Updated: Jul 18, 2020
80% of Americans believe in God...
yet only 24% of Americans believe that the Bible can be taken literally (Gallup.com).
This is a statistic that initially baffled me until I took some time to really think about it. Did I myself truly believe that the Bible was the literal word of God? Where does the Bible come from? When was it written? Is it actually credible? In a nation where 80% of the population believes in God, I would argue that only a tiny fraction of that pool could even tell you what the Bible actually is.
I am curious about what you say when someone asks you why you believe in the Bible or when it was written. Perhaps you don't believe in the Bible and are reading this as a skeptic. Maybe you have only recently started your faith journey and simply haven't given the origin of the Bible much thought yet. Someone reading this might know exactly where the Bible comes from. Regardless of where you find yourself, I determined that if I am going to promote a "Bible-based" blog, I better establish what the Bible actually is!
I've done my best to put all of this information into easy to understand words. You could certainly go to a university in your area or look online and sign up for religion courses... committing yourself to months of extensive, in-depth Biblical knowledge. You could learn Hebrew and Greek. But even if you don't decide to do those things, I think it is good for everyone who claims to love and follow scripture to have a basic understanding of how the Bible was formed.
The 10 Commandments: the first Bible
Prior to the Israelites living in Egypt, God's instructions to people on earth were spoken rather than written. Adam and Eve didn't need a Bible because they were in direct contact with God. Abraham and Issac also stayed in close communication with their Maker through dreams, visions, and speech. Yet as the world grew older people moved further and further away from maintaining an intimate relationship with God. God knew that he could not remain on "speaking terms" with humanity forever- so he started the legacy of the written word. The Ten Commandments are the first written thing we see God give to his followers. They are the basis of how people are to interact with one another and with God- they form the basis for the Hebrew Bible. Moses, who received the 10 Commandments, also began writing books at this time to instruct future generations on how to have a relationship with God. The process of developing this new Hebrew "Bible" would continue on through the reign of King Hezekiah and beyond.
It is important for us all to realize that the "Bible" as we see it produced today in the structure of one book is actually a collection of books. This may seem obvious considering we call the various titles, "The books of the Bible" yet people still overlook this detail.
It is believed that the Hebrew Bible books were written from 1400–400 B.C. There are 39 Hebrew books in total written by prophets, kings, and even anonymous believers, all with a common message in mind: love God and others.
There is great debate over how many books are in the "true" Bible: 66, 73, 78? We will explore this a little later. Keep reading!
The Septuagint: from Hebrew to Greek
If you follow history, you will know that Greek became the reigning language during the time of Alexander the Great. It was during Alexander's reign that the library of Alexandria was being developed, and it was requested that the Hebrew Bible, which by this point was a well known literary work, be included in the book collection. The Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek in the 3rd century B.C. and the book of Daniel was added to the collection. This formed what is known as the Septuagint.
The Apocrypha in the Septuagint
There are 14 books that were added to the Hebrew Bible when it was translated into Greek, and that group of books is referred to as the Apocrypha. These are titles that you may have never heard of: Wisdom, Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, etc. Some scholars argue that these books are equally sacred and just as valid as the books of the Bible you are familiar with, but based on my studying this is not true. There are concepts in the 14 books of the Apocrypha that we do not see in the other books of the Bible or the Gospels. Actually, there are things stated that directly oppose what Jesus himself teaches such as giving money to "pay" for your sins, praying to and for the dead, and pray to saints rather than Jesus or God himself. Do these concepts sound familiar? They are practices carried on in the modern Catholic church- therefore some of the Apocrypha books are actually included in the modern Catholic Bible!
Various primary figures (such as Martin Luther King and John Wycliffe) throughout the history of Christianity and The Reformation refuted the validity of the Apocrypha. It is likely that other authors alive at the time the Greek translation was transcribed were inspired and even envious of the popularity and effect the Hebrew Bible had on its readers. These authors decided to write their own versions of books with similar styles and stories- much like unknown authors today copy the writing creativity of people such as J.K. Rollings or Nicholas Sparks- in hopes of being noticed. They saw an opportunity to merge their own works with God's true message during the translation, and they went for it!
Although I do not believe the Apocrypha books are divinely inspired, they are worth reading. They give great historical and cultural context and often share things that make the other books of the Bible easier to understand in regards to the time period.
The New Testament
The 27 books of the New Testament were written from 45 -85 A.D. They were originally written in Greek. Oral traditions were popular at this time and so we see these various books being written not just by Paul but also possibly from the memory and stories of some of his followers. Of course, we also see the Gospels being written by disciples and believers of Jesus as well.
The Bible in Latin and English
When the Roman Catholic Church gained its power (both spiritually and politically) in 476, the Bible was translated once again... this time from Greek to Latin. The Latin version of the Hebrew Books (Old Testament) + New Testament is called the "Vulgate". The Vatican, on a mission to establish itself as the only true "church", began only teaching scripture in Latin during the Dark Ages. The Vatican used the Latin language barrier to keep "common folk" (who spoke English and French) from being able to read scripture for themselves. This allowed the Roman Catholic Church to manipulate and control its audiences and congregations because they were unable to read what Biblical texts actually said. Churchgoers were now at the mercy of whatever someone else (typically a priest) translated the verses to say. This led to embezzlement, persecution, and corruption in churches all over the world.
Eventually, much further down the road in the 1960s, Latin was abandoned by priests in many local Catholic congregations. By this point, church standards had relaxed, new languages had been embraced, and the Bible was widely translated into "common folk" languages- hundreds of languages from around the world. As of 2011, a new Vatican document instructed bishops around the world to reintroduce the old Latin mass abandoned in the late 1960s if traditionalist Catholics in their areas request it.
English was one of the many languages which the Bible was translated into as people rebelled against the limiting Latin copies of Bible text being produced by the Roman Catholic Church. William Tyndale took it upon himself to return to the original translations of Hebrew, Greek, and in some cases German Bibles and begin the task of writing a Bible in English. The Tyndale Bible (produced in the 1500s) was one of the first English copies of Bible books ever to be created. This was much to the dismay of the Vatican and several Governing bodies who labeled William Tyndale a heretic. Eventually, William Tyndale was captured, strangled to death, and burned at the stake for heresy by the King of England in partnership with the Catholic Church in 1536.
The King James Bible
Perhaps the most well known English Bible we have in the world today is the King James Bible. This edition of the Bible was commissioned in 1604 by King James I after feeling political pressure from Puritans and Calvinists (groups of believers who emerged from The Reformation) demanding church reform and calling for a complete restructuring of church hierarchy... in other words, people were tired of the Roman Catholic Church having so much control over the Bible.
This English Bible was influenced by the Tyndale Bible while also incorporating "modern-day phrasing" in an effort to help readers better grasp and understand what the text said. For 250 years the King James Bible was the primary English translation of the literature. Some people praise the King James Bible because of it's legacy, while others still feel it is not an accurate translation due to this attempt at an easy reading style, which includes phrasing not found in the Hebrew and Greek. The King James Bible was written in 1611.
The Biblical Canon
So how did we end up with the collection of Bible books we have today? As time carried on, different leaders, nations, and councils took it upon themselves to distinguish and preserve what was and what was not a part of God's true message to the world. As various denominational church entities developed and emerged, they all had something to say about what was and wasn't from God- typically supporting whatever writings they could find that fit their own agenda. Yet despite the varying interests, it is believed that people were able to narrow down an accurate group of writings truly inspired and divinely shared by God. There is a clear message of salvation conveyed in all of the books labeled as accurate in Bibles today. Great effort has been taken to compare various writings and establish common themes throughout all of the books' messages. This select group of approved, tested, and verified texts are called the Biblical Canon.
Personally, I do believe that God allowed his intended message to be preserved throughout the ups and downs of history- inspiring counsels to lead us to the 66 books we see printed today.
Click here for part 2 of this article.