How We Got the Bible: The Story Behind the Story

            Take a minute and grab a Bible off the shelf. NIV, KJV, NASB—whatever is closest will do.  

            Do you realize what you’re holding in your hands? The inspired, authoritative word of God! The Scriptures are the Spirit-breathed record of God’s mighty decrees and deeds: commencing with creation, the patriarchs, and the prophets; climaxing in the arrival of Jesus the Son in the fullness of time; continuing in the Spirit’s mission through the church to disciple the nations; and culminating in the day when our God makes all things new. What a treasure we possess!

            The story the Bible unfolds is a grand adventure. But so too is the story behind the Bible. Consider how many hands have had a role in delivering this ancient spiritual library into our hands. Each time we open the Scriptures we link hands with a great chain of witnesses. We stand in the company not only of Moses, David, and the Twelve, but countless men and women—most of them unknown to history—who sacrificed much to preserve these sacred words for us.

Some Christians seem to imagine that the Bible descended directly from heaven on golden plates inscribed in 17th-century English! It’s understandable why some would think this way. Most ministers and elders haven’t equipped congregants to appreciate the history behind the Bible. 

Perhaps they feel the task is too academic. Does the average Christian really need to know about the translation of the Septuagint, the canonization of the New Testament, the debate surrounding the Apocrypha, or the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls? It’s not like any of this will be on the final exam—will it?

Yet, I believe that our study of the Bible will be enriched if we have a working knowledge of its origins. I came to this realization almost twenty years ago when a little-known author named Dan Brown published The Da Vinci Code.  Seemingly overnight, I started getting phone calls from church members who’d read the book. They wanted to know if its claims were true. Did the early church suppress the truth about Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalene by removing certain books from the Bible? Is the Bible as we know it the fabrication of a church council convened by a power-hungry emperor in the 4th century?

At the time, I couldn’t grasp how any Christian could give a moment’s credence to this nonsense. The Da Vinci Code is just a novel, I assured them. It’s not a serious work of scholarship. Then it dawned on me how little I had done in my own teaching and preaching to help them understand how the biblical canon had come to be. If topics like this weren’t being addressed from the pulpit, is it any wonder some might suppose that the church was hiding something? The church—much like nature—abhors a vacuum. Where positive teaching is lacking, all sorts of half-baked ideas and conspiratorial claptrap will rush in to fill the void.   

My goal in this series of articles is to provide a clearer picture of how the Scriptures originated, why certain writings were not included, how the Bible was preserved across the centuries, and why there is such diversity of translations today. (Phew—that’s a lot!)

Some of what we’ll cover may seem unsettling at first. Many believers, for example, are shocked to learn that the original copies of the biblical writings no longer exist.  The earliest manuscripts we have are copies of copies, and no two handwritten copies are exactly alike. At the same time, the Bible is by far the best-preserved literary work from antiquity. No other ancient writing is attested in as many early manuscripts as the Bible. Truly, God has not left himself without witness!

As we progress through these lessons, we’ll pause to consider some of the figures who’ve played a key role in shaping, safeguarding, and translating the Bible as we know it. I think you’ll find this to be the most interesting and inspiring part of our journey. History isn’t a dry collection of dates and names; it’s the story of who we are and who we’re trying to become. The history behind the Bible is no exception. It reveals much about our collective struggle to live as the people of God. Even more, it testifies to the faithful providence of God and his fierce determination to make the gospel known through vessels of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7).  

 My prayer for this series is that we’ll come to treasure the Bible even more—that the treasure which rests between its covers will seep into our bones and awaken our hearts in gratitude. The greatest tragedy of the Bible’s storied history is that the best preserved and most distributed book of all time has become the least read bestseller of all time. It’s not just the secular world that has turned the Bible into a closed book. Research shows that fewer than 20% of churchgoing Protestants read the Bible daily. The vast majority rarely crack its covers at all.  

As the Bible translator William Tyndale was preparing to die at the stake, he reportedly cried in a loud voice, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!” May the Lord answer Tyndale’s plea in our time and open our eyes to the glorious riches revealed in his word. 

Thank you, Father, for being the Lord of history, Author of the future, and our Ever-Present Help. We thank you for the countless men and women across the ages that you’ve raised up to deliver these sacred writings to us. Deepen our gratitude for the gift we’ve received and strengthen our resolve to hold forth (and out) the word of truth that others might believe in Jesus’ name. Amen. 

-Darren Johnson preaches for Central Church of Christ, Cedar Rapids, Iowa