This history of how we got the Bible is fascinating. When we hold our Bibles in our hands, we rarely consider how the Bible came to us. So, how did we get the Bible?
The Old and New Testaments preserve a library of books written by different authors, composed of different genres, and, in the case of the Old Testament, written over hundreds of years. The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and Aramaic. Jewish scribes translated it into Greek in the late third and second centuries B.C. The Greek translation of the Old Testament is known as the Septuagint.
The New Testament was written in Koine Greek in less than a hundred years. The writers of the biblical books originally wrote their book by itself. Only later were individual books made part of collections for the community of faith. We refer to the original manuscript penned by the author as an autograph. We do not have any autographs of any books of the Bible.
So, how did we go from the autographs to our Bibles?
Ancient writers used several different materials to compose their books. They composed their works on scrolls. The scrolls were made from either animal skin—parchment (treated sheepskin or cowskin) or vellum (treated calfskin)—or papyrus, made from the reed papyrus plant. They could stich pieces of animal skin together to make a longer scroll.
Books, like 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles, are one complete book. They did not fit onto one scroll and required two scrolls to contain their content. They used ink made from gall. Until the first century A.D., manuscripts were written on scrolls. In the first century, people began to use the codex—the stacking of pages upon each other to form books.
After the original author penned his autograph, scribes copied and transmitted these works. This transmission from one scribe to the next happened over hundreds and thousands of years. We have roughly 5,000 manuscripts which contain all or part of the New Testament.
The original author wrote his work without punctuation or paragraphing. In the case of the books in the Old Testament, the Hebrew was written without vowels. No manuscripts contained chapters or verses; these were added later. Evidence for verse divisions within the Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament date from the fifth-sixth centuries A.D., but we only have manuscript evidence for this practice from the ninth century A.D.
Stephen Langton established the chapter divisions of the Old Testament around 1204-1205 while he was lecturing at the University of Paris. The earliest manuscripts displaying his chapter divisions dates to the thirteenth century A.D. New Testament manuscripts show some chapter divisions (although not our modern divisions) by the fifth century A.D. Hugo de Sancto Caro first introduced chapter divisions into the Christian Bible, but Stephen Langton (1204-1205) created the chapter divisions used today.
These divisions were first inserted into the Greek text of the New Testament in the sixteenth century. The first use of verse divisions in an English translation of the Bible appeared in the translation of William Whittingham (c. 1524-1579) in 1557. The Geneva Bible (1560) used both chapter and verse divisions within an English translation of the Bible for the first time.
It took time for the Bible to come to us. Unnamed scribes, translators, and other figures along the way enabled us to have the Bibles we hold in our hands today.
Marc Turnage is President/CEO of Biblical Expeditions. He is an authority on ancient Judaism and Christian origins. He has published widely for both academic and popular audiences. His most recent book, Windows into the Bible, was named by Outreach Magazine as one of its top 100 Christian living resources. Marc is a widely sought-after speaker and a gifted teacher. He has been guiding groups to the lands of the Bible—Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy—for over twenty years.