The History Of The Bible

In the present chapter a sketch is to be given of the history of the Bible. There is required at least an outline of the story of its preservation, transmission, and diffusion since the various writings composing it were collected, selected, and recognized as authoritative and sacred. The long process of thus gathering and establishing them, technically known as the formation of the Canon, constitutes a separate theme—preliminary, indeed, and of the greatest interest—but needing to be treated by itself. For the simple purpose, however, of tracing the principal steps by which we have come into possession of the English Bible of our own day, it is necessary to cover only the last fifteen or sixteen centuries. Accordingly, for convenience, let us go back to that important way-mark in Christian history, 325 A. D., which was signalized by the adoption of the Nicene Creed; and from this point of departure, looking before and after, we may see the main facts which we need to notice.

Back of the date here mentioned there lay nearly three hundred years of remarkable Christian activity following the death of Jesus, during which the gospel had spread abroad through the greater portion of the civilized world, and at length had won recognition and acceptance by imperial Rome in the person of Constantine the Great, who had just come to the throne of the Caesars. The new religion had produced a fresh, strong literature, the best parts of which had been sifted out, gathered together, used and appealed to, in worship and teaching, by the general consensus of Christian opinion. This development had been slow and natural, and was not yet complete ; in fact the final determination of the New Testament Canon, by ecclesiastical decree, did not occur until 495 A. D. Yet, at the time we are considering, the chief of these select writings were already most highly esteemed, being regarded as very precious and practically of equal rank with the Old Testament. These last-named scriptures were produced within the fifteen centuries of Israelitish history which lay still farther back, before the time of Christ—indeed, the bulk of them within the second half of that period. They, likewise, had been sifted out and brought together-first, and gradually, into three distinct collections, and finally into a single collection; and toward the close of the period they had been translated into Greek for the use of Greek-speaking Jews, of whom there were many at Alexandria and the other leading cities of the Graeco-Roman world.

Some of these sacred writings—possibly of both Testaments, and certainly of the Old—existed upon prepared skins, but most of them upon papyrus, a material introduced among the Greeks from the Egyptians several centuries previously. It consisted of sheets made from the papyrus plant, a species of bulrush found along the river Nile and also in Syria. The interior or pith of the stalk, after removing the rind, was cut into thin strips, which were laid lengthwise, side by side, and crosswise on top, and then while damp were pressed together, being rubbed even and smooth by some hard substance like bone or ivory. Upon that crude kind of “paper” (de-rived from this very word “papyrus”) those precious words of religious thought and faith were inscribed with a sort of pen called a stylus, made from a reed. Obviously copies of the Scriptures, in whole or in part, must have been made quite frequently, in order both to preserve them and to circulate them among the churches.

After 325 A. D. a few events and developments took place which affected favorably the course of the Bible.

1. Christianity, being espoused by the emperor, immediately became honorable and powerful; its friends multiplied, its churches in-creased, and wealth began to flow to its support.

All this naturally augmented the demand for copies of the Scriptures. Constantine himself ordered no less than fifty for the churches of Constantinople alone.

2. The Christian writings, which had grown in importance until they had come to be as highly esteemed for spiritual uses as those of the Old Testament, were now more frequently recorded upon parchment. This had the twofold effect of rendering the Scriptures more secure, and of facilitating the collection of the New Testament books into a single volume, which had been impracticable before because of the inconvenient size of the papyrus rolls. At least two copies, Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, of the New Testament made shortly after this date, that is, made about the middle of the fourth century, were destined to survive until our own time.

3. Jerome was born 340 or 342 A. D., and died in 420. He became the leading Christian scholar of the Western Church, and at the suggestion of Pope Damasus devoted his abilities to the service of the Bible. He revised the existing Latin translation of the New Testament, rendered into Latin the Psalms from the Septuagint, and with the aid of a few Jewish rabbis executed a new translation of the remainder of the Old Testament directly from the Hebrew. This work, notwithstanding the papal sanction, encountered prolonged opposition from the conservative party in the Church. Nevertheless it won its way, and in the ninth century, after various modifications, superseded all other versions, being adopted with the utmost unanimity and praise, and having the title “Vulgate” transferred to it. It became the one authoritative version for all the churches of western Europe until the Protestant Reformation.

From about the middle of the fifth century onward for a thousand years, the Church of Rome was engaged in playing that conspicuous rôle which her bold ecclesiastical policy and the national changes occurring in Europe rendered possible. Under her administration Christianity was spread abroad with remarkable vigor and skill, and gradually won the allegiance of the great barbarian tribes—first of the Franks, and then of their German kinsmen; thus it became a powerful factor in the development of the modern European nations. Moreover, amid the ruins of the Roman Empire, this mighty Church stood for whatever of culture, order, reverence, and glory the word civilization could mean. It was not a time in which learning could thrive, for it was an era of turbulence resulting from the decay of the old paganism and the conflict of Christianity with the new barbarism. The knowledge of Greek had nearly died out, Latin was the language of the schools, the churches, and the courts, and new dialects were growing up here and there with the rise of new peoples. Yet a degree of scholarship was still maintained, some attempts were made at popular instruction, and a few of the universities were founded that were destined to become great centers of learning. Above all, in the monasteries the monks were busy transcribing the books of the Bible, in order to meet the constant demand for copies of the Scriptures. They constituted a class of scribes, who made a special business of copying manuscripts, and they attained great skill in the art. Their work had to be done by hand, it required infinite care and patience, and at best many mistakes were inevitable. Some of the scribes illuminated and ornamented their copies, so as to render them beautiful; and occasionally kings or ecclesiastical dignitaries caused manuscripts to be made the letters of which, especially in the names of God and Christ, were covered with silver or gold. Sometimes, indeed, these were made with all the letters in gold, and were bound with plates of silver and gold, studded with jewels.

This work of transcribing was not confined to the Latin language; translations were made into the various dialects with which Christianity had come into contact. A Catholic writer instances sixteen of these translations into modern languages made between the fourth and the fifteenth centuries. But the vast majority of the copies of the Bible circulating in the West during this long period were in the Latin—sometimes made from the Old Latin version, sometimes from Jerome’s translation, sometimes partly from each.

The process of copying the Scriptures was necessarily expensive. It required many small skins to yield sufficient parchment, which itself was costly, and the task involved an immense amount of labor. In the uncial manuscripts each letter was a capital and had to be written separately; and although the cursive style of writing, mainly employed after the ninth century, was much more easy and rapid, still the copying of the whole Bible was a toilsome undertaking. It has been estimated that the cost of producing a complete copy of the Scriptures in this fashion at present would be at least one thousand dollars. Therefore only the more important books of the Bible, such as the gospels or the epistles of Paul, were extensively circulated during the Middle Ages, between the fifth and the twelfth centuries. Under the circumstances, however, these may be said to have had a wide reading, and doubtless many thousands of manuscripts, great and small, might have been found in the various churches, monasteries and university libraries, as well as in private hands, throughout mediæval Europe.

Approaching the era of the Protestant Reformation, we encounter a growing spirit of in-dependence among the people, along with increasing corruptions on the part of the priests, monks, and higher ecclesiastics. A Christian heart-hunger craved the bread of life in the form of translations of the Bible into the mother-tongues of the different peoples, especially those of Teutonic stock. Various partial attempts were made in England to satisfy this desire, reaching from Cædmon’s paraphrase of the Scripture narrative, written about 670, to the work of John Wycliffe in the fourteenth century. Wycliffe rendered the New Testament into English about 1380, and the Old Testament in 1382 or a little later. This was only a secondary translation from the Latin Vulgate, but it was a great and promising achievements Other influences were at work which were soon to produce important results. Among these was a reawakening of interest in the study of the Greek language and literature, as an outcome of the Crusades. More significant still was the invention of printing in the fifteenth century, the service of which was to dispense with the laborious copying of manuscripts. Erasmus was born in 1467 and lived until 1536, and in the course of his career did more, perhaps, than any other man to sow the seeds of revolution by his biblical labors as well as by his writings. He became a critical scholar, was sometime professor of Greek in Cambridge, and published the New Testament in Greek with an improved Latin translation and comments. The first edition appeared in 1516, and several other editions, somewhat revised, in quick succession. The work created a furor everywhere and marked a new epoch in religious thought.

At the same time, over on the Continent, Luther was drawing the thunderbolt out of the sky by defying the power of Rome, and the Protestant Reformation was immediately inaugurated. In his prison-retreat in the Castle of Wartburg he at once began the translation of the Bible into the German language, and, along with other arduous labors, continued indefatigably at this great task for nearly twenty-five years, comprising the publication and revision of successive editions of his work.

Returning to England, we approach the developments which led directly to the production of the King James or Authorized Version of the Bible. We are not to think of this as the work of a single mastermind, or even as the unaided achievement of the particular group of scholars who finally gave it form. Behind it lay the labors of many toilers, covering nearly a century; indeed, if we include those of Wycliffe and his assistants, they extend over two and a quarter centuries. Foremost among all who contributed to the great result was William Tyndale, who doubly gave his life to the cause. He was born in 1484, was educated mainly at Oxford, but in 1510 was drawn to Cambridge by the fame of Erasmus, who was lecturing there.

Doubtless the influence of this brilliant teacher helped him to resolve upon the undertaking to which he so earnestly devoted himself. After nearly ten years of precarious employment, and being convinced that he could. not safely bring out his work at home, he left England in 1524 and went to Hamburg. Here he completed his translation of the New Testament, and the next year it was published at Worms. Several revised editions appeared in the decade following, along with portions of the Old Testament. But he was not able to finish the latter before he was seized by order of the emperor and put to death as a heretic, in 1536.

The year before Tyndale died Miles Coverdale translated the Bible from the Dutch (i. e., German) and Latin. It was printed abroad, but promptly appeared in England. While not actually authorized, the work had been produced with the sanction and support of Thomas Cromwell, secretary of state and otherwise chief functionary under King Henry VIII, and was dedicated to the king. It was the first complete Bible printed in English, and the Psalms in it are those still used in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England. Two revised editions were issued in 1537, being “set forth with the King’s most gracious license.”

The demand for the Bible grew. A work known as “Matthew’s Bible,” which was really a completion of Tyndale’s enterprise, was published in London in 1537, though printed probably in Antwerp. In 1539 Richard Taverner, an Oxford scholar, issued an independent translation. In the same year the “Great Bible,” so called from its very large size, was brought out under the direction of Cromwell, who ordered a copy to be put in some convenient place in every church. This work was not a new translation, but a thorough revision, made by Coverdale, of Matthew’s Bible. The edition of 1540 and subsequent editions contained a long preface by Archbishop Cranmer, whence it is often called “Cranrner’s Bible.”

But a reaction against Protestantism soon set in; and in 1543 all translations of the Bible bearing Tyndale’s name were ordered destroyed, and three years later Coverdale’s New Testament was joined in the same condemnation. “The public use of the English Bible was forbidden, and copies were removed from the churches.” A number of scholars, fleeing the country, found a welcome in Geneva, where Calvin and Beza were in the midst of their great work. Here was produced the important “Geneva Bible” which consisted of a careful revision of the Old Testament of the “Great Bible” and of Tyndale’s last revision of the New Testament. This was published in 1560, and soon came to be the Bible of the household among English people. Its superiority incited a demand for a further revision of the “Great Bible” for use in the churches. Such a work, known as the “Bishops’ Bible,” was published in 1568, with a second edition in 1572. In 1582-1609 the Roman Catholics produced the Rheims and Douai Bible, which was a translation, not from the original Hebrew and Greek, but from the Latin Vulgate.

But there was still a call for improvement. The marginal comments in the Genevan Bible, which were of a Calvinistic tone, were objectionable to many, while other faults were pointed out by scholars. At a conference called by King James I, in 16o4, the subject was brought up by Dr. Reynolds, President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and a Puritan leader, who “moved his Majesty that there might be a new translation of the Bible, because those which were allowed in the reign of King Henry VIII and Edward VI were corrupt, and not answerable to the truth of the original.” He was supported by Bishop Bancroft of London, and the king was interested; indeed, it was the latter who proposed the plan of procedure, namely : that the revision or translation should be made principally by the universities; that it should be approved by the bishops, by the Privy Council, and by the king himself; and that it should have no marginal commentary. A list of fifty-four distinguished scholars was approved for the task, and in 16o7 they set to work, at least forty-seven of them. They were divided into six groups, sitting two at Westminster, two at Oxford, and two at Cambridge. Taking the Bishops’ Bible as a basis, they consulted and used to some extent the translations of Tyndale, Matthew, Coverdale, the “Great Bible,” the Geneva Bible, and the Rheims and Douai Version. They were occupied laboriously for two years and nine months, the last nine months being given to the final revision by a committee of two from each of the six groups. The new translation was published in 1611, with a “Dedication to the King,” and with a lengthy preface bestowing abundant praise upon him for his royal patronage, and explaining the principles and aims of the work. It was “appointed to be read in churches,” and, though there is no record of any formal act of authorization, it at once superseded the Bishops’ Bible and grew in popular favor until it became the recognized Bible of the English people.

The interest which these various early translations into the vernacular awakened was intense. We in these calm, tolerant days may not easily conceive how matters then stood. Say what they will to the contrary, the Catholics did not want the common people to read the Bible. “Charles V and Philip II passed a decree which inflicted the punishment of death by burning on any in the Netherlands who presumed to read the Bible in any language which they could understand. Likewise in England, “even under Henry VIII, it was a crime punishable with death to read the Bible in a language which they understood.” le Consequently the people had known little about its precious contents; but now that it had become possible for them to read or hear it, they were profoundly stirred.

Notwithstanding the deep feeling thus everywhere manifested with reference to the Bible, the authorities opposed its popular use. When Tyndale’s translation appeared in England, its destruction was promptly ordered, and thousands of copies were burned at the old cross of St. Paul’s, as “a burnt offering most pleasing to Almighty God. Bishop Tunstall and other bishops subscribed money to buy up all the copies they could get hold of; but this proceeding merely helped Tyndale to pay his debts and go on with his revision and printing of the New Testament. Later, when the Great Bible was published, and copies were set up in the churches, six being in St. Paul’s, Bishop Bonner complained because the people gathered about these to hear the Scriptures read, in preference to listening to his sermons. Even as late as the Council of Trent (1545—63) it was decreed that whoever should presume to read or to have a Bible without permission might not receive absolution until he should surrender the book.

Doubtless this general attitude of hostility on the part of both the ecclesiastical and the civil authorities was due to several causes—to intellectual and moral inertia, to the instinct of self-preservation inhering in institutions as well as in individuals, to the wholesome conservatism which desires to “hold fast that which is good,” and also to that distrust of the people and that dread of liberalism which have so often stood in the way of human progress. It was the age of the Inquisition; it was the age, too, of the world’s travail in the birth of the modern spirit, which was “set for the rise and fall of many.” Instinctively the reigning powers in Church and State felt the tendency of events, and shrank from consequences which were fraught with even greater danger to themselves than they were aware. Yet their antagonism proved futile, truth and right prevailed, and the Word of the Lord found free course to run and be glorified.

The great influence of the Authorized Version among English-speaking people, fitly paralleling that of Luther’s translation among the Germans, has been marked from the beginning. Its superiority to previous English renderings was quickly recognized, and its literary merits have never failed of appreciation. “It is the finest specimen of our prose literature at a time when English prose wore its stateliest and most majestic form,” says Mr. Frederick G. Kenyon. Doubtless few good judges would dissent from this opinion. The English Ianguage reached a very high stage of development in the half-century immediately preceding the appearance of this version, for it was the age of Shakespeare and Bacon, of Latimer, Spenser, and Raleigh, and it is easy to see how admirably it uses the language, and how worthily the language fits the exalted and serious thoughts of the Scriptures “No master of style,” says Mr. Kenyon further, “has been blind to its charms; aid those who have recommended its study most strongly have often been those who, like Carlyle and Matthew Arnold, were not prepared to accept its teaching to the full.” Coleridge and Ruskin have acknowledged the surpassing beauty and power of this splendid production, even from a purely literary point of view; and we shall not be amiss if we regard it as our greatest English classic, and therefore claim for it a place in the education of all who would understand either the course of English history or the growth of English literature.

The Authorized Version is said to be “translated out of the original tongues ; and with the former translations diligently compared and revised.” What does this mean? That the Old Testament was rendered from the Hebrew, and the New Testament from the Greek. But what manuscript or manuscripts did the translators have before them; the very first made, those written by the biblical authors themselves? Manifestly not; for those originals had perished long before, and only copies of copies remained. These copies were all of quite late dates, they differed more or less from one another, some of them therefore were inaccurate to a considerable degree, and the best thing the translators could do was to compare the various copies closely and use their critical judgment in deciding which reading to follow in any given case. This they did, and the result was a remarkable achievement of conscientious labor; but they could not produce a perfect translation of the original words of the original biblical writings, simply because they had no perfect manuscript copy. Perhaps there can never be an absolutely perfect copy, but a great improvement in this matter has taken place since the Authorized Version was published.

It can be readily seen that the oldest copies of the Bible, or of any portions of it, must be the most reliable because nearest to the original. For a serious disadvantage of the hand-copying method of transmitting and diffusing any writings—and, as has been shown, such was the only method during nearly fifteen centuries of Christian history—was the inevitable and in-creasing corruption of the text, resulting from sheer human fallibility. Hence, as a rule, the later manuscripts of the Bible are inferior to the earlier, especially before the dawn of modern critical scholarship, beginning with Erasmus. Now, some of the very oldest and most important biblical manuscripts have been found within the last two centuries, a few of them, indeed, within the last half-century. At present we have four very ancient MSS of the New Testament, two of which—Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus—date from the fourth century, and the other two-Codex Alexandrinus and Codex Ephraemi—from the fifth. Of these four priceless documents the first named is in the Vatican Library at Rome, the second in the Imperial Library at St. Petersburg, the third in the British Museum at London, and the other in the National Library at Paris. Each of these has an interesting history, and not a little of thrilling romance is connected with at least one of them —Codex Sinaiticus.

This manuscript was discovered by Dr. Constantine Tischendorf in the monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai upon his third visit there in 1859. At his first visit, in 1844, he had accidentally found some pages of the Old Testament which were about to be cast into the fire, and had quite easily obtained permission to keep them. His second visit, in 1853, was fruitless; but returning, six years later, under the patronage of the Czar, he was received with more favor by the monks, and was rewarded at last by discovering and obtaining a complete copy of the New Testament, on vellum made from the finest skins of antelopes, and in a large, clear hand-writing. He brought it home with joy and published it for the benefit of all biblical scholars, and it has since reposed securely in the archives of Russia’s Imperial Library. Dr. Tischendorf assigned it to the middle of the fourth century.

One of the other manuscripts mentioned—Codex Vaticanus—is generally considered older, and therefore the very oldest known to exist; but it likewise dates from the fourth century. It has been in its present home, the Vatican Library, since about 1450. After being jealously guarded, and shown with great reluctance even to the foremost scholars, it was published in a complete photographic facsimile in 1889-90, by permission of Pope Leo XIII, in connection with the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of his elevation to the priesthood.

Because of all the discoveries subsequent to the date of the Authorized Version, and because of the patient labors of many scholars to improve the text of both Testaments, it was felt, a generation or more ago, that the time had come for another revision of the Bible. As early as 1856 the subject was broached, but not until 187o was definite action taken. In that year a committee of English churchmen, soliciting the co-operation of scholars from other religious bodies and from America, undertook the work of producing a Revised Version. Two companies were formed. The one for the New Testament occupied ten and a half years, sitting about forty days a year; that for the Old Testament fourteen years, sitting about fifty-six days a year. In 1871 two corresponding companies of American scholars joined in the task. The Revised New Testament was published May 17, 1881; the entire Bible, May 19, 1885.

The principal merit of this revision is its greater accuracy. Not only is it rendered from an improved text, but it is more correctly translated than any former version. It has contributed much to a truer general understanding of the Bible, not merely in its literary aspects, but even more in its teachings. For example, it presents the subject-matter in proper paragraphs, instead of in single verses, and thereby conveys to the reader some sense of wholeness in his conception of any given passage or book; it prints such works as Job, the Psalms, and Proverbs in a form to indicate their character as poetry; it likewise indicates the quotations in the New Testament from the Old ; its marginal readings throw light on the text; and its more truthful rendering of the originals formerly translated “hell,” “devil,” “everlasting,” “damnation,” etc., dispels not a few gross errors. The educative value of these changes marks them as a noteworthy improvement, alone justifying the work as a whole. We may expect it to win its way among those who care more for correctness than for euphony in reading the Scriptures-who believe, indeed, that the meaning of Holy Writ is too important to be concealed or misinterpreted for the sake of a smooth and pleasant rendering. The message which the Bible has for us is the message which its authors really delivered; and it is the effort to get at that actual, original message which is at once the inspiration and the glory of modern biblical scholarship.

When the Revised Version was published in 1881-85, there were numerous instances in which different translations from those that were adopted were preferred by the American Revision Committee. In as much as the English scholars had taken the initiative, it was agreed that they should have the decisive vote in all cases involving diverse opinions ; but, on the other hand, it was also agreed that the American preferences should be published in an Appendix to the Revised Version for a term of fourteen years, and that during this period the revised Bible as thus issued by the University Presses of Oxford and Cambridge should receive the cordial sup-port of the whole body of Revisers. The American committee thereupon decided to continue its organization, with a view to the ultimate preparation of still another revision which should embody the preferences of the American scholars, together with certain other desired improvements. This purpose has been at length fully carried out in the publication, in 1901, by Messrs. Thomas Nelson & Sons, of the American Standard Edition of the Revised Version.

There are many respects in which this American Standard Edition is superior, not only to the English Revision, but to all previous versions in our language. Not merely has it incorporated the readings published in the Appendix, as above stated, but that Appendix itself has been carefully revised. It has adopted the term “Jehovah” for “Lord” and in many instances “God,” thereby distinctly conveying the important historic fact that Jehovah was peculiarly Israel’s God. It has changed the paragraphing of the English Re-vision slightly and for the better, and has furnished subject-headings at the top of the page which are not only convenient guides in reading, but are also more correct than those of the Authorized Version; and in the form of footnotes it gives alternate renderings of words, phrases, or sentences, or anglicized equivalents of the originals, which afford instruction as to various plausible or possible shades of meaning. Inaccurate translations are corrected, as in I Tim. vi. 10, or Acts xvii. 22; obsolete words are discontinued, and modern expressions employed; the term “Holy Spirit” is substituted for “Holy Ghost;” and copious marginal references are sup-plied in the larger editions. These and other features make the American Standard Revision undoubtedly the most nearly perfect version of the Scriptures ever produced in the English tongue.

Still other translations of the Bible, in whole or in part, have appeared of late, but they can be barely mentioned here. The Polychrome Bible, for the studious classes, is the most important of these; while The Twentieth Century New Testament, rendered into the language of today, makes its pages wonderfully vivid and interesting to the ordinary reader. Besides, there are instructive paraphrases of portions of the Scriptures entitled Messages of the Bible, prepared by Professors Kent and Sanders; and there is Professor Richard G. Moulton’s Modern Reader’s Bible, which, using the Revised Version of 1881-85, casts the material in a most attractive literary and typographical form, issued in small volumes, with introductory and explanatory notes. Nor should omission be made of The Temple Bible, in style corresponding to the “Temple Edition” of Shakespeare, issued by the same publishers, Messrs. J. M. Dent and Company, and using the text of the King James Version. Another admirable edition is The New-Century Bible, edited by Professor W. F. Adeny, and published likewise in small volumes. This work employs both the King James translation and the English Revision, and is furnished with copious footnotes and instructive introductions embodying modern information respecting the various biblical books. Together these many editions have brought to a high state of perfection and usefulness the great work of translating the Holy Scriptures into the English language. Thus the present age is linked with the ages of the past by the golden chain of the history of the Bible.






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