How did we get the Bible? A quick summary of biblical composition throughout history

Let’s do a quick run through of important periods in the Bible’s long history of composition and translation. Or just check out this incredibly exciting flowchart.

For information on when the individual books of the Bible were written:

Also check out these interactive timelines focusing on more specific areas of biblical history.

Papyrus scrolls (c. 10th century BCE) FRONT

In its earliest stages, the books of the Hebrew Bible were individually written and copied onto papyrus, paperlike sheets made from the papyrus plant, and then rolled around a small wooden stick to form a scroll. The manufacture of papyrus scrolls probably originated among the Egyptians in 3000 BCE. The Bible makes references to Papyrus a number of times (e.g. Isa. 18:2; Job 8:11, 9:26). Over the centuries these scrolls were slowly accumulated among the Hebrew communities until an anthology of scripture is largely recognized by the second century BCE.

Parchment (c. 200 BCE) 10822765895_0ded47cc6d_o

Due to its better durability, papyrus was gradually replaced by parchment beginning in 200 BCE, formed from the tanned hides of calves. The change wasn’t sudden as shown in the Dead Sea manuscripts (3rd century BCE–1st century CE), our earliest surviving manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible which were written on both papyrus and parchment. In about the 4th century CE, parchment had pretty much displaced papyrus, which is why the vast majority of ancient New Testament manuscripts that we have today come to us on this material.

The Dead Sea Scrolls (3rd century BCE–1st century CE) Read it online here! isaiah-scroll.l

Found in caves near Qumran on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea in 1947, these scrolls are our earliest surviving manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible (minus the Book of Esther). In fact, they predate our next earliest manuscripts, the Masoretic Text, by about 1000 years! They are believed to have been written by the Essenes, a Jewish apocalyptic fringe group who left Palestinian society for a more monastic lifestyle in the wilderness. Many of the almost 200 biblical scrolls are in highly fragmentary condition and have taken many years for scholars to assemble.

There are significant differences to be seen from the Masoretic Text, including variations not only in wording but also in content, with some biblical books containing sentences and even whole paragraphs absent from the medieval texts. For example, one manuscript of Jeremiah is 15% shorter than the Jeremiah found in the MT and one collection of the Psalms includes includes lyrics not present in the MT. One of the more fascinating ways the MT differs from the Qumran scrolls has to do with apparent corrections the medieval scribes made to passages which threatened their theology. A prime case is Deuteronomy 32:8-9, where the original text (both 4Q and LXX) states describes how various gods were assigned to rule over different nations. Yahweh is depicted as one of the divine offspring of the “Most High” who gives Yahweh Israel as his people.  Obviously troubled by the reference to multiple gods, the Masoretic copyists amended the passage to refer to “sons of Israel” instead of “sons of god”. Other, somewhat younger Qumran manuscripts however show a striking consistency with the MT. While the Dead Sea Scrolls do not contain and Christian writings, they do contain Jewish apocalyptic texts not found in the Hebrew Bible which bare major similarities to the apocalyptic and messianic expectations of Jews living in the Hellenistic period – including Jesus and his followers.


Septuagint (a.k.a LXX) (250 BCE–1st century CE) Read it online here!

The first known translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. It is called the Septuagint (from the Latin septuaginta meaning seventy), because legend attributes it to seventy or seventy-two Palestianian scholars during the reign of Ptolemy II (285–246 BCE); this is also why it is referred to by the roman numerals for seventy (LXX). However, scholars now widely agree that the Septuagint was actually the work of several generations of Alexandrine translators from the mid 3rd century BCE to the 1st century CE. The Septuagint includes not only the books of the Hebrew Bible but also other Judaic texts known as the Apocrypha, which were ultimately left out of the later Jewish canon but are included in the Old Testament of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles.

saint_irenaeus_oflyonsIrenaeus: First mention of our four New Testament gospels (185 CE)

It is only around this time that we have the first certain reference to our four Gospels by their name, found in the writings of church father Irenaeus. By this time, there were lots of other gospels floating around among the churches as well “heretics” like Marion proposing an exclusive canon (for Marcion, the only texts worth keeping were ten of Paul’s letters and a few highly edited sections of Luke’s gospel; the Old Testament was to be thrown out entirely). And so in an attempt to resolve the disunity Irenaeus composes a five-volume work attacking Christian heresies, listing our Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as authentic Gospels of the church.


Athanasius: First list of the New Testament books (367 CE)

In his Easter Letter from Alexandria, church father Athanasius makes a milestone in the evolution of the biblical canon by listing our 27 books of the New Testament. However, the debate didn’t end there, as some of the works continued to be disputed among early Church communities and their leaders. These include Hebrews (nobody has a good idea as to who wrote it), Jude (which quote the apocryphal book of Enoch), and Revelation (for obvious reasons. There are space-alien sci-fi novels more sensible than that book.

donatistThird Council of Carthage approves the present canon of the Bible (397 CE)

Using a canonical list derived from an earlier council at Hippo Regius in 393, the third Council of Carthage agrees to officially recognize the books found in our Christian Bibles today as canon. Our primary source for this statute is found in an ancient document known as the Codex Canonum Ecclesiæ Africanæ:

It was also determined that besides the Canonical Scriptures nothing be read in the Church under the title of divine Scriptures. The Canonical Scriptures are these: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua the son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings, two books of Paraleipomena, Job, the Psalter, five books of Solomon, the books of the twelve prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezechiel, Daniel, Tobit, Judith, Esther, two books of Esdras, two books of the Maccabees. Of the New Testament: four books of the Gospels, one book of the Acts of the Apostles, thirteen Epistles of the Apostle Paul, one epistle of the same [writer] to the Hebrews, two Epistles of the Apostle Peter, three of John, one of James, one of Jude, one book of the Apocalypse of John. Let this be made known also to our brother and fellow-priest Boniface, or to other bishops of those parts, for the purpose of confirming that Canon. Because we have received from our fathers that those books must be read in the Church. Let it also be allowed that the Passions of Martyrs be read when their festivals are kept.

Codex_Petropolitanus_fols._164v-165rThe Codex (4th century CE) Read one of the most famous Codices, Codex Sinaiticus, here! Or here!

By the 4th century CE, Christianity had flourished and the codex became the preferred method among scribes for copying the Bible. Codices consisted of parchment sheets folded over and sewn together to create a series of easily turntable pages, making it a manuscript forerunner of the modern book. Of special importance is Codex Sinaiticus, a mid-4th century manuscript containing the entire New Testament as well as much of the Greek Old Testament. This is also one of the oldest manuscripts which does not contain the phrase “Son of God” in Mark 1:1, leading some scholars to think that the phrase was inserted at the beginning of the Gospel to refute a belief that Jesus became God’s adopted son at his baptism. Neato!

Codex_ArgenteusGothic Bible (mid-4th century CE) Read it online here! 

Scanned manuscript copies here. Between 348 and 383, Wulfila translated the Bible from Greek into the Gothic language spoken by the Eastern Germanic, or Gothic Tribes.



image_vulgate_close_520Latin Vulgate (late 4th century CE) Read it online here!

The Latin translation of the Bible by Jerome under the commission of Pope Damasus I in 382 CE. It eventually included the Apocyrpha and became the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church.


493px-Aleppo_Codex_(Deut)Masoretic Text (7th10th century CE) Read it online here!

The Masoretic Text (MT) is the authoritative text of the Hebrew Bible copied, edited, and distributed by known as the Masoretes and is the primary source for contemporary editions of the Hebrew Bible. One special addition the Masoretic scholars made are vowel sounds and accent marks to the consonants of the Hebrew script. The Aleppo Codex, seen on the left, is the oldest surviving Masoretic Text and was our oldest manuscript of the Hebrew Bible until the Dead Sea Scrolls emerged in 1947.

KellsFol292rIncipJohnBook of Kells (800 CE) Read it online here!

Thanks to such missionary figures as Saint Patrick and Saint Columbia, Christianity flourishes in Ireland. What resulted was Celtic monks at the island monastery of Iona producing the Book of Kells, an elaborately illustrated Latin manuscript of the four gospels. It is seen by many as one of the most significant works of art to survive the entire medieval period – which isn’t hard to agree with in my opinion; just check out how they wrote letters! While based on the Vulgate, it’s interesting to note some of the errors and deviations the authors made in the Book of Kells. For instance, in Matthew 10:34 the canonized Bible reads “I came not to send peace, but a sword,” but the Kells manuscript reads gaudium (“joy”) where it should read gladium (“sword”) and so translates as “I came not [only] to send peace, but joy.”

Innozenz3Stephen Langton adds chapters to the Bible (early 13th century)

This Archbishop of Canterbury is credited with having divided the Bible into the standard modern arrangement of chapters used today.



Wycliffe_John_GospelWycliffe’s English Bible (late 14th century) Read it online here!

Wanting to make the Bible accessible to the laypeople who didn’t know Latin, priest John Wycliffe finished translating both the Old and New Testament into English around 1383. The national church soon became fearful of the interpretations of scripture that would follow and condemned Wycliffe’s version in 1408, forbidding any further translation.



sp_006Gutenberg Bible (1455) Read it online here! Or here!

The first real book printed in the West using Johann Gutenberg’s revolutionary improvement in printing technology. Click here for a video demonstrating his printing process. There are 48 copies of the Gutenberg Bible still in existence, not all of them complete.

LutherbibelMartin Luther’s German Bible (1522–1534) Read it online here!

German Monk and rebel Martin Luther protests the administrative corruption of the Roman Catholic Church and translates a version of the Bible into a European language based on the original Hebrew and Greek instead of the Vulgate – the first of its kind. Translating scripture into the German vernacular made other – often overlooked – improvements. For instance, the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35) was extended to “Und Jesus gingen die Augen über.”

Tyndale_Bible_-_Gospel_of_JohnWilliam Tyndale’s Printed English Bible (1525-1534) Read it online here!

Tyndale is credited with creating the first English translation of Biblical books directly from the Greek and Hebrew texts, an English version which was also the first to be mass-produced as a result of new advances in the printing press. Unfortunately, the Church of England caught on and burned Tyndale along with many of his translations before he could finish translating the Old Testament.



GreatbibleIThe Great Bible (1539) Read it online here!

Here arrives the first authorized edition of the Bible in English under King VIII of England. Ironically enough, it derives much of its material from Tyndale’s Bible, though with revisions and remaining translations from the Vulgate and German Bible.





Robert_EstienneRobert Estienne adds numbered verses to the Bible (mid-16th century)

French printer and classical scholar Robert Estienne made the Bible even more convenient for readers by a verse numbering system in his printed version. The scholar inside me thanks him tremendously.



GenevaBibleGeneva Bible (1560) Read it online here!

This English translation translated from the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures became the primary Bible of 16th century Protestantism and was one of the Bibles taken to America on the Mayflower. It was also used by such famous historical figures as William Shakespeare, Oliver Cromwell, and John Knox. What made this version so important was that it was the first Bible to be mechanically printed and mass produced directly to the public, as well as being the first English Bible to implement the numbered verses created by Robert Estienne. Despite its popularity among civilians, The Geneva Bible fell into disfavor by the ruling Anglicans of the Church of England such as King James I who criticized its seemingly Calvinist and Puritan annotations, influencing him to commission his famous “Authorized Version”, or King James Version as a suitable replacement.

Bishops_Bible_Elizabeth_I_1569Bishop’s Bible (1568) Read it online here!

The second English translation of the Bible produced by the Church of England. The church sought to replace the offensive Calvinistic Geneva Bible with version, and to also serve as a better translation by deriving from the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures unlike the previous Great Bible.





655px-KJV-King-James-Version-Bible-first-edition-title-page-1611.xcf  King James Bible (1611) Read the original here!

The most popular Bible of them all. The KJV was based on the two previous English translations authorized by the Church of England, Great Bible (1539 CE) and the Bishop’s Bible (1568 CE). This version was commissioned in light of perceived problems that the Puritans detects in these earlier translations. The translation was done by 47 scholars who were instructed by James to guarantee that the new version would reflect the important attributes of the Church of England and its belief in an ordained clergy.



Jefferson-Source-Bible-webJefferson Bible/The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (1820) Read it online here!

While not really a milestone in the history of the Bible’s development, this work by the founding father is worth noting simply for how incredibly unique and interesting it is. Though he considered himself a Christian, Jefferson had some major problems with his religion and often expressed views which were quite unorthodox:

The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.

—Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823

Of this band of dupes and impostors, Paul was the great Coryphaeus, and the first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.

—Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, p. 156

His [Jesus’] object was the reformation of some articles in the religion of the Jews, as taught by Moses. That sect had presented for the object of their worship, a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust.

—Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to William Short, August 4, 1820

Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites.

—Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVII

Jefferson was convinced that the true image of the historical Jesus had become corrupted by the New Testament authors. And so, using a razor, he cut out selected pieces of the New Testament and arranged them together to form his own Bible. Or as he titled it, “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” He kept “the pure principles of Jesus” while removing sections containing supernatural aspects as well as those which he considered to be errors by the four gospel authors. He described his mission as follows:

Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by it’s lustre from the dross of his biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dung hill, we have the outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man’s outlines which it is lamentable he had not live to fill up.

—Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to William Short, October 31, 1819

In the introduction to the Akashic Books 2004 edition of The Jefferson Bible, writer and distinguished professor Percival Everett accurately explains Jefferson’s intentions as a Christian: “He decided that the rules of the club to which he wished to belong [Christianity] were not the rules he wanted to play by. So instead of changing clubs, he changed the rule book by literally cutting and pasting together only the sections that he found relevant to his interpretation.” Taking Jefferson’s above quotes into consideration, it should come to no surprise that TJ was labeled as “a howling atheist” by his political opponents during his Presidential campaign of 1800.

New-Oxford-Annotated-Bible-NRSV-Augmented-9780195288858New Revised Standard Version (1989) Read it online here!

Our final stage of biblical development worth discussing is the New Revised Standard Version, outshining the KJV in a number of ways including advancements in translation and textual criticism. It is an update of the previous American Standard (1900) and Revised Standard (1952) versions and offers the best translation of the Greek and Hebrew texts in my opinion as well as the opinion of most Biblical scholars. Why should it be preferred over the King James Version? Not surprisingly, Biblical scholarship has advanced quite a bit since the KJV over four-hundred years ago. Today we have access to better and older manuscripts (such as the Dead Sea Scrolls) as well as a superior understanding of how they should be translated. Despite its continuing popularity, the KJV itself is far from perfect and has plenty of problems which have been rectified with modern scholarship.


Sources and Further Reading:


One thought on “How did we get the Bible? A quick summary of biblical composition throughout history

  1. Pingback: Episode 12: Bible Study 101 | Unorthodoxy with Witch Zaftig

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