Origins of the Bible
Posted by foryourfaith on December 9, 2009
Who wrote the Bible? Many books of the Bible contain no claims of authorship. For example, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, called the Pentateuch or Torah, are anonymous. Tradition ascribed the writing of the Pentateuch to Moses, although Moses is often referred to in the third person, and the fifth book, Deuteronomy, reports his death.
Modern biblical scholarship has confirmed the great antiquity of many of the traditions of the Pentateuch. The books are believed to be the product of many writers. In fact, most scholars argue that the text, as it has come down to us, is an interweaving of several ancient traditions. The process of combining the traditions began by the end of the second millennium BC and was completed nearly 500 years later.
It is difficult for people today to imagine the world in which the Bible was produced. It emerged from the experiences of a people over centuries and more like a living growth than an ordinary book. Much of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament was written anonymously, and often one author used the work of another or of some lost source. In addition, every copy was laboriously produced by hand. No two copies were exactly alike.
The Hebrew Bible comprises many different types of literature. Traditionally, it is divided into three sections, the law, Torah; the prophets, Neviim; and the writings, Ketuvim. The first letters of these designations produce the traditional Jewish acronym for the Scriptures, “Tanak.” The three groups reflect the process of “canonization” in which these writings were recognized as Scripture. The five books of the Torah were universally recognized by about the middle of the fifth century BC. But it was not until the first century of the modern era that the final versions of both prophets and writings were canonized.
The Christian Church continued to group the vie books of Torah together as the Pentateuch, but established a different order for the books of history, prophets, and writings. In the Christian version the narratives from Genesis to Esther were brought into a rough chronological sequence. However, the books of poetry and prophecy were not arranged chronologically. This lack of historical sequence can be confusing for a reader of the prophets, since their words often refer to specific historical events. For example, the Book of Amos falls eighth among the prophets. But chronologically, he predated Isaiah by more than a generations, and predated Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel by many generations.
When a reader comes to the New Testament, some of the same chronological confusion can arise. Although the four Gospels describe the earliest period of Christianity, they were not the first part of the New testament to be written. The letters of Paul were the earliest, dating principally from about the middle of the first century AD. The Gospels and most of the other writings, on the other hand, were evidently written between AD 70 and 100.
Most modern readers know the Bible through translations, as did many ancient readers. By the third century BC there were many Jews, especially in Egypt, who desired to read their Scriptures by knew little Hebrew. To meet their needs the great task began of translating the ancient Hebrew text into the Greek language commonly spoken throughout the Hellenistic world. Legends grew up around the translation that attributed it to 70 inspired sages, and thus it was dubbed the “Septuagint,” Latin for “70.”
When the Septuagint was produced, the Hebrew text was not yet standardized. Several works of history, wisdom, and prophecy in the Greek Scriptures did not become part of the Jewish canon. However, early Christians accepted the Septuagint as the official form of the Old Testament. When in the fourth century AD Jerome produced his Latin translation, which became known as the Vulgate, he translated from Hebrew manuscripts and relegated the additional books that were in the Septuagint to a secondary status. He labeled them “Apocrypha,” meaning “set aside” or “hidden” from full canonical authority.
It wasn’t until the 14th century that the theologian John Wycliffe produced the first complete English translation of the Bible. For over a century thereafter, the Wycliffe translation was the sole vernacular edition (written in the common language of a region) available. But when the advent of the printing press in the mid-15th century, other vernacular editions began to appear.
King James commissioned the Bible that bears his name. After assuming the throne in 1603, he appointed 54 scholars to produce a Bible that would satisfy his subjects, both Protestant and Catholic. The fruits of their labor, the beloved King James Bible, was published in 1611. While the King James Bible combined artistry with accuracy, the discovery of more ancient manuscripts of the Bible called into question many of its translations. In addition, its language became increasingly remote from everyday speech.
For nearly three centuries, the King James Bible was the standard Bible in most English-speaking churches. However, it was never completely accepted by the Roman Catholics, who used the Rheims-Douay version (a translation from the Vulgate). It wasn’t until 1870 that a Revised version was commissioned. And in 1952, the National Council of churches of Christ produced the Revised Standard Version (RSV), which sought to retain the literary quality of the King James version while updating the text. Since then, several other fine translations have been made.