The History of the Bible

The Bible is a collection of 66 books in two parts: the Old Testament and the New Testament. It was written over a period of about 1,200 years.

The 39 books of the Old Testament were written in Hebrew and tell the story of the Jewish people and their relationship with God. There are several different styles of writing, including poetry and wise sayings. It is thought that the Jewish leader Ezra collected the various writings together after the Jewish people returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. The content of the Old Testament was agreed by Jewish scholars around 100 CE.

A bronze statue of William Tyndale on stone plinth.
A statue of William Tyndale.

The New Testament has 27 books and begins with the birth of Jesus Christ. It was written in Greek between around 50 CE and 100 CE by people who knew Jesus personally or were his early followers. The list of writings in the New Testament was agreed towards the end of the fourth century.

In the following centuries, the Bible was primarily available in a Latin translation accessible only to a small, educated and minority, although parts were also translated into local languages, as in Anglo-Saxon England. The first complete English translation was produced in Oxford in the 14th century. However, the authorities were hostile and owning a Bible in English was made illegal.

The invention of the printing press in the 15th century made mass production of the Bible possible for the first time. But again, there was a harsh response. The first man to produce printed New Testaments in English, William Tyndale, had to smuggle them into England. For this he was arrested and executed.

The mood changed under Henry VIII. He agreed to the printing of English Bibles in 1536 and it was decreed that every church in England should have a copy, known as The Great Bible.

After James I became king in 1603, it was decided that a new translation should be produced. This 1611 ‘authorised’ version, the King James Version, is still available.

More translations, more languages

Nowadays there are many more translations and ways for us to approach the Bible. Scholars are continually seeking to find new ways to give us access to the original texts. Some versions use very contemporary language. There are also many apps, online, and downloadable audio versions.

A set of bibles in different languages sit on a shelf.

Whole or part versions of the Bible are now available in more than 2,500 languages. But there are still people and groups who do not have it in their mother tongue and so teams of translators continue working to make it available to everyone.

And yet owning a Bible is still dangerous in some parts of the world, where people face persecution and even prison. Many people have risked jail sentences for smuggling Bibles into countries where they are banned.