Part One*—How the Bible Came to Us
IN A small shop, a printer and his young apprentices rhythmically operate their wood-frame press, carefully placing blank sheets of paper over the type. As they withdraw them, they check the printed text. On cords strung from wall to wall, they hang the folded pages to dry.
Suddenly, there is violent pounding on the door. Alarmed, the printer unbolts the door, and a band of armed soldiers barge in. They begin to search for the most condemned kind of illegal literature—the Bible in the language of the common people!
They have come too late. Warned of the danger, the translator and a helper have already raced to the shop, scooped up armloads of pages, and are now escaping up the Rhine River. At least they have saved part of their work.
The translator in this case was William Tyndale, trying to produce his banned English “New Testament” at Cologne, Germany, in 1525. His experience turned out to be far from unique. Throughout the nearly 1,900 years since the completion of the writing of the Bible, many men and women have risked everything to translate and distribute the Word of God. We today still benefit from their work. What did they do? How did the Bibles we now hold in our hands come to us?
Early Bible Copying and Translation
True servants of God have always held his Word in highest esteem. The New Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges: “Like their Jewish ancestors, the early Christians valued the reading of the Sacred Books. Following the example of Jesus (Mt 4.4; 5.18; Lk 24.44; Jn 5.39), the Apostles enjoyed a familiarity with the O[ld] T[estament] that supposes prolonged and careful reading and study, and urged this upon their disciples (Rom 15.4; 2 Tim 3.15-17).”
To that end, copies had to be made of the Bible. In pre-Christian times, much of this work was done by highly professional ‘skilled copyists’ who regarded mistakes with terror. (Ezra 7:6, 11, 12) Striving for perfection, they set a high standard for all later Bible copyists.
During the fourth century B.C.E., however, a challenge arose. Alexander the Great wanted all the world’s people to be educated in Greek culture. His conquests confirmed common Greek, or Koine, as the universal language throughout the Middle East. As a result, many Jews grew up never learning to read Hebrew and so were unable to read the Scriptures. Therefore, about 280 B.C.E., a group of Hebrew scholars were gathered to Alexandria, Egypt, to translate the Hebrew Bible into the popular Koine. Their translation came to be known as the Septuagint, Latin for “Seventy,” referring to the approximate number of translators believed involved. It was finished about 150 B.C.E.
In Jesus’ time, Hebrew was still in use in Palestine. Yet it was Koine that dominated there and in the rest of the far-flung provinces of the Roman world. The Christian Bible writers, therefore, used this common form of Greek in order to reach as many people of the nations as possible. Also, they quoted freely from the Septuagint and employed many of its terms.
Since the early Christians were zealous missionaries, they quickly became adept at using the Septuagint to prove that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. This agitated the Jews and spurred them to produce certain new translations in Greek, designed to deprive the Christians of their arguments by revising their favorite proof texts. For example, at Isaiah 7:14 the Septuagint used a Greek word meaning “virgin,” referring prophetically to the mother of the Messiah. The new translations used a different Greek word, which means “young woman.” The continued use of the Septuagint by the Christians finally moved the Jews to abandon their tactic altogether and to promote a return to Hebrew. Ultimately, this action turned out to be a boon to later Bible translation because it helped to keep the Hebrew language alive.
The First Christian Book Publishers
The zealous early Christians set themselves to producing as many copies of the Bible as they could, all copied by hand. They also pioneered the use of the codex, which had pages like a modern book, instead of continuing to use scrolls. Besides being more convenient for finding scriptures quickly, a codex could contain more in a single volume than could be recorded in a single scroll—for example, all of the Greek Scriptures or even the entire Bible.
The canon of the Christian Greek Scriptures was completed about 98 C.E. with the books of the last surviving apostle, John. There exists a fragment of a copy of John’s Gospel, called Rylands Papyrus 457 (P52), that dates back to no later than 125 C.E. As early as 150 to 170 C.E., Tatian, a student of Justin Martyr, produced the Diatessaron, a composite account of Jesus’ life compiled from the same four Gospels found in our present Bibles.* This indicated that he considered only those Gospels to be authentic and that they were already in circulation. About 170 C.E., the earliest known catalog of “New Testament” books, called the Muratorian Fragment, was produced. It lists most of the books of the Christian Greek Scriptures.
The spread of Christian beliefs soon created a demand for translations of the Christian Greek Scriptures as well as the Hebrew Scriptures. Numerous versions in such languages as Armenian, Coptic, Georgian, and Syriac were eventually made. Often alphabets had to be devised just for that purpose. For instance, Ulfilas, a fourth-century bishop of the Roman Church, is said to have invented Gothic script to translate the Bible. But he left out the books of Kings because he thought they would encourage the warlike tendencies of the Goths. This action did not, however, prevent the “Christianized” Goths from sacking Rome in 410 C.E.!
Latin and Slavonic Bibles
Meanwhile, Latin gained importance, and several Old Latin versions appeared. But they varied in style and accuracy. So in 382 C.E., Pope Damasus commissioned his secretary, Jerome, to prepare an authoritative Latin Bible.
Jerome started by revising the Latin versions of the Christian Greek Scriptures. For the Hebrew Scriptures, however, he insisted on translating from the original Hebrew. Thus, in 386 C.E., he moved to Bethlehem to study Hebrew and to seek the assistance of a rabbi. For this, he aroused considerable controversy in church circles. Some, including Jerome’s contemporary Augustine, believed the Septuagint to be inspired, and they accused Jerome of “going over to the Jews.” Forging ahead, Jerome completed his work about 400 C.E. By getting close to the source of the original tongues and documents and by rendering them into the living language of the day, Jerome anticipated modern translation methods by a thousand years. His work came to be known as the Vulgate, or Common Version, and it benefited people for centuries.
In eastern Christendom many could still read the Septuagint and the Christian Greek Scriptures. Later on, however, languages and dialects of the Slavonic, or Slavic, family came into common use in the eastern parts of Europe. In 863 C.E., two Greek-speaking brothers, Cyril and Methodius, went to Moravia, now in the Czech Republic. They began to translate the Bible into Old Slavonic. To do so, they devised the Glagolitic alphabet, which was later superseded by the Cyrillic alphabet, named after Cyril. This was the source of present-day Russian, Ukrainian, Serbian, and Bulgarian scripts. The Slavonic Bible served people of that area for generations. In time, though, as languages changed, it became incomprehensible to the average person.
The Hebrew Bible Survives
During this period, from about the sixth to the tenth centuries C.E., a group of Jews known as the Masoretes developed systematic copying methods to preserve the Hebrew Scripture text. They went so far as to count all the lines and even each individual letter, noting variations among manuscripts, all in an effort to preserve an authentic text. Their efforts were not in vain. To cite one example, comparison of modern Masoretic texts with the Dead Sea Scrolls, written between 250 B.C.E. and 50 C.E., shows no doctrinal change in over 1,000 years.*
In Europe the Middle Ages were broadly synonymous with the Dark Ages. Reading and learning were at a low point among the populace. Eventually, even the clergy, for the most part, became unable to read church Latin and often could not even read their own language. This was also the time in Europe when the Jews were herded into ghettos. Partly because of this isolation, Biblical Hebrew scholarship was preserved. However, because of prejudice and mistrust, the Jews’ knowledge was often not accessible outside the ghetto. In western Europe, knowledge of Greek was also declining. The situation was further aggravated by the Western Church’s veneration of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. It was generally regarded as the only authorized version, even though by the end of the Masoretic period, Latin was becoming a dead language. Thus, as a desire to know the Bible slowly began to germinate, the stage was set for great conflict.
Bible Translation Meets Opposition
In 1079, Pope Gregory VII issued the first of many medieval church edicts banning the production and sometimes even the possession of vernacular versions. He revoked permission for Mass to be celebrated in Slavonic on the grounds that it would require portions of Holy Scripture to be translated. Completely contrary to the position of the early Christians, he wrote: “It [has] pleased Almighty God that holy scripture should be a secret in certain places.” With this as the official position of the church, promoters of Bible reading were increasingly considered dangerous.
Despite the unfavorable climate, the copying and translating of the Bible into common languages continued. Versions in many languages circulated clandestinely in Europe. These were all hand copied, since movable-type printing would not be invented in Europe until the mid-1400’s. But as copies were expensive and limited in number, an ordinary citizen might count himself happy to possess only a part of one book of the Bible or just a few pages. Some learned huge portions by heart, even the entire Christian Greek Scriptures!
In time, however, there were stirrings of broad movements for reform of the church. These were driven in part by renewed awareness of the importance of the Word of God in daily life. How would these movements and the development of printing affect the Bible? And what became of William Tyndale and his translation, mentioned at the outset? We will follow this fascinating story down to our own times in future issues.
Parts 2 and 3 will appear in the September 15 and October 15 issues respectively.
The book The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., is a modern example of a harmony of the four Gospels.
See Insight on the Scriptures, Volume 2, page 315, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
[Chart on page 8, 9]
Key Dates in the Transmission of the Bible
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
BEFORE COMMON ERA (B.C.E.)
Hebrew Scriptures completed c. 443 B.C.E.
Alexander the Great (d. 323 B.C.E.)
Septuagint begun c. 280 B.C.E.
100 B.C.E. Most Dead Sea Scrolls c. 100 B.C.E. to 68 C.E.
COMMON ERA (C.E.)
Jerusalem destroyed 70 C.E.
Greek Scriptures completed 98 C.E.
Rylands Papyrus of John (b. 125 C.E.)
400 C.E. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate c. 400 C.E.
Masoretic Text Prepared
Cyril in Moravia 863 C.E.
Edict against vernacular Bible 1079 C.E.
[Picture on page 9]
Early Christians pioneered the use of the codex
[Picture on page 10]
Jerome went to Bethlehem to study Hebrew