How Did We Get the Bible in English?


The story of the Bible is the story of God communicating to mankind the knowledge of Himself and His grace and mercy.


Can you imagine a world without books? In spite of the increase in communication by the internet and other electronic media, the basic resource for knowledge remains the book. If we depend on them for information about the present life, how infinitely more important is it that we have the means of knowledge concerning life’s ultimate issues?

The wonderful news is that God has given us this knowledge in a book that we know as the Bible. What a privilege to have such a text! What meaning could life have without its existence? Have you ever wondered how we got the Bible and the wonderful message of the Gospel? We have it as a complete document, but it did not begin that way. The knowledge of how God gave us the Bible will enable us to appreciate it more.

The Origin of the Bible

The story of the Bible is the story of God communicating to mankind the knowledge of Himself and His grace and mercy. This process of communication from God to man is called revelation. Revelation is simply God revealing Himself to mankind. Because of man’s sin, he is unable to grasp spiritual realities. However, the understanding of spiritual truths is absolutely necessary if man is to know God personally, experience the forgiveness of sins, and have the hope of eternal life. These are the ultimate issues of life, and man must have the means to know the answers to them.

The Bible opens with an inspired account of the creation of the world, including the creation of man in God’s image. Inspiration is a theological word, but its basic meaning is that God enabled man to write in human language words that were identical in meaning to His own words. The process of inspiration was so controlled by the Holy Spirit that the final result was without mistakes.1

The Scriptures, not science, provide the authoritative account of the creation of the world.

From the biblical evidence we believe that Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament called the Pentateuch. Bible scholars believe that he began to write about 1450 BC. However, many of the events Moses recorded took place more than centuries earlier. How could Moses know about the creation of the world and man? The simple answer is that God revealed it to him. The Scriptures, not science, provide the authoritative account of the creation of the world.

By the time of Moses, human writing was highly developed. Archaeologists have discovered writing on stone (called inscriptions), on clay tablets (using a wedge-form of writing called cuneiform), animal hides, wood, and other materials. We believe that Moses wrote in Hebrew, the language of the Israelites, and that he wrote on animal hides in a scroll format.

God commanded Moses to place a copy of his writings in the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies (Deuteronomy 10:2). After the death of Moses, God gave Israel’s new leader, Joshua, special instructions concerning these books. Joshua was to meditate on and obey their precepts. God not only promised him good success but also indicated that He would guide His people by this book.2

As the history of Israel unfolded, additional books were added to the books of Moses. The writing of the Hebrew canonical Scriptures would not be completed until 420 BC with the book of Malachi. These Scriptures were divided into a three-fold division: Law, Prophets, and Writings. Although the organization and order of the books in the Hebrew Scriptures are different from the English Bible, the content is exactly the same.

The Transmission of the Hebrew Text

During the following years, a special group of priests, called the scribes, was founded. Their responsibility was to make new copies of the Scriptures as the older copies wore out. The majority of these texts were copied on animal skins that had been tanned to produce leather, although they later would be copied on other materials including papyrus. The writing was in the form of a scroll.

Special rules directed the scribes in their work of copying the Scriptures. For example, before they could write the covenant name of God, translated into English as “Jehovah,” they were required to wash their hands, use a special brush or pen dedicated only to writing that name, and then wash their hands after finishing writing the word. They were extremely careful to copy the words exactly because the Scripture was the Word of God. They even devised a special means to count the number of words on a single panel to determine if the text had been copied accurately.

Jewish scribes had an interesting view of the copies of the Scriptures. Because they would use such care in copying them, they believed that a newer copy would be more accurate than an older copy. Most people tend to believe that the older copy would be more accurate because of the errors that could have crept into the text as it had been copied over the years.

This view, that the newer copy was more accurate, led to a further question: what was to be done with the older manuscript, called the exemplar, from which the text had been copied? No one had the authority to destroy it because it was the Word of God. The solution was to have the scribes place the manuscript in a clay jar and then bury it. Thus, the processes of nature that God Himself had instituted would cause the copy to disintegrate. As a result of this practice, we do not have extremely old copies of the Hebrew Scriptures. Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in AD 1947, the oldest extant manuscript copies of the Hebrew text were about one thousand years old. In comparison we possess manuscripts of the Greek New Testament that are dated as early as AD 200.3

The Beginning of Translations

Around 200 BC a remarkable event illustrated how God prepared the world for the coming of the Messiah. That event was the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into the Greek language. Although the exact details are unknown, the king of Egypt desired a copy of every known literary work for inclusion in the famed Library of Alexandria. To secure a copy of the Hebrew Scriptures, he invited 72 scribes from Israel to undertake the work of translation. Tradition states that each of the scribes was housed in a separate house to complete the task. Tradition also states each scribe completed his work in seventy days, and all the copies were exactly the same!

The knowledge of the Word of God in an accessible language paved the way for the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ years later.

Although the account of the translation has undoubtedly been exaggerated, we should not overlook the fact that for the first time the Word of God had been translated into another language. This translation was called the Septuagint, a word that means 70 in the Greek language. It became the Bible of the early church, and many New Testament authors quoted from it rather than from the Hebrew text. For example, the book of Hebrews uses the Septuagint to quote from the Old Testament.

Copies of this Greek translation soon made their way into all areas of the Roman Empire because most of the inhabitants spoke the Greek language. The knowledge of the Word of God in an accessible language paved the way for the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ years later.

The Writing of the New Testament

There was a marked contrast between the amount of time required for the writing of the Old Testament books and the writing of the New Testament. It required nearly one thousand years before the Old Testament was completed in comparison with the approximately fifty years for the writing of the New Testament. Scholars believe that the final books of the New Testament were completed by the Apostle John before the year AD 100.

There was another contrast between the writing of the two testaments. The task of writing the Old Testament was given to the Jewish people, and the majority of its books were written in the land of Israel. The exceptions were the books written during the time of the Babylonian captivity such as Daniel, Ezekiel, and Esther. Although the majority of the New Testament books were also written by Jewish authors, Luke’s Gospel and Acts being the exceptions, they were written in different locations of the Roman Empire. For example, Paul wrote his epistles from several cities including Corinth and Rome.

The New Testament books were written and circulated as single units of composition. It is probable that the majority of them were written on papyrus. Later, they would be collected into groups such as the epistles of Paul, the Gospels, etc. Finally, they would be bound together as a single volume. They were originally written in a scroll format, but as they were transcribed and bound together, they would be placed into the codex or book format. Evidence shows that this format was first used by the church about AD 100 to distinguish their writings from the Jewish synagogues.

Although the books had been written before AD 100, the process by which they were recognized as Scripture, known as canonization, took longer. It is an important fact that the church did not formulate the canon; rather, they recognized it. Here is a chart which contrasts incorrect views of the canon with correct views of the canon:4

Incorrect View of CanonCorrect View of Canon
Church Determines CanonChurch Discovers Canon
Church Is Mother of CanonChurch Is Child of Canon
Church Is Magistrate of CanonChurch Is Minister of Canon
Church Regulates CanonChurch Recognizes Canon
Church Is Judge of CanonChurch Is Witness of Canon
Church Is Master of CanonChurch Is Servant of Canon

By what means did the church recognize what books belonged in the Word of God? Certain tests were applied to the individual books before they were recognized as being Scripture. These tests included whether the book had been written by one of the apostolic circle or closely related to it, whether the book bore the marks of inspiration, whether it was Christ-centered in its teaching, and whether it was read in the worship services of the church.5

Several books, known as the antilegomena, were not immediately accepted as canonical. The word itself means “spoken against,” and some were convinced these books were not Scripture. For example, many people thought the epistle of James should be excluded because James apparently taught a doctrine of justification by works in contrast to the Apostle Paul. Others rejected the book of Hebrews because no human author was named. However, with time it was recognized that James and Paul taught the same doctrine of justification and many think that Hebrews did not contain the author’s name because it was important to stress its divine origin.

Other excluded books were the pseudepigraphia. These books had supposedly been written by one of the apostles or a well-known Christian. However, evidence demonstrated that the real author had only used the name of the apostle to gain acceptance for the book. An example of the pseudepigraphia was the Gospel of Peter.

Vernacular Translations

With the Scriptures, the church was prepared to take the Gospel to all nations. For a time, it was easy to preach the Gospel because most people understood the Greek language. But as the boundaries of the church expanded, it became apparent there were many who did not speak Greek. What was to be done?

There was precedence for what the church did. The Hebrew Scriptures had been translated into Greek about 200 BC and had proven to be a great blessing to the Gentiles. Now the Scriptures, beginning with the New Testament, were translated into the vernacular languages of the day. Within a short time, people whose spoken language was Syriac, Latin, Coptic, or another language had copies of the Word of God in their own native tongue.6

A thrilling account of a vernacular translation is the history of two brothers, Cyril and Methodius, who were originally from Thessalonica. The Bishop of Rome sent them to evangelize the Slavs sometime in the 9th century. However, the Slavs did not have a written language. So Cyril designed an alphabet, called the Cyrillic, to translate the Bible into the Slavonic language. This alphabet remains in use today as the alphabet of the Russian language. Not only did the brothers provide a great boon to the Slavonic people in giving them the Word of God, but also they made a lasting contribution to their culture.

The Dominance of the Latin Vulgate

For the people of Western Europe, the most significant translation was the Latin. Although Latin today is a “dead” language because it is not spoken, this was not the situation during the times of the early church. A Latin translation had been done by unknown persons, but the date is uncertain. This translation was called the Itala or Old Latin. Because the scribes were careless in copying its manuscripts, the text soon became riddled with errors.

The Bishop of Rome, Damasus, about AD 380 realized the seriousness of the situation. He persuaded Jerome, the finest textual scholar of the time, to revise the New Testament. Jerome not only revised the New Testament but went to Bethlehem, studied Hebrew, and translated the entire Old Testament directly into Latin. The Old Testament of the Itala had been translated from the Septuagint. The task required twenty years, but Jerome completed it in AD 402. This translation was called the Vulgate because it was the form of Latin spoken by the majority of the people.7

The Vulgate became the Bible of the Western or Roman Church. Although it was not officially ratified until AD 1546 at the Council of Trent, it had long been the standard version of the Scriptures. Although Jerome wanted to exclude the Apocrypha,8 Pope Damasus insisted that it be included. To show his displeasure, Jerome put it between the Old and New Testaments. As a result, books that the Jews considered non-canonical were included as Scripture.

Jerome also made some crucial errors in translating key New Testament words, especially the word to justify. In its New Testament usage, this word always means “to declare righteous” (a change of legal status). However, Jerome translated it as a word that means “to make righteous” (a change of moral fitness). As a result the official teaching of the doctrine of justification by the Roman Catholic Church is that God justifies a person by making them righteous. This had tremendous implications as to how one becomes a Christian.9

The Translation of the Bible into English

In the West, national churches were branches of the Church of Rome. Although the people spoke different languages, the only available Bible was the Latin Vulgate. Practically speaking, this meant that the knowledge of God’s Word was concealed from the majority of the people because they neither read nor understood Latin.

The knowledge of God’s Word was concealed from the majority of the people because they neither read nor understood Latin.

At this time God raised up a man to translate the Bible into the English language. That man was John Wycliffe, who lived from AD 1330 to AD 1384. In his work of translation, Wycliffe used the Vulgate because it was the only available text. Two translations into English were done. One followed closely the word order of the Vulgate and is difficult to read. The other, done primarily by John Purvey, is freer in its translation and thus easier to read.10

After Wycliffe’s death in AD 1384, the English clergy declared English translations to be illegal at the Convocation of Oxford in AD 1408. No one was permitted to translate the Bible into English apart from the permission of a bishop. Thus the English Bible would be officially illegal for nearly one hundred and thirty years.

The Printing of the Greek New Testament

While this was occurring in England, God prepared the way for the Reformation of the 16th century. In AD 1453, Constantinople, where the headquarters of the Greek Church was located, fell to the Muslims. No longer could Greek Christians worship freely. Many of them migrated to the West, bringing with them Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Meanwhile in Europe, a great cultural revival, known as the Renaissance, was underway. The key theme of the Renaissance was ad fontes (“to the sources”). As a result, a great revival of the Greek language occurred in Western Europe. During this time the art of printing by moveable type was perfected by Johannes Gutenberg.

These events combined so that by the early years of the 16th century the means to produce a printed edition of the Greek New Testament existed. In AD 1516 the first Greek New Testament, called the Novum Instrumentum, was issued from the press of Johannes Froben of Basel. This Greek New Testament had been edited by Erasmus of Rotterdam, the great humanist. Many consider this book to be the most important book ever printed because it sparked the Reformation of the 16th century.11

For Erasmus to edit the Greek New Testament, it was necessary to obtain manuscript copies of the Greek text. He located five or six manuscript copies in the monasteries around Basel that he used as the basis for the printed text. Most, if not all, of these texts had originally come from Constantinople. Manuscripts from that area formed what is called a text type or a text that had similar readings. This text type from Constantinople came to be known as the Byzantine. As a result, the Byzantine text type became the dominant one of the Middle Ages.12

The dominance of the Byzantine text type continued for nearly three hundred and fifty years. All Reformation Bibles of the 16th century, including German, English, French, and others, were translated from this text type. This text type continued to be printed by the successors of Erasmus: Robert Stephanus and Theodore Beza. It reached its high water mark in AD 1633 in a Greek New Testament published by the Elzevirs of the Netherlands. In the book’s introduction, we find the following words in Latin: “The reader now has the text received by all in which we give nothing changed or corrupted” (emphasis added). This became known as the textus receptus or the received text due to the publisher’s blurb. For many, this version continues to remain the standard Greek text even in the 21st century, especially to those who favor the King James Version.

However, there were critics who were dissatisfied with the Textus Receptus. On the negative side, they pointed to the relatively few manuscripts that Erasmus had used to edit the Greek New Testament, and that those manuscripts were dated no earlier than the 10th or 11th centuries.

The following years saw the discovery of additional manuscripts. Some of these were dated earlier and were of a different text type than those used by Erasmus. Some originated from Egypt and were written in a script that used block capital letters. These were called uncial manuscripts, and while many of the readings agreed with the Byzantine text type, there were some significant differences. This new text type became known as the Alexandrian text.

The most important discoveries of manuscripts of the Alexandrian text type were the Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Vaticanus. The Codex Sinaiticus is believed to be the oldest complete manuscript of the Greek New Testament and is dated as early as AD 350. The Codex Vaticanus, while not complete, agrees with the Codex Sinaiticus. Many scholars believe these two manuscripts were among the fifty Bibles commissioned by Constantine.

With the increase of the number of older Greek manuscripts, dissatisfaction with the Textus Receptus increased. There were calls for a new edition of the printed Greek New Testament that would include the textual variants found in the recently discovered manuscripts.

The Critical Greek New Testament

In AD 1881 a new edition of the Greek New Testament, edited by Bishop Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort, was published by Cambridge University Press. The publication of this Critical Greek New Testament was not without controversy. Some hailed its publication as bringing textual studies into the 19th century while others claimed the variant readings from the Alexandrian texts (Codex Sinaiticus and others) allowed heresy to creep into the New Testament.13

The publication of the Critical Greek New Testament and the controversy it engendered remains a debated topic. However, its publication signaled the beginning of English translations using it as the textual base.

Modern English Versions

Concurrent with the publication of the Critical Greek New Testament was a new English translation called the Revised Version (RV) undertaken by a joint committee of British and American scholars. The Revised Version was published during the years AD 1881–1885. However, members of the American Committee disagreed with certain translations of the British Committee, and in AD 1901 they published the American Standard Version (ASV). Following the publication of these two versions has come a multiplicity of translations. Today, we are familiar with the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the New International Version (NIV), the English Standard Version (ESV), and many others. These translations all use the Critical Greek New Testament as their textual base.

What of the Critical Greek New Testament itself? Since the ground-breaking publication by Westcott and Hort in AD 1881, the text has been constantly updated. A major discovery has been Greek manuscripts preserved on papyrus. The majority of these manuscripts are from Egypt because the arid climate permitted their preservation. Many are dated to the 2nd and 3rd centuries and have readings that agree with the Alexandrian text type.14

How has the discovery of new Greek manuscripts influenced modern English versions? Several things should be remembered. First, God has providentially preserved the text of His Word, both in the Hebrew and Greek languages. Scholars possess about 3,400 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament alone. Second, the manuscripts demonstrate amazing agreement. While no one manuscript agrees completely with another, the differences amount to just one word in a thousand. Putting it another way, 999 out of every 1,000 words are in agreement in the Greek texts. It is possible to print these textual variants (differences between the words) on just two pages of a standard Greek New Testament. While these variants are important because we are dealing with the Word of God, not one of them calls into question a major doctrine of Scripture.

What does this mean practically? It demonstrates that the English Bible is trustworthy because God is trustworthy. If God chose to guide His people through His Word, we believe He has preserved that Word to guide our lives today.

An illustration will confirm the truth of the above statement. When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in AD 1947, no one had been aware of their existence for nearly 2,000 years. Yet when those manuscripts were compared with the existing manuscripts of the Old Testament, the differences were inconsequential. The Bible is the record of God’s grace in giving us the Word of Life and the record of His power in preserving it. Let us honor the God of Scripture by reading and trusting in Him through His written Word!


  1. This process of inspiration is called organic because it takes into account the author’s education, culture, and background. The organic view of inspiration is contrasted with the so-called mechanical or dictation view that the writer merely served as a penman to write the words. For an explanation of this view, see Basil Manly, Jr., The Biblical Doctrine of Inspiration (Harrisonburg, VA: Gano Books, 1985), p. 68.
  2. See Deuteronomy 31:26 and Joshua 1:8. In addition note Deuteronomy 17:18 where the king was commanded to write out a personal copy of the Law. Taking the three texts together, we gain an understanding of the importance of God’s Word in the life and worship of the nation of Israel. Note also that God commanded what books were to be included. This is the first instance of canonization or determining what books are truly Scripture.
  3. The manuscript evidence for both the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament is briefly, but adequately, surveyed by Neil Lightfoot in the third edition of How We Got the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003). Note especially chapters three and twelve.
  4. Chart taken from Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume I (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2002), p. 530.
  5. The above tests are taken from History of the English Bible, unpublished class lectures by Bastian Van Eldren, n.d., page 6.
  6. The best resource of information for this work of translation remains Bruce Metzger, The Early Versions of the New Testament: Their Origin, Transmission and Limitations (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977). This work is indispensable for the history of early vernaculars and remains the standard in the field.
  7. See Metzger, Ibid., for the details.
  8. Although there are numerous apocryphal books, the term Apocrypha usually refers to those books added to the Roman Catholic canon during the Council of Trent (1546–1563) and consists of the following books: Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Tobit, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Judith, Baruch, and the Letter of Jeremiah. It also includes additional sections to Esther and two extra chapters in Daniel known as Susanna and Bel and the Dragon. Roman Catholics often refer to these books as deuterocanonical (“second canon”). Protestants do not believe the Apocrypha is inspired and therefore reject them as canonical.
  9. For the importance and proof of the above, see Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, Volume II, reprint edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books House, 1983). Note especially Chapters IV and VII of The Decrees and Canons of the Council of Trent.
  10. A modern critical study of the person and work of John Wycliffe remains to be done. Much of the current literature appears to be in the interest of diminishing or even eliminating his role in the translation of the Bible into English. An example of this view of Wycliffe is found in G. R. Evans, John Wycliffe: Myth & Reality (Downers Grove: IL: IVP Academic, 2005). The subtitle of the book illustrates the author’s presuppositions.
  11. The standard biography of Erasmus is Roland H. Bainton, Erasmus of Christendom (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969). For the influence of this book on the beginning of the Reformation, consult Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1950).
  12. See Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968) for the history of the printing and transmission of the Greek New Testament.
  13. See Metzger, Ibid., for the details of the printing of the Critical Greek New Testament.
  14. Lightfoot, op. cit., has a fascinating account of their discovery and importance.


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