How the Bible came into being

The Bible is a collection of books, written over many centuries, by many different people. Some of their names are known; most are not.


All the Bible writers believed that God was speaking to them or through them, giving them inspired teachings. They described this in various ways:

Because they were inspired texts, they were sacred and always kept carefully. People had to wash their hands before they touched them, and afterwards.


The writings were put together in many ways.

The Old Testament

The Law of Moses

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are a collection of stories, poetry and laws. Although each part is very old, they were only collected into their present form in about 500BCE. The texts were carefully preserved. Until the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947, the oldest Hebrew texts available were those written about 1000 CE. Fragments of Bible texts found among the Scrolls show that they had hardly changed in 1300 years. The differences were mainly alternative spellings.Dead Sea Scrolls

The History Books

There are two groups:

1. Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings.

More about contents of group 1: These books cover the story of the whole Jewish people both north and south, from entering the promised land after the time of Moses, to the exile in Babylon from about 597 BCE. These books are sometimes called ‘the former prophets'.

2. 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah.

More about contents of group 2: These books concentrate on the south of the land and Jerusalem the capital city, and describe how the people returned from exile in Babylon and rebuilt Jerusalem and their temple there.

These books are not history in our modern sense of the word, but a collection of examples of how God had helped his people in the past. When they had been faithful to him, they had prospered, but when they neglected God's law, disaster followed. This is called ‘sacred history'. Older writings and records are incorporated in these histories.

More on older writings: a book of poetry, The Book of Jashar is mentioned in 2 Samuel 1:18 and The Book of Yahweh in Isaiah 34:16. The Acts of Solomon is mentioned in 1 Kings 11:41, and the Chronicles of Samuel the Seer, the Chronicles of Nathan the prophet, and the Chronicles of Gad the Seer are mentioned in 1 Chronicles 29:29. The Chronicles of Shemaiah the prophet and of Iddo the Seer are referred to in 2 Chronicles 12:15 and The Chronicles of Jehu in 2 Chronicles 20:34.

The Prophets

The prophets spoke their messages, called oracles, in various settings. Sometimes they stood in the holy places: Amos spoke at Bethel (Amos 7:13); Jeremiah at the gate of the temple in Jerusalem. Sometimes they spoke in public places; Isaiah spoke to the king by a water cistern (Isaiah 7:3), Jeremiah took the city elders to the rubbish dump (Jeremiah 19:1-2). Their disciples memorised and recorded their oracles, which were eventually compiled into the scrolls we know today. Sometimes a later disciple has added an interpretation to the prophet's words, and this in included in the text. These additions must have been recognised by the community as authentic new revelation, as it was a serious matter to add to the holy writings. Interpreting the prophetic writings was regarded as an important gift from God.

More on the dates of prophetic writings:

  • Isaiah was compiled in at several stages from about 700BCE to about 400BCE.
  • Jeremiah was compiled in two different forms from about 550BCE; the Hebrew text has the chapters in a different order from the Greek.
  • Ezekiel was compiled after 500BCE
  • Daniel is put with the prophets in the English Bible, and in the old Greek translation that was used by the first Christians, but in the Hebrew Bible it is found in ‘the Writings', because he was considered to be a wise man rather than a prophet.
  • The ‘Book of the Twelve' put all the short books in one scroll: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. The earliest book, Amos, dates from the 8th century BCE, the latest, Malachi, from the fifth century BCE, or even later.

‘The Writings'

In the Hebrew Bible this section includes 1&2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah and Daniel.

More on ‘the writings':

  • The Psalms are the five books of hymns sung in the temple; the earliest dates from the 10th century BCE and the latest from about the third century BCE.
  • The ‘Wisdom Books' are Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs/Solomon (all attributed to Solomon) and Job. They were complied over many centuries.
  • The ‘five scrolls' are Esther, read at Purim, Song of Songs read at Passover, Ruth, read at Pentecost, Lamentations, read on 9th Ab, when the temple was destroyed, and Ecclesiastes.

The New Testament

The Gospels

  • Matthew, Mark and Luke are called the Synoptic Gospels, meaning they can be set side by side and seen to have a similar pattern. The stories about Jesus were first handed down orally, then, as the first generation died, they were written down. They were handed down within the church communities, and those who had known Jesus, the eye witnesses, ensured the accuracy of the stories. Mark recorded the memories of Peter, and a collection of Jesus' teachings was compiled, known as ‘Q'. Matthew and Luke both used Mark and ‘Q', together with other stories they had heard, to compile their gospels. Each community preserved the stories most important for their situation. The Christians with Jewish roots treasured different stories from the Christians who had Gentile roots. There were too many stories for all of them to be in one book (John 21:25).

  • John was the last of the gospel writers. He had been an eye witness of the life of Jesus and wrote from his own memory, to give the information not in the other gospels.

The Acts of the Apostles

This is a book of stories written by Luke. He travelled with Paul on his journeys was an eye witness of what he described. He often wrote ‘we' (e.g. ‘we travelled to Cos' Acts 21:1). He described the earliest days of the Church in Jerusalem, Palestine and Samaria, and then the missionary journeys of Paul in Asia Minor (now Turkey), Greece and Italy.

The Letters of Paul

These letters, sometimes called epistles, were written from about 50-63CE to the churches Paul had founded, or, in the case of Romans, to a church he was to visit, or to the leaders of churches.

More on the destination of the letters:

  • Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians were written to churches in Asia Minor.

  • 1 & 2 Corinthians and 1 & 2 Thessalonians were written to churches in Greece.

  • 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus were written to church leaders and Philemon was written to a friend.

Other letters were written by leaders of the early church: James, Peter, John and Jude. The author of Hebrews is unknown.

All the New Testament books were written by those who had known personally the events and situations they described, or who collected material from eye-witnesses.

The Book of Revelation

Also known as the Apocalypse, this is John's vision of the Day of Judgement and the coming of the Kingdom of God, which he described as the New Jerusalem. Seven letters to churches in Asia Minor are incorporated at the beginning of the book.

The Canon

The Canon is the officially recognised collection of holy books.

The Old Testament

The Hebrew Canon

  • In the time of Jesus, when the scriptures were on scrolls, there was no canon, and no order for the holy books.

  • The Christians at first treated some books as scripture that are no longer in the English Old Testament, for example, the Book of Enoch.

  • After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE, the Jewish leaders met about 95CE to decide which books should be considered holy. This is when the ‘Hebrew canon' was formed.

The Greek Canon

  • The Jewish community in Egypt had their scriptures in Greek, but they also had some extra books.

  • This Greek Old Testament was translated in Alexandria by 72 scholars. It used to be called the Septuagint (the Greek for 70), but is now more often called the Old Greek. This text was used by the Church in Europe and North Africa, and so the Christians had a longer Old Testament than the Jews.

  • Nobody ever defined how many extra books were scriptural; the earliest Christian Old Testaments have a variety of these extra books.

  • When Jerome translated the Old Testament into Latin, about 400CE, he called the extra Greek books the Apocrypha. See Understanding the Bible and Christian culture: The Apocrypha.

The New Testament

  • How the New Testament canon was defined and collected is not known. The writings had to be carefully guarded during the years of persecution, since destroying their Scriptures was believed to be the best way to destroy the Church. The earliest surviving papyrus fragments of the New Testament can be dated to the end of the first century CE. By 200 CE Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in France, said there were only four gospels. Many other ancient gospels are known, but they did not become scripture.

  • In 367CE, Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, wrote a letter listing the New Testament books as we know them today, but in a different order.

  • Some of the Bibles that survive from the 4th and 5th centuries have some extra books in them, such as the Letter of Barnabas or a book of prophecies called the Shepherd of Hermas.

  • A Council held at Carthage in 397 CE declared that the Bible consisted of the books we have today in the Old Testament and the New Testament, plus 8 now in the Apocrypha: Tobit, Judith, The Wisdom of Solomon, The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sira,(also known as Ecclesiasticus) 1&2 Esdras, 1&2 Maccabees.

The criteria for recognising books as Scripture were

  • That they had been written by an apostle or someone of the first generation.

  • That they presented the original Christian teaching.

  • That they had been used for a long time by the major centres of Christianity such as Antioch, Alexandria and Rome.

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