How We Got Our Bible: Did You Know?

THE OLDEST SURVIVING MANUSCRIPT of any part of the New Testament is a papyrus fragment containing verses from John 18; scholars estimate it was written about 125.

We may have sayings of Jesus that are not recorded in the four Gospels. They come from books that never made it into the New Testament but which nonetheless contain some reliable historical information. Extra-biblical sayings that might be from the lips of Jesus: “The one who is near me is near the fire; the one who is far from me is far from the kingdom”; “There shall be divisions and heresies”; “No one can obtain the kingdom of heaven who has not passed through temptation.”

Many early Christians, to discover the answer to a problem, would randomly open the Bible, read the first line their eye fell upon, and consider it a divine message for them. So popular was this practice, it had to be repeatedly condemned by early church councils.

The word Bible comes from the Greek word for “papyrus plant” (biblos), since the leaves of that plant were used for paper.

In the ancient and medieval worlds, some Christians memorized large portions of Scripture. Eusebius of Caesarea said he once met a blind Egyptian who “possessed whole books of the Holy Scriptures . . . in his heart.”

The Roman Catholic Bible is larger than the Protestant, but the largest Bible in Christendom belongs to the Ethiopic church. It contains the Old Testament Apocrypha and books such as Jubilees, 1 Enoch, Joseph Ben Gurion’s medieval history of the Jews and other nations, Ethiopic Clement, and the Ethiopic Book of the Covenant.

The cost of a Bible in the 1300s might easily amount to a priest’s whole yearly income.

The medieval church did not object to Bible translations; by the early 1500s, there were Bibles in most European languages. But the church opposed the work of Wycliffe and Tyndale because these translators held “radical” views.

When English Bibles were first published, people were fascinated with them. One Essex man recalled that “poor men bought the New Testament of Jesus Christ and on Sundays did sit reading in the lower end of the church, and many would flock about them to hear their reading.”

As Erasmus was pulling together his celebrated Greek New Testament (1516), he could find no ancient Greek manuscripts of the last six verses of Revelation. So he made his own “backward” translation—from Latin back into Greek! For centuries, in fact, some Greek New Testaments still concluded with Erasmus’s Latin—to—Greek translation of these verses.

The Bible’s chapter divisions were created in the early 1200s by a lecturer at the University of Paris. Its current verse divisions were not fully developed until 1551.

Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German in a blitz of only 11 weeks.

Tyndale’s translation introduced many new words into the English language, such as longsufferingpeacemakerscapegoatfilthy lucre, and even the word beautiful.

William Tyndale’s first English New Testament, finished in 1525, had to be printed outside of England and then smuggled back inside barrels of flour and bolts of cloth. Catholic bishop Tunstall of London bought up most of Tyndale’s first edition in order to stamp out Tyndale’s “heresy”—but the proceeds financed new editions!

When the King James Version was published in 1611, the Geneva Bible was by far the most popular English Bible. It was the Geneva translation, not the King James, that was used by William Shakespeare and the early American Puritans.

By David M. Scholer

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #43 in 1994]

David M. Scholer is professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He is author of A Basic Bibliographic Guide for New Testament Exegesis (Eerdmans, 1973).
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