The English word Bible and its cognate terms in other modern languages (e.g. German: Bibel, Italian: Bibbia, Spanish: Biblia) are among the most familiar religious terms in modern cultures, wherever Christianity is influential. Bible is also a word that is ideologically freighted, with a fascinating history, and subject to confusing and anachronistic usage.
The common use of the term “Bible” today, especially when standing alone, denotes a book that contains the sacred writings of Christianity. “Bible” is also used sometimes for the sacred writings of Judaism. Briefly stated, the sacred texts contained in Bibles are independent compositions that have been collected by religious communities and publishers, arranged in a particular order, usually printed as a single book, and often entitled “The Bible,” or “Holy Bible.” Such a brief description requires some additional explications: (1) The collected, independent compositions have their origin in Jewish or Christian antiquity, ranging in time from the period of ancient Israel (beginning tenth-ninth century B.C.E.) through the period of Hellenistic Judaism and early Christianity (first-second century C.E.). (2) Though the origins of the compositions are ancient, the writings as they now exist in Bibles are substantially different from their exemplars in antiquity. (3) A Bible may be in electronic or other form, not just in printed form, but all such alternative media forms are derived from the printed form. (4) Since “Bible” has become a title and because the writings contained in Bibles have been declared sacred, holy, and/or divine by various Christian and/or Jewish communities, the word “Bible” is usually capitalized in modern writing out of respect for those traditions. (5) Portions of Christian Bibles have been translated into more than two thousand languages, all of which are translations from older texts. Translations are usually referred to as “versions” by scholars. The oldest preserved forms of writings now contained in Bibles were written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. (6) While the term “Bible” is sometimes used for the sacred writings of Judaism and these writings have some overlap with the sacred texts of Christianity, they are not identical to those of Christianity. When referring to Jewish sacred writings, the qualifying terms “Jewish Bible” or “Hebrew Bible” are often used, instead of simply “Bible.” However, the Jewish tradition also uses other designations, such as “Tanak” (see below).
It is common in both formal and informal contexts to see the term “The Bible.” This usage reflects the common understanding that there is one agreed-upon entity, with specific and defined contents, that is “the Bible.” In fact, no such entity exists. There are many different Bibles containing different sacred texts and differing arrangements. These differences are often of major import, and they depend on a variety of factors, including the particular religious tradition, the choices of ancient manuscripts used, and the particular desires of the publisher. For example, Bibles published for Protestant use usually contain sixty-six compositions; thirty-nine in a section called “Old Testament” and twenty-seven in a section called “New Testament.” Roman Catholic Bibles contain the same two sections, but the Old Testament has forty-six texts. Bibles printed for Orthodox Churches usually contain forty-nine books in the Old Testament. Some Bibles for Christian Protestant communities, such as the original 1611 edition of the King James Version, include a section labeled “Apocrypha” (known also by the Catholic name, “deuterocanonicals”), which is usually placed between the Old Testament and the New Testament sections. This middle section includes writings that may be found in Catholic and Orthodox Old Testaments, but excluded from Protestant Old Testaments. For the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), the Protestant King James Version is the basis of the Bible with many additions and changes. The Ethiopic Christian Church has different traditions regarding which texts are included as sacred writings; the result is a total of eighty-one writings. On the other end of the spectrum, a Jewish Bible contains twenty-four writings, and a Samaritan Bible, though the word “Bible” is not commonly used in that tradition, has only five writings. In addition, even if traditions share writings of the same name, often the contents of those writings differ significantly (e.g., Dan). Developing from Christian practice, a list of writings that are in a tradition's Bible is called its “canon,” from a Greek word meaning “list,” and “measure” (see also Canon). Canonization is an ideological act, the restricting of sacred status and authority (defined variously) to some texts and not to others. In sum, there is no single entity that can accurately be called “the Bible.” Instead there are “Bibles,” particular collections of particular versions of particular texts, often sharing similar or related texts, set in particular arrangements, and used by particular communities and individuals. This variety of Bibles has always been the historical reality; there was never an original “Bible” from which all later manifestations descended.
Origin of the Term Bible.
“Bible” can be traced back to the ancient Greek word biblia, a plural form from the singular biblion. The word refers to a written “treatise,” or “document,” or a subdivision of a treatise, much like the English “volume.” The Greek biblion itself is derived from the Greek word biblos (also spelled byblos), the name for the stalks of the papyrus plant, which flourished in Egyptian marshes. The word was also applied to the city of Byblos on the Mediterranean coast north of Beirut, from which papyrus sheets were shipped to Greece. From the pith inside the outer skin of the stalks, Egyptians manufactured relatively smooth, flat-surfaced sheets, a kind of paper, for the purpose of writing, as early as the third millennium B.C.E. The sheets produced from this plant were called papyros (from which the word “paper” is derived). Longer sheets could be made by gluing several together. The sheets could then be rolled for carrying and storing. In Greek, these rolls, or scrolls, were called biblia. The term biblion was used for any such roll, not just religious writings. A place where scrolls were stored (either a case or a building), what we call a library, was known as a bibliothēkē.
Sheets for writing were also manufactured from animal skins (e.g., sheep or goats), producing parchment or vellum, the highest quality of parchment.
Sheets of parchment could be stitched together to form longer sheets. In regions where the papyrus plant did not grow, parchment was the material of choice, though it was more expensive to produce. It was also more durable. Parchment too was rolled, and at least by Hellenistic times (third-first century B.C.E.) the words biblion/biblia were used of scrolls made from papyrus or parchment. The Christian book of Luke tells of Jesus in a Nazareth synagogue unrolling and rolling the biblion of Isaiah (Luke 4:17, 20), and the early Christian epistle (late first century C.E.) 2 Timothy illustrates the plural use of biblia and of parchments as a form of biblia. The author asks his addressee to bring “the scrolls (biblia), especially the parchments (membranai)” (2 Tim 4:13).
The Hebrew words used by ancient Israelites for scrolls were měgillāh (Jer 36:14, translated into Greek as chartion), sēper (“writing, record,” Job 19:23, translated into Greek as biblion), and měgillāt sēper (“writing/written scroll,” Jer 36:2 translated into Greek as chartion bibliou). An author or scribe—there was no firm distinction made in Israelite antiquity—was called a sōpēr.
Plural to Singular, and Sacred.
The singularity of what originated as a plural term and the religious connotations of the word biblía come only after the rise of Christianity. The Jewish author of 1 Maccabees 12:9 cites a letter from the Jewish high priest Jonathan (second century B.C.E.) that mentions the Jewish “sacred books” (ta biblia ta hagia), which were likely stored in the Temple. Centuries later, the fourth-fifth century C.E. Christian scholar Jerome used a Latin form, bibliotheca, “library,” to refer to the collection of Christian sacred writings. The following centuries held two significant developments in the use of biblia: (1) people began to use forms of biblia in Latin and other European languages, such as Old English, in such a way that, sometime prior to the ninth century, biblia, even with no adjective attached, had become a common title for the holy writings of Christians; (2) the word biblia came to be used as a collective noun, so that it ceased to be considered a plural and was now considered a singular. This development was aided by the ideology that regarded these sacred writings as inspired by one divine author. In Latin, this meant a grammatical shift from neuter plural to feminine singular, with no difference in spelling in the nominative form. While “Bible” is exclusively used in the singular today, it should be noted that another almost synonymous term, “Scripture,” is used in the singular or plural.
The sacralization of the word biblia parallels the sacralization that occurred earlier for other terms among some Jewish and Christian communities. The Greek word graphē “writing” which is used for example by the Alexandrian Jew, Philo, (first century C.E.) in the expression “the sacred writings” (hai hierai graphai) was also used by Jews and Christians, in either singular or plural, to refer to their special writings, even without an adjective, at least by the first century B.C.E. (e.g., Letter of Aristeas, 168 tēs graphēs; 1 Cor 15:3, tas graphas). The Jewish communities that survived the wars and devastations in the first and second centuries C.E. and whose literature also survived tended to write mostly in Hebrew or Aramaic. Thus rabbinic literature frequently uses the term “sacred writings” (m. Shab. 16:1, kitvê haqodeš), similar to Greek terms. However, another frequently used rabbinic title, miqrā', which literally means “reading” (m. ʾAbot 5:21), became common among Jewish authors in the medieval period, and it reflects the historical reality that these sacred scrolls were primarily heard in synagogue readings, not just studied as written texts by scholars. Another Jewish title popular to this day is the acronym, t-n-k, vocalized Tanak, which derives from the beginning letter of the names of the three traditional sections of the Jewish sacred writings, Torah (Instruction), Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings). In the twentieth century it became common, especially in academic circles, to refer to the “Jewish Bible” as the “Hebrew Bible.”
Evolution of Bibles.
The evolution from writings first penned by ancient Israelites and early Christians into biblical literature and its continuing development is a history of technological and material changes combined inextricably with the history of religious attitudes and cultural ideologies regarding texts through a period of more than two thousand years. While there is a great deal of evidence for reconstructing this history, there are some sizeable difficulties as well, especially the many anachronisms that can plague one's understanding of the ancient literature. The writings that are found in modern Bibles have organic connections to ancient writings, but they are not simply direct copies or translations of documents from ancient Israel or writings from the earliest Christians. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls beginning in 1947, scholars have been in the ongoing process of rewriting the history of this literature, thanks to the massive material evidence of the realities of this literature prior to the technological invention of books and ideological and religious innovation of canons and other developments.
In addition to avoiding the anachronisms of book and canon, historians must be careful not to assume that many other facts and ideas that may be characteristic of later stages in the evolutionary process are accurate for depicting earlier stages in the development of Bibles. For example, authorship was conceived of and valued differently in ancient Israel and early Christianity than in modern societies. Cultural conventions about textual creation were quite different from those of today: many texts were written anonymously and were changed by later editors or authors. Copyright, plagiarism, and ownership of expression were unknown concepts to the authors and cultures that produced the earliest texts that evolved into our Bibles. Thus, it is sometimes problematic trying to distinguish between an ancient author, redactor, or editor. Such distinctions are not made in this literature, and in fact apply modern categories to ancient writers. While they may be helpful descriptors of some actions performed, they do not necessarily represent the way ancients thought about their own work.
Moreover, literacy was not nearly as widespread in the ancient cultures of Israel and early Christianity as it is today, and writing and reading were not the activities of common people. Cultural traditions, such as religious ideas and legal codes, were mostly disseminated orally, and writing and reading were the domain of educated and mostly elite persons.
Finally, historians are now working out the realization that books that “made it” into Bibles are not necessarily representative of the cultures, ideas, and ideologies of ancient Israelites or early Christians. Allowing a canon or Bible of any community to limit the historical reconstruction of the ideologies and literary output of Israelites, Jews, and Christians is anachronistic and inaccurate.
The history of this literature starts with the beginning of the Israelite people in a hill-country region called Canaan on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. The Israelites were Semitic people who first come into view from historical evidence toward the end of the thirteenth century B.C.E. in Canaan. Their language and their history are closely linked to other Semitic people of the region, including other Canaanites, Phoenicians, Moabites, and Arameans. Inscriptions on stone or pottery from the land of Canaan have been found from the last centuries of the second millennium B.C.E., and inscriptions that can reasonably be credited to Israelites have been dated to the ninth or tenth century B.C.E. From this early period there has been no discovery of textual remains of any Israelite literature that would later be included in Bibles.
However, during these centuries (thirteenth–ninth B.C.E) traditions of Israelite culture were evolving, being conserved, changed, and passed from generation to generation. When Israelite literature does appear, it clearly has many links to traditions from earlier centuries, including non-Israelite cultures. Israelite culture was predominantly an oral culture, and even after literate groups developed (e.g., some priests, prophets, royal officials, scribes, military officers), the vast majority of people still learned and experienced their traditions through hearing them in speeches, story-telling, folktales, and legal pronouncements, by watching and participating in religious performances and rituals, and by listening to poetry and songs. Such activities were continuous and ubiquitous in private and public venues such as families, clans, guilds, shrines, and eventually royal courts. It is to this period that some scholars date some poems that were later preserved on scrolls and eventually in modern Bibles (e.g., Gen 49, Num 23–24, JUDG 5). Though there are no preserved textual records of them from those centuries, scholars who date parts of these poems so early do so for linguistic reasons, since their Hebrew is thought to preserve archaic forms. To this period many historians trace the social development of a loose amalgam of related clans and tribes to their organization and rise of centralizing monarchies (designated as Israel in the north and Judah in the south), with more stable and organized political systems and social institutions.
As the monarchies grew and Israelite culture flourished in the ninth–sixth centuries B.C.E., their societies could afford the luxury of being able to create and store documents, records, and literature. From this period many Israelite inscriptions appear throughout the region, some on stone, clay, or plaster. Undoubtedly, Israelites were also producing scrolls by this time, perhaps using papyrus and more likely parchment. Unfortunately, both of those materials perish relatively quickly in the wet climate of Canaan. Thus, discoveries of ancient Israelite scrolls have all come from arid regions, such as near the Dead Sea; but most of Israelite and later Jewish settlements were not in such areas.
It is in this period that literature would have been produced in the scribal culture of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. There is no doubt that many more records and scrolls were written than what has survived in any form. Dozens of writings that no longer exist are mentioned in other texts, such as chronicles of various kings (e.g., 1 Kgs 11:41, 14:19, 14:29; 1 Chr 9:1, 27:24). The text of 2 Chronicles refers to a kind of prophetic literature called a midrash (2 Chr 13:22), and also to a scroll of poetic dirges (2 Chr 35:25). Some of the oldest referenced sources are parts of poems taken from the “Scroll of the Wars of Yahweh” (Num 21:14) and the “Scroll of Yashar” quoted in both Joshua (10:13) and 2 Samuel (1:18). By studying the use made of scrolls, of which we do have some form (e.g., Sam and Kgs), by later authors (e.g., Chr), one can see how an ancient Jewish author/scribe worked, borrowing, adding, combining, and changing. The same sort of analysis is done using the Dead Sea Scrolls, and similar scribal practices are observed. The scrolls that did survive, forms of which are now are found in Bibles, were not sui generis; many, if not all, were variant literary editions of older texts, and were organically connected to a great deal of literature no longer extant. Furthermore, the creative flourishing and textual proliferation continued for centuries. It is from this period (sixth century B.C.E.) that archaeologists unearthed in Jerusalem the first material evidence for a text that in a later form would be included in Bibles, in the form of two silver amulets that were inscribed with a form of the blessing found in Numbers 6:24–26.
The kingdoms of Israel and Judah met violent ends at the hands of the armies of Assyrians, who conquered Israel in 722, and Babylonians, who conquered Judah in 586 B.C.E. Many of the conquered peoples became refugees and exiles, whose fates are unknown. Many refugees from Israel apparently fled south to Judah when the Assyrians invaded and brought scrolls with them, parts of which were later incorporated by scribes into later writings (e.g., 1 Kgs 14:19; 15:29—21:30). These conquests began the widespread Jewish Diaspora throughout parts of the Near East and Mediterranean regions where some maintained their Jewish identity and culture, including the composition of literature.
Numerous exiles from the southern kingdom of Judah, now called “Jews” by historians, survived and flourished in Babylon. Undoubtedly many scrolls were lost or destroyed in the destruction of 586, but others were preserved, and the conditions in exile allowed for creating new scrolls of legal, ritual, narrative, prophetic, poetic, religious, and non-religious content. The exile in Babylon (586–538 B.C.E.) was a productive period for Jewish scribes/authors whose work is evident in scrolls such as Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. This work continued when Jews were allowed to return to their former homeland by the Persians, who took over the Babylonian Empire in 539 B.C.E. With royal financing and Persian-appointed Jewish governors, Jewish civic leaders, including scribes and priests, were responsible for governing according to Persian policies and in accord with ancestral traditions. Ezra-Nehemiah tells of the importance of texts in the newly formed Persian Jewish province (e.g., Ezra 7:11–26; 9:10–13, Neh 10:1 [or 9:38]). Nehemiah 8:18 refers to the “scroll of the torah of God,” and 8:14 even quotes a passage “written in the torah that Yahweh commanded through Moses.” Interestingly, the passage does not match any passage in any currently preserved text “of Moses.” These texts demonstrate that the Persian-appointed Jewish leadership possessed scrolls that were declared divinely authoritative through Moses and prophets. Though there are similarities in existing texts, the Moses torah quoted in 8:14 is now lost. In fact, there are several fragmentary texts attributed to Moses beyond the ones that were later included in Jewish or Christian Bibles. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls there are several compositions credited to Moses that were unknown prior to 1947. So also, the compositions of Jubilees and the Temple Scroll are also attributed to Moses and held a great deal of authority and sacredness among the Jewish community situated at Qumran. Clearly there existed an affiliation of texts attributed to Moses, some called torah, often sharing similar and related content.
The Example of Jeremiah.
The scroll of Jeremiah, like every other scroll, has its own unique evolution, and it illustrates many crucial aspects of the practices and ideology of scribal culture and the evolution of this ancient literature that are crucial for a proper understanding of the evolution of Bibles. The scroll is named after a prophet of Judah before and during the Babylonian conquest in the early sixth century B.C.E. In addition to mentioning six scribes, five of them by name, the scroll refers to writings by scribes, priests, and other prophets (7:22; 8:8–9; 29:24–31), tells of Jeremiah writing a prophetic letter and the public reading of it, tells how the prophet used a scribe (sōpēr), and some details about scrolls, such as their columns, and even instructions on disposal of a scroll (29:1—30:3; 36:1–32; 51:59–64). Some of the contents of the scrolls referred to in these passages were incorporated by later writers/scribes into the texts that now bear the prophet's name in many modern Bibles. There was not just one “book” of Jeremiah. In antiquity there were numerous affiliated compositions connected to the character Jeremiah. First, there are at least two different forms or editions of the scroll that people today call Jeremiah, which were themselves composed from earlier scrolls, some of which are mentioned in Jeremiah. The apparently older form is represented by Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts (4QJerb,d) and the Greek translation of Jeremiah, which is shorter by one-sixth than the form that is now represented in Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic Bibles. The shorter form, in the Greek translation, is used in the Christian Orthodox Communion. A later scribe/author deleted sections, added new material (large and small amounts) in hundreds of places, (e.g., 254 words in 33:14–26; 227 words in 39:4–13), rearranged large sections of the composition (e.g., the large section of oracles against foreign nations in 46:1—51:58 has been moved from much earlier in the scroll), and repeated some passages (e.g., 6:13–15 and 8:10B–12). Signs of the work of editing and rearrangement are also clear from sectional markers such as “To this point, the words of Jeremiah” in the longer edition (51:34), which is not in the shorter version (see also 25:14 which was added as an editorial bridge in the newer, longer edition).
Scholars have shown that in many places an author of Jeremiah was familiar with detailed wording that we find in other scrolls (e.g., Jer 3:1 and Deut 24:1–4), though in what form he encountered the texts is unknown. At some point an author added the epilogue that is now chapter 52 but is essentially a slightly modified duplication of 2 Kings 24:18—25:30. The creation of Jeremiah-related scrolls was not limited to the writings that exist today. The text as we have it refers to scrolls now lost. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls not only were there found Hebrew fragmentary remains of both the longer and shorter editions mentioned above, but also more Jeremiah scrolls (4Q384, 385a, 387, 388a, 389–390) unknown heretofore, and obviously not contained in any modern Bibles. The evidence clearly indicates that there was not a single “original Jeremiah” text to be imagined or sought. The current extant Jeremiah-affiliated texts grew out of various sources and manifestations of Jeremiah traditions in antiquity, some with shared materials, some thrown away, some lost. The forms of Jeremiah that now exist in Bibles are just two of the variant literary traditions from antiquity.
Jewish Textual Flourishing and Plurality.
From the late sixth century B.C.E. through the first century C.E. Jewish literary production flourished under successive Persian, Greek, and Roman empires among various Jewish groups in Judea and elsewhere (e.g., Persia, Babylon, Syria, Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Rome). Undoubtedly priests and scribes in the Jerusalem Temple preserved, wrote, edited, and stored many scrolls. In these centuries, there was no centralized Jewish authority that would have decided for all what literature was special, sacred, or authoritative. A scroll called torah of Moses in the fifth century may have been formally accepted by the Persians as the official repository of ancestral heritage and law for the Jews living in Yehud (Judea), but there was no world-wide Jewish authority. Writings much different from each other in religious ideology—compare Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes) and Job with Exodus and Deuteronomy—were clearly produced by authors or groups that were at odds in religious outlook. The author of Jeremiah explicitly disputes the words and writings of priests and scribes who have “the torah of Yahweh” (7:4–22; 8:8). This period also saw the rise of the Samaritans, whose origins are obscure and contested, but whose sacred texts, distinct editions of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, testify to the pluriformity of these scrolls in that era. Jewish cultural and religious ideologies and practices were diverse and thus, so was their literary output. This was a period of many new compositions and new translations into Greek of older Hebrew texts for Greek-speaking Jews in Alexandria and elsewhere. So too, Aramaic translations (Targumim) were made for Jews in Syria and Mesopotamia. Such translations, usually based on one selected form of a text when perhaps several forms were in existence (e.g., Jeremiah), amount to new and distinct literary editions of older works and display a wide variety of translation philosophies. Furthermore, different groups wrote and valued as special different compositions, and their collections of texts differed also. (On collections see Sir 49:10, 2 Macc 2:13–14, Jub. 45:15.) The separatist and ritually strict community living near the Dead Sea, who are likely responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, highly valued some writings as authoritative revelations from God to Moses and other prophets, some of which evolved to be included in modern Bibles (Jeremiah), some of which did not (Jubilees). They may not have valued the scroll of Esther, since no copies of it are preserved and their calendars lack Purim. Of the more than nine hundred different manuscripts quite a few can be seen to have been especially regarded, i.e., sacred, or in some sense authoritative, but there is nothing that even approximates a “Bible,” and certainly the Jewish Bible that would be produced centuries later would not match the texts that were sacred to this ancient Jewish community. Other Jewish communities and groups, such as the Jerusalem Temple and Jews in the Diaspora, would also have had their own collections and special scrolls. There would also be numerous scrolls of the same “book,” such as Genesis (though no two would be identical), in many such libraries due to the frequent communication of Jews in various areas of the world.
Ends and Beginnings.
The evolution of the diverse Jewish identities and literature was on the verge of going through massive change in the mid-first century C.E. Two wars with Rome in Judea (67–73, 132–136) and the destruction or demise of some Jewish communities in the Diaspora in the first and second centuries meant that many textual traditions were lost. After the first war, the Jewish historian Josephus tells his Roman audience that Jews hold twenty-two books as inspired by God, but he is also aware of other books that are not “justly accredited” in his mind. Which group within Judaism he represents is difficult to discern, but it certainly was not the group who composed the Dead Sea Scrolls. The war of 67–73 brought an end to the Qumran community, and nearly all their texts and their divergence from other forms of Judaism were lost for nearly two thousand years. Josephus goes on to speak of five books of Moses, thirteen of history, and four of hymns and precepts (C. Ap. 1.38–40), but there is no clear way to harmonize his count with later Bibles. A second-century Jewish author refers to twenty-four divine texts and then seventy more (4 Ezra 14:22–48), but his work was not passed on in Jewish circles. One group of Jewish leaders, the Pharisees, seem to have maintained continuity before and after the military upheavals, and they came to prominence in the Jewish community in Roman Palestine. Their legacy was carried on in rabbinic leadership and literature in the second to sixth centuries. The prolific and influential rabbinic movement in Galilee and Babylon produced the Mishnah (ca. 200) and Talmuds (ca. 450–550). The Mishnah (Yad. 3:2–5; 4:5–6) briefly discusses the sacred status of Song of Songs, Qohelet, Ezra, and Daniel, but otherwise makes no mention of the status and identity of sacred texts. There is little to no direct evidence for the reasons that the twenty-four scrolls were selected in the rabbinic tradition, but the results of rabbinic influence are clear. For the evolution of Bibles this cataclysmic period is crucial because it witnesses the end of a great deal of Jewish social and religious diversity, the sacred texts of the rabbinic movement emerge and come to dominate most Jewish communities, and the diversity of Jewish sacred “libraries” and the pluriformity of texts was vastly reduced. Had Qumranic, Alexandrian, or other Jewish communities survived and thrived, there is little doubt that the diversity would have continued.
Rabbinic Jewish leaders clearly distinguished between their own literary output and their sacred texts from before the destruction of the Temple, and of all those earlier texts, they gave pride of place to the five books associated with Moses in their collection. The sixth-century Babylonian Talmud provides the first listing of sacred scrolls (and discussion of authorship) found in Jewish sources (b. B. Bat. 14b–15a). The anachronistic assumption, that the text form of later Bibles, known as the Masoretic Text (see below) was central or dominant prior to the rise of rabbinic Judaism, has been proven false by the concrete textual data of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is only at the end of the rabbinic period of the late second to sixth centuries C.E., despite the lack of manuscripts from this era and varied arrangement of books in later manuscripts, that the term “Bible,” might cautiously be used for the particular set of writings that rabbinic Judaism had set apart from all others, the twenty-four scrolls of the Tanak, and especially the five of Torah.
In addition to seeing the beginning of the rabbinic movement, the first two centuries C.E. also witnessed the rise of Christianity and new selections of sacred texts that would later become canonical among Christians. It is not surprising that many Christians (not all), given the Jewish roots of the movement, maintained some Jewish texts and then added to them distinctly Christian literature. The Christian choices include some earlier Jewish literature that were not maintained in the rabbinic tradition (e.g., Tob) and so testify to the former period of textual diversity. Early Christians composed texts with many of the same conventions that were common to Israelite and Jewish authors before them, such as wholesale borrowing from earlier sources, changing texts (e.g., compare Mark 10:2–12 to Matt 19:3–12), anonymous (e.g., Matt, Heb) and pseudonymous (e.g., 1 and 2 Tim) writing.
Technological Shift I, the Codex.
During this period of rabbinic and Christian emergence (late first-early second century C.E.), a major technological development occurred, namely, the invention of the codex format for preservation of writings. Prior to this time, Jewish and Christian works were kept in the roll format. Today, putting aside more technical usage, the word “book” is commonly understood to refer to an object with pages, bound together on one edge, and set between two covers, but this media storage format did not exist when the writings now contained in Bibles began to evolve. The codex allowed for the storage of many more texts in one more or less portable object because the writing was on both sides of the sheets of papyrus or parchment and because the number of sheets that could be used was significantly more than what could practically be included in a scroll. Considering that a roll became more and more unwieldy the longer it became, and thirty feet was about the useable limit, a roll could hold only one fairly long composition, such as Isaiah. The codex also facilitated easier movement within a text, making it easier to find passages in individual compositions and to move between different compositions in the same codex. For most modern readers a “book” is a codex, and they are unaware that when they read the word “book” in any text found in a Bible, they should not imagine a codex form; instead they should visualize a scroll. It should also be noted that the conception of a Bible as one composition, despite the origin of the literature, no doubt benefitted from the technological development of the codex.
In its first three centuries, diversity within Christianity was extreme and widespread and certainly had a major impact on the composition of Christian writings, the choices of special (sacred) and authoritative writings, and the making of new editions of select texts. There are hundreds of Christian compositions or editions of earlier texts from these centuries, many of which were not passed down by following generations. As Christian communities grew and spread, they translated collections of their sacred writings into languages such as Syriac, Ethiopic, and Latin. Starting in the late second century there is evidence of some Christian leaders discussing the relative specialness, sacredness, of many books Christians were using. As Christianity became centralized under various geopolitically-based authorities and competing Christian groups and ideologies were silenced, standardized collections of Christian scriptures became the norm. Though different Christian churches arrived at different canonical decisions, the result was that by the fourth and fifth centuries there emerged what can be called Bibles—selections of texts deemed sacred and authoritative by religious hierarchies and published together in codices. Christians came to prefer the codex format, and by the fifth century the majority of Christian copies of their sacred writings were codices. The oldest preserved, mostly complete Christian Bible codices are in Greek (known now by the names Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, Alexandrinus) and are from the fourth and fifth centuries. The content of these large codices would never have fit on any thing less than scores of scrolls. Christian Bible texts were produced in several languages; in western Christianity Jerome's Latin Vulgate (finished about 400) became the standard authoritative Bible; the oldest existing Latin biblical codex is from the eighth century. Such variegated canons and translations continue to be used in Christian traditions today.
The fact that these codices and canons had sacred status and authority does not imply that the evolution of Bibles ceased, but it did change. The formalized and centralized authority of bishops and councils did encourage scribes (usually monks) to faithfully copy older texts, but manuscript production was always open to inadvertent and purposeful changes (e.g., to correct what was considered an error or to bring a text in line with theological ideas). In the fourth century Christian Bibles begin to appear with chapter divisions and subsequent centuries witness a whole array of dividing systems with no uniformity, whereas earlier manuscripts have no such divisions and very little punctuation at all. The chapter system currently used in English Bibles was first used in the thirteenth century for the Latin Vulgate and later applied to other editions. The verse divisions currently used stem from a French printer (Robert Estienne) in the sixteenth century. Clearly every system of punctuation and textual division has a large impact on the meaning of the text for any reader. So too do the even later systems of capitalization of names, names of God, the word “God” (whereas the term when referring to non-Israelite deities is not capitalized), and even pronouns referring to God. Early Hebrew and Greek manuscripts do not use such conventions and the interpretive impact of such changes is significant.
The codex itself has often had an ideologically powerful and anachronistic influence on Bible readers (which has been termed ideological “codexification”), such as when it is assumed that all the books in the codex have the same author or origin, that they all generally agree, that the books at the beginning of the codex are older than those at the end, or that they were available and/or influential for the authors of later books. Thus, the fact that Bibles today begin with Genesis is irrelevant to the study of this literature as it existed in ancient Israel.
Jews did not make a comprehensive shift to the codex format for the storing of their most sacred writings. Though there were likely some Jews making codices for Jewish literature earlier, the oldest known Jewish codex, a liturgical text, dates from the eighth century C.E. Even after this, many Jewish communities continued to use rolls for sacred texts, especially for ritual purposes, and continue to do so today, especially in synagogues. It is significant that the Hebrew word for codex (miṣḥāp) comes relatively late to Hebrew, borrowed from Arabic. Though there are no biblical manuscripts from the rabbinic period (second century to sixth century), there are numerous quotations from sacred texts imbedded in rabbinic writings. These quotations do not testify to a uniformity of texts of Miqra. A tradition of scholarship on the ancient texts of Miqra developed in the city of Tiberius on the western shore of the Lake of Galilee during the sixth to ninth centuries. Similar schools were also found in Byzantium and Mesopotamia. These scholars, known as Masoretes or “tradents,” utilized texts of the twenty-four sacred books of rabbinic Judaism, and developed various systems for adding vowels to the Hebrew texts, recording the texts in codices, tracking all manner of textual details, and attempting to copy with accuracy. Clearly, the additions of vowels and sectioning to the texts has a major impact on its meaning for later readers.
The oldest complete manuscripts of Jewish Bibles are Masoretic codices from Tiberius that date from the early eleventh century C.E. (e.g., Aleppo Codex, Leningrad Codex), but there was never a single fixed form of Masoretic Text, and even after the codex came to be used the order of the books in codices differs. One of these Masoretic codices, from the Ben Asher school of scholars, was used and accepted as authoritative by the Jewish philosopher Maimonides (ca. 1135–1204) in Cairo. Though he was not a textual scholar himself, in time his influence made texts that were thought to represent the Ben Asher tradition preferred by many Jewish scholars and communities. It is on this basis that most Jewish Bibles to this day continue to print Bibles that follow in the line of this Masoretic Text.
The most ancient Hebrew manuscripts, scrolls from the Judean desert, have no verse or chapter divisions, but sometimes have spaces, similar to paragraphing. The manuscripts of the Masoretes have several different sectioning systems in place, in order to aid liturgical use of the texts. The system of numbered chapters and verses that is used today in Jewish Bibles was imported from Christian Bibles and used for the first time in a Hebrew text in 1573–1574 by the printer Christopher Plantin. The interpretive power of such systems is significant.
Technological Shift II, Printing.
With the invention of the printing press in the late fifteenth century, Bibles and their use went through another major development. In the 1450s Johannes Gutenberg printed copies of the Roman Catholic Bible, known as the Vulgate, on his moveable type press in Mainz, Germany. The first Jewish printing of a biblical book was a book of Psalms in 1477 (Bologna, Italy) and the first complete Jewish Bible, “Torah, Nevi'im, Ketuvim,” came eleven years later (Brescia, Italy), based on a Masoretic Text. Literacy also began to increase and Bibles of different kinds and in different languages could be mass-produced and sold. A crucial change in Bible production was that the new technology allowed for the exact preservation of text, letter for letter, in thousands of copies. This was never possible whenever texts were produced by hand, and the significance is marked by the fact that only texts produced prior to printing are termed “manuscripts” (literally, “hand writings”). Undoubtedly this new possibility affects the way many today understand the entire history of Bible production, whereas in many periods of the literary evolution, textual changes were not only inevitable but also desired.
An Ongoing Evolution and Legacy.
The hundreds of divergent Bibles today are the result of thousands of years of technological and ideological developments and innumerable decisions. Ancient Israelites, Jews, and early Christians of widely differing religious and cultural outlooks produced streams of literature with many different texts and many different forms of related texts. These streams flowed in many directions and along the way hundreds of scrolls were abandoned, lost, or forgotten, while others were conserved, survived, and evolved. In the third to fifth centuries C.E. that evolution resulted in canons and codices, that is, Bibles. The evolution continued through the textual conserving power of the printing press, and it continues today through the invention of electronic textual media, which will likely create more changes in the ongoing history of this ancient literature.
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James E. Bowley