A Brief History of the Bible -1
The considerable interest generated by the Vulgate query suggests to me that
there may be some benefit in writing a brief history of the Bible to the
list. What I have in mind will be of no interest to specialists - who, I
pray, will charitably click on their Delete icon - but may be of help to
those who confess themselves beginners and prevent them getting bogged down
in the mare's nests which lurk in the thievish alleys of our field, seeking
whom they may devour.
To begin with, what is the Bible? What does the word mean? It derives from
the Greek, Ta Biblia. This is a plural form; but what is To Biblion?
"Biblion" signifies the inner bark of the papyrus plant. Beneath the green
outer bark lies a soft white membrane. Strips of these are laid side by
side. Other strips are then pasted on at right angles. The resulting
papyrus can be written on. It is rather brittle and hence not suitable for
folding in our familiar "codex" form, but can be rolled up to make a scroll.
These scrolls were usually kept in earthenware jars. A scroll is limited as
to size, because it has to be unrolled in order to be read. It would be out
of the question to write the whole of what we now call "The Bible" on one
scroll. It would be the thickness of an oil drum, and most inconvenient to
use. A "book" of the Bible would in principle be a single scroll.
In the ancient world therefore a "Bible" would be a collection of scrolls in
earthenware jars, sitting on several shelves. Probably a single individual,
unless he were very rich, would not own a complete "Bible". One might find
such a collection in a library, or in a synagogue.
But the exact number of scrolls which one might find on the shelves of any
particular library would vary, for several reasons.
1. The limits of the canon of the Old Testament were not decided until the
early Christian period. "The suggestion that a particular synod of Jamnia,
held c. 100 A.D., finally settled the limits of the OT canon, was made by
H.E. Ryle; though it has had a wide currency, there is no evidence to
substantiate it" (ODCC).
2. More than one book might be fitted on to a scroll. It is the Jewish
custom nowadays to have the Torah, the five books of the Law (Genesis,
Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) all on one scroll. I do not know
when this custom began. Furthermore the Minor Prophets (minor only in
respect to the length of their work) were collected on one scroll. It was
thought appropriate that there should be twelve such prophets, twelve being
a number of some significance in Jewish tradition (twelve patriarchs, twelve
tribes). Diligent search however revealed only eleven such prophets -
Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai
and Zechariah. There were however three short anonymous prophecies left
over, each beginning with the phrase "An oracle:" Two of these were tacked
on to the end of the Book of Zechariah (Zechariah 9-11 and 12-14). The
third had the slightly longer opening, "An oracle: by my messenger". The
Hebrew word for "my messenger" is "malachi" and so this final oracle became
3. And of course, a particular collection might not be complete, because a
book might not be available locally, or the owner of the library might not
be able to afford it. In any case, the concept of a "Bible" was something
vastly different from nowadays.
One must next appreciate that by the time of Christ, Hebrew was a dead
language. The Jews of Palestine had long spoken Aramaic, the common
language of the Middle East. The Hebrew scriptures were no longer even
written in the Hebrew alphabet - what we call the Hebrew alphabet is in fact
the Aramaic one. The books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Daniel contain large
portions written in the Aramaic language. There were translations, or
rather paraphrases of the scriptures into Aramaic. These were known as Targums.
Jews of the "Diaspora" or dispersion, settled around the Mediterranean,
spoke the common language of the region, i.e. Greek. Tomorrow, if your
interest holds, we shall see how the Bible was translated into Greek for them.
The Supple Doctor.