A Concise History of the Bible


The Bible as we know it today consists of two groups of books called the Old and New Testaments. What books were included in these groupings remained in flux for several centuries after Christ. In some ways the matter is not totally settled even today as some faith traditions include or exclude several books which are usually referred to as the Apocrypha. Even what books constitute the Apocrypha may vary but prominent among them are those that detail the Maccabeean revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes during the second century BC. This account informs the tradition behind the present day celebration of Hannukah.

What we call the Old Testament was originally oral then written down in Hebrew with small sections in Aramaic (portions of Ezra, Jeremiah and Daniel) from the 12th century BC to the 2nd Century BC. The Hebrew Text most commonly known is the Masoretic Text.

From the 3rd to the 2nd century BC, the Old Testament was translated into Greek in Alexandria, Egypt. This version was known as the Septuagint. The Septuagint included several books that are generally not considered canonical by Protestant churches but are accepted by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. They are available in several modern Bible translations such as the New English Bible.

The Septuagint was the Old Testament most familiar to early Christians who were comfortable with Greek. New Testament writings were in Greek and were gradually added to the Greek translation of the Old Testament to comprise a "Christian Bible."

The first Latin translations were based on the Septuagint, but near the end of the 4th century AD Jerome translated the Latin Vulgate from original Masoretic Hebrew and Koine Greek texts. This remained the principle Bible for over a thousand years.

By the end of the 5th century, translations had been done into Gothic, Armenian, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic and Georgian. Some partial translations of the Bible into Old English and Old German took place in the 8th century, but the Latin Vulgate continued to be primary. No doubt this was in large part due to the continued use of Latin for the mass and homiletics.

Wycliffe produced the entire Bible in Middle English based on the Latin Vulgate in the 14th century. This encouraged other vernacular translations based on the Vulgate. While the Latin Vulgate was well known, over a century would pass before a printed Greek text was widely available for translation

The earliest printed Greek edition of the New Testament was produced by Erasmus in the early 16th century. The combination of printing and the availability of this New Testament resulted in the first widespread availability of vernacular translations. Only a few years after Erasmus produced this Greek text, Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German. This was printed in 1522. Four years later Jacob Liesvelt printed the entire Bible with portions based on Luther's translation of the New Testament.

Eight years later, in 1534, the Bible known as the "Luther Bible" was printed based on Luther's collaborative work with several other translators to produce a definitive German Bible. It is unique in the addition of the word "alone" (allein) to Romans 3:28. This word is not found in any original Greek text. The Luther Bible is largely responsible for standardizing the German language we know today due to its widespread usage.

Tyndale began publishing portions of the Bible in English in the early 16th century, but it was Miles Coverdale who printed the first complete English Bible in 1535. However, this Bible was published not in England but Antwerp.

A definitive English Bible translation from the Hebrew and Greek was not completed until 1611. Known as the King James Version, it is still widely used four centuries later despite many changes in English usage through the years. While the Great Bible of Miles Coverdale and the Bishops Bible of 1568 preceeded it, they never achieved the widespread acceptance of the King James Bible. Perhaps this was because this Bible was expressly commissioned to conform its translation to the ecclesiology and episcopal structure of the Church of England.

Several attempts have been made to update the English text through the years. These translations have been hindered in becoming as widely accepted as the King James probably more from the plethora of options to choose from than from any defect in translation. These include the Revised Standard Versions, the American Standard Versions, The New International Versions, the New American Bible, the New English Bible, the Jerusalem Bible, and several lesser known translations.

To add to the confusion several paraphrases which are not translations have been added to the mix. These include the Living Bible and the Message Bible. Paraphrases tend to be heavily informed by the theology of the denomination that produces them and are therefore of low critical value.

While translations are usually more accurate, one English translation, The New World Translation, is notable for its lack of faithfulness to the original text and its inconsistency of translation. This translation was produced by the Jehovah's Witnesses and is not used or accepted by other denominations.

Today, we do not have the originals of any of the Greek or Hebrew texts. The best we can often do is to go back to the oldest available.  That often takes us to the Codex Sinaiticus written in Uncial Koine Greek. It is probably the earliest relatively complete text and dates back to the 4th century AD. We also have a very few papyrii fragments available from as early as the 2nd century AD. However, we do not have any originals from the hands of the apostles.


The King James Bible of 1611 was a major breakthrough in that it allowed the people to read the Bible in the street language of their day.  Prior to that, they had to rely on Jerome's Latin Vulgate or the then available Greek and Hebrew texts that Jerome translated from.


As we have discovered older and more authoritative Greek and Hebrew texts, more modern translations have tried to reflect those older texts.  Every translation, including the King James, has interpretations strongly influenced by the religious denomination of the translators.  The use of committees is intended to overcome these biases, but they are never completely successful.


How can this happen when it is supposed to be a direct translation from an earlier text? If you look at the King James Version (KJV) you will see that some words are written in italics. Those words are in italics because they were not in the original text.  That original is commonly referred to today as the "Textus Receptus."  Some may be surprised that they did not stick to this text entirely even in the KJV.  This is common in translations as some phrases are difficult to clearly translate from one language to another. (For example: "Zeitgeist" from German to English)  This creates a serious problem for those who believe that God dictated word for word what should be written in the Bible.


For such Biblical literalists, there are far more serious problems than what Bible translation is correct, for even in the KJV, there are inconsistencies. A good example is the comparison between II Samuel 24:1 and I Chronicles 21:1. In one instance God moved David to number Israel and in the other Satan made him do it. If God was directly dictating the Bible then shouldn't they both say the same thing? I am inclined to go with a favorite author of mine, Ellen White and what she wrote in the introduction to her book "The Great Controversy" rather than with those Bible literalists who expect perfection in the text.  She did not support the idea that God dictated a particular turn of phrase or sentence structure. She promoted "thought inspiration" and taught that God gave men the thoughts who then recorded their impressions in the terms of their own fallible language and culture.


One may choose to read and study the King James Version of the Bible as their favorite.  That is fine.  It has everything necessary for salvation, and so do other translations. They all have their shortcomings, but by the grace of God, they also have the plan of salvation clearly and meaningfully presented so that no one should be lost.