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Reading 5. How the Bible Came to Us

The Journey Of Scripture

How did we get Scripture? We have discussed the inspiration of Scripture—how the words of humankind is the Word of God. Now we can discuss the actual process of how Scripture came to us so that we can read it in our own language. We don’t often think about this because it is so easy to just buy a Bible or read a Bible online. But it has not always been available in the English language for English readers or in another linguage for those who are not English language readers.

Scripture, in English, as a physical written record came to us over a long period of time, beginning with the writing of the Hebrew books now referred to as the Old Testament, or as I like to refer to it as the First Testament, in approximately 1400 BC until the standard English version appeared in 1611. By the way, when we ask the question, “How much time?” we have stopped studying the content of Scripture as the revelation of God and started to investigate the history of Scripture.

Canon is perhaps a new word to some of you. The early church used the term canon in the following way. Canon was a list of books, which were considered to be authoritative. These books were used in the early churches as a standard to measure Christian doctrine. The early church had two such canons. The First Testament, which was inherited from the Jews, and the Second Testament, which emerged over a three hundred period. The contents of the two form an ancient book and “we shouldn’t be surprised that it like like one. 1

First Testament Journey

Many stories in the Bibles were first told around the warmth of campfires, among family and friends. Later, they were written down, most likely as separate stories. About the time of David (a bit over 3,000 years ago) people started to put these stories into larger collections that we today call books. This process of the collection took a lot of time and the whole of the Hebrew Scripture was not assembled for many years.

In the Protestant Scripture, the First Testament has thirty-nine books. The original Hebrew Bible had twenty-four books broken into three sections: Law, Prophets, and Writings. This Testament tells the story of the Covenant God of Israel. The story describes his acts toward his children and what those acts mean and inform the reader about the special relationship that God and his children had. Many different authors wrote these books over many years. We cannot tell when they were first assembled into one volume. However, the common theory is that first five books, often called the Pentateuch or the Law, were accepted as inspired or canonized between 450-300 BC. The Prophets were received around 200 BC. and the Writings were accepted sometime in the second century BC. However, this view is not totally agreed upon by scholarship. See: “Canon of the Bible“.

we shouldn't be surprised that the Bible acts like an ancient book... Click To TweetJesus was aware of this three-fold Hebrew canon (Luke 24.44). The text of the First Testament was written in Hebrew on scrolls—longs strips of paper—called papyri. Jesus read from such a scroll at the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4.16-17).
During the period of time called the Intertestamental Period (usually dated as the time between the First Testament and Second Testament periods which was approximately 400 years and now and now often referred to as Second Temple Judaism, 515 BC to AD 70), the Greek language became the language of choice for much of the Mediterranean world. Some of the Jews fleeing the Northern Kingdom’s occupation by Assyria moved to North Africa. During this period of time, the Hebrew Bible was translated into the Greek language. The Greek version was called the Septuagint (often designated LXX, which is the Roman numeral for seventy). The first books of the Septuagint to be translated were the Pentateuch at about 250 BC. The remaining books of the Hebrew Bible were completed by 100 BC. In addition to what was later received by Jewry as authoritative, there were additional books, which are called the Apocrypha by the Protestants. It is believed that the Septuagint had wide circulation during the first-century AD It can be noted that the authors of the Second Testament often quoted from the LXX instead of the Hebrew texts of the Old Testament (Hebrews 2.6-8).

Second Testament Journey

The Second Testament is made up of twenty-seven books written during a fifty-year period in the first century. The order, starting with Matthew and concluding with Revelation, which we find as we open our own Second Testament, was arrived at over a period of many years. The book of Matthew opens with the genealogy of Jesus and was thought to be a natural bridge from the last Hebrew Bible book of Malachi. Because Revelation was written last and speaks about some future events, it was placed last in our Second Testament. The books of the Second Testament were not written in the order in which they are listed in our Bibles.

During the first 350 years of the church, the Second Testament was shaped into what we have today. During this period of time, these books and others were read in church gatherings, treated with respect for their authority, and often quoted in the Christian community. In the Second Testament, there is a signal that Peter thought that some of the writings of Paul should be regarded as equal with Hebrew Bible authority (2 Peter 3.14-16). Peter wrote this book in AD 64-65.

At a date between AD 110-130, in the “Epistle of Barnabas,” we find the first quote from a New Testament book using the authoritative formula, “It is written” (Matthew 22.14). By this time Matthew and other books were regarded by the church as carrying authority. However, one must state this with caution. 2

During the second century, a believer named Marcion began putting together a list of books that he felt was authoritative. His list completely deleted the Old Testament as having no value for the New Testament believer. His Greek pattern of thinking disallowed him from accepting the God of the Old Testament as the God of the New Testament. He published the following list of books which he believed carried authority:

  • A Revised Version of Luke (He revised it to fit his own theology),
  • Galatians
  • 1 & 2 Corinthians
  • Romans
  • 1 & 2 Thessalonians
  • Ephesians
  • Colossians
  • Philippians
  • Philemon

For his effort and creative idea, he was excommunicated and condemned as unorthodox. However, the church discovered in his idea of listing books that he believed carried authority a usable idea and began to create a list of her own authoritative books.

Irenaeus (AD 180-190) who was a church scholar during the second century wrote a book called Against Heresies where he describes “four pillars” of the Church which were the four Gospels–Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. For Irenaeus, these books carried authority in the lives of believers.

In his work Stromateis Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215) wrote, “We do not find this saying in the four Gospels that have been handed down to us, but in that according to the Egyptians.” The implication of this quote is that the Egyptian gospel which was a Greek gospel written in the second century did not carry the same authority that the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did. As time moves forward, one can see how leadership in the Church began to take notice and try to determine which books that had been written carried the authority of God.

Tertullian (AD 150-225) listed the following books as having authority for believers in his book Against Marcion:

  • Corinthians
  • Galatians
  • Philippians
  • Thessalonians
  • Ephesians
  • Romans
  • Revelation
  • Luke

When the second century had closed (AD 200), the books, which were believed to be Scripture, could be organized in the following three areas.

  • First, Books accepted by all the church with the exception of those who were considered by the church to be heretics: the Four Gospels, Acts, and the thirteen Pauline Letters.
  • Second, Books challenged or ignored by some in the Church but later received by the Church: Hebrews, James, 1, 2, 3 John, Jude, 1 & 2 Peter, and Revelation.
  • Third, Books received and read by some in the Church but ultimately rejected by the Church: Gospel of Peter, Revelation of Peter, Shepherd of Hermas, and 1 & 2 Clement.

In the final period of the formation of the New Testament before the end of the third century (from AD 200-400), an agreement was reached on the inclusion of the twenty-seven books that constitute the New Testament. In AD  367 Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria produced a list including the twenty-seven books. This list was finalized by the church in Carthage in AD 397 at the Council of Carthage.

It took many years under the direction of God to forge the Bible into the present set of books. The Old Testament and New Testament convey the authority of God to our life and demonstrate in their teaching that believers of all ages can live a life dedicated to God for his glory.

Living into the Text!

It is always important to live into what you have learned. Pause at this point and ask for the help of the Holy Spirit to meditate on and put into practice some or all of the following.

  • What does it mean for you to discover that the oral stories of the Old Testament remained unwritten for hundreds of years?
  • Why is it important to know and understand the process through which the Old Testament Scripture came to us?
  • Why is it important to know and understand the process through which the New Testament Scripture came to us?

The articles below come from various Bible Dictionaries and other sources. The posting of these brief articles are to introduce some readers to the vast amount of information that is provided to enhance your reading of the text of the Bible with a hope that it will lead to a better understanding of the text and will lead the reader to an improved praxis in his or her community of faith and personal life. You might read the articles offline in a number of different Bible Dictionaries. If you do not own a Bible Dictionary, I would recommend New Bible Dictionary 3rd Edition. If you like lots of color pictures, try Revell Bible Dictionary. Revell Bible Dictionary is no longer in print but is available from Amazon. One of these should suit your personal needs.


  1. Peter Enns. The Bible Tells Me So. 231.
  2. Jimmy Akin.“The Epistle of Barnabas and the Gospel of Matthew.” 2017.
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