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The Bible

By Mike Mazzalongo     Posted: Wed. Apr 24th
This lesson examines the history of Bible authorship, how the Bible was organized into its present form, and some key reasons why Christians believe that it is inspired by God.

In this lesson we will examine three main things about the Bible including its content, its history and its claims.

Bible Content and History

It is very difficult to study the content of the Bible without describing some of its history as well, so we will review both of these ideas together in order to understand not only what is in the Bible but how it came to be written as well. The story of the recording of the Bible as a written record is the story of God's communication to man.

The origin of the Bible

The word Bible comes from the Greek word, Biblia which means "books." The complete Bible/books numbers 66 (39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament). To study Bible origin we must begin with the Old Testament or a better word is Old Covenant. This term is very useful because it helps us understand what the Bible is: the details of two covenants or agreements between God and man. The old one and the new one which replaces the old (like a lease where certain changes are made when renewing).

Old Testament origin

Our study of the Bible requires us to understand several features of the Old Testament. It was written in the Hebrew language which is still used today in Israel. The first man charged with actually recording events and communication from God was Moses (1500 BC).

Moses is credited with writing and organizing the first 5 books of the Bible called the Pentateuch (Joshua 8:31). Jesus confirms this in Matthew 4:4. Once God began to use human beings to record His words, this system continued after Moses.

  • Joshua was the next writer after Moses – Joshua 24:26.
  • Prophets recorded their history and prophecies after Joshua – Nehemiah 8:18.

In this way over a period of 1500 years, approximately 28 writers completed the 39 books of the Old Testament. Malachi was the last to record in 516 BC. There were no other prophets sent to Israel until John the Baptist. All these books were collected and assembled together into one volume by 400 BC and the Jews had a complete "Bible" 300 years before Christ.

Old Testament organization

The Jews had the same Old Testament as we do but they organized it a little differently. They divided the Old Testament into 3 main sections:

  1. The Law - Genesis-Deuteronomy. This was the highest in importance.
  2. The Prophets
    • Former - Joshua, Judges, Samuel
    • Latter - Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel
    • Minor - (book of 12) in one volume.
  3. The (Holy) Writings - Poetry, History (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, etc. Esther-Nehemiah; Daniel).

They organized these into 24 books instead of our usual 39 books.

  • Pentateuch - Genesis to Deuteronomy = 5 books
  • Prophets - Former + Latter + Minor = 8 books
  • Writings - Poetry/History = 11 books

Total 24 books

Today we have the same books but they are divided differently:

  • Pentateuch - Genesis to Deuteronomy = 5 books
  • History - Joshua to Esther = 12 books
  • Poetry - Job to Song of Solomon = 5 books
  • Major Prophets - Isaiah to Daniel = 5 books
  • Minor Prophets - Hosea to Malachi = 12 books

Total 39 books

The Old Testament story

Of course how many books and how they are divided does not tell us what the Old Testament is about. Even though the material was collected and written over a 1,500 year period and recorded by more than 25 different authors, the Old Testament of the Bible tells only one unbroken story - God's relationship with mankind, and in particular one certain group. In Genesis we have an account of the creation of the world and how the environment, society, and human beings came to be in their present state:

  • A ruined natural world.
  • A dysfunctional society.
  • Humans doomed to die.

In Genesis we also read about a man called Abraham, chosen by God to be the head of a nation through whom God would offer salvation to all. The rest of the Old Testament books describe the growth and development of this man's family from a wandering tribe to a powerful and wealthy nation called Israel.

Most of the Old Testament books will contain information on their wars, conquests, politics, religion, moral codes, poetry and general history. It will also contain prophecies (predictions) of future events that will happen to their nation as well as the appearance and work of the savior originally promised to Abraham.

Although complicated to read at times, the Old Testament is really one story describing God's relationship with the Jewish people and their role in preparing a cultural and historical stage for the appearance of Jesus Christ.

New Testament origin

The New Testament, like the Old, is also a story given in various books. The story it tells is of the life, ministry, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the subsequent spread of His teachings by His followers (Apostles) who established the Christian church in the 1st century. There were many accounts written of Jesus' life but the New Testament canon ("official" or "inspired" books) has only 27 books. I will explain how these came to be in a moment, but the division is as follows:

  • Gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke, John = 4 books
  • History - Book of Acts of the Apostles = 1 book
  • Pauline Epistles = 13 books
    • Letters written by Paul (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon)
    • General Epistles = 8 books (Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude)
  • Prophecy - Revelation = 1 book

Total 27 books

Aside from the gospels (accounts of Jesus' life) and Acts (history of the establishment of the church) most of the other letters were written to churches in order to teach and encourage them in the practice of their Christian faith. They applied and completed the original teachings of Christ. What is of great interest to many, however, is how this ancient material came to us today in this number and in our own language?

New Testament canon

Many books were written about the life of Jesus and several books were written by the Apostles and their disciples. How did they decide which books actually belonged in the New Testament? The books that make up the New Testament are called the canon - from a Greek word which means "measuring rod." The word referred to those things which measured up when examined.

In other words, when the early church examined all the material that was written about Jesus, how did they decide which books belonged in the New Testament canon? Out of the hundreds of books, letters, etc. how did they narrow down to 27? There were 3 main factors that led the early church to form the New Testament canon and preserve it in one book.

In the beginning the church did not have a high regard for keeping the letters of the Apostles and the disciples. The apostles were alive and producing many letters so there was no urgency in preserving them. There was a lot of written material being produced so no one thought that they needed to keep some of it. They also thought Jesus was coming back in their lifetime so the need for preserving the material for the future was not there.

But then certain events took place that required them to begin collecting and preserving the teachings of the Lord and Apostles:

A. Canon of Marcion - 140 AD

Marcion was a false teacher who rejected the entire Old Testament, accepted only ten of the epistles of Paul and a part of Luke's gospel but rejected the others. He began circulating this group as the official canon and so the early church was forced to decide which of the writings were authoritative, and decided to collect and circulate these. This was done in 170 AD.

B. Persecution

Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, it was a capital offense to possess a copy, any copy, of the Christian Scriptures. This brought up the question - which scriptures were worth dying for? Many uninspired, historical books were burned and only the most precious, most accepted works were kept.

C. Codex Form

Codex is the "book" form where several pages were placed together instead of using a scroll. When the codex form became popular, it brought up the question, which books should be grouped together into one volume. This motivated them to keep only the books that were acceptable in a single volume.

But the main question for the early church was "Which are the inspired books?"

There was no meeting where they reviewed all the material and then made a decision as to which made it in and which did not. On the contrary, the early church simply accepted those works that had already been recognized as inspired over the centuries but had not yet been collected and organized into one set. This was finally done in 367 AD and the 27 books confirmed by the Council of Carthage later in that century has remained the same since, without a single change. But in collecting the books for inclusion in the New Testament canon, the early church was guided by certain principles:

A. Authorship

If a man was inspired when he spoke, then his writings were also considered inspired. For this reason the writings of the Apostles were quickly accepted into the canon. Also the men associated with the Apostles were accepted. Luke was accepted because of his association with Paul. Mark was accepted because of his association with Peter. James was called the brother of the Lord and an Apostle (Galatians 1:19).

This allowed the gospels and the letters of Paul, Peter, James and John to be a natural selection for the Canon.

B. Value of Book

In some cases a book had a name attached to it but did not read like a New Testament book. For example, many uninspired authors tried to gain an audience by putting the name of an Apostle on their book: Acts of Peter (not written by Peter).

Scholars tell us that it was fairly easy to distinguish between inspired and fake when you actually read the material. For example, The Gospel of Thomas: Jesus made sparrows out of mud, was rebuked for doing this on the Sabbath and said "rise up and fly away" and the birds came to life and flew away.

There is another story where Jesus miraculously lengthened a board to fit a table being made in Joseph's shop. In other words, when comparing the writings, it was fairly easy to tell the real from the fakes. The inspired books had harmony of thought, purpose, and style. There were no contradictions and were accurate historically as well as theologically.

C. Circulation

The church did not decide which ones were suitable and which ones were not, they merely confirmed and collected those books which had traditionally been accepted by all the churches but had never been collected into one volume before.

No new book was introduced, only those letters and volumes that had wide circulation and acceptance after long ages of study and review.

The Canon was confirmed 300 years after the first writings began to be circulated. We also believe that God was guiding and protecting the process in which His word was recorded and preserved.

New Testament Translations

The Old Testament was written in the Hebrew language (most of it - some small parts in Aramaic). There came a time when the Jews could not speak Hebrew because of the Greek influence and so a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament was made in the Greek language. It was called the Septuagint because 70 scholars were used to create it. During New Testament times the people spoke Aramaic, which was an ancient language of Palestine. The books and letters of the New Testament were not written in the Aramaic language. They were written in the common form of Koine Greek, which was the universal language of the period. The Greek form remained the standard as copies were made from the original and distributed for the first several centuries.

There are in existence today 5,357 Greek manuscripts of portions of the New Testament. Scholars work with more copies of the New Testament than copies of the original Greek tragedies or copies of the writings of Shakespeare.

With time, the Greek was translated into Latin and other languages but these translations were always made from the original Greek manuscripts, not from Greek to Latin to German to English but always from the Greek.

Latin was the language of the Western portion of the Roman Empire and as Christianity spread westward from its original home (where Greek was the dominant language) a new version of the Bible was developed.

In 404 AD a new Latin version of the Bible was produced by Jerome, an early church leader. His translation from the Greek to Latin was called the Latin Vulgate. This became the standard version for study and church life in the middle ages.

Various translations were made into "common" languages of the time from the 5th-14th centuries that included Gothic, Syrian, Slavic, English, French, German, Italian and Spanish. By the 14th century there was a renewed interest in the Greco-Roman world's languages and literature, which were sparked by the Renaissance. This produced a greater effort to examine the Greek language.

This new trend led to a revival of the study of Greek and Hebrew languages as well as a study of the ancient Biblical manuscripts. This zeal to produce new Bible versions in common languages translated directly from the original Greek and Hebrew was helped along by the new religious movement called the Reformation. With the invention of Gutenberg's printing press in 1436 the technology to actually produce mass quantities of Bibles in different languages was realized.

It is interesting to note that the very first book to be printed on Gutenberg's new invention was the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible sometime between 1452 and 1456. This Bible was called the 42 line Bible because there were exactly 42 lines on each page. It still exists today and can be seen at the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz (near Frankfort), Germany.

The invention of the printing press helped spread the Bible in various languages throughout the world. The earliest known English translation was in 700 AD. A Latin version with English notes between the lines.

  • John Wycliffe did the first complete English translation in 1382. He was imprisoned for his efforts.
  • William Tyndale translated the first printed English Bible in 1526. Tyndale is a large religious publishing house today.

There were many translations as the science of translation and archaeology developed. One major translation was the King James Bible in 1611 and it became the authorized version for English speaking people for many years. It is still one of the most popular Bible translations today.

Many other translations have appeared over the years and each has a different style. For example:

  • Revised Standard Version – good Old Testament but New is a little awkward.
  • American Standard – best word per word translation but English is complicated.
  • New American Standard – most accurate to the original but easy to read.
  • New International Version – English flows well but some find it too general.
  • New Living Translation – newest one using easy to read modern English. Its goal is to give the most exact meaning using today's English.

There are many other translations but these are major ones.

Bible Claims

We have looked at the content of the Bible, how it came to be written and organized, as well as how the various translations were produced. One final point to consider is the Bible's major claim. In other words, "what does it say about itself?"

Very simply, the Bible claims that it is inspired, meaning that God is the author of the Bible. Humans simply wrote what He wanted and guided them to write.

All scripture is inspired by God...
- II Timothy 3:16a
20that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, 21for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
- II Peter 1:20-21

Now it is easy to make claims but why do Christians believe the claim that the Bible is not just a book written by good and holy men but is in fact fully inspired by God? There are many reasons and we will briefly look at three:

1. Its ability to survive

Despite every effort to discredit its teachings and claims by governments, religious organizations, philosophers and skeptics of every kind for almost 2000 years - the Bible has survived intact. And despite constant attacks it continues to be the most translated, most printed, most read book in the world and in all of history. Of course you would expect no less from a book that says that it comes from God. Another reason Christians believe the Bible is from God...

2. Its uniqueness

One reason why many religions come and go is that their teachings are demonstrated to be false or become irrelevant in the modern world. The Christian religion and the Bible as its source however are unique among religious books.

  • Unique in its depth and insight compared to any other secular or religious book: scholars agree.
  • Unique in its unity: 66 books, 1500 years to write, 40 different authors and yet it is perfectly fitted together without contradiction telling a single story seamlessly.
  • Unique in its universality in that it is read and followed by every culture and language and perfectly adaptable in every time period, ancient or modern.

Only a book with a Divine source could lay claim to such unique features. There are other reasons to believe the Bible's claim that it is inspired of God but one last one I would like to touch on is:

3. Fulfilled prophecy

Humans cannot accurately predict future events. To be able to do so is a sign of Divine power, to do so 100% of the time is a sure proof that God is at work. The Bible contains hundreds of such prophecies. Events, people, situations described by prophets, kings, teachers that were fulfilled years or even centuries later.

"It is I who says of Cyrus, 'He is My shepherd!
And he will perform all My desire.'
And he declares of Jerusalem, 'She will be built,'
And of the temple, 'Your foundation will be laid.'"
- Isaiah 44:28

Isaiah lived in 700 BC. Cyrus, the king he names, lived 100 years later and history records this fact. The prophet names him, gives his position, and what he will do. We know from Isaiah and from history that everything that was prophesied actually happened.

32They were on the road going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking on ahead of them; and they were amazed, and those who followed were fearful. And again He took the twelve aside and began to tell them what was going to happen to Him, 33saying, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles. 34They will mock Him and spit on Him, and scourge Him and kill Him, and three days later He will rise again."
- Mark 10:32-34

Jesus predicts who will condemn Him, how He will be killed, and in how many days He will rise. Accurate prediction and fulfillment of future events is a definite sign that a supernatural force is at work. Only God can do this and He has done it in the Bible. In addition to this, the Bible is the only book, Holy or otherwise, that contains accurately fulfilled prophecies. No other book or writings in other religions have or claim this.

If the Bible is inspired, as it claims to be, you would expect that it would contain features only possible through divine power.

Well, that's our lesson reviewing the content, history, and claims of the Bible, the book that Christians use as their guide.

Discussion Questions

  1. Does the Bible have to be inspired to be influential? Why?
  2. How do we answer people who say that a 2000-year-old book is not relevant in today's society?
  3. Which of the arguments for the Bible's super-natural source are strongest? Weakest? Why?

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Dr. Stafford North
Professor of Bible
Oklahoma Christian University