To get a picture of how the Bible has come to different peoples in the world, spread out a map of the Eastern Hemisphere and imagine Palestine as the center of a pool. Think of God’s revelation of himself through the prophets, the Christ, and the apostles as a pebble dropped into the center of that body of water. In your mind’s eye watch the advance of the concentric circles out across that world pool from Palestine and call out the languages covered by the fast-spreading ripple: to the south, Coptic, Arabic, Ethiopic; to the west, Greek, Latin, Gothic, English; to the north, Armenian, Georgian, Slavonic; and eastward toward the rising sun, Syriac. The farther the Bible moved from its Hebrew/Aramaic/Greek center in Palestine, the later the date of its translation into yet another language.
That pebble of God’s revelation, the Bible, was produced in the Middle East predominantly in two of Palestine’s languages. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew with the exception of portions of the books of Daniel and Ezra, which may have been written in Aramaic, the language of the captivity. Probably the entire New Testament was written in common Greek (Koine), which was the dominant language of the eastern half of Caesar’s domain and understood almost everywhere else in the Roman Empire. Therefore, every person who did not speak Hebrew or Greek was apt to remain untouched by God’s written revelation until someone translated the Bible into his or her language.
The process of Bible translation began even before the birth of Christ, with translations of the Old Testament being made into Greek and Aramaic. Many of the dispersed Jews who lived prior to the coming of Christ did not know Hebrew and therefore required a translation in Greek or Aramaic. The most popular Greek translation of the Old Testament was the Septuagint. It was used by many Jews, and then by many Christians. In fact, the Septuagint was the “Bible” for all the first-generation Christians, including those who wrote various books of the New Testament.
The early Christian missionaries carrying a text of the Septuagint (or Hebrew Bible) and the Greek New Testament (or portions thereof), which they themselves could read, moved ever outward from those early churches at Jerusalem and Antioch about which we read in the book of Acts. They moved out among peoples whose languages they learned to speak. Such missionaries orally translated or paraphrased Bible passages necessary for instruction, preaching, and liturgy. Converts were made. New churches sprang up. Feeling an urgent need for the Bible to be put into the languages of the new believers, missionaries would soon set about translating the whole Bible into those languages. The impulse behind our modern Wycliffe Bible Translators has always been at the heart of missions, and in that way the major Bible versions were born.
Bible translation was thus spontaneous, invariably informal and oral at first, and sharply evangelistic in its motivation. The early church enthusiastically encouraged and undertook translating efforts. Even as late as the birth of the Slavonic version in the mid-ninth century, popes Adrian II (867–872) and John VIII (872–882) endorsed the project. But an amazing change came in the Western church in regard to Bible translation. Latin took over as the dominant language—such that no one read Greek anymore. Then, as learning became the province of only the wealthy nobility and prelates (churchmen of high rank, such as bishops), as the splendors of classical civilization were lost in the ferment of feudalism in Europe, and as the Roman Catholic hierarchy—headed by the pope—claimed a firm grip on Western Christendom, the Bible was removed from the hands of the laity. Therefore, as long as the priests could read the Latin texts and speak the liturgy in Latin (at least at a minimal level), there was no longer significant motivation for translations into the vernacular.
Latin came to be considered almost a sacred language, and translations of the Bible into the vernacular were viewed with suspicion. Pope Gregory VII (1073–1085) gave voice to such suspicions when, only two hundred years after Adrian II and John VIII had called for a Slavonic translation, Gregory attempted to stop its circulation. He wrote to King Vratislaus of Bohemia in 1079:
For it is clear to those who reflect upon it that not without reason has it pleased Almighty God that holy scripture should be a secret in certain places lest, if it were plainly apparent to all men, perchance it would be little esteemed and be subject to disrespect; or it might be falsely understood by those of mediocre learning, and lead to error.
Meanwhile, in Palestine and northern Africa, the inexorable march of Islam changed the religious texture of the Mediterranean’s eastern nd southern littorals. Within one hundred years of Muhammad’s death in 632 (born 570), over nine hundred churches had been destroyed and the Koran had become the “bible” in the great circle from the walls of embattled Byzantium round to the west—to the Spanish end of Europe.
Cramped by official opposition in the West and hindered by Islamic conquest in the Mideast, Bible translations slowed to a trickle for half a millennium. Translation efforts did not regain vitality until the Protestant Reformation of the early sixteenth century, at which time missionaries took advantage of movable-type printing (invented by Johannes Gutenberg) to produce multiple translations of the Bible. Erasmus expressed the desire of all Bible translators in the preface of his freshly published Greek New Testament (1516):
I wish that even the weakest woman should read the Gospel—should read the Epistles of Paul. And I wish these were translated into all languages, so that they might be read and understood, not only by Scots and Irishmen, but also by Turks and Saracens. To make them understood is surely the first step. It may be that they might be ridiculed by many, but some would take them to heart. I long that the husbandman should sing portions of them to himself as he follows the plough, that the weaver should hum them to the tune of his shuttle, that the traveller should beguile with their stories the tedium of his journey.
But what materials were used by the early translators and copyists who worked so painstakingly over their Bible translations? At the time of Christ and through the first two centuries of the church, the most popular writing materials were ink and papyrus (the ubiquitous glued-together strips of the Nile River reed). Until the first century, “books” were actually scrolls with long sheets of papyrus paper glued end to end and rolled up on paired spindles. Then, later in the first century, another form of a book was created called the codex (the precursor to the modern form of a book, with folded sheets and a stitched spine). Christians were among the first to use this form for books. In A.D. 332 the first Christian emperor, Constantine I, ordered fifty Bibles for the churches of his new capital city, Constantinople. He ordered those from Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, and specified that they were not to be scrolls, but codexes (or codices). They were also to be not of papyrus, but of vellum, carefully prepared sheep or antelope skins; for it was right about this time, in the late third and early fourth centuries, that codexes and vellum almost universally replaced scrolls and papyrus.
For centuries scribes laboriously copied Bibles all in capital letters; the earliest surviving manuscripts of Bible versions are of that type, called “uncials.” In the ninth and tenth centuries it became the fashion to write in lowercase letters; surviving manuscripts of that type are called “minuscules” or “cursives.” (There were, however, occasional cursive manuscripts as far back as the second century before Christ.) Minuscules dominate the surviving biblical manuscripts from the tenth through the sixteenth centuries.
It was in 1454 that Johannes Gutenberg made manuscript writing obsolete by using movable type for the first time. His first printed book appeared in 1456, a splendid Latin Bible. Our printed Bibles today contain chapter and verse divisions that were a relatively late development. Chapter divisions began in the Latin Vulgate and are variously credited to Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury (died 1089), to Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury (died 1228), or to Hugo de Sancto Caro of the thirteenth century. Verse numbers first appeared in the fourth edition of the Greek New Testament issued at Geneva in 1551 by Robert Etienne (Stephanus) and in the Athias Hebrew Old Testament of 1559–1561.
This is an excerpt from The Origin of the Bible by F. F. Bruce, J. I. Packer, Philip Comfort, and Carl F. H. Henry. To read more, you can purchase this book from many Christian bookstores and online retailers, including Tyndale.com: https://www.tyndale.com/p/the-origin-of-the-bible/9781414379326
Walter, V., et al. The Origin of the Bible. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2020.