The Bible Explored – A Brief History

When you think of bestselling
books, what titles come to mind? Perhaps The Lord of the Rings? It’s
sold 150 million copies worldwide,
which puts it in third place. A Tale of Two Cities has sold 200 million copies. That’s good enough for second place, but it’s still not the all-time best. The number one bestselling book in
all of history is the Bible. In fact, the Bible has sold over five billion copies, and it’s been translated into more than two thousand languages. The history of the Bible, and how it came to be the most widely distributed book in the world, is a remarkable story. The drama begins in antiquity, many
centuries before Christ. The scribes, priests, prophets, and poets of the Hebrew people kept a record of their history with God, along with their inspired insights and hopes. Because these writings were a vital part of Hebrew life, they were carefully copied and recopied many times. As time went on, these sacred writings were gathered into three collections known as “the Law,” “the Prophets,” and “the Writings.” Eventually these three collections came to be considered the canon, or official list, of the Hebrew Bible. However, when Alexander the Great and his successors conquered the ancient world, Greek became the common language of the people. So in the third century B.C.E., the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek for Jews and others
living outside of Palestine. This Greek translation was called
“the Septuagint.” It contained all the books of the Hebrew Bible, plus an extra seven books not originally in the Hebrew collection, called the Apocrypha. This was the Bible used by Jesus and the early church. Greek remained the common language
for hundreds of years, so when the early Christians recorded the life of Jesus and the teachings of the Christian faith, they also wrote in Greek. The earliest writings of the New Testament are the letters of the Apostle Paul. He wrote to people in specific places, but other believers also wanted copies of Paul’s teachings, so his letters began to circulate. The Gospels soon followed, as well as other letters, exhortations, sermons, and writings. Eventually, guided by the Spirit of God, the church put together a collection that most accurately testified to Jesus Christ. By the end of the fourth century, church councils reached a consensus, and the canon of New Testament was officially recognized. Also in the fourth century, the
Emperor Constantine authorized the creation of fifty copies of the complete Scriptures, and possibly for the first time, the Old and the New Testaments came together as one book. Almost as soon as the Bible was formed, scholars began translating it into other languages for Christians living in other parts of the world. It was important to the early church that as many people as possible had access to the Scriptures. The most significant translation of the early church was a Latin version called the Vulgate. A scholar named Jerome spent over twenty years living and studying in Palestine in order to make an official translation of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures into Latin. The Vulgate eventually became the
official text of western Christianity. However, the Latin-speaking Roman
Empire fell in the fifth century, and tribes such as the Vandals,
Goths, and Huns invaded Europe. Christian monasteries began to collect biblical texts – especially Jerome’s Vulgate – preserving and copying them throughout the centuries. By this time missionaries and soldiers had brought the gospel to the British Isles, and translated the Vulgate into the common language of the people. But many rulers and church leaders felt that the Scriptures in the popular language of the people challenged the Church’s authority. Even though Latin had long-ceased to be the common language of the people, it became a crime to possess or circulate non-Latin copies of the Bible. However, not all leaders felt the
same way. In England, late in the fourteenth century, a churchman and political figure named John Wycliffe and his followers to
translated the Scriptures into the common language, and it was completed the year Wycliffe died. The authorities did all they could
to suppress this English Bible, going so far as to dig up
Wycliffe’s body and burn it. They banned the use of any new translation, and many people were persecuted for copying or reading translated Scriptures. In spite of this, the English people hungered to hear the biblical story in their own language. But copies of the Bible had to be made by hand, so complete Bibles were scarce and very expensive… until a printing breakthrough occurred in the middle of the fifteenth century. In Germany, a goldsmith named Johann Gutenberg created the printing press, allowing books to be printed on a machine rather than by hand or wood block. The first large book produced by Gutenberg’s press was a Bible in Latin. However, by the middle of the sixteenth century, the Latin Bible had been translated and printed into 14 other languages. It was around this time that a young scholar from England named William Tyndale came upon the scene. Sometimes called the Father
of the English Bible, Tyndale believed that people had the right
to read and hear the Scriptures in their own language. He eventually went to Germany where he translated the New Testament from Greek into English, and it became the first printed English New Testament. Copies were smuggled into England,
and secretly purchased and read. Even though readers and owners were arrested, the Scriptures kept flowing in. Tyndale went to Antwerp to work on a translation of the Old Testament, but before he had completed this work, he was betrayed, arrested, condemned a
heretic, and publicly executed. His last words reportedly were, “Lord,
open the King of England’s eyes!” Tyndale’s prayer was answered three
years later. The first authorized Bible in the English language, called the Great Bible, was published as the result of King Henry VIII’s injunction that an English Bible be placed in every parish. People flocked to the churches to listen to the reading of the Scriptures in their own language. Early in the seventeenth century, King James I authorized a new translation of the Scriptures. This translation, known as the Authorized or King James Version, is still read today, but it was only the beginning of English bible translation. Since the Tyndale Bible there have been close to 900 English translations or paraphrases of the Bible. This, coupled with versions in 2,000 other languages, makes the Bible the most-read, most-translated, and bestselling book in history. The fact that virtually anyone on earth can have the Scriptures in their own language is due to the perseverance and sacrifice of those who never wavered from the belief that the Bible should be available
to anyone who wishes to read it. However, that does not mean that every person on earth has open access to the Scriptures. In some areas of the world today, the Bible continues to be seen as a revolutionary and dangerous book, and its publication or distribution is either highly monitored or banned outright. Many people can face persecution, imprisonment, or death for owning or teaching from the Bible. Perhaps you wonder why this book is so popular that people would risk their lives to obtain one. Those who do so believe that the Bible is more than simply a collection of stories or a book of history. They understand it to be the very Word of God, revealing his love, encouragement, and instruction to humanity. There is something about the Bible that draws spiritually hungry people to its pages and nourishes them. As long as the desire for the
Scriptures remains, there will be people – like Jerome, or Wycliffe, or Tyndale – who are willing to dedicate their lives to bring God’s Word to you. To obtain your own detailed copy of the Bible Explored: A Short History, or your own Bible, please contact the Canadian Bible
Society at

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