We tend to think of the Bible as a single book – and we’re not entirely wrong – but the Bible wasn’t always bound between two covers. The Bible we know today took a long journey through many eras, communities, and places before it became the sacred text we recognize today.1 The story of how we got the Bible is fascinating, convoluted, and worthy of some serious devotion. It is according to one historian, “a story of toil and faith by those who, sometimes at great cost, passed down from generation to generation the message of salvation.”2
Today, Christians often overlook – to our own detriment – this aspect of God’s Providence because it seemingly has very little to do with our everyday life. The reality is quite contrary to that thought though. The inspiration, collection, and transmission of Scripture is the second greatest gift God ever gave mankind (only behind the giving of His Son on the cross).
A couple of verses help highlight the beauty of God’s Word. The first is First Peter 1:24-25 which says:
All flesh is as grass and all the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers and its flower falls away, but the word of the Lord endures forever.
The second is Second Timothy 3:16-17 which says:
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Inspiration which is how the Word of God made it into the hearts and minds of the human authors before they shared it with the original audience. For more study on that thought, follow this link. Transmission and Translation which is how the Bible was taken from the original languages of the authors (Greek, Aramaic, Hebrew) and brought into new languages and to new people. This process will be the most influential of all the parts mankind plays in the story.
Preservation which is how the Word of God was preserved throughout history by both man and God. This role was given to God’s Children by their Maker Himself when He said “teach them (His commands) diligently to your children, talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 6:7).
Canonization which is how the Word of God was set apart from other ancient writings. At a later time in this study, we will examine the qualities inherently possessed by Scripture that other Ancient literature lacked and we will see how mankind helped shape this through God’s wisdom. Please notice the role God played in delivering His Message. He could have given us a bound version of the entire message but He did not.
In His eternal wisdom, God included mankind in the process that delievered His Word to the world.
Mankind was entrusted with God’s Word and the spread of its message. This is truly fascinating when you consider the liberty we’ve sometimes taken with His commands and guidance. We should find encouragement from the confidence He placed in us to help deliver His Word. We are a part of this story – don’t overlook it. The Bible is a very old book, but it is by no means the oldest book in the world.4
Unfortunately, modern thought often believes that every society has bettered the previous one by enhancing or creating something they couldn’t previously produce. While that might be true in some cases, mankind has proven to be rather ingenious. As we look back, and it’s hard for us in the 21st century to appreciate the work done thousands of years before – but we better not miss this – the Bible is an ancient product, produced during the height of ancient societies – and it’s still reliable today.
Throughout this study, a natural progression will take place and you’ll be able to see the formation of language and writing and, eventually, the text of Scripture. In the beginning, God made mankind with the ability to communicate. In Genesis 2, notice that God has a conversation with Adam and Eve and that they are able to converse with the serpent and with one another. We didn’t develop that ability on our own, the ability to communicate was a God-given blessing from the beginning. The very first widespread writing we’re aware of dates all the way back to 3500 BC and the first known alphabet dates back to 1750 BC. That dating lets us now know that writing was practiced centuries before Moses (Mid-1400s) wrote the Pentateuch.5 Authors in the ancient world used many different types of writing materials to produce their text. Some of those are even mentioned in Scripture:
Stone is one of the earliest forms. Scripture is clearly in harmony with this when you consider the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments (Exodus 31:18; 34:1; Deuteronomy 10:1-5). Other instances from the Ancient world include the Moabite Stone, “erected by King Mesha of Moab to commemorate his revolt against Israel in Second Kings 3:4-27. It actually contains an inscription that mentions the Divine Name of Israel’s God, YHWH or Yahweh.6 You can actually view the Moabite stone today in the Louvre in Paris. Clay was the most common writing material in Mesopotamia. This type of material is referenced in Ezekiel 4:1, “You also, son of man, take a clay tablet and lay it before you, and portray on it a city, Jerusalem.” Clay tablets were so durable and common that close to 500,000 have survived to modern times.7
Wood was also used and reference to writing on wooden rods can be found in Numbers 17:2-3 and Ezekiel 37:16,17. When considering the death of Jesus we can also reasonably believe that the sign above his head was written upon the cross itself or a wooden board attached to the cross (see Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19).
Animal skins were also used frequently in writing from the ancient world. These skins were mainly taken from small animals such as sheep, goats, or calves then de-haired and treated to become usable.8 This would have been the primary paper used to copy the Old Testament. In fact, the Jewish Talmud required the Torah to be copied on animal skins.9 Paul seems to mention something along this line in Second Timothy 4:13 when he asks Timothy to bring him “the books – especially the parchments.” These documents had to be copied and recopied by hand10 and that work brought about the necessity for Scribes, a group frequently seen in the NT (64 times in text).
Papyrus was originally developed by the Egyptians and by the time of the NT writings, it was the “universal medium for the making of books in Greece and Rome.”11 While it was widely used, the quality of papyrus scrolls didn’t age well, and we don’t have the number of them today that we’d like. We can be confident that the NT books were written originally on papyrus, see Second John 12 as a reference to that idea.
Ostraca which is simply broken pottery was also used because it was readily available. Essentially this was used as “scrap paper.”12 A shard of this broken pottery has been found containing the vast majority of the Hebrew alphabet, a reference to YHWH and twenty-five pieces have been found with short passages of the NT text inscribed on them.13As we close, please notice that the word Bible comes from the Greek word biblia, which means “books.” This is a more accurate description of what the Bible is – a collection of many books, like a library. Each biblical book has a unique history and took a distinctive route on its way to inclusion in the Bible.14 Even the small details (such as what the material the text was originally written on) must be included to view the whole picture. God’s Word was delivered to us in a way beyond compare and we must be appreciative of that journey and the journey’s product – the Holy Bible.
¹ Brennen Breed, “How was the Bible Written and Transmitted?” Online Article (www.bibleodyssey.org).
² Neil Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003, Third Edition), 11 ³ Dan Owen, “How Did we Get our Bible Text?” Online Article (www.start2finish.org).
4 Lightfoot, 12.
5 Lightfoot, 12.
6 Lightfoot, 13.
7 Lightfoot, 14.
8 Lightfoot, 19.
9 Lightfoot, 19.
10 Owen, “How Did we Get our Bible Text?” 11 Lightfoot, 18. 12 Lightfoot, 16.
13 Lightfoot, 16,17. 14 Breed, “How was the Bible Written and Transmitted?”