Where did the Bible come from?
Most Christians take the Bible as a given. But where did the Bible come from? Answering this question is more difficult than you may think. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick explains.
[Full original script follows. Includes some lines that got edited for length. Copyright 2017-18 by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick.]
Most Christians take the Bible as a given — it’s a big book filled with important history and theology that is critical to Christianity. And all Christians regard it as a source for doctrine and Christian identity.
But where did the Bible come from? Did it just get written down by the Prophets of the Old Testament and the Apostles of the New Testament, compiled into a single manuscript and then get sent to the printers so that everyone could have his own Bible?
No, that isn’t what happened.
Let’s talk first about where the Old Testament came from. It took hundreds of years to compose the many pieces of text that we think of collectively as the Old Testament, with the first few books — from Genesis to Deuteronomy — coming into their present form a few hundred years before the birth of Jesus. Other books of the Old Testament appeared in their current forms at other times.
The Old Testament books are not the result of a single author such as Moses sitting down and creating a text that was then copied perfectly and passed down over generations. These texts were actually in use by the people of Israel for centuries, and part of that use included some editing — adding things or altering things.
One obvious addition is to the Book of Deuteronomy, which includes the funeral of Moses at the end. But if Moses wrote Deuteronomy, how did his funeral get in there? Someone else added it. Another example is that there are two versions of the David and Goliath story in many Bibles — they represented two ancient traditions that were both included.
Eventually, though, these writings formed a canon — an approved list that was used in ritual worship, reading, and theology. So canon is the result of a long process of community usage. A canon is therefore a collection of texts that have come to exercise authority within a given religious community.
And to make things more complex, different groups of Jews formed different canons of the Old Testament.
But then one canon was received by Christians, right? Actually, no. Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics and Protestants all have canons of the Old Testament that are a little bit different from each other, and the Orthodox actually have more than one — the Russian Orthodox canon is a bit different from the Greek Orthodox one.
And most Protestants are using a shorter Old Testament canon that emerged during the 16th century Reformation or later, depending on the region. And the longer canons varied according to region, both in length and in some book ordering.
So where did the New Testament come from? Those 27 books were written in a much shorter time period — just a few decades. And they also don’t show much in the way of signs of editing from the earliest manuscripts. In fact, the New Testament texts are the best documented set of texts of any kind from the ancient world. So we can pretty reliably link them much more directly to the authors whose names they bear, though some Bible scholars disagree.
So when the Apostle John wrote the Apocalypse (or Revelation), the last book of the New Testament, did he send it along with the other 26 books to a publisher for copies to be made for everyone?
No, that isn’t what happened.
Remember that the books of the New Testament were written to different people for different purposes. They didn’t start circulating together as a single book. In fact, nowhere in any of those books is a table of contents or a statement that there should even be such a thing as a New Testament. And when the Apostles refer to “the Scriptures,” they almost always mean the Old Testament.
The various New Testament texts started getting passed around and read out loud in churches. Copies were made, and church communities eventually started compiling collections of these texts. Paul’s letters started circulating together in a collection early in the second century, and the four Gospels were put together by the middle of that century. But the New Testament canon of 27 books we know now didn’t emerge for centuries.
The earliest known list that exactly matches the one most Christians use today — Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants — was written in the year 367 by Athanasius, the bishop of the city of Alexandria in Egypt. He was writing a letter to the churches under his authority to let them know which books could be read in his churches. And it was probably another hundred years or so before most other Christians were recognizably using that same list.
So where did the Bible come from? It wasn’t a simple matter of authors writing books and then those books being passed on. The texts of the Bible emerged from within communities, who were checking them against the beliefs and practices they already had and in some cases even adapting them to those beliefs and practices, especially the practice of reading Scripture out loud during worship services. What’s more, some of the best ancient manuscripts are lectionaries, collections designed to be read in church.
The Old Testament arose within the Old Covenant community of Israel, and the New Testament arose within the New Covenant community of the Christian Church. Both communities pre-existed those texts. Under the inspiration of God, the communities wrote them, interpreted them, and passed them on faithfully in tradition from one generation to the next.
So that’s where the Bible came from.