The Bible is the holy scripture of the Christian religion, purporting to tell the history of the Earth from its earliest creation to the spread of Christianity in the first century A.D. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament have undergone significant changes over the centuries, including the the publication of the King James Bible in 1611 and the addition of several books that were discovered later.
The Old Testament is the first section of the Bible, covering the creation of Earth through Noah and the flood, Moses and more, finishing with the Jews being expelled to Babylon.
The Bible’s Old Testament is very similar to the Hebrew Bible, which has origins in the ancient religion of Judaism. The exact beginnings of the Jewish religion are unknown, but the first known mention of Israel is an Egyptian inscription from the 13th century B.C.
The earliest known mention of the Jewish god Yahweh is in an inscription relating to the King of Moab in the 9th century B.C. It is speculated that Yahweh was possibly adapted from the mountain god Yhw in ancient Seir or Edom.
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It was during the reign of Hezekiah of Judah in the 8th century B.C. that historians believe what would become the Old Testament began to take form, the result of royal scribes recording royal history and heroic legends.
During the reign of Josiah in the 6th century B.C., the books of Deuteronomy and Judges were compiled and added. The final form of the Hebrew Bible developed over the next 200 years when Judah was swallowed up by the expanding Persian Empire.
Following conquest by Alexander the Great, the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek in the 3rd century B.C.
Known as the Septuagint, this Greek translation was initiated at the request of King Ptolemy of Egypt to be included in the library of Alexandria. The Septuagint was the version of the Bible used by early Christians in Rome.
The Book of Daniel was written during this period and included in the Septuagint at the last moment, though the text itself claims to have been written sometime around 586 B.C.
The New Testament tells the story of the life of Jesus and the early days of Christianity, most notably Paul’s efforts to spread Jesus’ teaching. It collects 27 books, all originally written in Greek.
The sections of the New Testament concerning Jesus are called the Gospels and were written about 40 years after the earliest written Christian materials, the letters of Paul, known as the Epistles.
Paul’s letters were distributed by churches sometime around 50 A.D., possibly just before Paul’s death. Scribes copied the letters and kept them in circulation. As circulation continued, the letters were collected into books.
Some in the church, inspired by Paul, began to write and circulate their own letters, and so historians believe that some books of the New Testament attributed to Paul were in fact written by disciples and imitators.
As Paul’s words were circulated, an oral tradition began in churches telling stories about Jesus, including teachings and accounts of post-resurrection appearances. Sections of the New Testament attributed to Paul talk about Jesus with a firsthand feeling, but Paul never knew Jesus except in visions he had, and the Gospels were not yet written at the time of Paul’s letters.
The oral traditions within the church formed the substance of the Gospels, the earliest book of which is Mark, written around 70 A.D., 40 years after the death of Jesus.
It is theorized there may have been an original document of sayings by Jesus known as the Q source, which was adapted into the narratives of the Gospels. All four Gospels were published anonymously, but historians believe that the books were given the name of Jesus’ disciples to provide direct links to Jesus to lend them greater authority.
Matthew and Luke were next in the chronology. Both used Mark as a reference, but Matthew is considered to have another separate source, known as the M source, as it contains some different material from Mark. Both books also stress the proof of Jesus’ divinity more than Mark did.
The Book of John, written around 100 A.D., was the final of the four and has a reputation for hostility to Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries.
All four books cover the life of Jesus with many similarities, but sometimes contradictions in their portrayals. Each is considered to have its own political and religious agenda linked to authorship.
For instance, the books of Matthew and Luke present different accounts of Jesus’ birth, and all contradict each other about the resurrection.
Book of Revelation
The Book of Revelation is the final book of the Bible, an example of apocalyptic literature that predicts a final celestial war through prophecy. Authorship is ascribed to John, but little else is known about the writer.
According to the text, it was written around 95 A.D. on an island off the coast of Turkey. Some scholars believe it is less a prophecy and more a response to the Roman destruction of the Great Temple and Jerusalem.
This text is still used by Evangelical Christians to interpret current events in expectation of the End Times, and elements of it find frequent use in popular entertainment.
Surviving documents from the 4th century show that different councils within the church released lists to guide how various Christian texts should be treated.
The earliest known attempt to create a canon in the same respect as the New Testament was in 2nd century Rome by Marcion, a Turkish businessman and church leader.
Marcion’s work focused on the Gospel of Luke and the letters of Paul. Disapproving of the effort, the Roman church expelled Marcion.
Second-century Syrian writer Tatian attempted to create a canon by weaving the four gospels together as the Diatessaron.
The Muratorian Canon, which is believed to date to 200 A.D., is the earliest compilation of canonical texts resembling the New Testament.
It was not until the 5th century that all the different Christian churches came to a basic agreement on Biblical canon. The books that eventually were considered canon reflect the times they were embraced as much the times of the events they portray.
During the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, books not originally written in Hebrew but Greek, such as Judith and Maccabees, were excluded from the Old Testament. These are known the Apocrypha and are still included in the Catholic Bible.
Additional Biblical texts have been discovered, such as the Gospel of Mary, which was part of the larger Berlin Gnostic Codex found in Egypt in 1896.
Fifty further unused Biblical texts were discovered in Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945, known as the Gnostic Gospels.
Among the Gnostic Gospels were the Gospel of Thomas—which purports to be previously hidden sayings by Jesus presented in collaboration with his twin brother—and The Gospel of Philip, which implies a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The original texts are believed to date back to around 120 A.D.
The Book of Judas was found in Egypt in the 1970s. Dated to around 280 A.D., it is believed by some to contain secret conversations between Jesus and his betrayer Judas.
These have never become part of the official Biblical canon, but stem from the same traditions and can be read as alternative views of the same stories and lessons. These texts are taken as indications of the diversity of early Christianity.
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King James Bible
The King James Bible is possibly the most widely-known edition of the Bible, though in England it is known as the “Authorized Version.”
First printed in 1611, this edition of the Bible was commissioned in 1604 by King James I after feeling political pressure from Puritans and Calvinists demanding church reform and calling for a complete restructuring of church hierarchy.
In response, James called for a conference at Hampton Court Palace, during which it was suggested to him that there should be a new translation of the Bible since versions commissioned by earlier monarchs were felt to be corrupt.
King James eventually agreed and decreed the new translation should speak in contemporary language, using common, recognizable terms. James’ purpose was to unite the warring religious factions through a uniform holy text.
This version of the Bible was not altered for 250 years and is credited as one of the biggest influences on the English language, alongside the works of Shakespeare. The King James Bible introduced a multitude of words and phrases now common in the English language, including “eye for an eye,” “bottomless pit,” “two-edged sword,” “God forbid,” “scapegoat” and “turned the world upside down,” among many others.
A Tour of the Biblical Treasures at D.C.’s New Museum of the Bible
The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible. John Rogerson, ed.
The Book: A History of the Bible. Christopher De Hamel.
New Testament History and Literature. Dale B. Martin.
The Gnostic Gospels. Elaine Pagels.
From Jesus To Christ. Frontline.