How We Got the Bible

A shocking truth: God didn’t dictate the Bible, in English, to modern, literate people who faithfully recorded “just the facts.” God acted in history, and people did the best they could to discern where God was at work and what that work meant for them. They passed down stories of the faithful work of God from one generation to the next until eventually someone — well, several someones — started to write those stories down. They wrote them on papyrus and vellum, and the stories they wrote were copied and recopied, the originals were lost, the copies were lost, and eventually the copies of copies of copies made their way to English speakers who translated and mistranslated them and then made copies of their own.

The story of how we got the Bible is almost as fascinating as the stories of the Bible themselves. Next Sunday, September 16, we’ll take a look at the story of how we got the Bible in its current, English format.

In the meantime, here are some pictures to help tell the story.

Below is a picture of a page from a modern Hebrew Bible. It’s the text that modern translators would use. Notice a couple of things.

First, see those little dots under the words? They are called vowel points, and they aren’t part of the original. Hebrew words consist of consonants only. That means that “text critics,” the people who “establish the text” (that is, the one’s who decide what goes on this page), have to decide what the vowels should be. That means that the decide whether God wants us to sacrifice our goat or our gut. I hope it’s the goat!

Second, see all of those footnotes? Those are “textual variants,” alternates that might have been the right thing to put on the page above. Why so many variants? Because of all those copies and recopies. Sometimes scribes change a thing or two — by accident or on purpose. Text critics have to decide which copy is best.


Next comes a page from the Greek New Testament. Same deal with the footnotes. Fortunately for us, Greek has its own vowels.


Just below you’ll see a page from the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that was made in the third century before Christ. At that time, many Jews lived outside of the homeland and no longer understood Hebrew. The rabbis decided to make a translation of the Bible from Hebrew into Greek, which was the most widely known and spoken language of that era. The Septuagint was translated from a version of the Hebrew Bible that was lost long ago and that was more ancient that the version that is now commonly used (called the Masoretic Text). That means that sometimes when there is a conflict between the Septuagint and the Masoretic Text, text critics will prefer the Septuagint.


Here you see an exercept from the Septuagint. Can you tell that there aren’t any spaces between the words? Hey, madam text critic, is that manslaughter or man’s laughter? Again, decisions have to be made about what words to put in type written version of the Hebrew Bible.


Below you’ll see an image of a scroll version of the Hebrew Bible. This is the kind that would be used in a modern synagoge. It is unpointed Hebrew. Do you know how impressive it is when a rabbi reads straight from the scroll during worship? Wow! The scrolls are based on the Masoretic Text.


So, where did translators and scholars get the words that are in the Septuagint and the Masoretic Text? And how do modern scholars check the accuracy of those texts? They go back to the most ancient sources we have: papyrus fragments. Here are some images.

This is the Gospel of Matthew. I don’t envy the poor text critic who had to cobble that one together!


This is a relatively complete page from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.


Here we find a tiny scrap of the Gospel of Mark.


Below you’ll find a rare acheaological treasure: An image of the oral traditions being handed down from one generation to another in the long centuries before those first papyrus documents were made.


See you Sunday!


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