Where did the Bible come from? Was it delivered by angels to King James I in a leather binding with gilt-edged pages? Was it the product of church councils seeking to squelch dissent? Was it immediately and universally recognized as God’s Word until the recent rise of secular humanism?
Today the Bible is the world’s most widely read and widely debated book. We Christians revere it as God’s Word, the full and final authority for what the church believes and does. But the Bible is not necessarily what people expect in God’s Word. It has many sections that are difficult to understand, and some that seem to contradict others. Ancient copies of biblical books differ in how various passages are worded. Over history, believers have disputed which books ought to be part of it. It exists in various translations, some seemingly very different from others.
Why all the mess in a book that is supposed to be God’s Word? The Bible’s history helps us understand why we have this Bible, not a tidier, easier-to-understand, simpler-to-explain Bible.
The Bible’s story is complicated, spanning millennia and continents. The definitive work on its history, The Cambridge History of the Bible, needs three volumes totaling 10 inches of shelf space. But among those details is a series of broad steps that leads from the Bible’s distant beginnings to what we have today.
In sum, we have the Bible because God acted in history to make himself known, and faithful people responded. What God did and how the faithful responded tells us how the Bible came to be and came to us. The fact that the process happens in history helps us understand why we have the Bible we have, instead of the one that some imagine.
The Bible begins with God’s action in history. God created the world, and as humans rebelled against their creator, the creator God acted to bring them back to him. God intervened in space and time to make the world his again. That amazing truth, and the amazing series of events it entails, is the foundation of Christian faith and the Bible’s existence.
From creation forward, God was acting to make rebellious humans his people. This is the story of the Garden of Eden, of the flood, of Babel, of the promise to Abraham, of Israel’s exodus from Egypt and entry into the promised land, of judges, kings, and prophets, of the exile in Babylon and restoration to the land. All are stories of God moving in history to take back rebellious humanity. All come to their climax as God himself enters history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The story continues as God’s Spirit empowers Jesus’ followers to live as his people and carry his message to the earth’s ends.
Realizing the Bible is founded on God’s actions in history helps us understand why it is the kind of book it is. The Bible is not simply a collection of wise sayings or laws, though it includes both. It is first of all a story, a history in a particular place and time. Its timeless message for all cultures is grounded in a particular time and culture. The Bible has all the marks of its historical origins. In that respect it is like any other book. But because it is the story of the creator God, Israel’s God, the incarnate God, it is a book like no other.
God did not merely act and leave it for humans to decide what his actions meant. God superintended the writing of some of his faithful people to announce what he was doing. We call that inspiration, God’s work through certain of his people to assure that what they say or write is his message. Inspiration is what makes the Bible not just “one person’s opinion” but God’s own account of his dealings in history.
We can understand better what Christians have historically meant by inspiration if we first consider what it is not. Muslims believe God dictated word for word to Muhammad, and the result is the Koran. Joseph Smith claimed to have received the Book of Mormon from an angel who brought him golden tablets and miraculous spectacles that enabled him to read them. Neither of these processes resembles what Christians have historically affirmed about the Bible, or what the Bible claims for itself.
The Bible is very clearly a book with all the markings of humanity. It is written in ordinary human language that belongs to its time, in forms that belong to the cultures in which they arose. Individual writers’ distinct styles are clearly evident in it. It is in all these respects an ordinary human book.
Yet the Bible speaks with a distinct voice of authority. The Old Testament’s history books definitively interpret the events of Israel’s history in light of God’s pronouncements. The prophets repeatedly label their message as God’s message. The New Testament letters demand assent and adherence to their pronouncements. The Gospels authoritatively present Jesus speaking and acting with a supremacy that belongs to God alone. These characteristics reflect the conviction that God was at work not just in events of history but in the writing of these books that make those events and their meaning known to us. The writers themselves were ordinary people of faith. But God used them for the extraordinary task of bringing his written word into being.
Inspiration does not scrub the Bible of its common human characteristics. It does not make approximate numbers exact or turn figures of speech into precise scientific formulations. And it certainly does not make distant, difficult statements clear to modern readers. It does not even make every statement in the Bible “inspiring.” Rather, inspiration enables a very human product to be God’s product—a book that can rightly be called nothing less than the Word of God, authoritative and final in what it teaches.
So inspiration is, like God’s great deeds in history, also his intervention in history. God was at work among the patriarchs, in Israel, especially in Jesus, and in the apostolic church. And he was at work among the writers who recorded and interpreted those events for God’s people.
If the Bible is at once divinely inspired and outwardly ordinary, what basis do we have for affirming its inspiration? There are many ways we can respond to that question, but at the core, Christians insist that the Bible is inspired and authoritative because from ancient times forward, people of faith have recognized its inspiration and authority.
Because the events lie at a great historical distance, we can only describe in part how that recognition took place. In large measure, it appears the books of the Bible were affirmed as divinely authoritative by the community of faith—ancient Israel and the early church—from the time they were written.
The books of Israel’s Scriptures, the Old Testament, were from the beginning recognized as prophetic, meaning they came from God’s inspired spokespersons (the prophets) and articulated God’s inspired message (prophecy). In some cases, the community preserved the author’s identity (as with the books of the major and minor prophets). In other cases, the books were recognized as prophetic without specific memory of the author (as with the Old Testament historical books). But in all these cases, the faithful affirmed that these books were indeed the message God had delivered to his people.
Likewise, the New Testament books can be described as apostolic, meaning they arose from and contained the message of the messengers authorized and commissioned by Christ. Many New Testament books present themselves directly as the products of apostles, like the letters of Paul and Peter and the Gospel of Matthew. Others were connected to close associates of apostles, like the Gospels or Mark or Luke, or the letters of James and Jude. The books attributed to John—the Gospel of John, the letters of John, and the Revelation of John—were the subject of some confusion about authorship, as Christians in the second century AD and beyond expressed uncertainty about exactly which John was responsible for them. One New Testament book, the letter to the Hebrews, was recognized even though it was anonymous. But even with uncertain authors, these books were affirmed as authoritatively transmitting the apostolic message.
When they affirm that the Bible is God’s Word, believers in subsequent generations in large measure rely on the judgment of those early believers. In the Bible’s history the faithful have questioned why earlier generations affirmed the books they did, especially because the precise origin of so many biblical books is unknown. But the consensus of the community of faith has stood firm over time despite these uncertainties.
As prophetic and apostolic books were recognized, the faithful naturally sought to share them as widely as possible. So they made copies by hand with the hard-to-use writing materials of their times. Those copies became the basis for additional copies, and then copies of copies were produced, until the books of the Bible became the most widely circulated literature of the ancient world. Today, the thousands of ancient copies that survive are the basis for our knowledge of the text of the biblical books.
Hand copying is not a precise process, of course. In doing their work, copyists introduced variations into their copies, sometimes accidentally and sometimes on purpose. We can see today that some ancient biblical manuscripts lack words that others have, some have words in different order, and some have words with different meanings. In many cases we can make confident inferences as to how these variations happened and which reading is original.
We might expect God’s Word would not be subject to such variations in copying, especially when later generations are entirely dependent on these copies. But while we should recognize the issue of variant copies, we should not exaggerate their significance. Few variations in our manuscripts significantly alter the meaning of the text. Most allow us to draw highly probable conclusions about the original text. Ongoing discoveries of older manuscripts show us the variations were not widespread. By carefully studying the manuscripts available to us, scholars have identified variant readings and reconstructed the original text beyond the point of reasonable dispute.
So it is no exaggeration to say that despite the variations in the copying of biblical manuscripts, the biblical books were the most widely and carefully circulated books of the ancient world, enabling us today to reconstruct their original text with a very high level of confidence.
Next Week: Questions answered in Part Two of this essay: How were the Bible books collected into what we now accept as the authorized Scriptures? How were the original Bible books translated, and how does that process support our confidence in them?
Jon Weatherly serves as vice president for academic affairs and professor of New Testament at Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University.