English Bible History
The Pre-Reformation History of the Bible From 1,400 BC to 1,400 AD
Before the Reformation...
The story of how we got the English language Bible is, for the most part, the story of the Protestant Reformation which began in the late 14th Century AD with John Wycliffe. Indeed, if we go back more than just one thousand years, there is no language recognizable as “English” that even existed anywhere. The story of the Bible is much older than that, however.
The first recorded instance of God’s Word being written down, was when the Lord Himself wrote it down in the form of ten commandments on the stone tablets delivered to Moses at the top of Mount Sinai. Biblical scholars believe this occurred between 1,400 BC and 1,500 BC… almost 3,500 years ago. The language used was almost certainly an ancient form of Hebrew, the language of Old Covenant believers.
The earliest scripture is generally considered to be the “Pentateuch”, the first five books of the Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, & Deuteronomy… though there is some scholarly evidence to indicate that the Old Testament Book of Job may actually be the oldest book in the Bible. The Old Testament scriptures were written in ancient Hebrew, a language substantially different than the Hebrew of today. These writings were passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years on scrolls made of animal skin, usually sheep, but sometimes deer or cow. Animals considered “unclean” by the Jews, such as pigs, were of course, never used to make scrolls.
When the entire Pentateuch is present on a scroll, it is called a “Torah”. An entire Torah Scroll, if completely unraveled, is over 150 feet long! As most sheep are only about two to three feet long, it took an entire flock of sheep to make just one Torah scroll. The Jewish scribes who painstakingly produced each scroll were perfectionists. If they made even the slightest mistake in copying, such as allowing two letters of a word to touch, they destroyed that entire panel (the last three or four columns of text), and the panel before it, because it had touched the panel with a mistake! While most Christians today would consider this behavior fanatical and even idolatrous (worshiping the scripture, rather than the One who gave it to us), it nevertheless demonstrates the level of faithfulness to accuracy applied to the preservation of God’s Word throughout the first couple of thousand years of Biblical transmission.
Hebrew has one thing in common with English: they are both “picture languages”. Their words form a clear picture in your mind. As evidence of this; the first man to ever print the scriptures in English, William Tyndale, once commented that Hebrew was ten times easier to translate into English than any other language. Tyndale would certainly be qualified to make such a statement, as he was so fluent in eight languages, that it was said you would have thought any one of them to be his native tongue.
By approximately 500 BC, the 39 Books that make up the Old Testament were completed, and continued to be preserved in Hebrew on scrolls. As we approach the last few centuries before Christ, the Jewish historical books known as the “Apocrypha” were completed, yet they were recorded in Greek rather than Hebrew. By the end of the First Century AD, the New Testament had been completed. It was preserved in Greek on Papyrus, a thin paper-like material made from crushed and flattened stalks of a reed-like plant. The word “Bible” comes from the same Greek root word as “papyrus”. The papyrus sheets were bound, or tied together in a configuration much more similar to modern books than to an elongated scroll.
These groupings of papyrus were called a “codex” (plural: “codices”). The oldest copies of the New Testament known to exist today are: The Codex Alexandrius and the Codex Sinaiticus in the British Museum Library in London, and the Codex Vaticanus in the Vatican. They date back to approximately the 300’s AD. In 315 AD, Athenasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, identified the 27 Books which we recognize today as the canon of New Testament scripture.
In 382 AD, the early church father Jerome translated the New Testament from its original Greek into Latin. This translation became known as the “Latin Vulgate”, (“Vulgate” meaning “vulgar” or “common”). He put a note next to the Apocrypha Books, stating that he did not know whether or not they were inspired scripture, or just Jewish historical writings which accompanied the Old Testament.
The Apocrypha was kept as part of virtually every Bible scribed or printed from these early days until just 120 years ago, in the mid-1880’s, when it was removed from Protestant Bibles. Up until the 1880’s, however, every Christian… Protestant or otherwise… embraced the Apocrypha as part of the Bible, though debate continued as to whether or not the Apocrypha was inspired. There is no truth to the popular myth that there is something “Roman Catholic” about the Apocrypha, which stemmed from the fact that the Roman Catholics kept 12 of the 14 Apocrypha Books in their Bible, as the Protestants removed all of them. No real justification was ever given for the removal of these ancient Jewish writings from before the time of Christ, which had remained untouched and part of every Bible for nearly two thousand years.
By 500 AD the Bible had been translated into over 500 languages. Just one century later, by 600 AD, it has been restricted to only one language: the Latin Vulgate! The only organized and recognized church at that time in history was the Catholic Church of Rome, and they refused to allow the scripture to be available in any language other than Latin. Those in possession of non-Latin scriptures would be executed! This was because only the priests were educated to understand Latin, and this gave the church ultimate power… a power to rule without question… a power to deceive… a power to extort money from the masses. Nobody could question their “Biblical” teachings, because few people other than priests could read Latin. The church capitalized on this forced-ignorance through the 1,000 year period from 400 AD to 1,400 AD knows as the “Dark and Middle Ages”.
Pope Leo the Tenth established a practice called the “selling of indulgences” as a way to extort money from the people. He offered forgiveness of sins for a fairly small amount of money. For a little bit more money, you would be allowed to indulge in a continuous lifestyle of sin, such as keeping a mistress. Also, through the invention of “Purgatory”, you could purchase the salvation of your loved-one’s souls. The church taught the ignorant masses, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the troubled soul from Purgatory springs!” Pope Leo the Tenth showed his true feelings when he said, “The fable of Christ has been quite profitable to us!”
Where was the true church of God during these Dark Ages?
On the Scottish Island of Iona, in 563 AD, a man named Columba started a Bible College. For the next 700 years, this was the source of much of the non-Catholic, evangelical Bible teaching through those centuries of the Dark and Middle Ages. The students of this college were called “Culdees”, which means “certain stranger”. The Culdees were a secret society, and the remnant of the true Christian faith was kept alive by these men during the many centuries that led up to the Protestant Reformation.
In fact, the first man to be called a “Culdee” was Joseph of Aremethia. The Bible tells us that Joseph of Aremethia gave up his tomb for Jesus. Tradition tells us that he was actually the Uncle of the Virgin Mary, and therefore the Great-Uncle (or “half-Uncle” at least) of Jesus. It is also believed that Joseph of Aremethia traveled to the British Isles shortly after the resurrection of Christ, and built the first Christian Church above ground there. Tradition also tells us that Jesus may have spent much of his young adult life (between 13 and 30) traveling the world with his Great Uncle Joseph… though the Bible is silent on these years in the life of Jesus.
In the late 1300’s, the secret society of Culdees chose John Wycliffe to lead the world out of the Dark Ages. Wycliffe has been called the “Morning Star of the Reformation”. That Protestant Reformation was about one thing: getting the Word of God back into the hands of the masses in their own native language, so that the corrupt church would be exposed and the message of salvation in Christ alone, by scripture alone, through faith alone would be proclaimed again.
This concludes our overview of the Pre-Reformation history of the Bible. You should now click here to return to the main English Bible History Page, to pick up this story with John Wycliffe in the 14th Century, and continue on to the 21st Century.