No other book has had such an impact on human his story. It has guided the course of nations and seeded the political philosophy that produced democracy. And it has influenced countless individual lives, changing raging criminals into peaceable citizens. The Book, of course, is the Bible.
Just what is this Book like? Some people have compared the Bible to a library. It does resemble a library in that it’s a collection of “books” written individually and later collected together. The Old Testament consists of the books written before Jesus’ birth—some of them nearly 1,500 years before. The books that were written after His crucifixion make up the New Testament.
Obviously, many people were involved in writing the Bible—about 40, in fact. While some of the people who wrote the books of the Bible were unknown chroniclers of Israel’s his story, some were famous Bible characters such as Moses, David, and Paul. And much of the New Testament was written by disciples of Jesus or their close associates.
Nearly all the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, though a few portions of Ezra and Daniel were written in Aramaic, the language of Babylon, which was a “first cousin” of Hebrew. The New Testament was written in Greek, the common language of the Mediterranean world at the time. This wasn’t the classical Greek of philosophy and literature. It was the dialect used in personal letters to friends and family and in bills and receipts. So biblical Greek really was the language of the common people.
No original manuscripts
Printing wasn’t invented until the middle of the fifteenth century A.D. Before that, when people wanted copies of books of the Bible, a scribe had to write them out by hand. And when a book of the Bible became worn out, it was usually either discarded or destroyed. So, unfortunately, no original manuscript of a book of the Bible exists today. Codex Vaticanus (so named because it is kept in the library of the Vatican in Rome) is the earliest nearly complete manuscript of the New Testament. It was copied some time during the early fourth century A.D., which was 250 to 300 years after the last book of the New Testament was written.
However, scholars have found smaller pieces of the New Testament that are older than Codex Vaticanus. For instance, there’s a fragment of the Gospel of John that was written about A.D. 125, not too many years after the original. The oldest copies of the Old Testament books that we have are the Dead Sea Scrolls. In general, even more time separates them from the originals. Because the prophets and apostles who wrote the Bible didn’t speak English, the Bibles that most of us read are translations. The various translators of the Bible have adopted one of two “philosophies.” One approach involves a literalistic, word-for-word translation. In the other, translators focus primarily on conveying the meaning of the passage.
Most modern translations fall somewhere between the extremes of these two philosophies. The King James Version, Revised Standard Version, basically the same New Testament. The acceptance of these 27 books as Scripture also involved a process—one that was completed in church councils in the late 300s and the early 400s A.D.
The early Christians had at least three criteria for determining which books to accept as official Scripture:
- the wide acceptance and use of a book in the early church,
- its faithfulness to Christian doctrine, and
- its reputation for having been written or authorized by one of the apostles.
Of course, much of what we’ve said so far could also be true of a collection of books of mere human history, philosophy, and speculation. But the Bible is more than that. It is God’s inspired message to humans that has been communicated to us through written words.
Like Jesus, the living Word of God (John 1:1, 14), the Bible is both human and divine. Its words bear the impress of its human authors their characteristics, history, and culture. But it’s also inspired “God-breathed,” as 2 Timothy 3:16 puts it. Peter also affirmed the inspiration of the Bible. He said, “Prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21; italics added).
Paul wrote that the Scriptures “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). However, there’s no magic in the Scriptures themselves. They bring eternal life only as we find Jesus Christ in them (John 5:39). But, of course, we can find Him there only if we’re looking if we’re reading the stories about Him. And whether or not we’re benefiting from this “library” of books given to us by God through His prophets is entirely up to us.
This article originally appeared on Signs of the Times on January 2013.