The Bible Survives Natural Obstacles
THE imposing library at Alexandria, Egypt, was without question the greatest collection of books the world had yet seen. At one time its ancient shelves bulged with over half a million documents.
Scarcely 350 years from its construction in the third century B.C.E., fire devastated some of its books. Soon what was left of its valuable documents was pillaged and destroyed. These “compositions of ancient genius,” stated historian Edward Gibbon, “irretrievably perished.”
Yes, this huge collection of books, written for the most part on papyrus (a paper-like material made from the fibers of the plentiful Egyptian papyrus plant), was destroyed by a natural obstacle to a book’s survival—fire, along with ravishing by man. Had the books been stone or clay tablets rather than perishable papyrus, they might have fared better.
Yet on this same perishable material, papyrus, parts of the Christian Greek Scriptures may have been written in the first century C.E. Mainly used in Bible writing was parchment or vellum (a writing material made from the skins of animals [2 Tim. 4:13]). This too can be burned and in time will rot. How easily the original handwritten copies of the Bible could have perished without a duplicate to replace their priceless message! However, many copies were made and circulated, so the message was not lost, though written on perishable materials.
Small Minorities Entrusted with It
Another natural obstacle to its survival was the fact that the Scriptures were originally entrusted to disliked minorities. The apostle Paul acknowledged: “Jews were entrusted with the scriptures of God.” (Rom. 3:2, Moffatt’s translation) A number of Jews over a period of more than a millennium were used by God to record his words, and the nation endeavored to safeguard these sacred writings.
But just think! When Bible writing began, this nation was described as being “the least of all the peoples.” Its puniness was contrasted with the greater might of neighboring nations, such as the Hittites, the Amorites and others. Yet what has happened to the literature of those stronger neighbors? It is dead. The remains of such lie buried in the earth or moldering in museums.—Deut. 7:1, 7.
The writers and protectors of the Christian Greek Scriptures (“New Testament”) were also a small defenseless group that was intensely hated. It was said of this group by contemporaries: “Everywhere it is spoken against.”—Acts 28:22.
Now, thousands of years later, the writings of these hated minorities have flooded the entire world. Quite contrary to what natural circumstances would suggest! Would it not seem that a much higher force acted as a protector?
Written in Languages Forgotten by the Masses
Can you read ancient Hebrew? Few can. Yet this is what the Bible was at first written in. Obviously if it were only in this script today, it would be a dead book!
However, at the time the script was used, all who utilized the Bible, as well as many in the surrounding countries, could read that style of writing with understanding. The ancient Hebrew script was understandable to worshipers of the true God for centuries.
Then in the critical seventh century before our Common Era, with the destruction of the Jewish capital at Jerusalem, there began a dispersing of the Jews into countries with strange languages. Greek became the international language. Though a small segment of Jews who resettled in Jerusalem managed to keep Hebrew a living tongue, soon many of the Jews who were “dispersed among the Greeks” were unable to read the Bible in Hebrew.—John 7:35.
Would the message of the Bible cease to be a “living power” in their lives? Also, what about the millions of non-Jewish Greek-speaking people? Would knowledge of God’s Word remain hidden from these?
The First Translation
About 300 years before the Common Era, nearly a million Greek-speaking Jews lived in Alexandria, Egypt, a cultural center of the Hellenic world. Through their efforts and perhaps the cooperation of King Ptolemy Philadelphus, at last a translation of the Bible was made from Hebrew into the Greek language.
What a boon this was! Now the benefits from reading the Hebrew Scriptures were no longer limited to a few persons, but as first-century Jewish philosopher Philo observed: ‘The whole of the human race might reap the benefit of access to our wise and holy excellent laws.’
Because Alexandria had a long history of “book production,” it was not long before copies of this translation, called the “Septuagint,” were being recopied and shipped world wide to Greek-speaking Jews. It was truly “the people’s Bible.” For it was in the language of the general public, and its small cost, resulting from the publishing techniques in Alexandria, enabled many worshipers to have their own personal copy.
Early Christians Make the Bible Live
The use of the Hebrew Scriptures can be seen by the action of the apostle Paul. “He reasoned with them [Jews in the synagogue at Thessalonica] from the Scriptures, explaining and proving by references that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead.” (Acts 17:2-4) To ‘prove by references,’ he pointed to various passages in the Hebrew Scriptures to establish the truthful basis of Christianity.
Use of the Bible, including the newly written Christian Greek Scriptures, by the early Christians led to a development that completely revolutionized the book industry. Up to that time books were made in the form of a scroll. This was fine for leisurely reading. But the Christians were using the Bible in missionary efforts, to ‘prove by references’ the basis of their religion. Can you imagine how awkward it would be to find one reference text after another in scrolls that may have been up to 35 feet (11 m) long!
Nearly a century before, the Romans had experimented with a new form of book with thick leather pages. The bulky contraption never became popular. However, someone used this idea, but made the pages of thin sheets of papyrus. This codex was ideal for quick references. It was the forerunner of today’s book design. Who made this monumental breakthrough? The authoritative Cambridge History of the Bible says:
“Someone conceived the idea of making a codex not of parchment, but of papyrus. Where and by whom the idea was first tried out we do not know; but we do know that the new form is directly connected with the earliest days of Christianity, and the inventor may actually have been a Christian.”
Today, then, when you open a book as opposed to using a scroll, you can think of the zealous witnessing activity of the Christians who adopted the codex as the form of their books. So by the opening centuries of our Common Era, the message contained in the Bible was very much alive and was indeed “at work” in the hearts of many worshipers. But such a serene picture was not to last long, as we shall see.
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The Bible was written on perishable material; here you see the oldest Biblical manuscript in the British Museum
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Translation from Hebrew into Greek kept the Bible alive for the common man
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The codex made the Bible easier for zealous Christians to use in teaching others