My title is a double entendre that you might catch if you think about it for a bit. First there is the story of the Bible. That is to say, the story the Bible tells from Genesis through Revelation. The other possibility is the story about the Bible. That is to say, how the Bible came into being.
The Bible’s story begins with the first inscription of each of its writings, the Old Testament (OT) first, and finally the inscription of each New Testament (NT) text. At the time of inscription each writing of the Old and NT existed alone in the ancient world as a part of the literary stream of Western civilization. They were not part of a selective group of writings. Only later did people, who valued their messages, gather them into groups with other writings. They were initially understood individually apart from other writings. The OT contains the writings of the ancient Israelites. It is “old” to Christians but today it is the holy Scripture of modern Judaism.
I must now leave the story of Israel’s ancient collection of sacred scripture for another day, and will turn to the Bible’s “postscript”: The NT. It is a small collection of twenty-seven initially isolated writings, which date from the fifties of the first century AD into the early second century—or from the Pauline letters to the inscription of second Peter, the latest NT writing. The NT is the Christian part of the Bible. The Jewish Scriptures being treated in the NT as a resource book of prophecies and religious ideas by the Christ followers of the fourth century and later.
Paul’s undisputed letters (1 Thessalonians, Romans, 1, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, and Philemon) are the earliest writings of the collection and date from the 50s and 60s of the first century, some 15-30 years from the crucifixion of Jesus. They are “undisputed” because virtually everyone thinks a particular man by the name of Paul composed them. The other writings bearing his name or the supra script title “according to Paul” in some translations (2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, and Hebrews) are not regarded in critical scholarship as being composed by Paul (critical scholarship makes decisions on the basis of historical evidence rather than church tradition). Hence, their authorship is “disputed,” which means: critical scholars regard them as anonymous or pseudonymous writings. These texts were not written by Paul but by an unnamed and unknown disciple of Paul.
The General or Catholic Epistles (James, 1, 2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude) was the latest group of writings to be gathered together and used in the early ecclesiastical communities, although 1 Peter and 1 John were popular in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. We first hear of a group of seven “Catholic Epistles” from Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea (4th century).
Although the book of Acts initially was part of a unitary work of two volumes with the Gospel of Luke, they were early separated and each had its own subsequent literary history. In the 2nd century Acts gained in popularity in early orthodoxy helping to document the concept of apostolic tradition. The book of Revelation (the Apocalypse) was well accepted in the Western church and widely cited as scripture in the 2nd century, but Eastern Christians tended to reject Revelation. The full recognition of Revelation did not come about until the late 4th century.
There are two ways that authorship is determined: following church tradition or by offering a historical rationale for or against authorship. Except for Paul’s undisputed letters, the authors of the rest of the NT texts are anonymous or pseudonymous, meaning their authors are unknown. In antiquity texts were titled by their first lines, not unlike some modern poetry. Their supra script titles were added by the later church.
Who gave the New Testament its present arrangement of grouping texts by literary type (gospels, acts, epistles, and apocalypse) is likewise unknown, but it would have been persons concerned with the religious life of the early Christ followers, who found the texts helpful for the religious life of the community. For that reason, other texts, not in your Bible were used in worship in many churches, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Apocalypse of Peter, 1 Clement, Barnabas, and others.
Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, Egypt in his Easter Letter #39 in 367 gives the earliest complete listing of the NT texts used in Christian worship and education today.
If we stand in the middle fourth century and look backwards in time to see the state of these NT writings, we are immediately faced with the following situation. There are over 5000 manuscripts of the Greek NT and no two of them agree alike in all particulars. Further, virtually all early manuscripts date from the third century and later are fragmentary, virtually scraps of texts. Not until the fourth century do we find whole manuscripts that survived, collected into a single volume, although not all of our NT is included in the collections, and certain other texts not in our NT are included.
The latter half of the 18th century saw the beginnings of a scientific approach to studying the differences between the surviving Greek manuscripts. Ancient scribes who copied the manuscripts would make mistakes in copying and add their own thoughts in the margins. Later scribes would copy the marginalia into the body of the writing. None of the manuscripts that survived is an original author’s copy. To accommodate all this diversity in the texts, Scholars that are referred to as text critics developed the science of textual criticism. The goal of the text critic is to determine the wording of the original author’s copy by comparing the Greek manuscripts and the ancient versions in other ancient languages. It is an ongoing process requiring the seasoned judgement of the text critic, and as each new ancient manuscript is discovered it must be analyzed and compared to the present readings for an improvement of the text. A critical version of the Greek New Testament in koine Greek (the Greek vernacular of the ancient language) is published with an apparatus of approximately half a page listing all the significant variations to the text-half at the top half of the page. Translators are currently working from the 28th edition of this publication giving the current judgment of text critics as to what the original author’s copy of the NT texts read.
Non-Greek readers of the New Testament will only encounter these different readings by comparing different translations of the NT, because each translator decides for himself or herself the Greek wording to be translated into English.*
In the first and second centuries there is evidence of some 34 early Christian Gospels. From this wealth of possibility, the church by the 3rd century selected a fourfold gospel collection. Given here in their order of dating: Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John were valued as deposits of an oral tradition that remained viable into the second century and competed with the written gospels. No Christian artifacts from the first century exist.
Matthew and Luke are thought, with good reason, to have used a common sayings source (called: Q[uelle]) that no longer exists except in the agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark. Their common use of the sayings source accounts for the verbatim or near verbatim passages shared in Matthew and Luke. And the Gospel of John is thought to have used a lost source called “The Signs Source,” which also no longer exists.
This information is something to consider when you describe the New Testament to others. My take on this information is this: If one describes the “Bible” as “the Word of God,” honesty requires that one also recognize and include the role of human beings in its production as well in the description. My recommendation that does this is: The Bible may be inspired by God but it is clearly designed and produced by human minds and hands.
Missouri State University
*For examples of Bible translations differing in the Greek text that each translation uses see Hedrick, “Variations in the Bible,” Wry Guy Blog, May 23, 2023: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=variations+in+the+Bible
Athanasius, Easter Letter, #39: https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2806039.htm
Eusebius, The Ecclesiastical History (trans. Kirsopp Lake; 2 vols. LCL: Harvard).
Harry Y. Gamble, “Canon/New Testament,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday, 1992), Vol. 1. 852-861.
Charles W. Hedrick, “The Four/34 Gospels” Bible Review 17.3 (June 2002),20-31, 46.
Hedrick, When History and Faith Collide: Studying Jesus (1999; reprint Wipf &Stock 2013).
Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament. Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (3rd ed.; Oxford, 1992).
Graydon F. Snyder, ANTE PACEM. Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine (Mercer, 1985).