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The History Of The Bible

This book is the most published work in history and is often presented as a gift for occasions such as Christenings and Confirmations, but what is its history? Why are there different versions?

The word bible originates from the Latin word biblia, meaning ‘the book or books’ which in turn comes from the Greek Ta Biblia, which means ‘the books’. This term can be traced back to the Phoenician city of Gebal, which was known by the Greeks as Byblos. Books became associated with Byblos because it was an exporter of papyrus and the Greek word for papyrus was bublos, linking the city to the written word.

The Bible is not, as often thought, a single cohesive work, but rather a collection of ancient writings from many different authors over many centuries. As well as stories with religious themes, the Bible contains poetry, philosophical thoughts and epistles. The common factor in all of these works is the presence of an all-powerful deity who created the universe and has an interest in the lives and final fate of all human beings.

There are about 750,000 words in the Bible, contained in sixty-six books, making it more of a library than a single work. It was written by about forty different authors over many centuries. It is interesting to note that more ancient scriptures have been discovered that were written by women, although none of them found their way into the version of the Bible that we know today. Perhaps this is due to the Roman Emperor Constantine, who promoted the Christian religion as a way of uniting the Roman Empire and needed military support. Christianity became a male-dominated religion.

The books of the Christian Bible have been arranged to tell the story of the creation, the fall of man from paradise and then redemption by the Son of God. However, the stories would not have been written in this order and the original, Old Testament authors would not have had this narrative in mind. The Bible of Judaism contains the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, and the Tanakh, the stories of the judges and prophets and makes no mention of Jesus Christ. The God of this Bible is the God of Judaism and, before the appropriation of Hebrew Scriptures by the early Christians, this Bible told of God’s care for and intervention in the lives of the Israelites.

The Christians took the books of the Tanakh and called them the Old Testament, claiming the stories as their own theological history. Years after the probable date of the death of Jesus, Christian writers wrote the gospels and the Book of Acts. Paul the Apostle wrote most of the epistles which make up the twenty-seven books of the Christian New Testament. The last book of the Christian Bible, the Book of Revelation, is attributed to John of Patmos. Whilst it is difficult to date all of the books, scholars generally agree that the earliest were written between ten and six centuries before Christ and the books of the Tanakh were fixed well before the first century before Christ. The books of the New Testament were written between 60 AD and 110 AD. However, many people in ancient times, and still some today, believe that the Bible was written by God. It is supposedly the best-selling book of all time and has influenced religious thought for centuries.

The first book of the Bible is the book of Genesis. It tells of the creation of the universe, the world and humanity. Then there is the fall from grace in the Garden of Eden and the great flood sent by God because of the evil of mankind. After the flood, Noah and his family repopulate the earth and the stories then follow his descendants. Joseph, of the multi-coloured coat, takes the Hebrews from Canaan to Egypt where they become slaves according to the Book of Exodus. The Books of Joshua and Numbers tell how Moses led his people from Egypt to freedom in Canaan which was laid to waste to create a land for the Hebrews. Once settled in the land, these Israelites were ruled by famous kings, such as David and Solomon, and great prophets preached the will of their God.

The New Testament tells of Jesus Christ, the son of God, sent to redeem humanity from its sins. The nativity story of Jesus being born of Mary is very familiar and when he reached the age of about thirty, Jesus began his ministry, preaching a direct and personal relationship to God. He was crucified by the Romans for inciting sedition. Three days after his death he rose again and ascended to heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father. In his place in the world he sends the Holy Spirit to minister to believers. The New Testament ends with the vision of the end of the world as told by John of Patmos.

The first four books of the New Testament are credited to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as eye-witness accounts of Christ’s ministry on earth. However, the practice of writing under the name of someone famous, or attributing what was written to someone better known, was common practice at the time. It is probable that the authors chose the names of those already well respected in the Christian community to gain a wider acceptance of the material. The positioning of these books at the beginning is misleading. In fact the Book of Acts and the letters of Paul were written before the gospels.

The stories contained in the Bible were thought to be historically accurate and unique until the mid-nineteenth century. It was then that archaeological discoveries in Mesopotamia and Egypt showed that much older literature told the same stories. Even the great law code, or commandments, of Moses had a predecessor in the Law Code of Ur-Nammu and the code of Hammurabi. No proof has been found of the story of the enslavement of the Hebrews in Egypt, or any other of the details in the book of Exodus. When Egyptian hieroglyphics have been read it is clear that the myths of Egypt contain stories similar to the Christ figure, rising from the dead and Mary, the mother of Jesus, shares attributes with the goddess Isis. These discoveries have led to a change in the way that the Bible is viewed. Few now regard the book as the actual word of God and instead understand it to have been inspired by God or written by inspired men.

The revised understanding of the Bible and its place in history upset many people, but for others the message of redemption continues to inspire. The Bible has been translated into every language, over two thousand, and still encourages people around the world. The Bible remains the best-selling book of all time.

There are many versions of the Bible. For anyone just wanting to read the stories there are versions without the distraction of the chapter and verse markings, whilst anyone making a study of the Bible would find these markings essential. The oldest versions of the Bible are The Codus Vaticanus and The Codus Sinaiticus. The latter was written in Greek on parchment leaves in the fourth century; the time of Constantine the Great. It was originally more than 1,460 pages long that measured sixteen by fourteen inches. This version of the Bible offers different scriptures to its successors, notably in the Gospel of St Mark, which ends twelve verses earlier than it does in later Bibles, completely omitting the resurrection of Christ. This version of the Bible is now available online, along with a translation. Putting all of the pages together has unearthed a fourth scribe, in addition to the three already credited with the work.

There are different versions of the Bible for the different branches of the Christian religion. In the third century BC Jewish scripture was translated into Greek for the convenience of the many Jews who could not easily understand Hebrew. This translation became known as the Septuagint, the name referring to the seventy-two rabbis who worked on it. When the Christian Bible was being formed the Septuagint was in common use by Jews and Jewish Christians and so it was adopted as The Old Testament. Around 100 AD the Jewish Rabbis revised their scripture and excluded fifteen books that were part of the Septuagint that were not found in Hebrew scripture. Christians did not revise their Old Testament.

In the 1500s Protestant leaders decided to organise The Old Testament according to the official Jewish canon rather than the Septuagint and moved the other books into a separate section called the Apocrypha. Until the mid-1800s Protestant Bibles included the Apocrypha, the King James Version was published with it, but it was considered to be less important and publishers of the Protestant Bible eventually dropped it from most editions. The books of the Apocrypha are also known as the deuterocanonical books.

The Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches did not follow the revisions of the Protestants and continue to base their Old Testament on the Septuagint. Catholic Bibles therefore have more Old Testament books including Maccabees I and II, Baruch, Tobit, Judith, The Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), additions to Esther and the stories of Susanna and Bel and the dragon which are included in Daniel. Orthodox Old Testaments include all of these plus 1st and 2nd Esdras, Prayer of Manasseh, Psalm 151 and 3rd Maccabees. The New Testaments of Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches are identical and contain twenty-seven books.

Whilst parts of the Bible were translated into Middle English by monks and scholars, sometimes literal translations of each word, it was in the 1380s that the first handwritten English language Bible manuscripts were produced by John Wycliffe. He was well known throughout Europe for his opposition to the teachings of the organised church, which he thought were contrary to the Bible. The Roman Catholic Church threatened anyone found in possession of a non-Latin Bible with execution. With the help of followers, known as the Lollards, dozens of manuscript copies of the scriptures were produced. They were translated from the Latin, which was the only text available to them, and the Pope was so incensed by the translation and Wycliffe’s teachings that forty-four years after his death, the Pope ordered Wycliffe’s bones to be dug up and crushed before being scattered in the river.

One of Wycliffe’s followers, John Hus, promoted the idea that people should be able to read the Bible in their own language. In 1415 he was burned at the stake, with Wycliffe’s manuscript Bibles used as kindling. His last words were that in a hundred years there would be a man whose calls for reform could not be suppressed. Almost exactly one hundred years later, in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five Theses of Contention onto the church door in Wittenberg. Martin Luther went on to be the first person to translate and publish the Bible in the commonly spoken dialect of the German people; much more popular than previous German Biblical translations. In the same year seven people were burned at the stake by the Roman Catholic Church for teaching their children the Lord’s Prayer in English.

Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press helped many scholars, such as Erasmus, to produce their own translations from the original Greek and Hebrew texts and get them published. The Roman Catholic Church’s own Latin version, the Vulgate, had become corrupted and was teaching what the Church wanted rather than the word of God. The Church was vehemently opposed to the Bible being available in the languages of the common people because that would undermine its authority. They would no longer be able to charge for the forgiveness of sins or the releasing of souls from purgatory if people could read the word of God for themselves. The corruption of the Roman Catholic Church would be apparent to all.

William Tynedale, thought by many to be the architect of the English language, produced an English version of Erasmus’s New Testament in 1525-1526. It was the first English New Testament to be printed. Copies were confiscated by priests and burned, ostensibly because they contained errors, but no errors were found. The Church’s desperation to destroy this New Testament inevitably made it a source of much interest and the public became fascinated by it. Tynedale’s biggest customers were the King’s Men who bought up all copies that they could find. Tynedale used the money to print more. He was captured and executed in 1536, but just three years later The Great Bible was funded by Henry VIII himself.

Before that, in 1585, Myles Coverdale produced a complete Bible in English for the first time, having translated The Old Testament. The Geneva Bible of 1557 was the first to add numbered verses to the chapters to make the Bible easier to study. In 1582 the Roman Catholic Church bowed to the inevitability of God’s word being available in English and produced their own official Catholic Bible. In 1604 Protestant clergy approached King James requesting a new translation. The Bishop’s Bible of 1568 had won praise for its accuracy, but they did not like the notes referring to the Pope as the Anti-Christ and so on. About fifty scholars worked on the new version, taking great care and referring to earlier versions such as Tynedale’s. In 1611 the first King James Bibles were printed and sent to every church in the country to be chained to the pulpits. Work then began on smaller versions so that anyone could have their own copy.

The King James Bible is ninety-five percent similar to the Protestant Geneva Bible, but it was the earlier book that those who fled to the New World took with them. Even after Henry VIII’s break from Rome, the Church in England continued to prosecute Protestants and so America was founded on the Geneva Bible rather than the state’s King James’ version. However, the King James Bible was recognised to be an excellent and accurate translation and became the most printed book in the world.

The giving of Bibles as gifts has become common practice, especially to mark events such as Christenings, Baptisms, First Communions and Confirmations. There is a wide choice of both Protestant and Catholic Bibles available and some can be personalised with the recipient’s name and the occasion.

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