It is miraculous. It is as though its content was breathed out with a goal of being breathed in. It claims divinity but is written by people who are very much like any of us. The authors are not sinless. Far from it, some of the authors are murderers, people with “a painful past,” and people that, quite frankly, you might not want as friends. Sometimes their sins are far greater than ours. Yet, their words are clung to as life and hope in our darkest hours. There is literally nothing like it in the world. It has shaped every facet of the human experience: literature, the arts, law, education, science, politics, and human relations. It is ancient and ever new. What is it?
It is the Holy Bible: a collection of sixty-six books composed and compiled over 2,000 years by forty authors on three continents. Despite the impressive diversity of authors, genre—from history to poetry, from prophecy to personal accounts—and languages, the Bible displays an irrefutable unity of purpose, undivided harmony of thought, an unfolding narrative that is both unified and progressive. The Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, projects universal truth that remains applicable to people around the world. The Bible is loved in Bombay as in Birmingham, in London as is Lisbon, and in Nepal as in Nicaragua. The Holy Bible is an unrivaled powerhouse that, by its message, has instituted hospitals, orphanages, unleashed liberty in human government, introduced domesticity to barbarians (I am of British stock and think of my own ancestors whose pagan religions led to unimaginable sorrow and cultures that were unsustainable), and, ultimately and positively shaped the great spheres of human governance in the home, the Church, and the State.
This collection of ancient writings born out of oral tradition, self-attesting that Almighty God Himself inspired the Sacred Text as He spoke through the prophets, priests, and kings, as well as ordinary men and women, was recorded and compiled across hundreds of years. And the Bible remains as contemporary today as it was when God wrote the Ten Commandments on stone tablets in the fourteenth century BC and gave them to Moses. The thirty-nine book of the Hebrew and Imperial Aramaic writings revealing that there is One God who has covenanted to bring knowledge of Himself and redemption from sin by His Son to the ends of the earth through continues perfectly into the twenty-seven books—letters, testimonies, histories, all written in Koine Greek—emerging after the life, death, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth.
When was the Old Testament Written?
The Old Testament scriptures were composed and compiled across time. By this, we mean to say that there were not certain dates to locate. Rather, the ancient Church, believers in the Old Testament era, recognized the impression of the Holy Spirit on the text. The believers, like in the New Testament, gathered those documents either because of the author (e.g., Moses) or because the text demonstrated unity, historicity, reliability, and impression was in concert with the other parts of the Word of God. Bodie Hodge and Dr. Terry Mortenson state this about the Pentateuch in their Answers in Genesis article Did Moses Write Genesis?:
"There is abundant biblical and extra-biblical evidence that Moses wrote the Pentateuch during the wilderness wanderings after the Jews left their slavery in Egypt and before they entered the Promised Land (about 1445–1405 BC)."
What about the Original Language?
Again, the beauty of the Bible is how God reaches men and women, boys and girls, by coming to us in our own language. The Old Testament was written in ancient Hebrew. Parts of the Old Testament were written in an imperial Aramaic (Genesis 31:47; Jeremiah 10:11; Ezra 4:8–6:18; 7:12–26 only). The fact that the Bible was written to a People, in a place, amidst their trials and joys, their living and dying, demonstrates the astounding relevance, relation, and reliability of God’s Word. This is no fable. This is not yarn. This is God with us.
When was the Old Testament Compiled?
The story of how the Old Testament books of the Bible is a saga of God’s faithfulness. The Old Testament books were collected and compiled is an epic narrative worthy of its own book (indeed, books have been written about this). While some rabbis point to a general assembly of religious leaders that recognized the books of the Bible, this did not happen until well after the people of God were already using the Scriptures in worship. Therefore, just as in the development of the New Testament, the Old Testament books of the Bible were recognized by the people of God as the Word of God. Indeed, the development of the Old Testament seems to have taken place according to turning points in Israel’s history. This would include the Exodus, the taking of Canaan, the appearance of the monarchy in Israel with Saul and then David, the fall of Jerusalem and the exile in Babylon. And, finally, the restoration of the Israelite people to Jerusalem and the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah. Zondervan Academic has an excellent summary in their article How Did We Get the Old Testament?
And Don Stewart with BlueLetterBible.org explains,
"The books were probably recognized individually. The books after Moses were written by a number of different people during a one thousand year period. Most likely, they were individually recognized as being canonical. When the recognition that the prophetic gift had been removed from the nation (about 400 B.C.) these writings were then put into clearly defined divisions. The Old Testament Scripture was probably collected by Ezra.
The sacred writings were always placed in the temple. First century writer Flavius Josephus tells us that the sacred writings were kept in the temple in Jerusalem before its destruction in A.D. 70. This is consistent with the recorded episode of Hilkiah discovering the Book of the Law in the temple during the reign of King Josiah (630 B.C.). When all the evidence is considered we have a consistent testimony to the existence of sacred writings from the time of Moses until the time that the second temple was destroyed in the year A.D. 70."
When was the New Testament Written?
Since the New Testament books of the Bible are younger than the Old Testament collection, we naturally have more understanding about how the New Testament was written. The astounding feature of this knowledge actually helps us to understand how the Old Testament was collected and compiled. There is little difference in method. The books of the New Testament were recognized in time as the divine Word of God moving through His Apostles and disciples. From A.D. 33 until approximately A.D. 80, the Holy Spirit breathed out His Word in twenty-seven books and nine authors. Among the authors used by God were those who actually walked with Jesus (Matthew, Peter, and John) and had seen Jesus in His post-resurrection form (St. Paul). The New Testament may be simply divided into Gospels and Epistles. Paul wrote most of the Epistles. These letters to churches were primarily concerned with clarifying doctrinal truths about Jesus and the way to be saved and ethical goals for the life of believers in the Church. Misunderstanding, contextualization problems, persecution, and false teachers became the forces that caused the writings and led to clarity, faithfulness, and further revelation about the mission of God in the world through Jesus Christ.
What about the Original Language?
The New Testament was written in the common Greek of the day, Koine Greek. However, it is remarkable to contrast and consider the sentence structure, vocabulary, and writing habits of Dr. Luke, the Apostle Paul, with others, like Peter. The text clearly shows personality. God’s Word is not a robotic, mechanical transcription of celestial truth. Rather, God used human beings, including their unique idiosyncrasies, to bring about His Word to humankind. Such usage by God demonstrates the validity of the Word and forms an open invitation for cynics and unbelievers to investigate the claims of the human authors. Many people who have never read the Gospels and the Epistles have denigrated the New Testament as fiction. Many of those unbelievers who have read, like C.S. Lewis, came to bow the knee to Jesus as Lord. That is the continuing power of the Word of God in the New Testament.
Biblica, The International Bible Society, comments:
"...Greek was the language of scholarship during the years of the composition of the New Testament from 50 to 100 AD. The fact is that many Jews could not even read Hebrew anymore, and this disturbed the Jewish leaders a lot! So, around 300 BC a translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek was undertaken, and it was completed around 200 BC. Gradually this Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint, was widely accepted and was even used in many synagogues. It also became a wonderful missionary tool for the early Christians, for now the Greeks could read God’s Word in their own tongue.
So the New Testament authors wrote in Greek. They did not, however, use really high-class or classical Greek, but a very common and everyday type of Greek. For many years some scholars ridiculed the Greek of the New Testament because many of its words were strange to those who read the writings of the great Greek classical authors such as Plato and Aristotle. But later many records were uncovered of ordinary people, and amazingly there were the same common terms used in everyday speech! The ridicule dried up accordingly."
When was the New Testament Compiled?
To “compile” intimates an intentional time and place in which various documents or fragments are united into one. The New Testament nor the Old came about this way. Rather, the books of the New Testament were “received” (“moved and induced”) by the Church as God’s Word by numerous quantitative and qualitative factors.1 Chapter one of the Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes those factors in its article 5 (I have emphasized these features):
“We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to a high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.”
By the first century, the Church, the New Testament canon (that measurement of what is divinely written and what is not) that you now read in your quiet times, share with others in your witnessing, and teach your children, was settled. So, contrary to what some might assume, there was no single meeting of the clerical minds to give a final stamp of ecclesiastical imprimatur. True, listing what’s in and what’s out would happen in time as Christianity defended herself against spurious pseudographs (e.g., the Gnostic Gospels’ Gospel of Thomas found by a farmer on a cliff in the Upper Egyptian city of Nag Hammadi).2 For instance, the Muratorian Canon and Eusebius’ Classification of the New Testament Books, both important to the concept of canon, merely recognized what the Church was already doing. Matthew Mittelberg also explains the criteria used for canonization in his article How Do We Know the Right Books Made It into the New Testament?
When was the First Complete Bible Published?
Well, that is a hard one. Naturally, the Bible developed with Hebrew Scriptures and the Scriptures after Jesus Christ on through to the death of the Apostle John. The Old Covenant text in Hebrew was already being recorded on skins four hundred years before our Lord Jesus’ incarnate birth. Jesus knew the Bible as the lectionary (Scripture portions arranged for public reading) was read in his local synagogue. The Gospel of Mark (Peter’s story of Jesus to Mark) was well-circulated in the early years after Jesus’ ascension. The letters of Paul and Peter, Luke and Acts by Luke, and the other letters were copied and disseminated amongst the local Christian communities in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth (especially, that part of the known world held by the Roman Empire).
But we can say that there was the first work published that we know of that contained the Old and New Testaments (with some additions, like the Shepherd of Hermas and Epistle of Barnabas, Apocryphal books that would later be of historical interest but without authentication of divine inspiration). This Bible, the Codex Sinaiticus (the “Sinai Book,” derived from the location where a German Bible scholar discovered it on Saint Catherine’s’ Monastery), was published around 350 AD.5 Until that discovery by Dr. Constantin von Tischendorf in 1844, the Codex Vaticanus (“the Vatican Book” has been validated to also have been written in the mid-fourth century) was the only surviving Bible from the early Church. We must remember, however, that though those documents survived, that doesn’t mean there were not earlier editions. For example, I do not believe that I have the first Bible I used in the pastoral ministry. I “used it up.” So, too, we have what has remained and what has been found. If you are ever in London, go to the British Museum and you will see the full New Testament at its earliest publication, with much of the Old Testament. But how about the Bible in English?
The History of the English Bible
One way to think about the history of the English Bible is to consider prominent movements and individuals who led to putting the Bible in the hands of the people. The history of the English Bible begins in, where else — England. Dr. John Wycliffe was the priest at Saint Mary’s at Oxford. The very epitome of a pastor-scholar, Wycliffe not only wanted the Bible translated into the vernacular of the people he served but desired to see the Word of God preached in English throughout the Realm. So, Wycliffe published dozens of copies of the Bible in English. These Bibles were taken by his band of preachers, called Lollards, and they exposited the truths of the Word of God. This was the beginning of the English Reformation and was the precursor to John Hus and, then, Martin Luther.
Of course, the Guttenberg printing press (1450s) became the iPhone of its day and by means of the Protestant Reformation, made the Bible available to Europeans and the British Isles in their respective languages. While Wycliffe translated the Bible into English and made copies by hand, it was William Tyndale who actually printed the Bible in English. Tyndale, like Luther in Germany, is, in many ways, the Father of the modern English language. Before Tyndale’s translation into English (with the aid of Luther at Wittenberg) and before he published the English Bible (1525), the People of the British Isles lacked uniformity in language. A melting pot of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon tongues, Tyndale’s English became read in the parish churches throughout England and Wales and parts of Scotland and Ireland and gave the British Isles a single tongue.
The Geneva Bible (1599, translated for English speaking parishioners in that Reformation city and used by William Shakespeare, John Bunyan, John Milton, and the Pilgrims in America) and the King James Bible (1611) both used Tyndale’s Bible heavily. As Thomas Cranmer composed the Book of Common Prayer in 1549 (with help from John Calvin and John Knox), that was revised until its near-present form was published in 1662, English speaking people had both the Bible and a prayer book in their own language. As the Pilgrims came to America, and as the British Empire would cover the earth in one of the most benevolent dynasties in human history, the English Bible was carried to all of the world. The predominance of English as a common tongue throughout the world traces its incredible influence on the Lord’s powerful calling upon John Wycliffe and William Tyndale, Thomas Cranmer, John Knox, and the Seventeenth Century Puritans and Separatists (Pilgrims) who would establish English law and the Christian faith in America.3
The story of how the Bible was written cannot be recalled without the most important fact of all: why the Bible was written. As always, the Word of God attests to its own purpose:
“But these things are written that ye might believe, that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God and that in believing ye might have life through his Name.” (John 20:31 The Geneva Bible of 1599-60).
"Known but to God"
Some of the most moving words that I have ever read are inscribed on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery: “Here rests, in Honored Glory, an American Soldier, known but to God.”
We have traced how the Bible was written in this little article. Let us remember that it was written for you and delivered to you through the power of the Holy Spirit moving upon your mother and father, a grandparent, an aunt, a cousin, a pastor from your childhood, that coach who took the time to show you what really motivates him to go on, that Sunday school teacher when you were in the first grade, or that friend in high school who compassionately crossed that often avoided divide of “religion,” to share the grace and love of the Lord Jesus Christ. Those are the heroes. And John Wycliffe and William Tyndale would be the first to say they are.
The story of the Bible continues in every generation, not only through the printing presses, the Internet, Facebook, the iPad, and other means; but as God’s word is written upon the hearts of his people through the power of his Spirit and by the agency of willing believers. Let us be among those of whom it will be said, “They cared enough to share God’s Word with me.”
Michael A. Milton, PhD (University of Wales; MPA, UNC Chapel Hill; MDiv, Knox Seminary), Dr. Milton is a retired seminary chancellor and currently serves as the James Ragsdale Chair of Missions at Erskine Theological Seminary. He is the President of Faith for Living and the D. James Kennedy Institute a long-time Presbyterian minister, and Chaplain (Colonel) USA-R. Dr. Milton is the author of more than thirty books and a musician with five albums released. Mike and his wife, Mae, reside in North Carolina
1. Gerald Irvin Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith: For Study Classes (Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Company, 1964).
2. Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (Random House Publishing Group, 2004).
3. See. E.g., F. F. Bruce, History of the Bible in English (Lutterworth Press, 2002).
- Bruce, F. F. History of the Bible in English. Lutterworth Press, 2002.
- Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. Random House Publishing Group, 2004.
- Parker, David C. Codex Sinaiticus: The Story of the World’s Oldest Bible. British Library, 2010.
- Porter, Stanley E. Constantine Tischendorf: The Life and Work of a 19th Century Bible Hunter. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015.
- Williamson, Gerald Irvin. The Westminster Confession of Faith: For Study Classes. Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Company, 1964.
- “Codex Sinaiticus - Home.”
- “How Did We Get the Old Testament?” Zondervan Academic Blog, May 18, 2018.
- “The First Book of Common Prayer | History Today.”
Photo credit: ©Thinkstock/Tomertu