“Who Wrote The Bible”

The Complete History of

The creation of the bible


Compiled & Edited By

Victor  & Sosana Benilous

Evolution  of  the  Bible



The Books


The order as well as the number of books differs between the Jewish Bible and the Protestant and Roman Catholic versions of the Bible. The Bible of Judaism is in three distinct parts: the Torah, or Law, also called the books of Moses; the Nebiim, or Prophets, divided into the Earlier and Latter Prophets; and the Ketubim, or Writings, including Psalms, wisdom books, and other diverse literature. The Christian Old Testament organizes the books according to their type of literature: the Pentateuch, corresponding to the Torah; historical books; poetical or wisdom books; and pro-phetical books. Some have perceived in this table of contents a sensitivity to the historical perspective of the books: first those that concern the past; then, the present; and then, the future. The Protestant and Roman Catholic versions of the Old Testament place the books in the same sequence, but the Protestant version includes only those books found in the Bible of Judaism.


The New Testament includes the four Gospels; the Acts of the Apostles, a history of early Christianity; Epistles, or letters, of Paul and other writers; and an apocalypse, or book of revelation. Some books identified as letters, particularly the Book of Hebrews, are theological treatises.


Doctrine of Inspiration


Early Christianity inherited from Judaism and took for granted a view of the Scriptures as authoritative. No formal doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture was initially propounded, as was the case in Islam, which held that the Koran was handed down from heaven. Christians generally believed, however, that the Bible contained the word of God as communicated by his Spirit, first through the patriarchs and prophets and then through the apostles. The writers of the New Testament books, in fact, appealed to the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures to support their claims concerning Jesus Christ.


Traditions and Influence


The importance and influence of the Bible among Christians and Jews may be explained broadly in both external and internal terms. The external explanation is the power of tradition, custom, and creed: Religious groups confess that they are guided by the Bible. In one sense the religious community is the author of Scripture, having developed it, cherished it, used it, and eventually canonized it (developed lists of officially recognized biblical books). The internal explanation, however, is what many Christians and Jews continue to experience as the power of the contents of the biblical books themselves. Ancient Israel and the early church knew of many more religious books than the ones that constitute the Bible. The biblical books, however, were cherished and used because of what they said and how they said it; they were officially canonized because they had come to be used and believed so widely. The Bible truly is the foundation document of Judaism and Christianity.  It is commonly known that the Bible, in its hundreds of different translations, is the most widely distributed book in human history.


The Old Testament


It is remarkable that Christianity includes within its Bible the entire scriptures of another religion, Judaism. The term Old Testament (from the Latin word for “covenant”) came to be applied to those Scriptures on the basis of the writings of Paul and other early Christians who distinguished between the “Old Covenant” that God made with Israel and the “New Covenant” established through Jesus Christ. Because the early church believed in the continuity of history and of divine activity, it included in the Christian Bible the written records of both the Old and the New covenants.


Old Testament Oral Traditions


The Old Testament in fact, the entire Bible is a collection of many different books, it is not a unified book in terms of authorship, date of composition, or literary type; it is instead a veritable library. The historical narratives of the Old Testament are popular rather than critical works, because the writers often used oral traditions, some of them unreliable, to write their accounts. Moreover, all these narratives were written for a religious purpose


The Law


Legal materials are sufficiently prominent in the Hebrew Scriptures that the term Torah (Law) came to be applied in Judaism to the first five books, and in early Christianity to the entire Old Testament. Legal writings dominate in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. The fifth book of the Bible was called Deuteronomy “second law” by its Greek translators, although the book is primarily a report of the last words and deeds of Moses. It does, however, contain numerous laws, often in the context of interpretation and preaching.


According to biblical tradition, the will of God was revealed to Israel through Moses when the covenant was made at Mount Sinai. Consequently, all the laws, except those in Deuteronomy are found in Exodus 20 through Numbers 10, where the events at Mount Sinai are reported. Scholars have recognized in the Hebrew laws two major types, the apodictic and the casuistic. Apodictic law is represented by, but not limited to, the Ten Commandments. These laws, usually found in collections of five or more, are short, unambiguous, and unequivocal statements of the will of God for human behavior. They are either commands (positive) or prohibitions (negative). The casuistic laws, on the other hand, each consist of two parts. The first part states a condition (“If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it …”) and the second part the legal consequences (”… he shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep,” Exodus 22:1). These laws generally concern problems that arise in every day life. The casuistic laws are parallel in form, and frequently in content, to laws found in the Code of Hammurabi and other ancient Near Eastern law codes.


Development of the Old Testament


By no means did all the books of the Old Testament originate at the same time and in the same place; rather, they are the product of Israelite faith and culture over a thousand years or more. Consequently, another literary perspective examines the books and their component parts in terms of their authorship and their literary and pre-literary history.


Virtually all the books went through a long history of transition and development before they were collected and canonized. Moreover, it is necessary to distinguish between traditional Jewish and Christian views concerning the authorship and date of the books and their actual literary history as it has been reconstructed by modern scholarship from the evidence in the biblical books and elsewhere.  Many of the facts are not known, the history is long and often complicated, and older conclusions regularly are being revised under the weight of new evidence and methods. The general contours of that history can, however, be summarized.


For most Old Testament books it was a long journey from the time the first words were spoken or written to the work in its final form. That journey usually involved many people, such as storytellers, authors, editors, listeners, and readers. Not only individuals but different communities of faith played their parts.


Behind many of the present literary works stand oral traditions. Most of the stories in Genesis, for example, circulated orally before they were written down. Prophetic speeches, now encountered in written form, were first delivered orally. Virtually all the Psalms, whether originally written down or not, were composed to be sung or chanted aloud in worship. It is not safe to infer, however, that oral transmission was merely the precursor of written literature and ceased once books came into being. In fact, oral traditions existed side by side with written materials for centuries.


The Pentateuch


According to Jewish and Christian tradition, Moses was the author of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. Nowhere in the books themselves, however, is this claim made; tradition stemmed in part from the Hebrew designation of them as the books of Moses, but that meant concerning Moses. As early as the Middle Ages, Jewish scholars recognized a problem with the tradition: Deuteronomy (the last book of the Pentateuch) reports the death of Moses. The books are actually anonymous and composite works. On the basis of numerous duplications and repetitions, including two different designations of the deity, two separate accounts of creation, two intertwined stories of the flood, two versions of the Egyptian plagues, and many others, modern scholars have concluded that the writers of the Pentateuch drew upon several different sources, each from a different writer and period.


The sources differ in vocabulary, literary style, and theological perspective. The oldest source is the Jehovistic, or Yahwist (J, from its use of the divine name Jahwe—modern Jehovah—or Yahweh), commonly dated in the 10th or 9th century BC. The second is the Elohist (E, from its use of the general name Elohim for God), usually dated in the 8th century BC. Next is Deuteronomy (D, limited to that book and a few other passages), dated in the late 7th century BC. Last is the Priestly Writer (P, for its emphasis on cultic law and priestly concerns), dated in the 6th or 5th century BC. J includes a full narrative account from creation to the conquest of Canaan by Israel. E is no longer a complete narrative, if it ever was; its earliest material concerns Abraham. P concentrates on the covenant and the revelation of the law at Mount Sinai, but sets that into a narrative that begins with creation.


None of the writers of these documents if they were individuals and not groups was a creative author in the modern sense. Rather, they worked as editors who collected, organized, and interpreted older traditions, both oral and written, as I am with this summary. Therefore, most of the contents of the sources are much older than the sources themselves. Some of the oldest written elements are parts of poetic works such as the Song of the Sea, Exodus 15, and some of the legal material was derived from ancient legal codes. One recent view suggests that the individual stories of the Pentateuch were collected under the heading of several major themes, Promise to the Patriarchs, Exodus, Wandering in the Wilderness, Sinai, and Taking of the Land took their basic shape by about 1100 BC. In any case, the story of Israel's roots was formed in and under the influence of the community of faith.


The Prophetic Books


Few if any of the prophetic books were written entirely by the person whose name serves as the title. Moreover, in most instances even the words of the original prophet were recorded by others. The story of Jeremiah's scribe Baruch (Jeremiah 36; Isaiah 8:16) illustrates one of the ways the spoken prophetic words became books. The various utterances of the prophets would have been remembered and collected by their followers and eventually written down. Later, most of the books were edited and expanded. For example, when the Book of Amos (circa 755 BC) was used in the time of the exile, it was given a new and hopeful ending (Amos 9:8-15). The Book of Isaiah reflects centuries of Israelite history and the work of several prophets and other figures: Isaiah 1-39 stems primarily from the original prophet (742-700 BC); chapters 40-55 come from an unknown prophet of the Exile, called Second Isaiah (539 BC); and chapters 56-66, identified as Third Isaiah, come from various writers of the period after the exile.  


The Canon


The Hebrew Bible and the Christian versions of the Old Testament were canonized in different times and places, but the development of the Christian canons must be understood in terms of the Jewish Scriptures.


The Hebrew Canon


The idea in Israel of a sacred book dates at least from 621 BC. During the reform of Josiah, king of Judah, when the temple was being repaired, the high priest Hilkiah discovered “the book of the law” (2 Kings 22). The scroll was probably the central part of the present Book of Deuteronomy, but what is important is the authority that was ascribed to it. More reverence was paid to the text read by Ezra, the Hebrew priest and scribe, to the community at the end of the 5th century BC (Nehemiah 8).


The Hebrew Bible became Holy Scripture in three stages. The sequence corresponds to the three parts of the Hebrew canon: the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. On the basis of external evidence it seems clear that the Torah, or Law, became Scripture between the end of the Babylonian exile (538 BC) and the separation of the Samaritans from Judaism, probably by 300 BC. The Samaritans recognized only the Torah as their Bible.


The second stage was the canonization of the Nebiim (Prophets). As the super scriptions to the prophetic books indicate, the recorded words of the prophets came to be considered the word of God. For all practical purposes the second part of the Hebrew canon was closed by the end of the 3d century, not long before 200 BC.


In the meantime other books were being compiled, written, and used in worship and study. By the time the Book of Sirach was written (circa 180 BC), an idea of a tripartite Bible had developed. The contents of the third part, the Ketubim (Writings), remained somewhat fluid in Judaism until after the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in ad 70. By the end of the 1st century ad the rabbis in Palestine had established the final list.


Both positive and negative forces were at work in the process of canonization. On the one hand, most of the decisions had already been made in practice: The Law, the Prophets, and most of the Writings had been serving as Scripture for centuries. Controversy developed around only a few books in the Writings, such as Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon (Songs). On the other hand, many other religious books, also claiming to be the word of God, were being written and circulated. These included the books in the present Protestant Apocrypha, some of the New Testament books, and many others. Consequently, the official action of establishing a Bible took place in response to a theological question: According to which books would Judaism define itself and its relationship to God?


The Christian Canon


The second canon what is now the Roman Catholic version of the Old Testament arose first as a translation of the earlier Hebrew books into Greek. The process began in the 3d century BC outside of Palestine, because Jewish communities in Egypt and elsewhere needed the Scriptures in the language of their culture. The additional books in this Bible, including supplements to older books, arose for the most part among such non-Palestinian Jewish communities. By the end of the 1st century ad, when the earliest Christian writings were being collected and disseminated, two versions of Scripture from Judaism were already in existence: the Hebrew Bible and the Greek Old Testament (known as the Septuagint). The Hebrew Bible, however, was the official standard of belief and practice; no evidence indicates that an official list of Greek Scriptures ever existed in Judaism. The additional books of the Septuagint were only given official recognition in Christianity. The writings of the early Fathers of the Church contain numerous different lists, but it is clear that the longer Greek Old Testament prevailed.


The last major step in the history of the Christian canon took place during the Protestant Reformation. When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, he rediscovered what others—notably St. Jerome, the 4th-century biblical scholar had known: that the Old Testament had originated in Hebrew. He removed from his Old Testament the books that were not in the Bible of Judaism and established them as the Apocrypha. This step was an effort to return to the presumed earliest—and therefore best—text and canon, and to establish in opposition to the authority of the church the authority of that older version of the Bible.


Texts and Ancient Versions


All contemporary translators of the Bible attempt to recover and use the oldest text, presumably the one closest to the original. No original copies or autographs exist; rather, hundreds of different manuscripts contain numerous variant readings. Consequently, every attempt to determine the best text of a given book or verse must be based on the meticulous work and informed judgment of scholars.


Masoretic Texts


With regard to the Old Testament, the chief distinction is between texts in Hebrew and the versions, or translations into other ancient languages. The most important, and generally most reliable, witnesses to the Hebrew are the Masoretic texts, those produced by Jewish scholars (called the Masoretes) who assumed the task of faithfully copying and transmitting the Bible (Masora). These scholars, active from the early Christian centuries into the Middle Ages, also provided the text with punctuation, vowel points (the original of the Hebrew text contains only consonants), and various notes. The standard printed Hebrew Bible in use today is a reproduction of a Masoretic text written in ad 1088. The manuscript, in codex or book form, is in the collection of the Saint Petersburg Public Library. Another Masoretic manuscript, the Aleppo Codex from the first half of the 10th century ad, is the basis for a new publication of the text in preparation at Hebrew University in Israel. The Aleppo Codex is the oldest manuscript of the entire Hebrew Bible, but it dates from well more than a millennium after the latest biblical books were written, and perhaps as much as two millennia later than the earliest ones.


Extant, however, are older Hebrew manuscripts Masoretic and other texts of individual books. Many from as early as the 6th century were discovered during the late 19th century in the genizah (storage room for manuscripts) of the Cairo synagogue. Numerous manuscripts and fragments, many from the pre-Christian era, have been recovered from the Dead Sea region since 1947 (see Dead Sea Scrolls). Although many of the most important manuscripts are quite late, the Masoretic texts in particular preserve a textual tradition that goes back to at least a century or more before the Christian era.


The Septuagint and Other Greek Versions


The most valuable versions of the Hebrew Bible are the translations into Greek. In some instances the Greek versions actually offer readings superior to the Hebrew, being based on older Hebrew texts than are now available. Many of the Greek manuscripts are much older than the manuscripts of the full Hebrew Bible; they were included in copies of the entire Christian Bible that date from the 4th and 5th centuries. The major manuscripts are Codex Vaticanus (in the Vatican Library), Codex Sinaiticus, and Codex Alexandrinus (both in the British Museum).


The major Greek version is called the Septuagint (“seventy”) because of the legend that the Torah was translated in the 3d century BC by 72 scholars. The legend is probably accurate in several respects: The first Greek translation included only the Torah, and it was done in Alexandria in the 3d century BC. Eventually the remaining Hebrew Scriptures were translated, but obviously they were translated by other scholars whose skills and viewpoints differed.


Numerous other Greek translations were made, most of them extant only in fragments or quotations by the early Fathers of the Church and others. These include the versions of Aquila, Symmachus, Theodotion, and Lucian. The 3d-century Christian theologian Origen studied the problems presented by these different versions and prepared a Hexapla, an arrangement in six parallel columns of the Hebrew text, the Hebrew text transliterated into Greek, Aquila, Symmachus, the Septuagint, and Theodotion.


Peshitta, Old Latin, Vulgate, and Targums


Other versions include the Peshitta, or Syriac, begun perhaps as early as the 1st century ad; the Old Latin, translated not from the Hebrew but from the Septuagint in the 2d century; and the Vulgate, translated from the Hebrew into Latin by St. Jerome at the end of the 4th century ad.


Also to be considered with the versions are the Aramaic Targums. In Judaism, when Aramaic replaced Hebrew as the language of everyday life, translations became necessary, first accompanying the oral reading of Scriptures in the synagogue and later set down in writing. The Targums were not literal translations, but rather paraphrases or interpretations of the original. The two major Targums are those that originated in Palestine and those that were revised in Babylon. Recently a complete manuscript of the Palestinian Targum has come to light—Neofiti I of the Vatican Library. The best-known Babylonian Targums are Onkelos for the Pentateuch and Jonathan for the Prophets. 


The versions often are good, sometimes even the best, witnesses to the original text. Moreover, they are important as evidence for the history of thought among the communities that took the Bible seriously.


Separating Interpretation from History


It is important to distinguish between the Old Testament's interpretation of what happened and critical history. In order to write a reliable account, the historian needs more or less objective sources contemporary with the events themselves. The major source of information concerning Israel's history is the Old Testament, and its writers generally are concerned primarily with the theological meaning of the past. Moreover, most of the documents are later sometimes by centuries than the events they describe. A significant body of written evidence does not exist before the time of the monarchy, which was established with the anointing of Saul as the first king of Israel in the 11th century BC. Other evidence, both written and artifactual, has been recovered through archaeology, but all the evidence both biblical and archaeological must be evaluated critically. To be sure, all biblical texts that can be dated at all furnish important historical information. They reveal facts concerning the period in which they were written, but they do not necessarily contain literally accurate accounts of the events they report.

Careful analysis of the biblical record and judicious use of archaeological evidence suggest a date for the exodus from Egypt in the second half of the 13th century BC. Even the route of the exodus, however, is unknown; the Old Testament preserves at least two major traditions on that point. Not all of Israel would have been involved, and most likely only the Joseph tribes.


Joshua 1-12 and Judges 1-2 present two different versions of Israel's entrance into the land of Canaan. The summary statements in Joshua report a sudden conquest by the Israelites under the leadership of Joshua; but Judges 1-2 and other traditions support the conclusion that individual tribes moved into the land gradually and that it was decades if not centuries before Israel acquired its territory. The period of the conquest and that of the Judges thus overlap. For the most part, during the two centuries after 1200 BC individual tribes were sometimes on their own and sometimes together, only gradually becoming one nation, Israel.


The God of Israel


The most obvious theological theme of the Old Testament is both the most pervasive and the most important one: Yahweh (the personal name of God in the Old Testament; “Jehovah”) is the God of Israel, of the whole earth, and of history. This theme echoes from Exodus 20:3 (“You shall have no other gods before me”) throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, and it is the basis for all other theological reflection. It would be misleading, however, to identify this theme as monotheism; that term is too abstract for the texts in question, and in all but some of the latest materials the existence of other gods is taken for granted. Generally the other gods are held to be subordinate to Yahweh, and in any case Israel is to be loyal to only one God. That God is affirmed to be the creator of the earth, the king active in history to save and to judge, all powerful but concerned for his people. He is known to reveal himself in diverse ways through the law, through events, and through prophets and priests.


The distinctive Old Testament language about God links the name of Yahweh with events: “I am the Lord [Yahweh] your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2). Israel confesses who God is in terms of what he has done or will do, rather than in terms of his nature. (Consider this thought why was there no mention of a greater deed, the creator of the universe).  History then takes on special importance as the sphere of divine action and interaction with his people. The only significant exception to this use of historical language is the wisdom literature.


Covenant and Law


Two other themes fundamental to the Old Testament, covenant and law, are closely related. Covenant signifies many things, including an agreement between nations or individuals, but above all it refers to the pact between Yahweh and Israel sealed at Mount Sinai. The language concerning that covenant has much in common with that of ancient Near Eastern treaties; both are sworn agreements sealed by oaths. Yahweh is seen to have taken the initiative in granting the covenant by electing a people. Perhaps the simplest formulation of the covenant is the sentence: “I will take you for my people, and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:7). The law was understood to have been given as a part of the covenant, the means by which Israel became and remained the people of God. The law contains regulations for behavior in relation to other human beings as well as rules concerning religious practices, but by no means does it give a full set of instructions for life. Rather, it seems to set forth the limits beyond which the people could not go without breaking the covenant.


The Human Person


The Old Testament stresses an understanding of human beings in community, something important for the people of such a covenant. The individual human being was conceived of as an animated body, as Genesis 2:7 suggests: “Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” That “breath” should not be viewed as a “soul” but simply as “life.” In the Old Testament, the human being was seen as a unity of physical matter and life, the whole a gift from God. Consequently, death was a vivid reality; views of afterlife or resurrection appear only rarely and late in Israelite thought.


Another theme that appears in the prophets and is basic elsewhere is that Yahweh is a just God who expects justice and righteousness from his people. That includes fairness in all human affairs, care for the weak, and the establishment of just institutions.


With these and other themes, it is small wonder that the Hebrew Scriptures provided the foundation for two world religions, Judaism and Christianity.


The New Testament


The New Testament consists of 27 documents written between AD 50 and 150, concerning matters of belief and practice in Christian communities throughout the Mediterranean world. Although some have argued that Aramaic originals lie behind some of these documents (especially the Gospel of Matthew and the Epistle to the Hebrews), all have been handed down in Greek, very likely the language in which they were composed.


Manuscripts and Textual Criticism


Extant Greek manuscripts of the New Testament complete, partial, or fragmentary now number about 5000. None of these, however, is an autograph, an original from the writer. Probably the oldest is a fragment of the Gospel of John dated about AD 120-40. The similarities among these manuscripts is most remarkable when one considers differences of time and place of origin as well as the methods and materials of writing. Dissimilarities, however, involve omissions, additions, terminology, and different ordering of words.


Comparing, evaluating, and dating the manuscripts, placing them in family groups, and developing criteria for ascertaining the text that most likely corresponds to what the authors wrote are the tasks of critics. They are aided in their judgments by thousands of scriptural citations in the writings of the early Fathers of the Church and by a number of early translations of the Bible into other languages. The fruit of the labor of text critics is an edition of the Greek New Testament that offers not only what is judged to be the best text but also includes notes indicating variant readings among the major manuscripts. The more significant of these variants usually appear in English translations as footnotes citing what other ancient authorities say (example, Mark 16:9-20; John 7:53-8:11; Acts 8:37). Critical editions of the Greek New Testament have appeared with some regularity since the work of the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus in the 16th century.


Pre-canonical Writings


The 27 books of the New Testament are only a fraction of the literary production of the Christian communities in their first three centuries. The principal types of New Testament documents (gospel, epistle, apocalypse) were widely imitated, and the names of apostles or other leading figures were attached to writings designed to fill in the silence of the New Testament (for example, on the childhood and youth of Jesus), to satisfy the appetite for more miracles, and to argue for new and fuller revelations. As many as 50 Gospels were in circulation during this time. Many of these non-canonical Christian writings have been collected and published as New Testament Apocrypha.


Tracing the history of the development of the New Testament canon by noting which of the books were quoted or cited by the early Fathers of the Church is an uncertain process. Too much is made of silence. It seems that the earliest attempt to establish a canon was made about ad 150 by a heretical Christian named Marcion whose acceptable list included the Gospel of Luke and ten Pauline Epistles, edited in a strong anti-Jewish direction. Perhaps opposition to Marcion accelerated efforts toward a canon of wide acceptance.


By ad 200, 20 of the 27 books of the New Testament seem to have been generally regarded as authoritative. Local preferences prevailed here and there, and some differences existed between the eastern and western churches. Generally speaking, the books that were disputed for some time but were finally included were James, Hebrews, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, 2 Peter, and Revelation. Other books, widely favored but finally rejected, were Barnabas, 1 Clement, Hermas, and the Didache; the authors of these books are generally referred to as the apostolic fathers.


Early Versions


Because the New Testament was written in Greek, the story of the transmission of the text and the establishing of the canon sometimes neglects the early versions, some of which are older than the oldest extant Greek text. The rapid spread of Christianity beyond the regions where Greek prevailed necessitated translations into Syriac, Old Latin, Coptic, Gothic, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic, and Arabic. Syriac and Latin versions existed as early as the 2d century, and Coptic translations began to appear in the 3d century. These early versions were in no sense official translations but arose to meet regional needs in worship, preaching, and teaching. The translations were, therefore, trapped in local dialects and often included only selected portions of the New Testament. During the 4th and 5th centuries efforts were made to replace these regional versions with more standardized and widely accepted translations. Pope Damasus I in 382 commissioned St. Jerome to produce a Latin Bible; known as the Vulgate, it replaces various Old Latin texts. In the 5th century, the Syriac Peshitta replaced the Syriac versions that had been in popular use up to that time. As is usually the case, the old versions slowly and painfully gave way to the new.


The Literature of the New Testament


From a literary point of view, the documents of the New Testament are of four major types or genres: gospel, history, epistle, and apocalypse. Of these four, only gospel seems to be a literary form originating in the Christian community.


Saint Jerome


Saint Jerome, also called by the Latin name Eusebius Hieronymus, is best known for his translation of the Bible into Latin, a version referred to as the Vulgate. The ecumenical Council of Trent recognized the authenticity of the translation, which was used extensively by the Roman Catholic church for many centuries.




A gospel is not a biography, although it bears some resemblance to biographies of heroes, human and divine, in the Greco-Roman world. A gospel is a series of individual accounts of acts or sayings, each having a kind of completeness, but arranged to create a cumulative effect. The writers of the Gospels apparently had some interest in chronological order, but that was not primary. Theological concerns and readers' needs strongly influenced arrangement of materials. One would expect, therefore, that even though all four New Testament Gospels center on Jesus of Nazareth and all four are gospels in literary form, differences would still exist among them. And that is the case. Apart from the accounts of Jesus' arrest, trial, death, and resurrection, which are strikingly similar in all four, the Gospels differ in important details, perspectives, and accents of interpretation.


In all these ways, the Gospel of John stands most noticeably apart from the others. In this Gospel, Jesus Christ is portrayed more obviously as divine, all-knowing, all-controlling, and “from above.” The other three are called synoptic (viewed together) Gospels because, despite differences, they can be viewed together. Placed in parallel columns, Matthew, Mark, and Luke impress the reader with such similarities that they have spawned many theories about their relationships. The most widely held scholarly opinion is that Mark was the earliest written and became a source for Matthew and Luke. Most likely, Matthew and Luke each had other sources as well as a common source, a conjecture made on the basis of much shared material not found in Mark. This theorized but as yet unidentified source has simply been called Q, or Quelle (German, “source”). In a preface, the author of the Gospel of Luke speaks of having researched many narratives about Jesus Luke 1:1-4.


Synoptic Gospels versus the Gospel According to John


Each of the four Gospels emphasizes distinct aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching, but the first three, sometimes called “ the synoptic gospels” share certain similarities. The Gospel according to John includes many episodes in Jesus’ life not included in the other Gospels that make it quite unique. The chart above outlines the sections of the four Gospels which describe the time between the Last Supper and Jesus’ arrest. All four Gospels describe the Last Supper in one form or another (in the Gospel according to John, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet before eating the Last Supper with them), the prediction of Peter’s denial, Jesus praying in Gethsemane, and Jesus’ arrest; however, John describes several other events that are not mentioned in the others.


Timeline of the Gospels


Derived from the Old English word godspel, the word gospel means “good news,” and refers to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Each of the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—covers different time periods in Jesus’ life. As depicted in the chart below, Matthew and Luke begin at the birth of Jesus, while Mark and John begin at Jesus’ baptism. Some Bible historians believe that the writers of the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke used the Gospel according to Mark as a reference, in part because Mark’s Gospel was written earlier than the others. The Gospel according to John was written possibly twenty years after the others


Determining the Chronological Outline


A number of difficulties are encountered in a historical reconstruction of the period as revealed in New Testament sources. First, the documents are arranged theologically, not chronologically. The Gospels are first because they tell the story of Jesus, but they were written between 70 and 90, as much as 60 years after his death. The Acts of the Apostles is also from this period. The Epistles of Paul, however, are earlier; they date from the decade between 50 and 60 because they were written at the very time Paul was involved in missionary work. The remaining books, which can be dated between 90 and 150, reflect church conditions of the post-apostolic period. Second, the documents do not evidence much interest in history as a chronological process, partly because their authors believed in the impending end of history. Third, the New Testament is not one book but an ecclesiastical collection, preserved for the specific purposes of worship, preaching, teaching, and polemics. Fourth, all the documents were written by advocates of the Christian faith for purposes of proclamation and instruction; hence, although they contain historical references, they are not pieces of historical reporting. Add to these difficulties the lack of many references to Jesus and his followers from other contemporary sources, and the possibility of a detailed history grows dimmer.


Nevertheless, scholars are in general agreement as to the broad chronological outline. The major anchor points are provided by Luke and Acts, which set the story of Jesus and the beginning of the church in the context of Jewish and Roman history. The Gospel of Luke states that Jesus began his ministry in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius (Luke 3:1), which would be ad 28-29. All four Gospels agree that Jesus was crucified when Pontius Pilate was governor (AD 26-36) of Judea. Jesus' ministry was conducted between 29 and 30, according to the view that he ministered one year; between 29 and 33, according to the theory that his work extended three to four years.


The Infancy Narratives


Before his public life, little is known of Jesus. He was from Nazareth of Galilee, although both Luke and Matthew place his birth in Bethlehem of Judea, the ancestral home of King David. Only the books of Luke and Matthew contain birth and infancy stories, and these differ in several details. Luke (1:5-2:52) relates the stories in poem and song woven from Old Testament texts that highlight God's concern for the poor and despised. Matthew (1:18-2:23) patterns his story on that of Moses in the Old Testament. Just as Moses spent his childhood among the rich and wise of Egypt, so was Jesus visited and honored by rich and wise magi. As Moses was hidden from a wicked king slaughtering Jewish male children, so was Jesus saved from Herod's massacre. (Herod the Great died in 4 BC, Jesus was probably born between 6 and 4 BC.)


The remainder of the New Testament is silent about Jesus' miraculous birth. Throughout the history of the church, some Christians have insisted that the infancy narratives be taken literally; others have regarded them as one among many ways of expressing belief in Jesus' relation to God as Son. The tendency of the New Testament to proclaim the meaning of events without giving a reporter's account of the events themselves has always provided much room for disagreement among those involved in the historian's quest.


The Apostles and the Early Church


Following the ministry of Jesus, which is described in the four Gospels, the religious movement he had launched came under the leadership of the 12 men he had chosen to be his apostles. Most of the Twelve faded into obscurity and legend, but three of them are mentioned as continuing leaders: James, who was killed by Herod Agrippa I sometime before 44, the date of Herod's own death; John, his brother, who apparently lived to old age (John 21:20-24); and Peter, who was an early leader of the Jerusalem church but also made several missionary journeys and, according to tradition, was martyred in Rome in the mid-60s. In addition to these three, James, called the brother of Jesus, was prominent in the Jerusalem church until he was killed by mob violence in 61. Before the Jewish revolt against Rome erupted in Jerusalem in 66, the Christians left the city and were not involved in the violence that destroyed Jerusalem in 70.


The remaining books of the New Testament provide little historical information and almost no basis for exact dating. Generally, they seem to have been written for a second- or third-generation community. In these documents, the immediate followers of Jesus are dead, early enthusiasm and high expectation of the final return of Christ to end history has now waned, and the need for preservation, entrenchment, and institutionalization is evident (Eschatology; Second Coming). Heretics and apostates are identified and attacked, and the membership is called to a tenacity of faith adequate for the persecution soon to come. The second Epistle of Peter, probably the last of the New Testament books to be written, makes a vigorous effort to rehabilitate the earlier expectancy of an imminent end to history. This attempt to recover the zeal and conviction of a former era is itself an indication of the end of an age.


Major Themes in the New Testament


Like the theological themes of the Old Testament, those of the New Testament are varied and rich in content.




Nowhere is the continuity of the New Testament with the Old more clearly or more consistently presented than in its teaching about God. Any view that the God of Jesus or of the early church was different from the God of Judaism was rejected as heresy. The God of the New Testament is creator of all life and sustainer of the universe. This one God, who is the source and final end of all things, takes the initiative to seek with love all humankind, entering into covenants with those who respond, and behaving toward them with justice and mercy, with judgment and forgiveness. God has never left himself without witnesses in the world, having revealed himself in many times, manners, and places; but the New Testament claims in Jesus of Nazareth a unique revelation of God. The person, words, and activity of Jesus were understood as bringing followers into the presence of God. In the days of its beginning within Judaism, the church could assume belief in God and focus its message on Jesus as revealer of God. Beyond the bounds of Judaism, however, faith in the one true God became basic to the proclamation of Christianity.




The New Testament presents its understanding of Jesus in titles, descriptions of his person, and accounts of his word and work. In the context of Judaism, the Old Testament provided titles and images that the New Testament writers used to convey the meaning of Jesus for his disciples. He was portrayed, for example, as a prophet like Moses, the David king, the promised Messiah, the second Adam, a priest like Melchizedek, an apocalyptic figure like the Son of man, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, and the Son of God. The Hellenistic culture provided other images: a pre-existent divine being who came to earth, accomplished his work, and returned to glory; the Lord above all caesars; the eternal mediator of creation and redemption; the cosmic figure who gathers all creation to himself in one harmonious body.




The kingdom of God seems not to have survived as the central subject of the church's message. According to the New Testament, the church did not identify itself as the kingdom, and in its preaching it began to speak more of salvation. The term generally referred to a person's reconciled relationship to God and participation in a community that was both reconciled and reconciling. In this sense, salvation was a present reality—but not completely. The consummation of salvation would be in a fullness of life beyond the struggle, futility, and mortality that mark this world.




In the meantime, the followers of Christ are to manifest in their conduct and relationships that they have been reconciled with God. This is the instruction of the entire New Testament and a legacy from the Old: the inseparable connection between religious belief and moral and ethical behavior. The Law, the Prophets, and the Writings had insisted on it, and the New Testament continued that accent. This life is variously referred to as righteous, sanctified, godly, faithful. The books of the New Testament are filled with instructions about this life not only in an inward sense but in relation to neighbors, enemies, family members, masters, servants, and government officials, as well as in relation to God. These instructions draw upon the Old Testament, the words of Jesus, the example of Jesus, apostolic commands, laws of nature, common lists of household duties, and ideals from Greek moralists. All these sources were understood as having one source in a God who expects his own faithfulness to be met with faithfulness in those who have been reconciled as the family of God.


The Bible in English


The history of the English Bible is the history of the movement of the Bible from its possession and use by clergy alone to the hands of the laity. It is also the history of the formation of the English language from a mixture of French, Anglo-Norman, and Anglo-Saxon. Even though Christianity reached England in the 3d century, the Bible remained in Latin and almost exclusively in the hands of the clergy for a thousand years.


Between the 7th and 14th centuries, portions of the Bible were translated into English, and some rough paraphrases appeared for instructing parishioners. In literary circles, poetic translations of favorite passages were made. Interest in translation from Latin to English grew rapidly in the 14th century, and in 1382 the first complete English Bible appeared in manuscript. It was the work of the English reformer John Wycliffe, whose goal was to give the Bible to the people.


Translations of the Reformation Period


In 1525 the English reformer William Tyndale translated the New Testament from the Greek text, copies of which were printed in Germany and smuggled into England. Tyndale's translation of the Old Testament from the Hebrew text was only partly completed. His simple prose and popular idiom established a style in English translation that was continued in the Authorized Version of 1611 (the King James Version) and eventually in the Revised Standard Version of 1946-52.


In 1535 the English reformer Miles Coverdale published an English translation based on German and Latin versions in addition to Tyndale's. This was not only the first complete English Bible to appear in printed form, but unlike its predecessors, it was an approved translation that had been requested by the Canterbury Convocation. Shortly thereafter, the English reformer and editor John Rogers (1500?-55) produced a slightly revised edition of Tyndale's Bible. This appeared in 1537 and was called Matthew's Bible.


In 1538 the English scholar Richard Taverner (1505?-75) issued another revision. At about the same time, Oliver Cromwell commissioned Coverdale to produce a new Bible, which appeared in six editions between 1539 and 1568. This Bible, called the Great Bible, in its final revision in 1568 by scholars and bishops of the Anglican church was known as the Bishops' Bible. The Bishops' Bible was designed to replace not only the Great Bible, which was primarily a pulpit Bible, but also a translation for the laity, produced in Geneva in 1560 by English Protestants in exile, called the Geneva Bible. The Bishops' Bible was the second authorized Bible.


The Douay and Other Roman Catholic Versions


The Douay or Douay-Rheims Bible, completed between 1582 and 1609, was commonly used by Roman Catholics in English-speaking countries until the 18th century, when it was considerably revised by the English bishop Richard Challoner. The Douay Bible was a translation from the Latin Vulgate, primarily the work of two English exiles in France, William Allen (1532-94) and Gregory Martin (1540?-82). During the 19th and 20th centuries, the Douay and Challoner Bibles were replaced with other translations by Roman Catholics. In the United States, one of the most widely used is the New American Bible of 1970. It is the first complete Bible to be translated from Hebrew and Greek by American Roman Catholics.


The King James Version and Its Revisions


In 1604 King James I commissioned a new revision of the English Bible; it was completed in 1611. Following Tyndale primarily, this Authorized Version, also known as the King James Version, was widely acclaimed for its beauty and simplicity of style. In the years that followed, the Authorized Version underwent several revisions, the most notable being the English Revised Version (1881-85), the American Standard Version (1901), and the revision of the American Standard Version undertaken by the International Council of Religious Education, representing 40 Protestant denominations in the US and Canada. This Revised Standard Version (RSV) appeared between 1946 and 1952. Widely accepted by Orthodox, Protestant, and Roman Catholic Christians, it provided the basis for the first ecumenical English Bible. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV, 1989) eliminated much archaic and ambiguous usage. The New King James Bible, with contemporary American vocabulary, was published in 1982.


Other Modern Translations


In the first half of the 20th century many modern speech translations, mostly by individuals, appeared: Weymouth (1903); Goodspeed and Smith (1923-27); Moffatt (1924-26); Phillips (1947); and others. Since 1960, major translation projects have been underway to produce English Bibles that are not revisions of the Tyndale-King James-RSV tradition. The more significant among these are the following: the Jerusalem Bible (1966), an English translation of the work of French Dominicans (1956); Today's English Version (1966-76) in idiomatic English by the American Bible Society; the New English Bible, commissioned in 1946 by the Church of Scotland and designed to be neither stilted nor colloquial; the New International Bible (1973-79), a revision by conservative American Protestants based largely on the King James Version and similar to the New American Standard Version; and the Living Bible (1962-71), not a translation but a paraphrase into the modern American idiom. The latter was designed by its author, Kenneth Taylor (1917- ), not only to make the Bible interesting, but to propagate “a rigid evangelical position.” The multivolume Anchor Bible (1964- ), an international and interfaith project, offers modern readers an exact translation, with extended exegesis (exposition). Jewish translations of the Hebrew Bible into English have been appearing for two centuries. A new translation, sponsored by the Jewish Publication Society of America, was published in three segments in 1962, 1974, and 1983. It is called the New Jewish Version.


The continuing flow of new translations testifies to the changing nature of language, the discovery of new manuscript evidence, and most of all the abiding desire to read and to understand the Bible.


Bible Bibliography


Good News Bible:, 1979; Holy Bible Old and New Testaments; Authorized King James Version. Oxford, 1948. first published 1611; Holy Bible: The New King James Version. Nelson, 1982; The Holy Scriptures. 3v. Jewish Publication Society, 1962-82. Translation of The Torah; The New American Bible. Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, 1987. The new, standard Roman Catholic version; The New English Bible, Oxford, 1972; New International Version Bible. Zondervan, 1973, 1978. The New Jerusalem Bible. Doubleday, 1985. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Version. Oxford, 1991. The Soncino Books of the Bible. Ed. by Abraham Cohen. 14v. Soncino, 1945-58. Bloch, n.d.; Harper's Bible Dictionary 1985; Eerdmans' Handbook to the Bible; Concise Bible Encyclopedia. Eerdmans, 1981; Anchor Bible Dictionary 1992; The Illustrated Bible Handbook 1987; The New Jerome Biblical Commentary 1990; A Biblical Who's Who 1979; Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible 1962-76; Who's Who in the Bible 1981; Encarta; The Dictionary of Bible and Religion 1986; The Eerdmans' Bible Dictionary 1987; The NIV Complete Concordance; The Bible Almanac 1980;






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