SCRIPTURE – Luke 1:1-4 – Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first,[a] to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.
The B-I-B-L-E Sermon Series
How Did We Get it?
September 27, 2015
We’re continuing our sermon series on the Bible this morning. So far we’ve looked at what’s in the Old Testament and what’s in the New Testament. Today we’re going to talk about how the Bible got from the minds of the authors to the book we hold in our hands today. You know those trips we take where nothing goes as planned? Your flight is delayed, your luggage gets lost, you got 500 miles down the road before you remember that you used the iron that morning…did I turn it off? Of course I did! Did I? Should we turn around? The Bible’s journey has also been filled with the same kinds of false starts and U-turns, with a few murders thrown in for entertainment.
There’s a lot we don’t know about who wrote the Bible, but there’s one person we can rule out right off the top: God. God didn’t write the Bible. That doesn’t mean God didn’t have anything to do with it; in fact, God had a LOT to do with it. But God didn’t write it. The Bible was written by about 40 or so faithful, dedicated, imperfect human beings, working under God’s inspiration. The Bible is a divine-human collaboration, which means it bears the holy handprints of the God who inspired it and the flawed fingerprints of the people who wrote it.
There’s something else we know about the Bible that is important to state right up front. Before the Bible was ever written, it was told, passed down orally for generations and generations. Moses wasn’t carrying a notepad through the Red Sea and Luke wasn’t recording voice memos of Jesus’ teachings. Writing instruments and paper weren’t easy to find, and most people were illiterate anyway, so the stories of the Bible were simply memorized and recited for hundreds of years. Scholars believe the first five books of the Bible, thought to have been written by Moses, were more likely written by scribes hundreds of years after the actual events as a way of telling the story of the creation of the nation of Israel. These stories borrow heavily from creation stories in other religions in order to tell how God made the world. We’ll get into this more when we start talking about the truth of the Bible, but for now, the point is that in many cases, we don’t really know who wrote the Bible.
Some of the authors seem easy to spot because their books are named after them: The Gospel of Mark, the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah. Oh, if only it were that easy! If I were to write a book today and put my name on it, I would be guaranteed to sell tens of copies (if I begged people to buy it). But if I were to write it and put J.K. Rowling’s name on it, I would definitely sell a lot more books and probably get some jail time. Back in ancient times, it was common to attach a famous person’s name to a writing as a way of granting it authority. Did Matthew write Matthew? Maybe. Did Paul write his own letters? Probably some, but definitely not all of them. When it comes to identifying biblical authors, it’s more of a guessing game than a certainty.
One way or another, these stories did get written down, and began to be circulated among the fledging churches in the first century. By this time, the writings of the First Testament were pretty well solidified into a canon, which means an accepted group of authoritative books. The First Testament canon developed in stages, starting with the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, then the prophets, and finally the wisdom writings. The original writings would have been on scrolls, which would be unwound and read during worship. Some of the scrolls were so long they had to be divided, which is why we have 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, etc. Interestingly, the Jewish version of the First Testament only has 24 books in it because it combines a lot of the ones we have separated.
The New Testament had a more tumultuous journey to canonization. By about the year 100, all the books and letters had been written. But those weren’t the only spiritual writings that were on the bookshelves. Notice what Luke says at the beginning of his gospel: “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word…” These stories, which were handed on orally and then written down, were being compiled by a number of people. We know today of many writings that didn’t make it into the Bible, like the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.
So, who decided what was in and what was out? That’s a little hard to say because it there’s not a moment in time we can pinpoint as the moment the canon was decided. We do know the first mention of all 27 books together was in 367 by a bishop named Athanasius, and confirmed 30 years later at the Council of Carthage. The books and letters that made it in met three important criteria. First, they were the most popular and were still in wide circulation about 300 years after their writing. They stood the test of time. Second, they had some connection to the people who were around Jesus, either written by one of them, like Matthew, or someone close to the apostles, like Luke and Paul. And third, they stayed true to the understanding of Jesus and the orthodox faith. Using those criteria, the final 27 books of the canon were decided. But that’s only part of the story of how we got the Bible.
While the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek with a little Aramaic thrown in, by the year 400 people weren’t speaking any of those languages. They were speaking Latin. So a monk named Jerome translated the Bible into Latin. His version, called the Vulgate, was initially condemned, because everyone knows the Bible is supposed to be written and read in the original Greek, right? But eventually the Vulgate caught on and became the official Bible of the church for about 1000 years.
Because Kinko’s hadn’t opened yet, the only way to get copies of the Bible were by hand. Monks known as Masoretes dedicated their whole lives to making hand copies of the Bible. They had a meticulous system of letter-counting and proofreading to make sure no errors were made, and if an editor found even one mistake, the whole Bible would be burned and the monk would have to start over. Still, I can’t help but think a sleepy monk may have slipped up on a sentence, like changing the word “celebrate” to “celibate” and altering the happiness of monks for centuries after. Thousands of monks copying thousands of pages for hundreds of years. You see the human fingerprints that are all over this sacred book?
Fast-forward to around the 1300s. The church was still using the Vulgate, but the common language of the people in Britain was becoming Middle English, most notable used in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. People were wanting the Bible in their everyday tongue, but the church was resistant to letting people read scripture on their own. You never know what might happen if people were allowed to think for themselves! So the church insisted that the holiness of the Vulgate shouldn’t be tampered with.
Well, a guy name John Wycliffe tampered. In 1382, he translated the entire Bible into English from Latin. Wycliffe was a critic of the church and believed people should be allowed to read the Bible on his own. The church disagreed, so much so that they made it illegal to translate the Bible into English, and 43 years after Wycliffe’s death, they dug up his body, burned it, and threw the ashes in a nearby river. That’ll show ‘em! Everybody knows the real Bible was written in Latin. Or was it Greek? Or Hebrew?
Wycliffe’s efforts started a subversive movement to get the Bible into the hands of the common folk. The biggest aid in this effort was the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. Using the press, in 1521 Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, and at the same time William Tyndale translated it again into English. Because this is illegal, Tyndale fled England for Germany, continuing to publish his English Bible and sneaking them back into England in sacks of flour. Tyndale was eventually arrested, strangled, and burned at the stake, which seems to be the accepted way of taking care of illegal Bible translators.
Eventually, the powers that were realized the benefit of having an English Bible, so in 1611, King James I commissioned a group of 54 scholars to create an English Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek texts. The King James Version became the official Bible of the church for about 300 years, a poetic masterpiece that is still used today by many churches. But thou dost noticeth a problem with the King James Version. In the last century, people realized that the use of “thees” and “thys” had greatly diminished in society, so new translations have been made, like the Good News Bible and the Message, that put the words of scripture into more conversational English. Even that fact has enraged biblical purists, who insist the only true Bible is written in the King James English. Or is it Latin? Or Greek? Or Hebrew?
Today, we have versions of the Bible that span the range between strict translations and loose paraphrases. But we have to remember that even the strictest translation is really just an educated guess. The Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters, is read from left to right, and has no vowels or punctuation. It’s like putting together a 500-piece puzzle with 278 pieces and guessing what the final picture is. Translating from the Greek isn’t much easier. For example, the Greek language had several words that meant “love”: eros, philo, storge, agape. So when we read the word “love” in the New Testament, which one was the author meaning? That’s why we can take the Bible seriously, but not literally. Unless you are proficient at translating ancient Hebrew and Greek, you’re relying a whole host of people – authors, editors, copiers, translators – whose human fingerprints are all over the Bible.
The Bible has been passed down orally and then by scrolls, quilted together by editors, hand-copied by faithful and celibate monks, and translated by courageous folks who gave their lives for us to have the Bible today. It’s been translated into over 2200 languages and is the best-selling book in history. That’s how we got it, but there’s still work to do. Author Bruce Metzger writes, “There always remains the duty of all believers to translate the teaching of the Bible into their personal lives.” So we are called to take our place alongside Paul and Jerome and the Masoretes and Wycliffe and Tyndale. The story of the Bible is incomplete until we read it and interpret it for ourselves. We’ll start that hard work together in a few weeks, but for now, let’s appreciate all inspiration of our Creator God and all the hard work and sacrifice of human beings that allow us the freedom and privilege of holding this book in our hands today. Knowing what it has gone through, we owe it to all those people, to our God, and to ourselves not to let someone else tell us what it says, but to read it for ourselves.