You’ve touched on this before, but could you go into further depth about how the bible was assembled and exactly what it is supposed to be? For instance is every word directly from God or did he just give the writer some guidelines? How were the books chosen? How were they ordered? Why are the catholic bibles and the NKJ versions different? I know, lots of questions, but I’m curious!


Do you remember this Federal Express commercial with the speedy talker?

Have that in mind as you read through this blog entry, because this is OMG’s version of the history of scripture in approximately 2000 words, borrowed heavily from a lecture I have often given on the topic! It’s an awfully thrilling history.

The word ‘Bible’ comes from the Greek words, ‘ta biblia,’ meaning ‘little scrolls,’ or ‘little books.’ In fact, many little books make up the Big Book, so to speak.

The Bible is also called “the canon,” which means “measuring rod,’ or ‘ruler.’ In fact, in Regensburg Germany, there are two steel posts attached to the corner of the ancient city hall. They were used as a uniformly accepted yard stick, in case the fabric merchant was going to sell two feet of material for the price of three. These two rods were, in essence, a canon.

That’s what Scripture is, a canon, a gathering of writings to which we hold various assertions up to see whether they jibe.

In fact, it is still a disagreement about which little books actually belong in this Big Book, the Bible. Martin Luther, for example, wanted to chuck the books of James and Revelation. Some argue that the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Luther King Jr. ought to be included in Scripture. Theoretically, changes could be made: the Bible as we have it never was approved by any council whatsoever, and even now different traditions include different books. But the chances of that happening are really, really, really slim.

So let’s look at each section of the Bible to see what one can find.

The Old Testament

The first portion of the Old Testament, or the Hebrew Bible, is called the Tanakh. It’s an acronym, like NASA, standing for these three words: Torah, Nebi’im, and Kethubim.

The Torah (also called the Pentateuch, meaning five [penta-] teachings) is comprised of the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Several authors are responsible for these books (the idea that Moses wrote them is highly disputed by most scholars, beginning with the observation that Moses died in these texts, and aided by clearly different styles of writing and agendas), and overall, it took approximately six centuries to write them all (11th-5th centuries B.C.E.). These documents were discovered before the ancient Hebrews were returned from their Babylonian exile (beginning in 538), and preserved what previously had only been maintained orally.

The name ”Torah’ was given to these books because it preserved teachings: ‘Torah’ means ‘teaching’ or ‘law.’ It became a normative text by the middle of the third century BCE, when it was first translated into Greek.

The Nebi’im are the prophetic writings, like Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea, Micah, and so forth. They were compiled by 200 BCE, but were written in two stages: some before 609 BCE, and some during the Exile. One can notice certain editorial changes that occurred over time, like the addition of Isaiah 40-66, or Zechariah 9-14, in order for the prophetic address to continue to be relevant.

The Kethubim, meaning the Writings, were uniquely bandied around, independent of one another. They were compiled late into the first century BCE. Different editors put the books in different orders, and depending upon whether you are a Jew or not, some books are considered one, some two. They include the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and 1 and 2 Chronicles.

Then we have the Apocrypha. The name comes from a Greek word meaning ‘hidden.’ It’s where we get our words ‘cryptic’ and ‘crypt.’ It is possible that it is called the Apocrypha because some thought that the words and ideas were so mysterious that the meanings were hidden from the average person, or that the texts in the Apocrypha should be hidden because the words were heretical to some!

We have these manuscripts because a man named Jerome was commissioned to translate the Scripture into Latin. His final work is called the Latin Vulgate. He distinguished these books from the Old Testament and from the New Testament. Roman Catholics consider the Apocrypha part of the Bible, but Protestants tend to see them as “extra-canonical.”

However, the Apocrypha is used and known in history!

Shakespeare named two of his daughters after the books Susanna and Judith, and about eighty passages from eleven of his plays contain references to it. Hymn writers use it, like the composer of Now Thank We All Our God, who based its text on Luther’s translation of Sirach 50:22-24. All sorts of common names come from it, like Edna, Susanna (Susan, Suzanne), Judith, and Tobias (Toby). The word macabre could well come from the gruesome details of the Maccabee tales. And perhaps for some, most importantly, New Testament writers make use of it. Romans 1:20-29 correlates with Wisdom 13: 5, 8; and 2 Corinthians echoes Wisdom 9:15, and James 1:19 parallels Sirach 5:11.

The Septuagint (LXX) is the translation of the Old Testament into Greek, and was completed sometime between 200-300 BCE. It was translated from the Hebrew into Greek (and a few verses in Aramaic) because after the exile, the Jews had spread out, dispersed, all over the Mediterranean world. This occurrence is called, in fact, the Diaspora. Because Greek had become the main language (much like English today), many Jews had forgotten their Hebrew, and could only understand Scripture in the Greek.

Many of the New Testament writers, when referring to the Old Testament writings, quote from the LXX, not from the Hebrew text, because they didn’t know Hebrew well either!

Legend has it that seventy scholars did the work; hence the name. It was here that the order of the Old Testament was set, because the translators put the books in, what seemed to them, to be chronological order.

It is key to remember that the Old Testament was the only Testament for the early Christians–not least of all Jesus. It is included in the Christian Bible because without it, without Judaism, one is not Christian.

The New Testament came into being because of a heretic.

I really like heretics.

Marcion lived around 150 AD, and completely changed the history of the church.

He believed that the God of the Old Testament is different than the God of the New Testament.

So he pitched most of the Old Testament.

And he got rid of all the writings that he felt favored Jewish readers, like Matthew, Mark, Acts, and Hebrews. The pastoral epistles conflicted with the way he saw theology, so he chucked them too. And he didn’t like Luke’s nativity story.

Which left Paul.

And something Luke-esque.

Needless to say, the orthodox (ortho=straight, doxa=thinking, namely those with “straight thinking,” those who “have it right”) excommunicated him.

Not that that helped much.

So they decided to establish the Canon, and the beginnings of the Bible as we have it now came into being, to counter Marcion and other like-minded heretics..

The Old Testament was retained, and writings after Jesus were preserved as long as it seemed as if the writer were either a disciple or a disciple of a disciple. And the writings could not be considered to be heretical in and of themselves, e.g., if an author suggested that Jesus only ‘appeared’ to be human, it was not allowed into Scripture.

Dating of the original texts for New Testament books is interesting, and is tricky.

Most scholars think that Mark was written about 60 CE (approximately 30 years after Jesus’ death), Luke and Matthew around 70-80 CE, and Paul between 50-65. Not all scholars agree, by the way, that all the books attributed to Paul (like Ephesians, for example) were indeed written by Paul.

But that’s another blog.

And if you really want to chase something interesting, check out the idea of the four-source hypothesis, which notes the similarities between Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and proposes that the authors knew of each others’ writings, as well as at least three others: Q (Quelle), and proto-Luke, and proto-Matthew. Here’s a quick survey:

In short (ha ha), the Bible as we have it, only came into existence around 369. That’s more than three centuries after Jesus lived! Before that, the Gospels and letters of Paul were the primary sources of Church writings, up until 150. Around 190, a list circulated with approved scripture, and it included all the books in our present New Testament, except Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, and 3 John.

Then in the first part of the fourth century, a gentleman named Eusebius wrote that Hebrew, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation were still considered by some to be iffy. No one quite knows how people reconciled to having them included in Scripture, but by 369 we have our first listing of all the books in the Bible as we now have it.

It’s important to note that we have not one single “original” manuscript of scripture. We have ancient copies, but they are not uniform–although the consistency is remarkable from one manuscript to the next.

Most scholars dispute the notion of God “whispering” in an author’s ear to “dictate” what should be written.

Literalism is dangerous–and easily disproven.

As I’ve said in another blog entry, even the authors were comfortable with metaphor. Did any author really mean that God is an eagle, or that we are sheep?

And literalism misses the point. There are many forms of writing in scripture: history, poetry, letters, lament, hymnody for starters! If two people are standing on a hill, which one tells a truer word: the one who says, “I can see 6.6 miles?” or the one who says, “I can see forever?”

Add to that the terribly different historical, cultural, and linguistic circumstances, and the notion of literalism begins to lose its luster.

And what of context? I’ve often said, echoing my OT professor, that the one commandment that humanity has ever gotten right is “Be fruitful and multiply!” But in a day and age of overpopulation, when all creation is groaning with resources stretched beyond reserve, is it a word God would speak yet today?

Different translations of the Bible emphasize different interpretive priorities. Some do translate with an emphasis upon literalism, and others allow, even if in footnotes, some measure of translational freedom. The translation I prefer is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). It is a fine collaborative work which depended upon biblical scholars from many and various traditions–a choice that consciously avoided an interpretive bias.


Clearly, much to think about, wonder about, and pursue.

For those of who wanting to chase this further, take a look at these following links: It’s a wikipedia article which offers some cool links to studying ancient manuscripts. Note the images!

The Da Vinci Code received much attention. Take a look at Speaking of Faith’s view of it here:

Here’s theologian William Placher’s historical perspective on the notion of biblical literalism:

I’m eager for feedback and further questions!