Over centuries of inspired composition, the people of God received certain texts as Holy Scripture, without manufacturing or mandating them. The modern Protestant Bible, comprised of 66 books, is typically divided into two sections: the Old Testament and the New Testament. Because these two sections are distinct (they were written several centuries apart!), it is helpful to discuss their formation and inclusion in the Bible separately. We will start with the Old Testament, then turn to the New Testament, before offering some closing thoughts on the transmission of the Bible.
Where did the Old Testament come from?
The Old Testament is a combination of historical books, prophetic writings, and poetry, centered on ancient Israel. The Pentateuch, starting with the book of Genesis, was initially written sometime between the 15th and the 13th centuries BC. The book of Malachi was written in the 5th century, marking the close of the Old Testament period. The rest of the Old Testament was developed between the Pentateuch and the book of Malachi, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Old Testament books themselves refer to a variety of sources, including Moses (Deuteronomy 31:24–26), the official records of Israelite kings, and proverbial writings from wise individuals (Proverbs 31:1).
During the transmission process, ancient editors occasionally updated linguistic details or small sections of the biblical books. The apparently parenthetical comments in the book of Deuteronomy are a famous example (Deuteronomy 2:20–23), potentially added by an inspired editor to clarify the original material for later generations (which itself points to the ancient, original nature of the Deuteronomic material). These updates were not materially substantial, and Christians believe that they were done under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Old Testament was considered a complete canon around the time of Malachi, when prophetic activity largely ceased. The focus of Jewish scholars transitioned from preserving God’s revelation to translating and copying the Old Testament canon. Between the conclusion of Malachi and the birth of Jesus, the Old Testament was translated into other languages, including Greek. By the time of Jesus, the Old Testament canon was fully received and established, though there was some debate about the Apocrypha.
Where did the New Testament come from?
In the early years of the Christian church, the apostles, living witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection and bearers of divine authority, traveled among the churches, teaching and exhorting Christ’s followers to live consistently with their faith (Acts 1:21–22). As the church expanded, the apostles began to write letters to the churches, which carried the same authority as their spoken word. These letters were read aloud and circulated among the churches, so that everyone could benefit from the apostolic teaching. Early on, some people within the apostolic community recorded the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, writings that became the four Gospels we have today. Near the end of the first century, the apostle John received a revelation from Jesus Christ, which he recorded in a massive letter to seven churches. This work, known today as Revelation, marked the end of the apostolic era and the close of the New Testament canon.
The process of acceptance in the New Testament church involved ensuring that a book carried apostolic authority. Many of the books within the New Testament were written directly by apostles, and some, such as Mark and Luke, were written by those in the apostolic inner circle and based on the testimony of apostles. There is evidence that the church received the Gospels extremely early, and Paul even quotes the Gospel of Luke as Scripture, alongside the Old Testament (1 Timothy 5:18). A collection of Paul’s writings was also circulating among the churches extremely early, and Peter refers to them as Scripture (2 Peter 3:15–16). Because the apostles could not perpetually be present in every church, their writings served as inspired and authoritative teaching for the early church. These writings perform the same function for us today: by the grace of God, when we read the New Testament, we are reading the authoritative teachings of the divinely commissioned apostles, inspired by the Holy Spirit to write for our edification. The Word of God is amazing!
Where did my Bible come from?
The early church regarded the Old Testament as the revelation of God and received apostolic writings with the same authority (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 3:15–16). Amid persecution, they painstakingly copied and circulated apostolic works. Sometimes, works claiming to be written by an apostle crept in, and sometimes churches were skeptical of certain New Testament books. However, over time, the pretenders were rooted out, and the church faithfully received the apostolic books. At first, these “books” were maintained as separate works, generally written in Greek, and copied thousands of times. As literary technology and the economic status of churches improved, Christians could compile their readings into codices, and eventually books. The Bible was translated into Latin, Aramaic, and other languages. Eventually, the Bible was translated into English, the same language as this article, so that anyone who understands English can read God’s revelation, given over thousands of years. Modern English Bibles are translated from early manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament. Thanks to the judicious copying work of ancient scribes and the providence of God, we can receive His revelation today through the Bible, even though they record events and words spoken thousands of years ago.
The people of God acknowledged that certain texts were Holy Scripture, without creating or mandating them. The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, and the New Testament was originally written in Greek. Both were copied and translated by faithful scribes, preserving the inspired text for us today. About two thousand years ago, Paul told Timothy that the “Holy Scriptures” were “able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:14–15). Those same Scriptures are available to you today. Pick up a good translation in your native language and start reading it! You will not regret it.