Origin of the Bible

Origin of the Bible
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Where Did The Bible Come From?

Many are unaware of just how we came to have the Bible we have today. An understanding of how the Bible came to be can add a new dimension to a believer's perspective of who God is and how He has chosen to work among his creation.

The writings which eventually were gathered together and came to be known as "The Holy Bible" were written over a period of 1500 years by more than 40 different authors living on 3 different continents (Asia, Africa, and Europe). While the text itself was penned by the hands of its various human authors, the ultimately divine origin of Scripture is testified to numerous times within the text itself and has been repeatedly confirmed throughout history by its steadfast integrity and reliability. Based upon the textual evidence, two key doctrines may be discerned [Note 1]:

1. The Doctrine of Revelation:

This addresses the means by which God reveals truth to His people. Revelation may be defined as "A supernatural work of God in which He communicated divine truth to human beings that they otherwise would not or could not know".

2. The Doctrine of Inspiration

This addresses the means by which the writers of Scripture received and recorded God's truths accurately. Inspiration may be defined as "The supernatural act of God whereby He so directed human authors of Scripture that, without destroying their individuality, literary style, or personality, His complete and connected thought toward humanity was received/recorded without error or contradiction -- each word being supernaturally written and preserved so as to result in an infallible document in the original writings".

But how did the original writings penned by so many different people over such a long period of time come to be grouped together as the Bible we know today? And how certain are we that the documents we have today are accurate copies of what was originally written? The sections which follow attempt to answer these questions by tracing the development of the group of writings now known as the Bible.

The Canon of Scripture
The Old Testament

The New Testament

The information which follows is taken largely from an excellent source written by F.F. Bruce entitled "The Books and the Parchments" [Note 2]. The presentation of this material on this web site is in no way intended to imply that the material is original with the web site authors. Rather, this site simply serves as a forum for communicating the material to those who might not otherwise access this material from its original source.

The Canon of Scripture

hen referring to the books of the Christian Bible, the word 'canon' is often used (as in "the Canon of Scripture").  According to the American Heritage Dictionary [Note 3], canon may be defined as "the books of the Bible officially accepted as holy scripture".

If we examine the word history of our English word "canon" we can understand why this particular word came to be used to denote the list of Biblical writings. Our English word evolved (via Latin) from the Greek word "kanon" which itself evolved from the Hebrew word "qaneh". This Hebrew word referred to a "reed". Reeds were used in ancient times as measuring devices (like we use a ruler today); hence, the Hebrew word suggested something to measure with or a standard by which to compare other things. The Greek word "'kanon" then took on the meaning of a "rule" or "standard". Origen (the Greek church father) used this word to refer to "the standard by which we measure and evaluate everything that may be offered to us as an article of belief". Thus, the "Canon of Scripture" came to mean the list of Biblical writings used by Christians as the standard by which we evaluate our beliefs.

Since the canon of Scripture as we know it today has not always existed, where did it come from? And how do we know that the copies we have today accurately represent what was originally recorded by the authors of scripture? Fair questions for anyone considering the Christian faith - and questions Christians would do well to answer for themselves in order solidify the foundation of their own personal beliefs.

The canonicity of a book (that is, its right to be part of the canon) is dependent upon its recognized authority. This is important to understanding the canon of Scripture:
  • Many people think the books are considered authoritative because they are included in the Bible; the historical truth is the opposite; they are included in the Bible because they are considered authoritative.

The canon of Scripture is the result of the collecting together of the various writings which Christians of previous times recognized as authoritative. Who was it that collected the writings together, and what basis did they have for considering them authoritative? To answer these questions, it is best to consider the two testaments separately.

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The Old Testament

  • The section which follows attempts to summarize the development of the Old Testament canon and its basis of validity. At the beginning, however, it is worth noting that for Christians the canonicity of the Old Testament carries with it the highest stamp of approval possible - the acceptance of Jesus Christ. The Old Testament of today is what made up the entire Bible of those living at the time of Jesus (since the New Testament had not yet been written). While Jesus often criticized many of the traditions of the Jews of that time, he never criticized the validity of their scriptures; in fact, his greatest criticisms pointed out that the Jewish traditions often conflicted with the truths espoused in their scriptures. For a Christian today, the simple fact that Jesus himself accepted the validity of the Old Testament canon is sufficient reason for accepting it ourselves.

The Hebrew Bible (used during the time of Jesus and still used by Orthodox Jews today) is commonly referred to as having three sections: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. This division is based on the organization of the Hebrew Bible which is somewhat different from the Christian Bible we have today.

  • The Law (also called the Pentateuch or the Torah) consists of the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis to Deuteronomy). This section is referred to as the Law because it contains the laws for the nation of Israel as laid down by God through the prophet Moses.

  • The Prophets consists of the books of Joshua, Judges, I & II Samuel, I & II Kings, and the prophet books Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Book of the Twelve Prophets.

  • The Writings consists of Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon), Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, I & II Chronicles.

The Old Testament of the Christian Bible consists of the same writings as those listed above - they are simply included in a different order than that of the Hebrew Bible. The English Christian Bible took its arrangement from the Latin Bible (called the Vulgate) which, in turn, took its arrangement from the Greek Bible (referred to as the Septuagint).

Few debate that during the time of Jesus the books contained in the first two sections (the Law and the Prophets) contained the same books as contained in the Hebrew Bible today. More conjecture has been associated with the third section - the Writings. It is most likely, however, that this section, too, contained the same books as contained in today's Hebrew Bible. When Jesus was summarizing the martyrs of the Old Testament he used the expression "from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah". It is clear why Abel would be considered the first martyr in the Bible (Genesis), but why would Jesus refer to Zechariah as the last? Because in the Hebrew Bible (both of Jesus' time and of today) the last book is 2 Chronicles and there Zechariah is the last martyr to be named (2 Chronicles 24:21). Hence, Jesus was summarizing the whole of the Old Testament scriptures when he summarized Abel to Zechariah.

Throughout history, the list of the books of the Hebrew Bible has been recorded by various figures. These include:

  • Philo (20? B.C. - 50 A.D.), the learned Jew of Alexandria and a contemporary of Jesus

  • Josephus (37 or 38 - 101? A.D.), the non-Christian Jewish historian

  • Melito (about 170 A.D.), the bishop of Sartis

  • Origen (185? - 254? A.D.), the foremost Greek Biblical scholar

  • Jerome (347 - 420 A.D.), the foremost Latin Biblical scholar

While the lists generated throughout history have sometimes differed in the total number of books they contained, most scholars attribute the difference to various ways in which the lists' authors grouped the books together. (For example, Ezra and Nehemiah were sometimes considered as a single book rather than two separate books. Likewise, Lamentations has sometimes been considered an appendix to Jeremiah. There are other examples as well.) While there are exceptions, the majority of historical records indicate remarkable agreement as to the content of the Hebrew canon (the Christian Old Testament).

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The New Testament

While by its very nature the canonicity of the New Testament cannot carry with it the endorsement of Jesus Christ as does the Old (since it was not written until after his death and resurrection), there is nonetheless ample substantiation of the recognized authority of the New Testament books.

The New Testament consists of 27 books (or letters) which, for the most part, were written prior to the start of the second century (100 A.D.). The first four (the Gospels) contain written accounts of the teaching and ministry of Jesus Christ. The books which follow interpret Jesus' teaching and explain how to apply it to daily life.

It would appear that until about 50-60 A.D. there was no need for a written account of the Gospel. This is because the eyewitnesses were still living who could pass on the information first-hand. However, since the apostles were to grow old and pass away like everybody else, it later became necessary to have written accounts of the life of Jesus so that the facts would not get distorted with the passage of time. As a result, certain of the apostles and their associates penned the accounts we now have included as the four gospels.

Towards the end of the first century, it appears the four gospel accounts were gathered together into a single collection called "The Gospel". (The various accounts were distinguished by adding According to Matthew, According to Mark, etc.) At roughly the same time the letters written by the apostle Paul were also gathered together into a collection referred to as "The Apostle". While these collections represent the beginning of what eventually came to be regarded as the New Testament canon, they were not yet formally grouped together and designated as such.

In about 140 A.D., a man named Marcion arrived in Rome and began preaching a distorted version of the teachings included in The Gospel and The Apostle. This movement grew to such an extent that the Christian church leaders saw the necessity to more clearly formalize the distinction between what was and was not authoritative scripture. This led to the formalization of the list of writings considered authoritative by the Christian church (the New Testament canon).

Factors which the early church used in deciding whether a book was to be regarded as canonical included:

  • Apostolic Authorship - Was the letter written by one of Jesus' apostles or one of their close associates?

  • Authoritative Recognition - Was the book generally regarded by the various congregations of the early church as authoritative?

  • Doctrinal Soundness - Were the teachings of the book in keeping with the apostolic faith?

It is important to note that when putting together the list of authoritative books, the church leaders did not arbitrarily generate a list of books that henceforth would be considered authoritative; rather, they simply documented and formalized the list of books which the early Christian church already considered authoritative.

As with the Old Testament, the list of canonical New Testament books has been recorded and re-recorded throughout the course of history by several notable figures, including:

  • Origen (see above)

  • Eusebius, Pope from 309-310 A.D.

The first known list which includes the 27 books which Christians recognize today appeared in the Festal Letter written by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, to the churches when announcing the date of Easter in 367 A.D. Later, Jerome and Augustine produced canonical lists containing the same 27 books.

In summary, the New Testament canon was not produced by the simple decree of any church governing body. Rather, like the Old Testament, the New Testament took shape over a period of time as the oral teachings of the original apostles were written down and distributed among the early Christian churches. The early church then documented and formalized the already recognized list of authoritative writings in order to prevent the distortion of the truth over the passage of time.

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  1. From the chapter titled "Three Gates That Open the Scriptures” in the study guide A Look at the Book: A Bible Survey, co-authored by Lee Hough and Bryce Klabunde, from the Bible-teaching ministry of Charles R. Swindoll (Fullerton, California: Insight for Living, 1994), pp. 1-10.

  2. F.F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments: How We Got Our English Bible, pp. 86-104. Used by permission of Baker Book House Company, Copyright © 1950, 1963, 1984 by Fleming H. Revell. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Book House Company. (See Site Links Page)

  3. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition Copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company, see "canon."