The Completely Not-Boring History of the Bible, part 1

If there’s such a thing as a Bible nerd, I’m it!

I love the Bible because it helps us know God. In His Word, God reveals His heart and everything we need to know about Him and our world. It’s not everything there is to know, but it’s everything we need to know. I’m guessing you love the Bible, too, or you probably wouldn’t take the time to read this blog. Today and one week next month, I’m stepping away from application and study to share some of the fascinating, affirming history of the Bible. I hope you learn something new!

It All Starts with Inspiration

Most Christ-followers believe the Bible to be inspired. That is, God used human authors, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, to write down the information He wanted conveyed. That’s why we see different styles and perspectives among the different books of the Bible despite the unified themes.

It’s been a long time since
those days of inspiration…

But it’s been a long time since those days of inspiration, and even people who believe the original texts were inspired may have doubts about the clear transfer of that information over two thousand (or more) years. After all, we don’t have any of the original documents. The history of the Bible, however, shows us that God has preserved His Word through time, and that’s why I find that history fascinating.

Hebrew Scriptures

Lots of dates here, but just follow the order of events.

The original Hebrew Scriptures are made up of three parts: Torah, Nebihim, and Kethubhim (law, prophets, and writings, respectively). The Torah is also called the Pentateuch, and includes the first five books of our Bible. We know it was recognized as authoritative in Ezra’s lifetime, which was about 440bc. The section called Prophets includes the major and minor prophets, while the Writings includes Psalms and the books surrounding it (Job, Ecclesiastes, etc.). The last books to be written were Malachi (450-430bc) and Chronicles (before 400bc).

By 150bc, all thirty-nine books of our Old Testament had been accepted by the Jewish community. The translation of Jewish Scriptures into Greek (the Septuagint), however, began one hundred years earlier, in 250bc. They did this because so many Jewish people spoke Greek. This is important to us for two reasons.

  1. The Greek translation was based on the set of Scriptures available to the translators at that time (250bc). If you compare the Greek translation with the Hebrew Scriptures currently available to us, you’ll see there are very few differences, which means there haven’t been any major changes or errors enter the text between 250bc and whatever dates our documents reflect. That’s impressive.
  2. The New Testament was originally written in Greek, which means New Testament authors used the Greek translation when they quoted the Old Testament. This helps explain many of the differences between quotations of OT verses in the NT and the actual verses in the OT. These days, translators sometimes work to align the two.

“But wait, Carole,” you say, “You just said there weren’t any big differences between the Hebrew text and the Septuagint.” You’re right; I did. The differences we see are the result of differing translation techniques for Hebrew and Greek. Some of the words may be different or in a different order, but the “jist” of the quoted verses will be the same. Check out this example…

1-peter-1-24-25
1 Peter 1:24-25 NIV
isaiah-40-6-8
Isaiah 40:6-8 NIV

The original Hebrew text had consonants but no vowels. That’s just the way Hebrew was written, and because the Scriptures were designed to be read aloud in the Temple by educated theologians, it wasn’t necessary to have all the vowels. Imagine you read, “Lrd my Gd.” You know what that’s supposed to say. Then read, “Evrythng ws gd.” A bit harder (Everything was good.) but still possible. It’s easy for you to tell the difference between “God” in the first example and “good” in the second. But if you weren’t a native English speaker, you would find it much harder.

Here are the same verses as above but in Hebrew and Greek.

isaiah-40-6-8-hebrew
Isaiah 40:6-8, Hebrew (BHS)
1-peter-1-24-25-greek
1 Peter 1:24-25, Greek

 

 

After the Jewish people were scattered (diaspora) and the Temple destroyed, laymen needed to read the Scriptures in synagogues around the known world. Therefore, a group of scholars (the Masoretes) standardized the consonantal text and added vowels and punctuation based on the traditional readings. “Standardized” means they decided on a correct spelling for things (like color v/s colour) and a single set of grammar rules (like was v/s were). This happened after ad500, but don’t let that gap in time worry you. The Jewish scholars were serious about tradition, so we didn’t lose anything. The vowels and punctuation obviously help us significantly with translation.

How We Christians Got the Books of the Old Testament

The first Christians, being Jews, accepted the Hebrew Scriptures as-is…or as-was. It wasn’t long however, before they rearranged the books, split the minor prophets from the major, instituted all the 1st- and 2nd- books, and separated Ezra from Nehemiah. There was no big theological reason for all this. It was a practical issue: how much Greek text would fit on a standard scroll. Greek, with all its vowels and cases (a grammar thing) takes up a lot more room on the page than Hebrew, with its vowels that are just dots and dashes under the letters. The best example I can think of (and it’s not exact) is our wordprocessing fonts. Try typing the same thing in Courier then in Times New Roman. It takes up different amounts of space, doesn’t it? (I wanted to demonstrate here, but my blogging platform wouldn’t let me.)

How We Get Our Translations

The Hebrew text used by scholars and translators today is the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. By the way, the part that’s not in Hebrew is in German. The BHS is based on the Leningrad Codex, which was transcribed and put together in ad1008. “Codex” just means it has separate pieces of paper bound like a book rather than scrolls, but it was still hand-written. Think of medieval monks writing out books by hand and decorating (called “illuminating”) the pages. The BHS has been updated many times since 1008. Modern-day translators start with it, then consider the latest archaeology, historical discoveries, and language research as well as variances from other sources before they settle on what words to actually write for the translation.

We’re always learning more
about history and language…

The fact that we’re always learning more about history and the evolution of language is one of the big reasons we need new translations. The other big reason, by the way, is that our own language changes over time. Remember reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in high school? Aren’t you glad our English Bible doesn’t read like that?

I hope understanding a little of where your Old Testament comes from helps you love and appreciate it even more. Next month, we’ll look briefly at Apocryphal books, the New Testament, the meaning of Canon, and our modern-day chapters & verses.

Knowing the history of the Bible helps you value it more. Check out this brief intro. (click to tweet)

I told you I was a Bible nerd! I love this stuff! If you have a question or thought about the history of the Bible, please leave it in the comments. I’ll find an answer for you or at least point you toward an answer.

Note: I didn’t include any references because I wanted this to read like a conversation. If you’re interested in where I got my information, please just leave a comment or e-mail me: carolesparks(at)outlook(dot)com.

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