Most of the Old Testament (forty-six books) was written in Hebrew (which had no vowels back then) and several books were written in Greek during the Babylonian Captivity and Diaspora (587–100 BC), the period of Jewish history during the pre-Christian era when three quarters of the Hebrews were forcibly exiled from their homeland and into foreign kingdoms.
Over time, many of their descendants spoke and understood more Greek than Hebrew because Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia, had made the Greek language and culture the dominant force until the Romans came on the scene.
The New Testament (twenty-seven books) was written in Greek. By the fourth century AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine had legalized Christianity and it became the official state religion in 391 AD. Pope Damasus contracted Saint Jerome to translate both the Old and New Testaments from the original languages of Hebrew and Greek into the common (vulgate) tongue, which at that time was Latin.
No one person or group sat down and intended to write a complete Bible as we have it today. Each book of the Bible was written by an individual person who was inspired by God, the Holy Spirit. It is therefore often called the “Word of God written by man under divine inspiration.” God is the ultimate author, but He chose human beings we call “sacred authors” (because they wrote the sacred text of Scripture) to physically write the inspired words onto paper (or more accurately, onto papyrus).
Each human author wrote the text of the books of the Bible as if they were separate writings. None of them had a vision or intention of one day combining all the books into one volume as we have today.
Before any one word was ever written, however, came the oral tradition phase. This means that for centuries, from Abraham to Moses (approximately six hundred years), the only way the Hebrew people knew about the creation of the world and the beginning of the human race was by word of mouth (oral tradition). Parents verbally told their children, who in turn told their children, and so on. Nothing was actually written since the people were basically nomads, wandering and shepherding, and did not yet have a distinct and recognizable nation.
Moses is traditionally identified as the first one to write down the oral tradition of the Hebrew religion. The forty years during which the people wandered in the desert gave him ample time, and since he had been a prince of Egypt schooled in the court of the Pharaoh, he alone could read and write while the rest of his people had been poor slaves to the Egyptians.
Many biblical scholars believe that sometime in the thirteenth century BC, Moses penned the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (which Christian Bibles list as the Old Testament), named Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Called Torah (law) in Hebrew or Pentateuch (five books) in Greek, these five books tell of the origins of the world and of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph) of the Israelites.
Some modern scripture scholars maintain that four distinct groups—not just one man (Moses)—wrote the Torah. They allege that Yahwist (Jahwist), Elohimist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly (JEDP) “sources” actually wrote parts of the first five books of the Bible and later on, someone edited them into one entity. Each source comes from a distinct group of Hebrew scholars and usually from different time periods. The Yahwist gets its name from the fact that the word Yahweh (the sacred name of God) is used in those manuscripts. Elohimist sources used the word Elohim (generic word for God) instead of the sacred name. Deuteronomist sources allegedly wrote most of the book of Deuteronomy. Priestly sources supposedly wrote most of the book of Leviticus, which contains the rituals for the priests to perform.
This documentary source theory is not shared by all biblical experts. Most scholars believe that Moses wrote—or at least edited—some, if not all, of the text and constructed the five books as they exist today.
The Torah (law) was written around 1250 BC, but the Ne’vi-im (Prophets) were written from 1200–500 BC and the Ke’tuvim (Writings) were written from 500–100 BC. Thirty-nine of these Old Testament books were originally written in Hebrew, while the last seven were originally written in Greek. Here is the breakdown of the three divisions of the Old Testament:
Torah (Law) Genesis Exodus Leviticus Numbers Deuteronomy
Ne’vi-im (Prophets) Joshua
2 Kings Isaiah Jeremiah Baruch * Ezekiel Hosea Joel Amos Obadiah Jonah Micah Nahum
Habakkuk Zephaniah Haggai Zechariah Malachi
Ke’tuvim (Writings) Psalms
Wisdom * Job
Song of Songs Ruth Lamentations Ecclesiastes Esther
Daniel Ezra Nehemiah
2 Chronicles Tobit * Judith *
Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) *
1 Maccabees *
2 Maccabees *
The New Testament was written between 49–100 AD. Matthew (49 AD), Mark (54 AD), Luke (60 AD), and John (99 AD) wrote the four gospels, which were preceded (48–64 AD) by the letters (epistles) of Paul, James, Peter, John, and Jude. Luke also wrote the book of Acts, and John wrote the book of Revelation (or Apocalypse).
Gospels Matthew Mark Luke John
Acts Epistles Romans
Ephesians Philipians Colossians
2 Timothy Titus Philemon Hebrews James
Here are some important dates for the compilation of the entire Bible as one single volume of the seventy-three individual books. (Also see Question 18.) The word “canon” means authorized list and comes from the Greek word kanon meaning a reed. Reeds were often used to measure the depth of water, and so the word “kanon” in Greek came to mean a measuring rod or authorized list of books.
1250 BC: earliest date for writings from the Torah or Pentateuch.
250–150 BC: translation by seventy scholars (at request of Greek King of Egypt Ptolemy II Philadelphus) of all Hebrew manuscripts into Greek Septuagint (LXX); Alexandrian Canon established; forty-six books in Old Testament.
100 AD: Jewish Council of Jamnia determined the Palestinian Canon (in Hebrew): thirty-nine books in Hebrew Bible (Christian equivalent of Old Testament).
400 AD: Saint Jerome translates and compiles first complete Bible in Latin with seventy-three books total, based on Septuagint Version.
1455 AD: Gutenberg invents printing press with movable type. First printed and complete Bible, Latin Vulgate version.
1536 AD: Martin Luther translates Bible from Latin into German and adopts the shorter but younger (Hebrew) Canon of the Old Testament (thirty-nine books).
1609 AD: Douay-Rheims, first complete English translation of Catholic Bible.
1611 AD: King James (Authorized) Version with Apocrypha (Deuterocanon).
1885 AD: King James Version officially removes Apocrypha; Revised Version is written.
1946 AD: Revised Standard Version (RSV)
1966 AD: Jerusalem Bible (Catholic)
1970 AD: New American Bible (Catholic) (NAB)
1973 AD: New International Version (NIV)