The Bible’s history helps us understand why we have this Bible, not a tidier, easier-to-understand, simpler-to-explain Bible.
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.
Last week, in Part One of this article, we considered how God acted in history. We examined what it actually means to say that God inspired the Bible’s writers. And we reviewed the role played by the recognition of God’s people as they decided which ancient books were and were not from God.
As divinely inspired books were recognized and circulated, the community of faith naturally gathered them into a collection, a recognized set of books that held authority for their faith. This step is often called the formation of the canon, meaning the list of divinely authoritative books. The collecting process began for simple, practical reasons: to make the authoritative books more widely available than they would be if circulated separately. But it gained momentum as the need arose to clearly delineate which books were indeed authoritative and what books were not.
The process of forming the Old Testament canon is largely shrouded in history that is unavailable to us. But remarkably, the outcome was quite clear. Our historical sources show that by the time of Jesus, there was no significant dispute among the Jewish people as to which books were authoritative. The 39 books of the Old Testament as we have them, though differently divided and numbered then, were the same books that virtually all faithful Jews at the time of Jesus affirmed as authoritative.
The clarity of the Old Testament canon is well illustrated by an event featuring a council of influential Jewish rabbis that took place near the end of the first century AD at a place called Javneh or Jamnia. Participants discussed all kinds of issues related to Jewish life after the temple’s destruction, including the nature of their authoritative books. Famously included in that discussion was the book of Esther; why was this book authoritative when it does not even mention God? Notably the debate was never about whether to continue to affirm Esther as a divinely authoritative book but to understand how such a book could belong to the authoritative collection—as all who participated in the discussion said it did!
The process of the New Testament canon is known to us in more detail. In the early decades of the church’s life, the Gospels, Acts, apostolic letters, and Revelation were widely circulated and held as valuable and authoritative. The earliest Christian literature outside the New Testament quotes from New Testament books extensively, showing that these books were well known and highly regarded by Christians.
But momentum to define clearly the boundaries of the authoritative collection arose as other factors came into play. One was Marcion, a second-century figure who argued that the only authoritative books were his collection of Paul’s letters plus his edition of Luke’s Gospel. His was the first explicit list of authoritative books for Christians, but Christians immediately objected that it was far too short!
At about the same time, books began to appear claiming ancient origins—Gospels attributed to Peter or Barnabas, additional letters attributed to Paul, and the like. Then there were the Montanists, a group claiming that their spiritual experiences were more authoritative than any other message or book.
In response to these pressures, the church began to state explicitly what books had always been regarded by the entire community of faith as authoritative. The four Gospels, Acts, and Paul’s letters were affirmed without difficulty. Peter’s letters were affirmed as well, though some wondered how both could have come from Peter when they were so different in style. John’s letters were affirmed too, though there was uncertainty about exactly which “John” wrote them and whether there were two or three. Though they were less well known, the letters of James and Jude were also affirmed, even though the former seldom mentioned Jesus directly and the latter quoted from books that were not authoritative. Despite its unknown origin, the letter to the Hebrews was affirmed as an authoritative statement of the apostolic message. Revelation was also affirmed, though even in those times many expressed dismay at the arguments about the book’s message.
Discussions about the New Testament canon were much like the rabbis’ discussion at Jamnia about Esther. Christians recognized that from the time these books first appeared, all had been esteemed by the church as divinely authoritative. Some of these books presented problems of origin or interpretation that seemed at odds with what a divinely inspired book ought to be. But the church affirmed their authority nevertheless. These books had been recognized at the beginning as apostolic. They belonged to the church’s authoritative deposit. The faithful of every generation must reckon with them.
Centuries later, dispute arose about the precise boundaries of the Old Testament canon. Early Christian copies of the Old Testament often included later Jewish books that had never been regarded as authoritative by the Jewish people but thought valuable for history and edification. The circulation of these books with the biblical books during the Middle Ages established them in the minds of many European Christians.
As the Protestant Reformation arose in the 16th century AD, the reformers insisted that only the books of the Hebrew Bible, those regarded as authoritative by the faithful of Israel in Jesus’ time, were canonical. In response, the Roman Catholic Council of Trent (1545-63), took the step of affirming that these additional books—known as the Old Testament Apocrypha, often called Deuterocanonicals in the Roman Catholic Church—were indeed authoritative.
This dispute would represent a serious breach in the church’s understanding of the Bible, were it not for developments of subsequent centuries. Since the Council of Trent, many Roman Catholic theologians have stated that these disputed books have only secondary authority and should not be relied upon to formulate doctrine. Today, though Protestant and Roman Catholic Bibles are different on this point, the real difference in the understanding of the Bible is slight. The church’s consensus about the boundaries of its authoritative collection remains clear and firm.
Despite what is sometimes portrayed in popular fiction, the church never made a move to suppress other ancient books that were somehow in competition with the biblical books for people’s allegiance. In fact, it was the church that preserved many of the ancient books that are now sensationalized as ancient rivals to the Bible.
Defining the boundaries of the Bible is as much a part of history as are other parts of the Bible’s story. There were disputes in that historical process. But their significance should not be exaggerated. The historical process of canonization seems messy, but the outcome is clear, guided by core convictions deep in history.
The step that finally puts the Bible in the hands of most of its readers is translation. From ancient times until the present, the Bible has been translated into the world’s languages so that all people can understand its message.
The original language of most of the Old Testament is Hebrew, the language of Israel before the Babylonian Exile. But during the exile, Israel lost Hebrew as a common conversational language, assimilating the Aramaic language used by its captors. That had two consequences. One was that parts of two post-exilic books, Daniel and Ezra, were written in Aramaic. Another was that for many Jews after the exile, reading the Bible meant translating it extemporaneously from Hebrew into Aramaic. So the first Bible translations were those on-the-fly translations, which in time became standardized and were written down. These targums, as they are called, are the earliest Bible translations known to us.
Between the Old and New Testament periods, the Greek language spread throughout the lands surrounding the eastern Mediterranean. Consequently, Greek was the primary language of many Jews in this time. In the third century BC in Egypt, Greek-speaking Jews began translating the Hebrew and Aramaic Bible into Greek. That translation became known as the Septuagint. It had a profound impact on the ancient world, helping to make the God of Israel known to many Greek-speaking people in what became the Roman Empire.
The New Testament was written in Greek because that language was so widely used where Christianity began. But as the gospel spread, the church expanded to areas where Greek was not spoken. So in the early centuries, books of the New Testament were translated into other languages. We have ancient manuscripts of the New Testament in Syriac, Latin, Coptic, Gothic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Georgian, and Nubian—languages spoken by people among whom the faith spread in the early centuries.
In later centuries the most influential of these translations was Jerome’s fourth-century Latin translation of both testaments. Known as the Vulgate, meaning a translation in the common language, Jerome’s translation became widely used in the western Roman Empire. From there it was carried by missionaries throughout northern and western Europe. For Christians in those regions in the late Roman period and the Middle Ages, the Vulgate was the Bible.
Still, other translations arose in this period. Notably for English-speaking people, the Venerable Bede translated the Vulgate into Middle English in the seventh century AD.
With the European Renaissance, interest in the languages of the Bible and in Bible translation increased greatly. In England, John Wycliffe translated the Vulgate into English in the 14th century, and John Tyndale published a translation from Hebrew and Greek in the early 16th century. By then, Gutenberg had invented the printing press, and popular demand to read the Bible in inexpensive printed editions pushed forward its translation into various languages in Europe. Several English versions appeared after Tyndale’s, culminating in the King James Version of 1611.
Today the process of Bible translation moves forward with breathtaking speed. English-speaking peoples enjoy access to a wide variety of translations. Some strive for a high degree of verbal literalness, attempting to translate word for word with consistency. Translations like the New American Standard Bible and the English Standard Version reflect that translational philosophy. Other translations go for dynamic equivalence, translating with words that will have a similar effect on the reader’s consciousness as did the original language on its readers. The New International Version and the New Living Translation represent this philosophy. Bible students are well served by these translations, especially when they read with a sound understanding of the translational approach taken in the version they are reading.
Especially in the last two centuries, Christians have sought to make the Bible available to all the world’s people by translating it into all the world’s languages. Estimates vary, but today about 98 percent of the world’s population has access to the Bible in its first language, as the Scriptures have been translated into about 2,300 languages.
A Divine Message, Delivered and Distributed in History
The Bible has come to us in a process that is both impressive and puzzling. We are astonished that God in his providence has brought us his word through the centuries and made it available so widely. But from our expectation of what a divinely inspired book should be like, we may be puzzled. Why is the Bible—in its history and at present—so subject to what history has brought: disputes about books’ origins, uncertainty about the boundaries of the canon, difficulties in interpretation, differences in translation, and the like? Shouldn’t a divine book be free of all that?
In the historically delivered Bible that we have, God has shown the same commitment to our historical existence as he did in every other action he has taken for us. Our God is the Creator who sets time and history in motion. He is the God who intervenes in history, with the patriarchs, Israel and the prophets, and finally in the church. He is especially the God who enters history, becoming a human in a very ordinary place and time, to bring his purpose to fulfillment by dying and rising for us. And he is the God who promises to return at a point in history’s future, bringing this age to an end and the new age to its fullness. He enters the mess of history and redeems it through something that is entirely human yet entirely divine.
The seeming messiness of the Bible is the consequence of its historical origins. Were it not so much a product of history, it would not be the product of the God who works in history and who entered history. Understanding how the Bible has come to us in history enables us to understand it as it is, to affirm its divine authority, and to thank the God of history, the God incarnate in Jesus Christ, who gave it to us.
Jon Weatherly serves as vice president for academic affairs and professor of New Testament at Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University.