How was the Bible created?: The origins of God's word

The question came from nowhere.  I was leading a youth Bible study one Wednesday night when a high school freshman asked me, "How do you know the Bible came from God?"  The look in his eyes showed how serious he was.  His father was a Sunday school teacher and leader in our church, but that wasn't good enough.  Nor should it have been.

He wanted to know for himself.  He explained his question: "Did the Bible just drop out of heaven?  How do you know that someone didn't just sit down a hundred years ago and write the whole thing?  Where did it come from?"

That's a good question.  A few days later at work, a friend and I got into a discussion about my faith and he asked, "Why do you trust the Bible?  After all those centuries of copying, surely you don't think you have what was first written.  How can you trust it today?"  Another good question.

Maybe you've asked questions like these yourself, or you've tried to answer them for someone else.  The fact is, not many Christians know where the Bible came from.  The making of God's word is a neglected subject for many, and a real problem for others.  So it's important that we learn how God's word came to us.

Writing in ancient times

The first step to making the Bible seems obvious: God's word was preserved in writing.  However, there's much more to this first step than you might think.  In the ancient world writing was an expensive, laborious process.  Books had to be written and copied by hand (the first printed book was completed until around AD 1455).  The postal systems of the Roman Empire generally were restricted to government use, so the biblical authors had to find special travelers or messengers to carry their writings.  Everything about ancient books was different from today, from their languages to the ways they were produced.

What materials were used by the first biblical authors?  Paul gives us a clue.  The apostle was locked away in a cold, damp Roman prison.  When he wrote to Timothy, his young apprentice, he could have asked for anything.  Better food, more companions, lawyers to plead his case, the church to rally to his defense.  Instead, here is his personal appeal: "When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments" (2 Tim 4:13).  What were his "scrolls" and "parchments"?  Why did they matter so much to history's greatest apostle?

The materials of the Bible

Scrolls were made of papyrus, the most prevalent "paper" in the ancient world.  As we noted in the introduction, the papyrus reed grew along the Nile River in Egypt and in other marshy places.  It was cut, unrolled, and left to dry in the sun.  Strips were laid horizontally, then others overlaid vertically.  They were woven and glued together, constituting the most common and inexpensive writing material of the day.  These sheets were then sewn or glued together into scrolls.

A more expensive and durable writing material was parchment, named for the region of Pergamum in Asia Minor (modern-day western Turkey) where it was developed.  This was manufactured from animal skins, usually sheep or goats (vellum).  Parchment was perfected around 200 B.C., but was too heavy and expensive for common use.  Like papyrus, it was often rolled into scrolls.

Reeds were used as brushes, with a kind of carbon-liquid glue as ink.  Such pen and ink was employed with papyrus and parchment.

The original books of the Bible were apparently all written on papyrus.  Since this first "paper" decayed quickly, none of these original writings exist today.  The same is true for the writings of Plato, Aristotle, or Julius Caesar.  We simply don't have the originals of ancient books, but must rely on copies made through the centuries.

Around A.D. 100, people began cutting scrolls into sheets and stitching them together.  The result was the "codex," the ancestor to our "book."  Codexes using parchment are the earliest copies of the complete New Testament which we have today.

The scrolls and parchments Paul requested were his Bible and his books.  They were the earliest form of the Scriptures we cherish and study today.  If you were locked away on death row, would they be your first request?

The languages of the Bible

God's word has come to us in three original languages.  Hebrew is the oldest of the three, the language used for most of the Old Testament.  It is written from right to left, with no upper or lower cases or vowels.  Centuries later, scribes added the vowels (called "points") we have in the Hebrew Bible today.

Aramaic was a descendent of Hebrew.  It was the common spoken language of the Jews toward the end of the Old Testament era, and was the typical language of Jesus' culture.  It is found in the Old Testament in Ezra 4:8--6:18, where the author draws on documents exchanged by the Persian king and his subjects; 7:12-26, recording a letter from the Persian king to Ezra; and Daniel 2:4--7:28, where the narrative deals with subjects important to Gentiles and was thus written in their language.

Jesus and his disciples could read Hebrew.  For instance, Jesus read from the Isaiah scroll, written in Hebrew, before preaching at Nazareth (Lk. 4:17-19).  However, they typically spoke in Aramaic.  We still find Aramaic words in the Gospels--"Abba" for Father (Mk. 14:36), and "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani!" ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!", Mk. 15:34), for instance.

Greek was the universal written language of the Roman Empire, and thus the language in which the entire New Testament was written.  There were two kinds of Greek in the first century--the classical language employed by the cultured, and the "koine" ("common") Greek used by the masses.

A century ago, scholars were confused by the contrast between the Greek of the New Testament and that found in the classical writers.  German theologian Richard Rothe went so far as to call New Testament Greek a "language of the Holy Ghost."  But then archaeologists began discovering scraps of papyrus and pieces of pottery from the first century, written in the more common language of the people.  Shopping lists, personal letters, wills and documents came to light.  And their language was strikingly similar to that of the New Testament.

Today scholars rank the New Testament documents on a spectrum relative to "koine" and classical Greek literature.  The Gospels are the most "common" in nature, containing so much of Jesus' discourse with the masses and intended for the widest distribution.  1 Peter (recorded by Silvanus from dictation by Peter) and Hebrews are the most classical works in the New Testament.  Luke and Acts are somewhere in the middle, employing excellent literary style but recording events using the speech with which they occurred.

William Barclay concludes, "It is worthwhile remembering that the New Testament is written in colloquial Greek; it is written in the kind of Greek a man in the street wrote and spoke in the first century. . . . Anything that makes the New Testament sound other than contemporary mistranslates it."

It is a miracle that God could take on human flesh, that the Creator would enter his Creation.  It is no less a miracle that he would give us his revelation in our language.  That the Lord of the universe would write a book we could read.  But this is precisely what he has done.  The wisdom of the ages has been transmitted on papyrus and parchment, in human languages through human instruments.  We could not climb up to God, so he climbed down to us.

Getting as close as possible

Now, how can we be sure that we have what he wrote?  As we have noted, no original documents for any ancient book exist today.  Imagine storing newspaper in the elements for a year, much less a century or millennium.  In addition, there was no way to distribute the biblical writings apart from hand copying.  In the era before movable printing, scribes were the first publishers.  How do we know that they copied the Bible accurately?

The work of textual critics

"Textual critics" are scholars who devote themselves to studying copies of ancient literature, seeking to develop a version that is as close to the original as possible.  Textual critics work with the manuscripts of Shakespeare, for instance, debating which passages came from the playwright himself, which to attribute to Christopher Marlowe, and so on.  Scholars study the copies of works by Plato and Aristotle, seeking to determine which is closest to the originals.

Textual critics do the same hard, crucial work with the Scriptures.  They may or may not be people of faith.  Their work is scientific and precise, not guided by personal spiritual presuppositions.  We can trust their conclusions as the product of objective scholarship.

Textual criticism works best when two circumstances prevail: numerous ancient copies, as close in time to the original writings as possible.  The fewer the ancient copies, the less material the scholars have to use.  The larger the gap between the original and our earliest copies, the greater margin for undiscoverable error in transmission.

The Bible and other ancient literature

What copies of famous ancient literature do we possess today?  Caesar's Gallic Wars was composed between 58 and 50 B.C.  Our oldest copies of it were made 900 years later; we have only nine or ten good manuscripts.  As a result, we have no independent verification for much of Caesar's descriptions except the book itself.  And historians debate the degree to which we can trust the copies we possess.

Tacitus was the most famous historian of ancient Rome.  His descriptions of first-century life in the Empire are considered the most authoritative histories we have.  However, of the 14 books of his Histories, only four and one-half survive today.  Our earliest copies were made 900 years after the originals.

The History of Thucydides was written around 400 B.C.  Our earliest complete manuscript dates to 1,300 years later.  We have only five or so copies of any work of Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), the earliest of which was made 1,400 years after the originals.

By contrast, our oldest complete New Testament was made just 300 years after the original.  The Chester Beatty papyrus contains a section from John 18, and dates to A.D. 130 (just 35 or so years after John's original).  We have thousands of other parts of the New Testament in papyrus sections. and the letters of first- and second-century Christians.  In fact, we can reconstruct most of the New Testament just from these ancient letters.

No other ancient book comes close to the Bible with regard to the number and quality of manuscript copies in existence today.  The sheer weight of evidence is strongly in favor of biblical trustworthiness and authority.

Studying the copies we have

Historians possess more than 5,000 various Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, and more than 10,000 copies in other ancient languages.  They classify these copies by age and writing materials, and whether they used upper or lower case letters.  They also group manuscripts by the geographic centers where they were produced--Alexandria, Egypt; Caesarea in Palestine; Antioch of Syria; Constantinople; and Rome.

Textual critics consider a number of factors in determining which manuscripts are oldest and closest to the originals.  They examine the chronological appearance of the document--its apparent age and the period when it first came into use.  They investigate the geographical circulation of the manuscript, the extent of its usage, and the number of times the document was copied, on the assumption that the more widely accepted the document, the more likely it was considered reliable by its audience.  They look for agreement between the manuscript and quotations found in the church fathers.

And they investigate the historical "genealogy" of the manuscript's textual tradition.  Scholars know that documents originating in Alexandria, for instance, possess certain advantages and flaws.  Each geographic center manifests its own techniques and characteristics in copying and transmission.

Unintentional errors

Much of the work of textual critics consists in identifying the presence of scribal, editorial, and/or translator errors.  Scholars have identified four kinds of unintentional errors as most common, and watch for them with special interest.

Some mistakes arose from faulty eyesight--failing to distinguish between similar letters and similar errors.  For instance, the Hebrew "y" (yodh) looks much like the "w' (waw).  And the Greek capital letters for epsilon (made as a rounded E) and theta (an oval with a line in the middle) are very similar when handwritten.

"Haplography" occurred when a scribe wrote once what should have been written twice (like "occurence" for "occurrence" or "maping" for "mapping" in English).  "Dittography" occurred when the scribe wrote twice what should be written only once.  And "metathesis" resulted from changing the proper order of letters or words.

A second kind of error resulted from faulty hearing, when the scribe made copies from dictation or even pronounced the words to himself as he wrote them.  "Homophony" occurred when the scribe wrote a wrong word which sounded the same as the correct term (like "two" for "to" in English).

A third category of scribal mistakes was errors of the mind.  The scribe held a phrase in his memory as he copied it, and sometimes transposed or missed letters or words as a result.  Mistakes of this type fall into several categories:

"Metatheis," when the scribe changed the proper order of letters or words.

"Fusion," combining the last letter of a word with the first letter of the following word, or combining two words into one.

"Fission," the improper separation of one word into two.

"Homoeoteleuton"--when a phrase ends in a certain way, a scribe can miss that which follows if the concluding phrase also ends in the same way.  When the scribe looked from the original to the copy he was writing, then looked back to the original, his eyes could easily fall on the latter ending and miss that which came in between.

"Homoearkton"--the loss of intervening words if two phrases begin in the same way.

A fourth kind of unintentional error resulted from mistakes in scribal judgment.  Words and notes made in the margin of the older copy were sometimes incorporated into the text of the new manuscript.  Scribes would occasionally copy across two columns of a text, rather than working down the passage a column at a time.

Intentional changes

At times, scribes tried to "clean up" the text before them by making deliberate changes to the manuscript at hand.  If a scribe felt the style of his text could be improved, he would sometimes make grammatical "corrections."  Parallel texts in the gospels were often harmonized to agree completely with each other.  New Testament quotes of Old Testament texts were "improved" to conform to the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament).

"Conflation" was a common problem.  When a scribe worked from two or more manuscripts and found variant readings, he would sometimes include both in his copy.  And some scribes added doctrinal statements according to their convictions.  For instance, one amended Luke's statement, "It seemed good also to me to write an orderly account" (Lk. 1:3) to read, "It seemed good also to me and to the Holy Spirit" (following Acts 15:28, "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . . "). 

Determining the best manuscripts

We should expect such errors to creep into the handwritten copies of any ancient book.  And the more copies we have, the more likely it is that we will find such errors.  Watching for such common mistakes is the first step to finding them in a particular text.  Then scholars are able to correct these mistakes, developing a text which is as close to the original as possible.

How do textual critics do this work?  They follow certain established rules.  Here is the procedure for the Old Testament suggested by Ernst Wurthwein and followed widely by scholars:

When the Masoretic Text (MT, the most reliable OT text) has been preserved without a variant, and there are no other manuscripts which differ, we must accept the reading as proper.

When the MT and other manuscripts support different readings, the MT is to be preferred wherever appropriate.

When the MT and other manuscripts support different but apparently equally possible or plausible readings, determine which reading is more difficult (see below) or most likely explains the other versions.

Pay close attention to psychological and/or theological reasons why a particular scribe or school might preserve the text in a particular way.

When no clear conclusion can be made based on manuscript evidence, suggest a conjectural solution which seems closest to the authorial intention of the text.

In describing the work of New Testament textual criticism, Bruce Metzger outlines the procedures typically followed.  First, consider external evidence.  How old is the document?  What type does it embody?  Next, examine the text itself.  In general, when variances occur we are to prefer the more difficult reading.  We assume that the scribe would more likely resolve apparent contradictions within the text.  For instance, when we find two versions of a text within Matthew's Gospel, one of which seems less likely to come fromMatthew's pen, we should assume that it did.

We are to prefer the shorter reading to the longer, assuming that the scribes would more likely add explanatory phrases than omit portions of the text.  We will assume that a version which harmonizes parallel accounts is more likely the product of scribal changes than one which is distinct from the other versions.

In addition, we are to consider:

The style and vocabulary of the author throughout his work.

The immediate context.

Harmony with the usage of the author elsewhere, and in the Gospels.

The Aramaic background of Jesus' teaching.

The priority of the Gospel according to Mark (probably the first to be written).

The influence of the Christian community upon the formulation and transmission of the passage in question.

With these rules in place, textual critics go about the painstaking task of comparing the multiplied thousands of ancient copies of Scripture.  And the result: we have a Bible which is trustworthy in every matter of faith and practice.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

As a case in point, consider the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Prior to their discovery in the caves at Qumran, the oldest complete copy of the Old Testament known to scholars dated to the tenth century.  When a shepherd looking for a lost sheep found the first of the scrolls in 1947, the most dramatic discovery in the history of biblical archaeology and manuscripts resulted.  We now possess Old Testament manuscripts dating back to the first century before Christ.  The Scrolls contain every book of the Old Testament except Esther.  They take us a thousand years closer to the originals.

How close was the Masoretic Text to these documents?  In other words, how accurate were the scribes who copied the text for a thousand years?  The results are amazing.  There is word-for-word accuracy in more than 95 percent of the texts.  The variations which remain are the results of obvious scribal errors.  For instance, translators of the Revised Standard Version made only 13 changes from the Masoretic Text for Isaiah, none affecting faith and practice.

It is clear that the scribes who transmitted the Bible across the centuries before printing was available did their work with astounding accuracy.  Their work, while not perfect, was far closer than the manuscript copyists for any other ancient book.  With the help of textual scholars, we today possess an Old Testament which is virtually identical to the originals.  And the Greek New Testament we have today is likewise accurate and trustworthy.

Why so many versions?

If the biblical text produced by scholars is so close to the original, why do we need so many translations of the Bible?  And why do modern versions differ so much from the King James Version?

The KJV translators used the Textus Receptus (the "received text"), the best version of the Bible available when they did their work in the early 17th century.  This Greek text was based on the scholarship of Erasmus, who published his first Greek NT in 1516 and a third edition by 1522.  He based his work on the five or six manuscripts which happened to be available to him at the time.

Robert Estienne (known as Stephanus) then produced a Greek NT from fifteen different manuscripts.  Thodor Beza worked with Stephanus's son Henri to produce nine further editions of the Greek NT.  Seven editions of their work were published by the Elzevir brothers.  In the preface to their second edition (1633) they stated, "You have therefore the text received by all; in which we give nothing altered or corrupt."  From their claim came the term "received text," and their publication became the standard for Bible translators across the next three centuries.

Then some remarkable discoveries changed the course of Bible translation forever.

The most dramatic was Codex (meaning "book") "Sinaiticus."  This is a parchment copy of the entire Greek Bible (although much of the OT has been lost).  The copy dates to the fourth century A.D.  It was discovered by Count Tischendorf in the Mount Sinai Monastery in 1844.

As the story goes, the Count was staying at the monastery when he noticed a maid using some very old manuscript sheets for firewood.  He stopped the maid, rescued the book, and presented it to the Russian Tsar in 1859.  The British government bought the book from the Soviet Union for 100,000 pounds on Christmas Day, 1933.  It resided for many years in the British Museum, and is now on display at the British Library.

The same Library also houses Codex "Alexandrinus." This copy of the Greek Bible was made in the fifth century, and was presented to England's King Charles I in 1627 by the Patriarch of Alexandria.

The Vatican Library houses Codex "Vaticanus," written about the same time as Sinaiticus.  Codex "Ephraemi" is an incomplete copy of the Greek Bible (with 64 OT leaves, and 145 NT leaves out of an original 238).  It dates from the fifth century, and receives its name from the fact that part of it was rubbed out of the parchment and replaced with the writings of a fourth-century Syrian scholar named Ephrem.

Codex Bezae is named for the German reformer Theodor Beza, who presented it to the University of Cambridge in 1581.  It was written in the fifth or sixth century, and contains the Gospels and Acts in Greek and Latin.

These manuscripts are all centuries older than those available to Erasmus and those who produced the Textus Receptus.  As a result, translations which use these discoveries can get much closer to the original documents.  And so "modern" translations have multiplied as such manuscripts have become available to scholars.

In addition, translations today serve various audiences and needs.  Some are literal, seeking to reproduce exactly what was written by the biblical authors.  The New American Standard Version and its ancestor, the American Standard Version, are examples of this type.  The English Standard Version is the latest translation produced for this purpose.

Paraphrases stand at the opposite end of the translation spectrum.  They attempt to reproduce the sense of the biblical text in the language and thought patterns of our day.  The Living Bible was the first popular example of this approach; the New Living Bible continues its legacy.  The Message is the newest version of this kind of translation.

"Dynamic equivalence" translators seek to render the Bible literally where possible, but make adjustments for idioms and figures of speech where necessary.  The New International Version is the most popular translation in this category.  The New Revised Standard Version stands halfway between this approach and the literal.  The New English Bible and its descendant, the Revised English Bible, stand between the dynamic equivalence theory and the paraphrase.

And so we have a variety of translations today, not because we do not have a Bible we can trust, but because we do.  Each version builds on the same reliable biblical text produced by scholars, to meet the needs of its intended audience.

What questions remain?

While textual critics have produced biblical texts which are more trustworthy than any other ancient document in the world, there are still passages for which scholars have not settled unanimously on the best reading.  Do they affect our commitment to biblical authority?  Absolutely not.

The vast majority of unresolved issues relate to inconsequential matters of spelling and grammar.  Only a small number affect the meaning of a particular passage.  And not one of these change any doctrine or faith practice.

Let's look at two of the most substantial passages still in question.  The well-known story of the woman caught in adultery is reproduced in the New International Version with this note: "The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11."  Other modern translations carry similar notations with regard to this passage.  The reason is simple: this story is not found in any reliable, early Greek New Testament document.

The earliest manuscript containing it is Codex Bezae, dated to the fifth or sixth century.  The few NT copies which used the story incorporated it at various places within John's Gospel, and many marked it with a symbol to note that its inclusion was questionable.  The Greek of the story differs markedly from the rest of the Fourth Gospel, and the story interrupts the sequence of John 7:52 and 8:12.  No Greek Church Father for a thousand years after Christ referred to the story, even those who dealt with the entire Gospel verse by verse.  And so Metzger concludes, "the case against its being of Johannine authorship appears to be conclusive."

Why do we have it in our Bibles at all?  Because it was part of the Textus Receptus, the basis for the KJV.  And so they included it in their Gospel of John, giving it entrance to Bible editions ever since.

Here's the point: omitting the story does not affect Christian faith or practice in any way.  We know of Jesus' forgiveness and compassion from other reliable New Testament texts.  For instance, remember his prayer for those crucifying him: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Lk 23:34).  The textual questions regarding John 7:53-8:11 have no bearing on the doctrines of our faith.

A second substantial passage in this regard is the ending of Mark's Gospel.  Here we find the same note attached to the text: "The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20."  Like John 7:53-8:11, Mark 16:9-20 was part of the Textus Receptus, and thus included in the KJV.

It is not in Sinaiticus or Vaticanus.  Clement of Alexandria (born A.D. 150) and Origen (born A.D. 185) show no knowledge of these verses.  Eusebius (born A.D. 260 or 270) and Jerome (born A.D. 347) state that the passage was absent from almost all Greek copies of Mark known to them.  The vocabulary and style of this ending are markedly different from the rest of Mark's Gospel, and the connection between vs. 8 and 9 is extremely awkward.  And so these verses must be considered to be later additions to the Gospel of Mark.

Without them, what changes about the Christian faith?  Most interpreters would answer, nothing.  Those who argue that baptism is essential for salvation can claim Mark 16:16; speaking in "new tongues" is mentioned in v. 17; drinking poison and handling snakes are part of v. 18.  Most scholars would agree that these latter "signs" of salvation, found nowhere else in Scripture, were never part of Mark's original Gospel.  And the questions regarding baptism and "tongues" are addressed and resolved elsewhere in the New Testament.


So it is with the remaining textual questions of the Bible.  Not one matter of doctrine, faith, or practice is at issue.  Compared with other ancient books, the manuscript evidence for Scripture is overwhelmingly positive.

According to F. F. Bruce, a leading authority in this area, "The various readings about which any doubt remains among textual critics of the New Testament affect no material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and practice."

Bruce then quotes Sir Frederic Kenyon to prove his point:

The interval then between the dates of the original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed.  Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.

When those critical of biblical authority agree with my workplace colleague of years ago that we do not have a trustworthy Bible, you can know that they are wrong.  The Bible you have is the Bible God has preserved across 35 centuries.  Its transmission demonstrates its divine origin and trustworthy nature.  Your copy is no less authoritative than the originals.  Manuscript evidence is an excellent reason to trust the word of God.

 For further discussion of the New Testament as Greek literature see the classic work by F. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments, rev. ed. (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming Revell, 1963) 58-73.

 William Barclay, A Spiritual Autobiography (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1975) 90.

 This section follows closely the authoritative work of Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 3d. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) 186-206.  Examples of the errors here discussed can also be found in Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1982) 33-42.

 Ernst Wurthwein, The Text of the Old Testament, 4th ed., trans. Erroll F. Rhodes (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1992 [1979]) 116-9.

 Metzger, 207-46.

 Metzger 224.

 See Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2d ed. (New York: United Bible Societies, 2002) 102-6.

 F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 5th rev. ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1977 [1960]) 19-20.

 Frederic Kenyon, The Bible and Archaeology (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1940) 288-9; quoted by Bruce, 20.