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)
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)
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 Gospel writers according to Church tradition: St. John with his eagle on Patmos, St. Matthew with his angel, St. Mark with his lion and St. Luke with his ox (16th century manuscript)
Of the 29 texts that make up the New Testament, most had their authorship attributed to the disciples of Jesus, or at least their immediate followers. As with the Old Testament this is often apparent simply from the title of each work; according to tradition, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the letters of 1st and 2nd Peter were supposedly written by the apostle Peter, etc. However, also like the Old Testament these attributions have been determined false by most biblical scholars and, as I’m about to argue, should be classified as forgeries in certain cases. The exceptions are a number of letters by the apostle Paul plus, arguably, the Book of Revelation by an author named John (though highly unlikely to be apostle John). Continue reading
From The Bible with Sources Revealed by Richard Elliot Friedman, p. 27-30
J, the Yawhist source
E, the Elohist source
D, the Deuteronomist source
P, the Priestly source
- Creation. Gen 1:1-2:3 (P) and Gen 2:4b-25 (J).
- Genealogy from Adam. Gen 4:17-26 (J) and 5:1-28,30-32 (Book of Records).
- The Flood (click here for an interactive view). Gen 6:5-8; 7:1-5, 7, 10, 12, 16b-20, 22-23; 8:2b-3a, 6, 8-12, 13b, 20-22 (J) and 6:9-22; 7:8-9, 11, 13-16a, 21, 24; 8:1 – 2a, 3b – 5, 7, 13a, 14 – 19; 9:1- 17 (P).
- Genealogy from Shem. Gen 10:21-31 (J and P) and 11:10-2 (Book of Records).
- Abraham’s migration. Gen 12:1-43 (J) and 12:4b – 5 (P).
- Wife/sister. Gen 12:10-20 (J) and 20:1-18 (E) and 2 6 : 6 – 1 4 (J). (Triplet)
- Abraham and Lot separate. Gen 13 : 5 , 7 – 11a, 12b – 14 (J) and 13:6, 11b – 12 a (P).
- The Abrahamic covenant. Gen 15 (J, E, and R) and 17 (P).
- Hagar and Ishmael. Gen 16:1-2,4-14 (J) and 16:3,15-16 (P) and 21:8-19 (E). (Triplet)
- Prophecy of Isaac’s birth. Gen 17:16-19 (P) and 18:10-14 (J). Continue reading
Whether you see the Bible as the word of God or not, one cannot ignore the fact that it has human fingerprints all over it. After all, it didn’t fall from heaven in the format commonly found today, as convenient as that would have been. It is worth emphasizing again then that the Bible is not a single book but rather many books; an anthology, each with its own author, each with its own historical and theological context.
Different authors have different points of view. You can’t just say, “I believe in the Bible.” ― Scholar Bart Ehrman
Furthermore, these writings weren’t sewn together as an official anthology until many years after its composition – hundreds of years in most cases. Indeed, while the oldest contents of the Old Testament are believed to have originated as early as the 12th century BCE (beginning as oral tradition), it isn’t until 200 BCE that we find clear evidence for a Biblical canon taking shape. Given the unique makeup of the Bible, then, as more than one book, perhaps it is best to not stick with one question. Let’s focus first on the authorship of the Old Testament followed by the New Testament, and lastly when each group of texts were canonized as scripture. Continue reading
First section: the Hebrew Bible/Tanakh/Old Testament, 39 Hebrew books composed by Jews between the 12th and 2nd century BCE (roughly); Jewish adherents combine certain texts to make a total of 24 books (more below). A few of the books were written in both Hebrew and Aramaic. TaNaKh is a Jewish term and acronym composed of consonants designating the first letter of the three major divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures:
- Torah (“Law”), also known as the Pentateuch (Greek, “five scrolls”)
- Nevi’im (“Prophets”)
- Kethuvim (“Writings”)
Second section: the New Testament, 27 Greek books composed by early Christians between 50 and 150 CE, divided in four main categories:
Now for a closer look at each section…
Right, first thing’s first. Unless you’re Jesus, in which case the first shall be last.
In this introduction we’ll be addressing the following questions, the answers to which are commonly unknown or misunderstood by many. It is worth noting that some of these basic questions continue to be hotly debated among scholars today, and will be discussed at greater length in future posts.
- What exactly is the Bible?
- What are the contents of the Bible?
- Who wrote the Bible?
- How did we get the Bible?
- Which Bible version should I use?
So there’s this book called The Bible. New York Times bestseller for nearly two thousand years, mixed reviews. Though it may have the blunt force of a dictionary and occasionally read with the tone of a tractor manual, it is also supposedly coauthored by the creator of the universe. So it has that going for it. Some people proclaim that you should devote your entire life to it as a means of fire insurance, while others advertise it as nothing more than an old book of genocidal fairy tales with a side of crazy creeds – written by desert nomads as a way of distracting themselves from the fact that they lacked air conditioning.
I would like to promote a third perspective: The Bible is a fascinating, bizarre, historical, inspirational, humanistic, comical, and outright thought provoking collection of ancient texts worth learning about. And you don’t have to be religious to agree. If you had told me five years ago that my bachelor’s degree was going to be in Religion with a focus on biblical studies, I would have called the nearest insane asylum to alert them of an escaped patient. For most of my life I couldn’t have cared less about religion, let alone the Bible. After all, I’ve always considered myself an atheist, one who rejects the claim that a god exists. What good would the Bible do me? Continue reading