first time someone read the book of James, they might have thought that it didn’t agree with Paul, because they read it very quickly. After all, at first reading—if you’re not careful—it sounds as if he’s denying the salvation by faith that Paul mentions.
The church deals with this first and foremost by going back to the original message. The apostles have always been the authority that gave us the Bible, and we look to receive those books that are apostolic.
In other words, the history of the Bible feels longer and more complex than it probably was on the ground.
Misconceptions about the Bible in the medieval era
I remember someone telling me once that the Bible in the Middle Ages was chained up in libraries. And that it was unloved and unwanted and at the time.
I didn’t say it to my friend, but it didn’t make any sense. Why would you chain up something you don’t want? Usually you chain up the things that are very valuable—things you’re worried about being stolen.
The problem with the Medieval Bible was not a series of wolves in sheep’s clothing stealing the Bible and locking them up.
Rather, it was the climate of northern Europe. In wet, damp climates, the materials changed. Instead of papyrus and parchment, the church used vellum and other types of materials made from animal skins.
There are a lot of pages in a Bible but there’s not much skin on a sheep. You’ll need a lot of animals and a lot of processing to be able to make sheets for the Bibles. And you’ll need ink, quills, and a process for copying.
Producing Bibles was an enormously slow process using very expensive materials.
The reason why no one had the Bible in the Middle Ages is because each Bible cost as much as a medium to a large sized house. And even if you could make Bibles for everybody, the literacy rates were so low that handing out Bibles wouldn’t help them.
Instead, what was needed were Bibles that would be read in churches. Today, we think of private reading as the only way to read the Bible. But in the Middle Ages, the public reading of the Bible was what made it more accessible to more people.
Now, of course the big problem was it was in Latin and sometimes it was not read very faithfully. So there are challenges, yes. But no one took the Bible from the laity, rather the cost was prohibitive. You couldn’t have a Bible. And it was only when Gutenberg came along and he dropped the price because he made it so cheap and easy to reproduce that it really changed.
Who wrote the Bible
Who wrote the Bible? is probably one of the most interesting questions you can ask about the Bible, but it’s also one of the most misunderstood.
That’s because it all depends on what you’re asking.
Are you asking which person wrote the Bible? Or, which authority helped create the Bible? Which authority superseded the Bible?
Christians have always said that God’s Bible is his. It’s his Word.
And what they’ve also said, even at a confessional level, is God uses people for his purposes. He calls, empowers and equips people to write the text of the scriptures themselves.
So, for example, we affirm both that the New Testament is God’s Word. And yet there are Paul‘s letters, his personal letters to the churches where he gives instructions.
In the end, the individual person wrote the Bible, under the inspiration, which included their talents, their word choice, their style of writing—it wasn’t like a magic Harry Potter pen going across the page as they watched it being written for them.
God uses his anointed people that he calls and says, “You shall be my eye witnesses, my voices.”
Or in the case of the Old Testament, those who write it down or those who were called to lead.
It’s always a dual authorship. It’s God and human hands that make it.
When the Bible was written
In other scriptures of other religions, there is usually a specific time when it was written by one person.
But the Bible is written over a series of centuries.
First from the time of Moses all the way through the patriarchy through King David’s time, all the way into the exile, the Babylonian exile, the intertestamental period, and so on.
Centuries, and centuries, and centuries of the church’s history, from Israel all the way into the New Testament. It is not written in one moment, rather it is written in pieces.
In fact, the journey from the beginning of the Old Testament to the end of the New Testament is a long one that takes you through centuries of God’s people, and actually points you out as you go into all the Earth to share the gospel.
Learn more about the Bible
Sign up for Ryan Reeve’s Know How We Got Our Bible online course (coming soon!) to explore these and other topics related to the Bible. View the free preview here: