What is the history of the Bible from its beginnings to the present day? How was the Bible written and its various books chosen? How reliable is it? How were the Old Testament and New Testament formed?
What is the Bible?
Ryan M. Reeves and Charles Hill: Two answers come to mind. First, the Bible is the Word of God, written or collected by those called by God. The Jewish Scriptures are the foundation of the Bible from the old covenant with Israel, covering the 39 books from Genesis to Malachi. Next are the 27 books of the New Testament, written after the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. These 66 books comprise the Bible.
Another way to think of this question is to think about how we have our personal Bibles; often a leather-bound edition. These Bibles are technical marvels if we compare them to most of church history. Centuries ago Bibles were copied by hand and had to be bound into multiple volumes. The fact that we can hold the entire Bible in our hands today is something Christians throughout most of history could never experience. More importantly, the fact that we have several translations available to us in English means we have a rich legacy of biblical translation that has given us our Bible today.
What is the difference between the Old Testament and New Testament?
Ryan M. Reeves and Charles Hill: One can look at several differences. For one, the Old Testament is far longer than the New Testament, but it also covers an incredible amount of time, while the New Testament is recorded within a relative short time during the life of the apostles. The earliest writer of the Old Testament was Moses and the last writer finished shortly after Israel returned from the Babylonian exile. That covers roughly 1,000 years.
The subject of Old and New Testament is the same, though they each describe different phases in God’s redemption. The Old describes God calling Israel and establishing the foundation of the covenant. With the coming of Christ, the framework of God’s plan remained the same (covenant, sacrifice) but now God himself came in the person of Christ and fulfilled some of the old covenant.
How do Catholic and Orthodox Bibles differ from Protestant Bibles?
Ryan M. Reeves and Charles Hill: In many ways, they’re the same. For example, all three branches of Christianity share the 66 books. They also take great care to consider the sources used as copies of modern Bibles, though the Eastern version is largely based on the Septuagint, Catholic Bibles in Latin on the Vulgate. Protestant Bibles largely are based on the oldest copies possible of Greek and Hebrew.
The main difference between these Bibles is the inclusion of the Apocrypha in the Orthodox and Catholic versions. As we discuss in our book, these texts came to be used by Christians largely because they were often included alongside the Old Testament in the Septuagint. Over time, Christians came to assume these were inspired books, simply because they were read and cited by other Christians. They were books that discussed the Jewish story between Old and New Testament, so even Protestant confessions affirmed they were useful to read for Christians, though they were not even by Jews considered canonical, so Protestant Bibles eventually removed them.
How and when did the Old Testament come to be?
Ryan M. Reeves and Charles Hill: This question calls for much longer answers, and that’s why we wrote Know How We Got Our Bible! You can speak of the Old Testament coming into existence in at least two ways. Because it’s God’s word, you can say that in terms of its intrinsic authority the Old Testament came into existence whenever its last book was finished. This would be probably sometime not long before 400 BC. But this does not mean that God’s people did not have his word in Scripture before then. All the way along, at least from the time of Moses, the nation Israel had some portion of God’s covenantal word in written form, given through prophets, poets, and historians.
You can also ask from the historical angle, when can we tell that the books of the Old Testament were received by God’s people as authoritative Scripture? The answer here may be the same as the earlier one (that is, as soon as the books were given). But our historical records are very imperfect and even after we know that a book was accepted, debates about it could arise. At least by 140 BC, Jews had recognized the tripartite structure of the Scriptures: Law, Prophets, and Writings. Near the end of the first century AD the Jewish historian Josephus regarded the books of Scripture to be long accepted. But most importantly, Jesus and the New Testament writers use Scripture authoritatively and assume that its contents are already well known.
How and when did the New Testament come into existence?
Ryan M. Reeves and Charles Hill: It’s pretty amazing to think that some of our New Testament were written within about 20 years of Jesus’ death and resurrection. These would be the first letters of the apostle Paul and probably also the letter of James the Lord’s brother. In the next several decades the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, letters of James, Peter, John, and Jude, and the book of Revelation would be published. The last to appear were probably John’s Gospel, letters, and the book of Revelation, most likely written in the 90s.
Again, according to its intrinsic authority as God’s new covenant word to his people, the New Testament can be said to have existed when the last of its books was put into circulation. But even by the end of the first century AD the church had spread over the Roman Empire, bringing the good news of Jesus into many subcultures. It would be some time before history can show that all the books were both known and accepted by the great majority of those who called themselves Christians. But all of the books of our New Testament seem to have been accepted by at least some churches from the time they were written. And by the end of the second century most of the books, including the four Gospels, Acts, the letters of Paul, at least some of the other letters, and the book of Revelation, had been received as Scripture virtually everywhere the church was.
Why are there so many English translations of the Bible?
Ryan M. Reeves and Charles Hill: Because we’re blessed to have a long heritage of biblical scholarship! Of course, it could be easy to be cynical about the number of translations we have. But we don’t want to give the impression that new Bibles are the result of eager publishers hoping to make money. But this is actually the story of the Bible in English. Already by the time of the King James Bible in 1611, there were at least 6 full translations into English over three generations (more if you go back to the Wycliffe Bibles of the middle ages). The proliferation of new translations in the modern world are part of that same legacy.
In other words, we want to not focus first on the translation debates about our Bibles. Many languages in the world do not have Bibles in their native language, so the fact that we have so many (and can compare translations) is a blessing, even if it leads to debate.
Two other factors increased the number of modern translations. First, with the discovery of older copies of the Bible (especially the New Testament) new translations in the 20th century began with the need to correct the Greek basis for earlier Protestant versions. Second, as Bible societies and missionaries began to raise awareness of biblical illiteracy, publishers began to work at simplifying translations, and recently created paraphrase editions. Today, many of the versions we assume to be radically different are in fact different tiers of the same family of Bibles.
Since it’s such an ancient book, on what basis should the Bible be considered trustworthy and authoritative for modern living?
Ryan M. Reeves and Charles Hill: Not by any work of translators and not by any judgment of scholars. The reason to trust the Bible is because it is God’s Word.
How should a person select a Bible from the multiple editions available?
Ryan M. Reeves and Charles Hill: This question can seem like a hard one, but we think the first place to start is likely your experience with the Bible. Were you raised in a church but feel like you only know fragments of the Bible and now want to study it? Or do you have no experience with the Bible and just want to begin from the ground up.
The answer is not necessarily different based on your answer, but it may influence which version you buy. There are several translations that focus on carrying the original language into English idioms and phrases that make sense in our language (even if they are not entirely word-for-word the same in the Greek or Hebrew). The New Living Translation, the NIV, and the Holman Christian Standard Bible all attempt this without aggressively changing the words. As always, the judgment of when not to translate literally relies on the translation team, but the English is often simple and clear.
Other translations that we recommend attempt to keep the wording as close as possible (even if it doesn’t always sound like conversational English). The King James Bible has been the most read in English history, but it’s locked away in older English that frankly can confuse. It is also based on texts that are not as accurate as other modern editions. The ESV, NRSV, or NASB fit this category.
In the end, no translation will ever be perfect. The translators always make judgment calls and the English language (like any language) is fluid and capable of miscommunication. The best approach is always to look for a good translation, then when reading it, you’ll find it helpful to look up other versions to see where the language differs. For example, a word-for-word Bible will say that Israelites “beat their breast” whereas a dynamic equivalent one may say they were “deep with sorrow.” Knowing this shade of meaning opens up good questions. So use all the tools at your disposal!
What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?
Ryan M. Reeves: The story of Jesus calming the storm. So vivid and yet so important for understanding Jesus as Lord.
Charles Hill: The story of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis. Besides illustrating God’s mysterious providence, it is full of real human drama, pathos, and forgiveness.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App and Bible Audio App?
Ryan M. Reeves and Charles Hill: For most of church history, lay Christians only heard the Bible read aloud. In fact, most lay Christians were illiterate before the rise of modern schools. Any app that reads the Bible aloud is a good thing. Sometimes we can focus more by listening, say if our eyes are tired. Some of us have a lot of time in the car, too.
For other apps that give us access to the Bible (online or by app) these too are good parts of our legacy. Bible societies in the 1800s broke the high prices charged for Bibles, making them either cheap or free for Christians. Any access to the Bible is an opportunity to read and hear from God’s Word.
The only caution we would add is not about technology but about using our Bibles. As with many things, when people have constant access to something they take it for granted. This is true of printed Bibles. We may own five translations, but this does not mean we’re reading our Bibles. For many lay Christians, they have the Bible at their fingertips but read it in smaller portions at a time. Notice how many plans exist today to read the Bible in a year.
So access to the Bible is wonderful as it may lead to other ways for Christians to hear from the Word. But the point is always to find it a joyful thing to read or listen to the Bible.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Ryan M. Reeves and Charles Hill: The Bible is an extraordinary journey of study and exploration. We hope this inspires you to want to learn more!
Know How We Got Our Bible is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.
Bio: Ryan M. Reeves (PhD, Cambridge University) is associate professor of historical theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and dean of the seminary’s Jacksonville campus. Also a visiting lecturer at Reformed Theological Seminary,
Reeves has written English Evangelicals and Tudor Obedience and cowritten Know How We Got Our Bible and The Story of Creeds and Councils. He hosts the Historical Theology for Everyone blog at The Gospel Coalition.
Charles E. Hill (PhD, Cambridge University) is John R. Richardson Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando and author of several books, including Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy and Know How We Got Our Bible.
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