How Did We Get Our Bible?

How Did We Get Our Bible? July 16, 2021

People often ask this question. They also ask, Which is the best Bible? That’s because there used to be pretty much only one Bible in the English-speaking world–the King James Version (KJV) that was produced in 1611. But since the late 19th century until now, there have been dozens of so-called “modern” English Bible translations, also called “versions.” I’ll speak to this in a followup post tomorrow.

When people ask me these questions, I usually explain that all modern versions of the Bible in English are superior in both accuracy and clarity than the KJV. Many people are taken aback by this, but it is true. The KJV is now more than 400 years old. That means its English is quite antiquated compared to our English we use today. All languages change through the centuries, and English has been no different. Although the KJV was a good translation based on what was available then, many of its English words are not what we use today, and some even have a different meaning from ours.

But the main issue regarding all Bible versions, no matter what language they are translated into, is, What is the text from which they are translated? Almost all of the Old Testament (“Jewish Bible”) was written in Hebrew thousands of years ago, and all of the New Testament was written in koine Greek a little less than 2,000 years ago. For the New Testament, the translators of the KJV only had Textus Receptus (Latin for “received text”) from which to translate. It was a Greek translation of the New Testament produced by the erudite English scholar named Erasmus in 1516, and the 1633 Elzevier edition subsequently is sometimes included in the Textus Receptus. But this Greek text of the New Testament was only based on about thirteen Greek manuscripts that did not date back very far. “Older is better” when it comes to literary manuscripts that are copies of earlier copies of earlier copies. (That’s because all documents of the ancient world were hand copied until the printing press was invented in the mid-15th century.) Since Textus Receptus, mostly archaeologists and other scholars have discovered over 5,000 Greek manuscripts of New Testament documents. And also important, most of them date back in origin farther than any of the manuscripts upon which Textus Receptus was based. Thus, modern versions of the New Testament use the United Bible Societies’ 5th edition of the Greek New Testament and Nestle’s 27th edition of it, which are way superior to Textus Receptus.

And what about the historical translation of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). How did we get it? That has been affected greatly by both the persecution, captivity, and migration of the Jewish people throughout much of their history. It started with the Babylonian Captivity, also called The Exile, of the Jewish/Hebrew people in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. After seventy years of captivity, the king of the Persian Empire allowed many Jews to return to their ancestral land–the ancient land of Israel.

A significant population of Jewish people came to reside in Egypt during the three centuries before the time of Jesus, thus by the 3rd century BCE. Many were educated and lived in Alexandria because the Greek military warrior Alexander the Great had founded that city, obviously naming it after himself. His goal had been to establish a great library there. That happened even though Alexander died an early death age 33. Thus, many of these Jews lived in Alexandria due to both its commerce and library that was becoming the greatest in the ancient world. This massive library was part of a sprawling research institute known as “The Museum.” That is why Alexandria, Egypt, became known as “the city of scholars.”

In the third century BCE, it was decided in Egypt that The Museum should have a grand copy of the Jews’ Bible. The king of Egypt therefore commissioned that the Hebrew Bible be translated into Greek since it was more of a universal language, like English is today. It is believed traditionally that the king was Ptolemy II Philadelphus who ruled Egypt for over forty years, from 285 to 246 BCE. Tradition says seventy translators were chosen for this project and all of them were Jews. That is why this Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible became known as The Septuagint, which is the Latin word for the number “seventy.”

But scholars generally believe this Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible was only begun in the 3rd century BCE and completed in the next century, thus the 2nd century BCE. However, that is not what tradition, or legend, teaches. The ancient Letter of Aristeas says The Septuagint was completed in seventy days and seventy copies were produced for its celebration. Moreover, there is a discrepancy as to whether it was seventy or seventy-two translators. The reason is that tradition says six Jews from each of the twelve tribes of Israel were chosen as translators, making a total of seventy-two. But the fact that this translation came to be called The Septuagint, meaning seventy in number, weighs heavily in favor of it being seventy translators.

Even though The Septuagint is a translation and therefore not the original Hebrew Bible, the importance of The Septuagint, often rendered “LXX” in scholarly writings, cannot be overestimated. But it gets a little more complicated when considering that there are versions of the LXX, thus translations of it, that are important as well for translators, such as those making an English Bible version. The main versions of the LXX are Aquila (128 CE), Symmachus, and Theodotion, with Theodotion often taking preference over the other two.

Back to the New Testament, when you read it you discover that it quotes the Old Testament often. But what version does it quote? Does it quote the original Hebrew Bible or the Greek translation of it–The Septuagint? It almost always quotes The Septuagint. Thus, the Bible that Jesus and the early Jewish Christians used in the first century CE was a translation of the Hebrew Bible. Plus, it was Aramaic translations of The Septuagint, called targums. That is because the Jewish people who lived in the land of Israel predominantly spoke Aramaic as their native tongue. And that is because of the Exile, when Jews had to change their native Hebrew tongue to speaking the language of their captors, which was Aramaic, a sister language of Hebrew. Of course, when the New Testament documents were then originally written, those Aramaic targums were translated into koine Greek.

Two Jewish revolts in the 1st and 2nd centuries caused the Roman Empire to expell Jews from their ancestral land, thereby extinguishing the Jewish nation. Then began the Diaspora, in which Jews migrated to foreign lands and lived there for over 1700 years until The Return began, in which Jews started returning to their ancestral land in the late 19th century, which eventually resulted in the reestablishment of the nation of Israel in 1948-49.

The Diaspora caused Jews to sort of lose their Bible. That is, documents are always destroyed by victors in war, and so it was with the Hebrew Bible. But it was other things even more so, such as Jews losing their Hebrew language. That is, they came to no longer speaking Hebrew. Even in the time of Jesus, Hebrew was only spoken occasionally, such as by the priests at the temple, especially when they read from the Hebrew Bible.

Then along came the Masoretes. They were a scholarly bunch of Jews who resided on the western banks of the freshwater Lake Galilee (called “the Sea of Galilee” in the New Testament) starting in the 7th century BCE. For the next two centuries, they made a heroic effort in “recovering” the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). In the process, of course, they were recovering their Hebrew language as well. Their completion of an original Hebrew Bible came to be called The Masoretic Text (MT). (Only a small portion of Hebrew Bible originally was written in Aramaic, it being Daniel 2.4-7).

In sum, when translators produce a modern version of the English Bible, they use as their basic text from which to translate the Nestle and UBS editions of the Greek New Testament, which nowadays are exactly the same, and both the Masoretic Text and The Septuagint for the Old Testament.

[Look tomorrow for my followup post to this about modern English versions of the Bible.]

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