How Did We Get the Bible?

Kenneth W. Brewer

Scripture doesn’t tell us much about the process by which it came to be. However, there are a few passages that give us clues. Second Peter informs us: “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (1:20–21). I find that students and others find it fascinating to learn that the Bible has a history (it didn’t drop out of the sky!) and the process by which it came to be in our hands, bound with leather and replete with study notes. Here is a brief outline of the origin and development of the Bible.

First, there is an event, an action, or a saying by God or humans. Think of all of the events pertaining to the exodus from Egypt or the story of Jesus raising Lazarus. These events, actions, and sayings were then transmitted orally from person to person, group to group. Eventually, some people decided to collect these stories and sayings and arrange, adapt, and transcribe them into texts. As Luke tells us at the beginning of his Gospel: “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” (1:1–2). This is revealing about the formation of Scripture. Stories or accounts of the life and sayings of Jesus were handed down or transmitted by eyewitnesses and many people were writing down or transcribing these events and sayings. Luke goes on to tell us that he also “carefully” investigated these things and decided to write an “orderly” account (1:3–4).

John also gives us some information about how Scripture was constructed. At the end of John’s Gospel, he makes two remarks regarding the formation of his Gospel: “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book” (20:30) and “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (21:25). These verses reveal that John selected, arranged, and adapted the stories and sayings of Jesus and that John had more stories and sayings at his disposal that he decided not to include in his Gospel. A comparison of the four Gospels confirms that each author collected, arranged, and adapted the stories and sayings of Jesus, with John taking the most liberty in constructing his Gospel. Of course, we also know that Paul, the writer of Hebrews, James, Peter, John, and Jude all composed or dictated and circulated letters to the churches.

In the first century, the materials for writing were either parchments (animal skins) or paper made from papyrus. They had to be copied and recopied by hand over the years until the printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1454. Manuscripts and fragments of Scripture were translated early on into various languages other than the original Hebrew or Greek. There is a vast number of manuscripts and fragments that have been transmitted, found, and collected. These manuscripts and fragments form the basis for what is called a “critical edition” of the Hebrew Bible or the Greek New Testament. Biblical scholars use what is called “textual criticism” to establish what was most likely the original text since no originals exist. It is from these critical editions of Hebrew and Greek that translations are made into the various languages of the world.

In addition to the origin and formation of scriptural texts, there is the history of canonization. The history of canonization investigates how the books of the Bible were recognized as Holy Scripture, who decided what books belonged in the canon, and what criteria influenced these decisions. The canon of Scripture was first affirmed by Church Council’s at Hippo (393) and again in Carthage (397). These two councils, however, included the Apocrypha, which was included in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, but excluded from the Hebrew Bible. Later Protestant Reformers disputed the fourteen books of the Apocrypha and removed them from the canon of Scripture. While all of this shows that humans were intimately involved in the formation of the Bible, people of faith affirm that all of the above was superintended by the Holy Spirit. The Bible, then, is God’s word in human words constructed by human hands inspired by God’s Spirit.

Posted Apr 19, 2021

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