It is not the purpose, nor within the scope of this volume to attempt any exhaustive or technical study of the books of the Old and New Testaments. That work is being done by trained specialists, and requires a peculiar equipment which is not common, and to which the author makes no claim. The general inquirer who would learn the truth concerning the making of the Bible in its present form must give due regard to the best obtainable authority, carefully weighing the evidence and probability, so far as is possible. Actual history, and formal proof for much which it would be desirable to know, are meager, and so far as spiritual values are concerned the internal evidence is by far the most important. The limited survey which follows is compiled from a careful comparison between the most scholarly and well recognized authorities who are conservative in their general conclusions. They are reverent in spirit and constructive in temper. Critical and technical research shows that the ancient Hebrew traditions are often unreliable, and that careful discrimination is indispensable.
The Pentateuch, or first five books of the Old Testament, the authorship of which for so long was attributed to Moses, is now generally believed to be a collective growth probably compiled at a much later period. Varying literary style and construction, tone and motive, the inclusion of scattered epochs, the account of Moses' death, and various other reasons make the above conclusion logical, if not entirely positive. The book of Joshua bears a close relation to the Pentateuch, being a continuation of it in general character.
The order in which the various books of the Old Testament appear is no indication of the chronological order of their production. That noble epic which so grandly portrays the process of soul development, named Job, is thought to be one of the most ancient of the biblical books. The book of Judges includes the narratives of the successive Judges of Israel gathered by some unknown compiler. The histories given in the two books of Samuel are thought to be by some writer, perhaps belonging to the court of David. First and Second Kings, and also Chronicles bear evidence of the authorship of some unknown scribe. Ezra and Nehemiah, which contain an account of the lives and work of the prophets named, were evidently written after the Return, and are thought to be the work of some Jewish chronicler of official rank. The poetic collection called the Psalms, a national book of religious songs, bears evidence of varied authorship in addition to that of David. The compilation of wise sayings named Proverbs, though called after Solomon, was probably the work of various writers who lived both before and after him.
Of the remaining books of the Old Testament, which form an important part of the Sacred Writings of ancient Israel, there is also much uncertainty as to their exact authorship and respective dates. At the best there can be but an approximation to the actual historic facts. The latest and most careful criticism makes the authorship of fourteen of the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament fairly sure with parts of some others.
The authors, as well as the Scribes of ancient Israel, were mainly compilers and copyists. The writings of the nation, whether religious, political, or historical, were common property. There was no copyright law or custom of literary ownership. Individuals as they were moved or "inspired" added their quota to the common stock. Valuation was internal rather than dependent upon the name of the writer.
As to the authorship of the books of the New Testament, there is a much greater certainty. The four Evangelists whose names are given to their Gospels undoubtedly wrote or edited them in great degree. Luke was also the author of the Acts. The letters or Epistles, with the exception of Hebrews, bear the names of their writers. But the reader of the Bible who peruses it for its spirit and inspirational quality, places little emphasis upon authorship. As the power of the Bible lies deeper than the letter or any external authority, the earnest seeker for truth need not concern himself if some former or traditional suppositions are disturbed, or even overthrown. Each writer, whatever his name or official standing, is the unique channel for a spiritual message. "He that hath ears to hear let him hear." Whoever may be the mouthpiece, it is the Spirit that speaketh unto the churches. That the glad tidings are colored or modified by each human expositor makes it more peculiarly fitting for different classes, and for all sorts and conditions of men. It would seem that even a glance at the history of the manuscripts which form the basis of the Bible, as we have it today, should be sufficient to dispel any idea of "inerrancy" and of homage to the letter.
There is not the slightest reason to think that the Evangelists made any record of the words of Jesus as they fell from his lips. The closest investigation shows that the earliest of the Gospels was not written until from thirty-five to fifty years had elapsed after the recorded transactions. Any accuracy of language beyond a mingling of memory and general tradition is improbable. About fifty years passed after the active ministry of Jesus before the Acts of the Apostles was written. In the meantime, a theory of the meaning and purpose of his life had become general and met with acceptance. Thus it is evident that the dogma of the infallible perfection and inspiration of the text of this, as of other parts of the Bible, is unreasonable if not impossible. The mere fact that there is a Revised Version giving more correct and often modified meaning to many passages in translation should be conclusive as to the theory of inerrancy.
If infallibility in the letter of the Bible existed anywhere, it must have been inherent in the original manuscripts, as they came from the hands of their authors. But even were it admitted that they were but amanuenses receiving the word by direct dictation, it remains that the writings were long ago scattered and lost beyond recovery, and that their gathering and unification has been fragmentary and uncertain. The most thorough scholarship is now employed in a reverent effort to find out the purpose of their messages and the motive and conditions under which they gained currency. The significant fact is, that these men had vital spiritual truth, a knowledge of which the world greatly needed. The outward verbiage through which it was conveyed is but the husk which encloses the fruit. It would be as reasonable to identify divinity with every detail of their manners and costume as with every form and peculiarity of their diction.
In ancient times any book was called a bible. It is believed that Chrysostom, in the fifth century, was the first to employ the Greek Biblia (the books), as applied to the Hebrew sacred writings, and so it came into use in the Eastern Church. They usually were made in the form of a scroll and the text was on parchment or more commonly papyrus, a kind of paper made from a water-plant. Each copy, and there were comparatively few, was made by a scribe or regular copyist. The books were called "The Law and the Prophets," or "Holy Scriptures," before the inclusion of the writings afterwards designated as the New Testament. The durability of the books which were written on papyrus was quite limited. The composition of the books of the Old Testament spreads over a period of about twelve hundred years, and they were gathered somewhat in their present form about a century before the Christian Era. None of the earliest manuscripts of the Bible have survived, and only fragmentary copies of copies, scattered and considerably incoherent have been preserved. The oldest existing New Testament manuscripts were made hundreds of years later than those by the original writers. Only by careful comparison of widely scattered remains can the text of the originals be approximated. Nearly two thousand manuscripts of portions of the Old Testament are now in existence, none of them being older than about 1,000 A.D. The most careful examination of them has shown a variation in about 150,000 passages, though nearly all the differences are unimportant. While a superstitious veneration of the letter strongly aided preservation, there are indications that before the text assumed its present form the versions in other tongues show differences which cannot be traced in any manuscript now in existence.
The writings which make up the New Testament had no such systematic copying as was done by the older professional Scribes. Though so much more recent than "The Law and the Prophets," their variations are yet more numerous. Of the fifteen hundred or more partial New Testament manuscripts now preserved, dating from the fourth to the sixteenth century, the variations are important and the original signatures of the authors have been copied and re-copied indefinitely. They are generally in Greek, though sometimes accompanied by a Latin translation. Besides the regular manuscripts before mentioned, early translations were made into the tongues of other countries where the Hebrew or Greek was not spoken. Through careful comparison these have been useful in confirming or correcting the differences before noticed.
The version of the Bible called the Vulgate, from the old Latin, was undertaken by Jerome at the order of Pope Damasus in A.D. 382. In the sixteenth century the Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches took different courses as to their chosen versions of the Bible. The Lutheran party after considerable controversy settled upon the pure and full biblical canon as is held by the Protestants of today. The same held true of the Swiss or Reformed party, and through them, and by way of the Westminster Confession of Faith, we have received our present body of sacred Scripture. The Roman Catholic Church, in its Council of Trent in A.D. 1545, adopted the Old Testament Apocrypha as an integral part of the Old Testament canon. In 1582 a New Testament was issued by the English Catholic Church at Rheims, and the Old Testament in 1609 at Douay, France. Before the latter publication, the standard text had been fixed and proclaimed by the Holy See. Several private revisions have since been made by scholars in the Catholic Church, but as the matter had been already officially settled they received no sanction.
The Gospels are not as much direct histories of Jesus, as impressions, traditions, and ideals of him which grew up after the close of his earthly career. He left no manuscript, and so far as known no directions or arrangements for the copying and promulgation of his sayings. There was no logi cal motive for any effort toward their preservation among his followers, for they expected his early reappearance, the setting up of his kingly authority, and the establishment of the national supremacy. When at length the records began to be made and the traditions revived, it is evident that variations instead of one fixed account would appear. Each memory, even of the same events, would have its special emphasis and color. But the general ideal of all would be Messiahship. When at length the ideal of a temporal reign gradually began to give place to that of a more spiritual and moral leadership, his mission became increasingly clarified. Still later this was again obscured by theological dogmatism and speculation.
The idea that the Bible in some miraculous way came down from heaven in complete form, has filled the imagination of men, even in spite of its known history and certain gradual accretion. Miracles, with superstition, were grouped around it, and they increased with time and distance. The Book steadily took on the character of a shrine and oracle, and there is no possible doubt about its growth, step by step. After the time of Ezra, the Scribe, the professional exponents of the biblical economy copied and excluded by a process of natural selection. There was no technical test or exact standard, but the problem of the Old Testament canon solved itself through the spiritual consciousness of men. About the time of the advent of Jesus, Josephus, and the Hebrew authorities generally, recognized as sacred substantially the same writings which are included today. But, as before indicated, other books, apocryphal in character, were ranked next to them, and afterwards often classed or confused with them.
The books of final selection were called the canonical ones, and the others the uncanonical. Canonization signifies measured, approved. When officially sanctioned by Church councils, any religious rules or laws become canonical. At the time of the Reformation when the Protestant churches transferred their authority from the Church to the Bible, the distinction with them became fixed. But since that time the Apocrypha, or uncanonical books often have been used as an accompaniment to the regular Scriptures. References are frequent in the Old Testament to other books outside the canon.
The canon of the New Testament was as much a matter of growth and natural selection as the Old. It was a gradual and unconscious shaping. based upon inner vitality rather than external authority. The vote of councils was but a formal confirmation of the general verdict, as spontaneously arrived at.
Jesus proclaimed not a code of morals, or ethics, but a living gospel, not words to be recorded, but divinity in humanity. From recollection and reputation, his disciples from time to time made records for preservation of the sayings and doings of the three years' ministry. About the same time, Paul's letters to the churches, outlining the practical application of the words of Jesus, became enshrined in the memory and consciousness of the growing numbers of Christians, Hebrew and Gentile. The four Gospels, though aiming to portray the same experiences, are so unlike in tone and standpoint that they fully reveal the peculiar individuality of the writers.
Besides the letters of Paul, other apostles and teachers wrote their interpretations of the life and words of Jesus. And thus the isolated and fragmentary parts of the New Testament at length became crystallized, and in due time canonized. But the process was long and slow, and accompanied by much speculation and controversy.
The Council of Carthage about the close of the fourth century ratified the canon for the churches of the West, substantially in its present order and form. But there remained some moral doubt, especially regarding the Hebrews, Second Peter, and James, and this uncertainty was felt even as late as the Reformation, and was shared by Luther and Calvin. The Roman Catholic Church has always regarded the Bible as secondary in authority, a book needing official interpretation and explanation. Supreme authority being vested in the Pope and Church, the common people were restrained from direct contact with the Book. The right of private judgment was unrecognized and priestly control supreme.
The first crude effort to put the Bible into English vernacular was made by Caedmon in the seventh century, in poetic style. It was not a translation but a continuous story told by him in the very imperfect language of that day. A little later an effort at translation was made by Bed6, who at length became known as "the monk of Jarrow." He put the Gospel of St. John into the very imperfect English of the time, and its teaching was a development among the roots of early English literature. But the beginnings of the written Anglo-Saxon tongue were well-nigh obliterated by the Norman Conquest. A new language was gradually forming, but not until the fourteenth century did it become coherent and general, largely through Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales. About this time Wycliffe planned to produce an English Bible, so much needed by the common people. He was summoned before the papal tribunal by the Archbishop, but being befriended by royalty, at length, in spite of ecclesiastical opposition he produced the desired translation. With the assistance of his "poor priests" a large number of copies at great labor and expense were made by hand, of which more than a hundred of the first edition are still in existence. He was bitterly persecuted while he lived, and nearly half a century after his death, by ecclesiastical decree, his body was disinterred, burned, and the ashes cast out upon the river which ran past his church. Persecution after persecution followed, and it became a capital crime to read or possess a copy of the English Scriptures. In hundreds of cases torture and death were the result of such offenses. Another century brought the art of printing, and the ability to read became more general. The next martyr to biblical translation was William Tyndale, a student of Oxford, who translated the New Testament from the Greek. After years of persecution he was strangled and burned at the stake in 1536. In the meantime, though contraband and possessed only in secret, copies of the Scriptures steadily multiplied. Soon after Tyndale's death, Coverdale issued the first entire English Bible. Other versions followed, founded upon that of Tyndale. A little later an edition was printed in Geneva, when for the first time a division was made into chapters and verses. Toward the close of the sixteenth century, the Bible in England met with royal favor and popular demand. Persecution ceased.
Early in the seventeenth century, a new and authorized version was prepared under royal patronage. King James appointed a number of eminent scholars, and through them after great care and labor, the work in due time was completed. In 1611, the version since known as the King James Bible was issued, and it has remained as the Protestant standard down to recent times.
But the modern English is changing so rapidly, both in terms and in their significance that the need of a version, more perfect in adaptation was strongly felt both in England and America during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Thousands of archaic and unsuitable words had been retained, and with hundreds of additional manuscripts, and vastly superior scholarship it was felt that a version was possible which would be far more correct and better suited to modern requirements than the time-honored volume which has come down from the days of King James.
In 1870, through the cooperative efforts of companies of eminent scholars in England and America, and after about fifteen years of careful study and general review, the Revised Version was completed and introduced in both countries. As to exact forms of expression, a large number of differences of opinion, mainly unimportant, developed between the English and American collaborators, but the text preferred by the former was adopted with marginal references of the variations for convenience. But in 1901, an edition was published by Thomas Nelson and Sons in New York, which embodies the complete text in the form preferred by the American translators. It is called the American Standard Edition.
There has been a feeling that the Book could not be trusted to stand alone — upon its merits — and that some kind of official explanation should accompany it. Exegeses and commentaries have been multiplied, and theologies have been invoked to "steady the Ark of the Lord" by supernatural props and defenses. But its inherent spiritual quality and power should be sufficiently plain to show its divine character. Its substantial utility resides, not in its rules, doctrines, or thou shalt nots, but in its ability to awaken the spiritual consciousness in man. Amid all the mutations of the text of the Book, in the attempt to adapt it to the ever-changing significance of language which is in a constant state of flux, no one need mistake the inner spiritual import, which, like an unseen unitary strand of gold, runs from the beginning to the end of the Sacred Word.