How We Got the Bible
The Bible was written so we could get the thoughts of God. We need God’s thoughts. The Son of God said that “every utterance coming forth through Jehovah’s mouth” is vital for life. How did we get the Life-giver’s thoughts in written form?
NO ORDINARY book is the Bible. It is unique. It is God’s Book. It contains his thoughts. It tells us what God’s purposes are and what he wants us to do. To learn the sublime thoughts of the Creator is necessary. Recognizing the imperative need for man to know the Life-giver’s thoughts, Christ Jesus said: “Man must live, not on bread alone, but on every utterance coming forth through Jehovah’s mouth.”—Matt. 4:4, NW.
The written utterances of God may be had in hundreds of languages today. In many countries the common people may read the Bible freely. But during the Middle Ages the common people could not read the Bible; it lay entombed in a dead language.
But God never caused the Bible to be written originally in a dead tongue. He wanted people to get his thoughts. So as not to be speaking into the air the Bible’s Author caused his thoughts to be written in the familiar language of the people.
The everyday language of God’s chosen nation of Israel was Hebrew. So the Bible’s Author used that tongue for the writing of the bulk of the so-called Old Testament, properly called the Hebrew Scriptures.
When did Bible writing begin? About the year 1513 B.C., shortly after the Israelites had been delivered from bondage in Egypt. Jehovah said to Moses: “Write this as a memorial in the book.” God himself had given to Moses “two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone written on by God’s finger.” These tablets contained the Ten Commandments. Moses incorporated these into the book of Exodus when he wrote the first five books of the Bible.—Ex. 17:14; 31:18, NW.
From then on the writing of the Bible continued. God used many men, men from all walks of life, such as Joshua a general, Samuel a judge, David a king, Daniel a prime minister, Ezra a scribe, Nehemiah a court official, Amos a herdsman and Jeremiah a prophet. These men wrote by the infinite wisdom and might of the Bible’s Originator. They confessed that the thoughts they wrote were not of their own origin. Said David: “The spirit of Jehovah it was that spoke by me, and his word was upon my tongue.”—2 Sam. 23:2, NW.
With the writing of the book of Malachi, some eleven centuries after Moses started the book of Genesis, the writing of the Hebrew Scriptures was finished.
More Bible writing was yet to be done, but in a different language. Christ Jesus came to earth. It was vital that the life and teachings of the Founder of Christianity be put down in writing. Thus the disciples and apostles of Christ wrote twenty-seven more books, from Matthew to Revelation. They wrote under the influence of God’s spirit. Thus the apostle of Christ could say: “All Scripture is inspired of God and beneficial for teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness, that the man of God may be fully competent, completely equipped for every good work.”—2 Tim. 3:16, 17, NW.
In what language were these twenty-seven inspired books written? Not in Hebrew, for Hebrew had become a dead tongue. The koiné or common Greek had become an international language, the speech of the people. So common Greek was the language God used for the writing of the so-called “New Testament,” properly called the Christian Greek Scriptures.
How clear, then, that God wanted people to learn his thoughts! Psalm 119:105 (AS) tells us: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and light unto my path.” The Bible is man’s guide. Many handwritten or manuscript copies of the Bible were made; these were distributed far and wide for the benefit of all Christians.
But time changes language. New languages are born. So Bible translation became necessary to preserve God’s thoughts. As early as the third and the fourth century B.C., the Greek-speaking Jews in Alexandria and Egypt could not read the Scriptures in Hebrew. So about the year 280 B.C. a group of some seventy men, according to a letter quoted by the historian Josephus, began the work of translating the Hebrew Scriptures into common Greek. This version, completed sometime during the first century B.C., was called the “Septuagint.” It is also known by the Roman numerals for seventy, LXX.
Copies of the Septuagint were in great demand, especially in the first century of the Christian era. No doubt the publishing houses of Alexandria found it difficult to supply the demand, even though publishing was organized on a large scale in the houses of the rabbis in the Jewish quarter. Here a chief scribe would read slowly from the Septuagint while a battery of five to ten scribes seated at desks wrote in concert. They used pens and ink and wrote swiftly. After being carefully proofread the papyrus strips were rolled up, packed and shipped to the entire Greek-speaking world. So far and wide did the Septuagint Bible go that the apostle Paul, on his missionary journeys, found many Gentiles who already knew the Scriptures.
THE BIBLE IN A DEAD LANGUAGE
As the centuries went by even Greek ceased to be an international language; Latin became the popular tongue in western Europe. Near the end of the fourth century a man named Jerome translated the Bible into the Latin language. His work is called the “Latin Vulgate.” But in time even the Latin language became a dead tongue as far as the common people were concerned. Other languages came into use. One of them was English.
Despite this change in languages, all the people had was a Latin Bible, one they could not understand. Yet any idea of making the Bible available to the people in their language was anathema to the authorities of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Innocent III declared in 1199: “The secret mysteries of the faith ought not to be explained to all men in all places, since they cannot be everywhere understood by all men.” Other popes condemned the use of the Bible by the common people. They had the Latin Bible, yes, but such a Bible, in an unknown tongue, was not much different from a Bible that never existed at all.
Toward the latter part of the fourteenth century a Roman Catholic clergyman named John Wycliffe, scholar and lecturer at Oxford, denounced the spiritual indifference and ignorance he found among the clergy high and low. If ignorance of the Bible was appalling among the clergy, what of the common people, many of whom never knew there was such a book as the Bible! Said Wycliffe: “To be ignorant of the Scriptures is to be ignorant of Christ.” So Wycliffe took the Latin Bible and made the first complete translation of the Bible into English. This was about 1382.
The Roman Catholic Church did not appreciate Wycliffe’s efforts. He was bitterly opposed. Writing to the pope in 1412, Archbishop Arundel called Wycliffe “that wretched and pestilent fellow of damnable memory . . . who crowned his wickedness by translating the Scriptures into the mother tongue.” Church authorities put a ban on any further translation of the Bible into the English tongue.
But then something happened: in 1453 Constantinople fell. This resulted in the dispersion of scholars into the West. These scholars carried with them a knowledge of the Greek language, something the West had almost forgotten. About the same time also, Johannes Gutenberg became the inventor of printing from movable type. These two events coincided to spark the beginning of intense activity to put God’s thoughts into the familiar speech of the people.
Foremost in the work of helping the common people get God’s thoughts was William Tyndale. Tyndale was a scholar of great merit at Oxford and Cambridge. He knew Greek. Tyndale realized that Wycliffe had translated his English Bible, not from the original Bible languages, but from the Latin Bible, with the result that Wycliffe’s Bible was only a translation of a translation. Tyndale wanted to translate the Bible direct from the original languages. His goal was accuracy and complete faithfulness to the original.
Church leaders were suspicious of Tyndale. Often the scholar found himself in arguments. “We had better,” said one of his opponents, “be without God’s laws than the pope’s.” Tyndale was fiercely indignant. He cried: “If God spare me I will one day make the boy that drives the plough in England to know more of Scripture than the pope does.” Tyndale was as good as his word.
THE “INVASION OF ENGLAND”
Often in danger of arrest, Tyndale fled to the Continent, where he went underground. Though he was underground, his life was constantly in danger, but by 1525 Tyndale’s translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures into English was ready for the printer. Then a church official learned of Tyndale’s work and wrote a letter to Henry VIII to warn him about the Bible’s “invasion of England.” The letter warned the king to guard his port against the “pernicious merchandise.” Bibles had to be smuggled into England in bales of cotton and sacks of flour. Once in England they found a ready market. The clergy were alarmed. They bought up as many copies as they could find, to burn them. The bishop of London sought out a merchant named Pakington trading to Antwerp and asked him to buy up all copies across the water.
“My lord,” replied Pakington, who was a secret friend of Tyndale, “I could do in this matter probably more than any merchant in England. I will insure you to have every book that remains unsold.”
“Get them for me,” said the bishop, “and I will gladly give you whatever they may cost, I intend surely to destroy them all, and to burn them at Paul’s Cross.”
Four weeks later the merchant found Tyndale, whose funds he knew were at a low ebb. “Master Tyndale,” he said, “I have found you a good purchaser for your books.” “Who is he?” asked Tyndale. “My lord of London!” “But if the bishop wants the books,” said Tyndale, “it must be only to burn them.” “Well,” was the reply, “what of that? The bishop will burn them anyhow, and it is best that you should have the money for the enabling you to imprint others instead.”
So the bargain was made. The bishop got the Bibles and Tyndale the money. “I am gladder,” said Tyndale, “for these two benefits shall come thereof. I shall get money to bring myself out of debt, and the whole world will cry out against the burning of God’s Word and the overplus of the money that shall remain with me shall make me more studious to correct the said New Testament, and so newly to imprint the same once again, and I trust the second will be much better than ever was the first.” Thus the Bible’s bitter enemy, the bishop of London, unwittingly financed Tyndale in Bible translating.
After that the Bibles came thick and threefold into England. The church authorities soon found the printed Bible beyond their power to destroy. The clergy now attacked the English Bible from the pulpit. Tyndale, meanwhile, studied Hebrew to translate the Hebrew Scriptures direct from the original. He succeeded in translating some of the Hebrew Scriptures. But in 1535 he was caught by church authorities. The following year he was condemned as a heretic, strangled to death and burned at the stake. But Tyndale’s work could not be brought to an end with his body.
In the seventy-five years after Tyndale’s death six important English Bibles appeared. These were Coverdale’s, Matthew’s, the Great Bible, the Geneva Bible, the Bishops’ Bible and the Rheims-Douay Bible. The Douay Bible was translated from the Latin Bible, but the others were basically revisions of Tyndale’s work.
In England the most influential of translations made during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was yet to come. This was the King James Version, 90 percent of which is estimated to have come from Tyndale’s translation.
Tyndale had done his work well; he had made God’s thoughts known to the common people. Then why were so many revisions of the English Bible made? Why was the King James Version made, since Tyndale’s work was so expertly done? The answers, together with an enlightening discussion of the King James Version, will be presented in a later issue of The Watchtower.