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Who wrote the Bible? What kind of writing is it? How did we get it thousands of years later? David Jarnes answers these and similar questions

No other book has had such an impact on human history. It has guided the course of nations, seeded the political philosophy that produced democracy. And it has influenced countless individual lives, changing raging criminals into peaceable citizens. The Book, of course, is the Bible. Just what is this Book like? Some people have compared the Bible to a library. It does resemble a library in that it’s a collection of books written individually and later collected together. The Old Testament consists of the books written before Jesus’ birth—some of them nearly fifteen hundred years before. The books that were written after His crucifixion make up the New Testament.

Obviously, many people were involved in writing the Bible; some scholars suggest about forty. While some of the people who wrote the books of the Bible were unknown chroniclers of Israel’s history, some were famous Bible characters such as Moses and David and Solomon. And much of the New Testament was written by disciples of Jesus or their close associates.

Nearly all the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew. (Portions of Ezra and Daniel were written in Aramaic, the language of Babylon and a “first cousin” of Hebrew.) The New Testament was written in Greek, the common language of the Mediterranean world at the time. This wasn’t the classical Greek of philosophy and literature. It was the dialect used in personal letters and in business—in bills and receipts. So it really was the language of the common people.

No original manuscripts

Printing wasn’t invented until the middle of the fifteenth century A.D. Before then, when people wanted copies of books of the Bible, they had to write them out by hand. And when a book of the Bible became worn out, it was usually either discarded or destroyed. So, unfortunately, no original manuscript of a book of the Bible exists today. Codex Vaticanus (so named because it is kept in the library of the Vatican in Rome) is the earliest nearly complete manuscript of the New Testament. It was copied sometime during the early fourth century A.D., 250 to 300 years after the last book of the New Testament was written.

However, scholars have found smaller pieces of the New Testament that are older than Codex Vaticanus. For instance, there’s a fragment of the Gospel of John that was written about A.D. 125–35 years after the original. The oldest copies of Old Testament books that we have are the Dead Sea Scrolls. In general, even more time separates them from the originals.

Because the prophets and apostles who wrote the Bible didn’t speak English, the Bibles that most of us read are translations. The various translators of the Bible have adopted one or the other of two “philosophies.” One approach involves a literalistic, word-for-word translation. The other says translators should focus primarily on conveying the meaning of the passage.

Most modern translations fall somewhere between the extremes of these two philosophies. The King James Version, Revised Standard Version, New King James Version, and New Revised Standard Version lean toward the word-for-word approach. Translations such as J. B. Phillips’s version of the New Testament, The Living Bible, and Eugene Peterson’s The Message lean strongly toward the other approach. And other popular translations, such as the New English Bible and the New International Version, fall somewhere in the middle.

History, poetry, letters

The Bible resembles a library not only in that it’s comprised of many books, but also in that both the form of these books and their subject matter vary greatly too. We’ve already mentioned that some books in the Bible are books of history. The apostle Paul said that what happened to ancient Israel “occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.”1

Many of the Old Testament books were written in the form of poetry. The Psalms probably come to mind first when we think of poetry in the Bible. They were the hymns of the Hebrew people—the lyrics of their worship songs. But most of the books of the prophets were also written in poetic form. Contrary to what we might expect, biblical prophecy didn’t primarily involve foretelling the future. Instead, the prophets called their readers to reject false religion, be faithful to God, and follow His principles of justice and mercy.

The New Testament contains four books that at first glance might seem to be either history or biography: the Gospels. While these books do tell historical happenings and relate stories from Christ’s life, they’re really a different literary form. Their authors primarily meant them to give us a clear picture of God through recording selected incidents and teachings from the life of Jesus Christ.2 Their primary purpose is to bring us to faith.3

Some parts of the New Testament are “epistles”—letters from church leaders to individuals, to congregations, or to the Christian community as a whole. Often, the leaders wrote these letters to help the young churches deal with problems they were facing. When we know what the problems were, we’re more likely to understand the counsel the leaders gave and how to apply that counsel to our lives today.

Putting it all together

The “library” that constitutes the complete Bible wasn’t assembled all at once. The Jews had begun to consider the first five books of the Old Testament as Scripture by the fourth century B.C. They added the Prophets by 200 B.C., and the rest of the Old Testament, the Writings, in the third century A.D. Protestants accept the same Old Testament scriptures as do the Jews, though they place them in a different sequence. The Protestant Old Testament comprises 39 books. Roman Catholic Bibles have all these books plus 12 others—which Protestants refer to as the Apocrypha.

Protestants and Roman Catholics have basically the same New Testament. The acceptance of these 27 books as Scripture also involved a process—one that was completed in church councils of the late fourth and early fifth centuries A.D. The early Christians had several criteria for “canonicity”: the wide acceptance and use of the book in the early church, its faithfulness to Christian doctrine, and its reputation for having been written or authorized by one of the apostles.

Of course, all that we’ve said so far could be true of a collection of books of mere human history, philosophy, and speculation. But the Bible is more than that. It is God’s written Word—His communication to us through words, through ink and paper.

Like Jesus, the living Word of God,4 the Bible is both human and divine. Its words bear the impress of its human authors—their characteristics, history, and culture. But it is also inspired—“God-breathed.”5 As 2 Peter puts it, “prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”6

Paul wrote that the Scriptures “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”7 Not that there’s magic in the Scriptures themselves. They bring eternal life only as we find Jesus Christ in them.8 But, of course, we can find Him there only if we’re looking—if we’re reading them. And whether or not we’re benefiting from this “library” is entirely up to us.

1. 1 Corinthians 10:6.
2. See John 14:9.
3. See John 20:30, 31.
4. See John 1:1, 14.
5. 2 Timothy 3:16.
6. 2 Peter 1:21.
7. 2 Timothy 3:15.
8. See John 5:39; cp. Hebrews 1:1–3.

The Bible: Where It Came From

by David Jarnes
From the July 2007 Signs