Origins of the Bible

The Bible has an amazing history, transcending hundreds of generations, wars, disasters, language changes and culture shifts. The story of how we got the Bible is the subject of many books, but here is a brief summary...

In ancient times, the stories of God were passed down through generations by word of mouth.  This is known as the 'oral tradition'.   It's not known who first recorded these stories, but some people estimate it could have been as early as 1,400 B.C.  It's quite likely that Moses wrote down significant parts of the Law; Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 31:9) although there is no scholarly consensus on how much or which parts he wrote.

The recording of all the books in the Old Testament did not happen at the same time.  The process took centuries and while some were being recorded, others were still being passed down orally.  Once they were all written down, the process of collecting them all together probably began around 400 B.C.

All but a few sections of the Old Testament are originally written in Hebrew with parts of Daniel (chapters 2 - 7) and Ezra (chapters 4:8 - 6:18) written in Aramaic.  After Alexander the Great swept through the Middle East in the 300s B.C., Greek became the common language.

Not long after this, an Egyptian King asked the High Priest in Jerusalem for 70 scholars to translate the Jewish scriptures into Greek.  This first translation became known as the Septuagint (meaning 70).  Sometime after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70, a Jewish Council decided which books made up their Bible, which Christians now call the Old Testament.  Their decision was to only accept the Hebrew / Aramaic canon, even though the Septuagint included other books. 

In the fifth century A.D., Jerome translated the Hebrew scriptures into Latin.  This translation became known as the Vulgate.  Originally, he had wanted to translate only the Hebrew / Aramaic canon (the original books in the Hebrew Bible), but was overruled by church leaders.  As a consequence, the Christian church retained the Septuagint canon until the Protestant reformers chose to revert to the Hebrew canon in the 16th century, leaving the Catholic and Orthodox church retaining the larger canon.

The first New Testament books recorded were probably those written by Paul.  It is estimated that Paul began writing some of his letters of encouragement to churches as early as 20 years after Jesus’ death.  The remainder of the New Testament was written between about A.D. 50 – 100.  For more than 200 years after this, Christians debated which books should be included in the New Testament.  By 367 most church leaders had agreed on the final 27 books we have in the New Testament today.

Some parts of the Bible were translated into Anglo-Saxon from about 670 A.D., and the first complete translation into English became available when John Wyclif and his associates translated it from a Latin translation in about 1380.  In 1526 William Tyndale produced the first printed New Testament in English.  Since then, the Bible has been translated into English many times.

For many years, the King James Version (sometimes known as the Authorised Version) first published in 1611 was the common Bible for English speaking people.  However, since the King James was published, archaeologists have discovered Bible manuscripts much older than the ones that were used for the King James translation.  Although some manuscripts are 1,000 years older, variations in scripture are minor, indicating the meticulous care taken whenever scripture was copied. 

In the last 50 years, the King James version has to a large extent been displaced by a range of recent contemporary translations like the Good News (1966), the New International Version in 1973 (the world’s most popular English Bible), the Contemporary English Version (1995), the New Living Translation (1996) and the English Standard Version (2001).

English translations

There are a lot of English translations available in New Zealand. How are they different? Why do some sound so different to others? Before a new translation beings, translators must decide what their approach will be: word for word or thought for thought.

Bible translators can choose to focus on being very ‘literal’ (word for word) or ‘free’ (translating thought for thought).  Literal translations attempt to translate each word of the original language and, with the minimum of word rearrangement, organise them into a coherent sentence in English.  Free translations take an idea in one language and express that idea in another.  Free translations are easier to read and understand but can be less accurate than a literal translation.

Most translations fall somewhere in between these two extremes as translators try to find a preferred balance between accuracy and understanding. 

The diagram shows where some common versions fall on the spectrum.
Click on the image to get the high resolution version.

Translation Spectrum


Which Bible is best for Me?

That’s a good question that many people ask.  The best Bible for you is the one that you feel most comfortable with and the one that speaks to you the best.  Have a read of some different English versions at BibleGateway. It’s important to find a Bible you can relate you. God will use the Bible to transform you and bring you into a deeper relationship with him.