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The history of the Bible

Read the history of the Bible - from early manuscripts to the many versions, and over 2500 language translations, that we have today.

Read time: 5 minutes, 12 seconds

"The structure of the Bible that we have today was finalised around 400 AD."

The history of the Bible

The 66 books of the Bible were written over 1,500 years by more than 40 authors and present a cohesive picture of God’s epic rescue plan for humanity. The last book of the first part, known as the Old Testament, was finished about 330 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity. The second part of the Bible – the New Testament – focuses of Jesus’ life and the early Christian Church. It was finished around 90AD. The structure of the Bible that we have today was finalised around 400 AD although it was more than a thousand years before it was available to ordinary men and women in English.

For centuries the only Bibles were handwritten in Latin, but the invention of printing in the 15th century, and the drive to translate the Bible into other languages, changed everything. Pioneers were determined that the book, which is the foundation of the Christian faith, should be available to everyone.

This ambition was and still is dangerous. The first man to produce a printed New Testament in English, William Tyndale, was executed for his work. Many people have risked jail for smuggling Bibles into countries where it is banned by the authorities. Even today, possessing a Bible is illegal in some parts of the world.

The history of the Old Testament

The first five books of the Old Testament are the foundations of the Jewish faith and central to Christianity. It’s thought that the main author was Moses, a significant leader of the Jewish people who brought them out of slavery in Egypt. He wrote down the laws given to the Jewish people by God – including the Ten Commandments. A later book of the Old Testament, Joshua, refers to ‘the Book of the Law of Moses’. Other writings gathered together the oral stories passed down for centuries, which make up the first few chapters of the Bible.

Some of the books of the Old Testament took many years to come together because they documented events over centuries. The Old Testament not only includes historical accounts but poetry, songs, wise sayings and the writings of prophets. The authors wrote in ink on specially-prepared animal skins which were rolled up into scrolls. Because these deteriorated over time, writers (scribes) made exact copies and destroyed the old ones.

It’s thought that the Jewish leader Ezra collected the various writings together after the Jewish people returned from exile in Babylon. The content of the Old Testament was agreed in 290 BC about 40 years after the last book was written, although there is evidence that the order of the books has changed a little.

The Dead Sea scrolls

For centuries the oldest manuscripts of the Old Testament still in existence were copies dating from the 9th century AD. Then in 1947 hundreds of ancient leather manuscripts were discovered in jars in a cave at Qumran north of the Dead Sea. These were far older – dating back to the 1st century BC. The collection included complete copies of Old Testament books. Scholars noted there was virtually no difference between them and later scripts, which suggests the copying process had been accurate and reliable.

Continued below...

Christianity The history of the Bible

The history of the New Testament

The last 27 books of the Bible, known as the New Testament, were written over a much shorter period by fewer people. The first was begun around 50AD; the last finished in 90AD. Consensus was quickly reached that the four Gospels that we have now should be the only official ones. By the 2nd century, the Gospels, the book of Acts and Paul’s 13 letters were being circulated around Christian churches. Gradually other writings were considered for inclusion in the list of scriptures.

By around 200AD there was consensus about the list and it was finalised at church conferences around 400 AD. By now scrolls had been replaced by books. But adding the 27 books to the agreed Old Testament was only giving official approval to what Christians had believed for some time.

Thousands of New Testament manuscripts still exist. The oldest fragments date back to 130AD; the oldest complete scripts are from 350AD.

The early history of the Bible in English

Missionaries brought Christianity to what is now known as the UK long before the Norman invasion of 1066. But their Bibles were handwritten in Latin and accessible only to the educated. Bede, a monk and historian from Northumberland, first translated the Gospel of John into Old English in the 7th century.

The first complete Bible in English was produced in the 14th century by John Wycliffe, a master at Oxford University. This upset the authorities. In 1408 a new law banned anyone from translating or owning any part of the Bible in English without permission.

The invention of printing was a crucial turning point. William Tyndale was determined to produce a Bible in English but the restrictions in England forced him abroad. His New Testaments were printed in Germany and smuggled into England in bales of cloth. But he was arrested by the authorities and executed.

Henry VIII and the King James Bible

The hostile situation changed. When the Church of England was created under Henry VIII, he agreed to the printing of Bibles in English. Then, in 1538, he commanded that every parish church have a whole Bible in English.

Another significant step came after James I became king in 1603. It was decided that a new translation should be produced, building on the efforts of Tyndale. Fifty scholars worked on it. The result was the Authorised Version – or the King James Version. It is still available and widely held to be a great piece of literature.

More versions and translations

Many versions of the Bible exist now. Scholars have gone back to old manuscripts to produce more exact translations. New versions have been produced with more contemporary styles of language. The Bible has now been translated into more than 2,500 languages so that billions of people around the world can read it in their mother tongue. There are multiple versions online and downloadable audio versions. There is even an Emoji Bible. But whatever the format, the Bible remains the most popular book ever produced.