• J.S. Mullen

The Origin(s) of the Bible(s)

Updated: Aug 7

There is a strong case to be made that the Bible is the single most influential text in history. Yet where did the Bible come from? To those who have never given the matter serious thought, the question may seem a strange one to consider. The Bible is so ingrained in Western culture that its presence and origins are, if thought of at all, generally viewed as self-evident. The Bible is the revealed word of God, and it’s ethical precepts form the foundation of civilized society. As regards its epistemology (“How do you know what the Bible says is true?”) the Bible is the factual basis of its own authority.

That being the case (the Bible being (a) ubiquitously accepted and (b) the self-legitimizing source of God’s revealed word), one would expect the origins of the Bible to be well known. The fact, however, is that it is not. From Parochial schools to Protestant colleges, Catechisms to Born Again Baptisms—the circumstances of the construction of the Bible are strangely absent from any sermons, Sunday school lessons, or Vocation Bible Camps. Many good practicing Christians are surprised to learn that the Synoptic Gospels of the New Testament were not, in fact, written by the eponymous Apostles—or that the earliest Canonical Gospel, that of Mark, is thought to have been composed no earlier than 60AD, a full thirty years after the reported death of Jesus. Moreover, most Christians are completely unaware that the Gospels of the New Testament are not the only purportedly historical accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ.

The history of the Bible is fascinating and completely comprehensible to those of no particular, special academic background in history or theology. It has long been my suspicion that many would be eager to learn the details surrounding the assembly of arguably the single most influential book ever compiled. However, among the countless books published regarding the creation of the Bible, those that actually meet the standards of Facticity expected of serious intellectual endeavor are unreadable to those not already possessed of a significant academic background in the necessary areas of knowledge. Typically around four or five hundred pages in length, their authors indulge in exploring countless minutia of church history and theological debate—all of which distract from the story of the Bible’s creation, and bore those without a diverse background in both Late Classical history and Medieval history, as well as early Christian theology and mysticism. Generally the philosophical disputes between early church leaders are given an especially great deal of emphasis in such books. While this is entirely understandable, it is largely tangential to the matter of the Bible’s construction. For the purposes of understanding where the Bible comes from it is enough to know that by such and such a year such and such a book had been accepted as Canonical (officially accepted). If you are interested in why a particular book was rejected by the Catholic Church but retained by one of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, research of such kind has never been easier, and I wish you well, but such details are beyond the scope of this brief treatment.

As I will make no mention of them in the pages to follow, I would be remiss in not informing what I assume to be a largely lay readership that the apparently esoteric arguments regarding the nature of the relationship between Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit, between God and the Devil, and between Salvation and ourselves, which I am omitting to go into detail discussing, each had a marked influence on the direction of the burgeoning Christian religious movement—and so helped inform the compiling of the Bible later. For when the church councils finally got around to determining which texts would be incorporated into the official Bible, the validity of each new offer was weighed not only in terms of it’s determined authorial legitimacy but with it’s consistency with the already accepted general principles of the life of Jesus: teacher, Rabbi, healer of the sick, died on the cross; or, more significantly: born of a virgin, the son of God but of equal standing with the Father, crucified in redemption of a human race inherently corrupted by sinfulness, and who rose again and ascended into heaven.

As we shall see, Christianity in the first three centuries following the death of Jesus was a largely decentralized movement. And though many general points of practice and belief among the variously established churches in North Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern and Western Europe were standardized over that period, it was not until the 4th century that the process of establishing, definitively, which of the regionally variable beliefs and texts in use among the various and disparately flung churches were to be officially accepted as orthodox or Canonical. It is there, beginning with the First Ecumenical Council (that of Nicaea, called by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 325 AD) that the religion of Rome would begin to be pounded into rigid shape. In the following decades some of the most important controversies, heresies, and challenges threatening the growing Christian Church with inter-denominational strife or external encroachment were successfully suppressed or eliminated. Arianism, the belief that Jesus was subordinate to God the Father and not of equal status with Him—Pelagianism, belief that human beings are not corrupted in their nature by Original Sin, and as such could earn Salvation based strictly on achieved moral virtue during one’s life—Manichaeism, at that time a prominent rival dualistic religion, threatening the growing dominance of Christianity[1]—the first two were declared heresies by church councils while the fate of Manichaeism was formal persecution by the Emperor Theodosius, who in the year 380 AD, a mere sixty years from the date of the Edict of Milan, which at the time had made legal the practice of Christianity, issued the decree of Thessalonica, making Nicene Christianity the only official Religion of the Roman Empire. We will return to this point in history, the turn of the 4th century AD, presently. But before going on we must go back a few millennia, to find the origins of monotheism and, with it, the Old Testament.

A few quick notes before beginning: first, what follows is by no means meant to stand in as a comprehensive study of the topic of the history of the Bible. It is not without passionate controversy to this day. I have attempted to take the complexities of doctrinal strife, distill them to the extent that only their essence is retained, coloring the historical timeline, if you will. If what follows stimulates any interest in a particular topic or period it is my heartfelt hope that the reader will venture off into the waters of other reading—I wish them good sailing! Second, those expecting any treatment of the subject content of any part of the Bible will be disappointed—again, not for lack of interest, but it is simply outside the scope of the project at hand. Third, finally, and on a related note, what follows is a historical examination, not an epistemological debate. I take no position on the “veracity” or “truthfulness” of the stories in the Bible—whatever the reader may take that to mean, whether figuratively or literally. However, regarding it’s authorship the modern scholarship of both Christians and non-believers alike paint a similar picture—though one that can’t be absolutely verified. Nothing can be certain through the fog of interminable centuries and millennia. But for what it’s worth:

1. In the Beginning…

Depending on which version of the Bible you have available to you (The King James, The NIV, et cetera) the books of the Old Testament probably number either 39 or 46. The explanation of this discrepancy will come later. For now it will suffice to say that the Old Testament of the first officially promulgated list of the Bible’s approved texts contained 49. The Old Testament is a combination of the Jewish Torah (the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers), and subsequent books detailing Jewish History (Kings, Chronicles, the books of the Prophets, et cetera) and those such as Psalms and Proverbs.

The earliest archaeological records suggest the development of the Jewish people as distinct from their Bronze Age contemporaries by about the 23rd century BC (2,300 BC, or about four thousand years ago). As the Jewish people grew they developed and passed down a rich oral tradition that would eventually become the Old Testament.[2] Contrary to popular belief among both Jewish and Christian Fundamentalists, Moses did not write any of the books of the Old Testament. We know this because, unfortunately, the stories of the Jewish people were not widely written down until around the time of the Babylonian exile, in the 6th century BC—while Moses, if he existed as a historical and not simply mythological figure, is projected to have lived around the time of the 13th century BC. Innumerable analyses of the earliest known fragments of each book of the Old Testament also reveal the existence of several very distinctive styles, indicative of multiple authors at work.[3]

So, what the Old Testament is and where it comes from has been introduced: it is an anthologized collection of the traditional Jewish stories of creation and history composed and passed down over the course of about two thousand years—first orally, then in written form. But a question has perhaps occurred to you before and has so again while reading: Why does the Bible include the Old Testament at all? It is a fair question, and the answers are perhaps not obvious. But the reasons are quite simple. First, from a cultural perspective, Jesus and all his original apostles, disciples, and followers were Jewish.[4] They did not imagine themselves as Christians, nor did Jesus ever use the word. From a strictly historical perspective, Jesus and his followers were reform-minded Jews. As we shall see in the next section some of the early Christian churches, particularly those in the Near East, were very strongly influenced by their Jewish roots. Were it not for the early influence of Paul on the development of the Church the path of Christianity would have doubtlessly looked markedly different.

But more on that in a moment.

In addition to being a source of traditional shared belief among those already following Jesus, as well as Jesus himself, from a practical standpoint, in the absence of the Old Testament there would be no prophecies for Jesus to come in fulfillment of. A Messiah whose coming had not been foretold? What was he dying in forgiveness of, and why? In short, without the Old Testament the New Testament makes very little sense.

2. The Original Schism: Peter and Paul…

Assuming that the life and death of Jesus, called the Christ, needs no explaining, we will pick up our story in the aftermath of his purported ascension into heaven following the resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles. After this event we are told they dutifully went forth and evangelized. Particularly successful in this mission of spreading the message of the life and teachings of Jesus was Paul of Tarsus. Not a member of the original twelve, Paul first appears in the historical record as a zealous Orthodox Jew helping to hunt down and persecute Christians. The story of his conversion on the road to Damascus hopefully already being familiar, in the decade following the death of Jesus Paul would transform Christianity from a local sect of deviant Jews, their activity centered around Jerusalem and headed by Peter and James (The brother of Jesus, not the Apostle), to a religion that could claim churches and followers as far distant as modern day Armenia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Rome, and whose number of adherents had grown commensurately.

At this point a few things must be noted to understand the rest of the story of the Bible’s creation. The first is that despite the proclamation of the biblical Jesus to Peter (“Upon you I shall build my Church”) it was Paul who emerged as the dominant shaping force in early Christianity. He obtained this position first by rejecting the authority of Peter, James, and the early Jerusalem church. Claiming to have received the Gospel directly from God, Paul proceeded to extend teaching of that Gospel to the surrounding Gentile (non-Jewish communities) in direct defiance of the hitherto established Christian church in Jerusalem. This move had the double effect of enabling Paul to rapidly develop a network of churches independent of the authority of the Jerusalem church, whose focus was on evangelizing to the local Jewish population, and to then use his command over the subsequently superior resources and influence to politically outmaneuver the far more conservative James and the only slightly less conservative Peter.

Given the overwhelming centrality of Paul in the story of the spread of Christianity, it is appropriate—and perhaps unsurprising—that predating even the gospel of Mark, several early Pauline letters have been established as the earliest existing New Testament writings to have come down to us. Credited to the late 40s and early 50s AD, the letters to the Galatians, Corinthians, and Romans predate the earliest known copies of the Gospel of Mark (approximately 60 AD). The purpose and content of these early letters are instructive. The letters were a way of setting precedents, resolving doctrinal disputes, and maintaining the rough unity of his churches from afar, and they tell an engaged reader a great deal about the intellectual atmosphere that existed among early Pauline Christians. Further, it is also in the writing of Paul, in the Acts of the Apostles, that the term “Christian” is first applied to those who follow the teachings of Jesus.[5]

By far Paul’s greatest contribution to early Christianity is his initial defiance of Church wishes and spreading Christianity among the Gentiles, which not only ensured a larger flock of possible converts, but it broke the hold of centralized religious authority so predominant in the priestly and legalistic Judaism of the time. With its emphasis on rigidity and tradition, there was no room for outsiders—let alone their participation or interpretations. With the spread of Pauline Christianity, a religion primarily of the Gentiles, what would develop over the following two centuries was a Christianity so diverse, so decentralized, and so locally autonomous, that by the time of the Council of Nicaea in 325 there were many additional works of scripture (such as the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas) in regular circulation around various different churches of the time (Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Rome, et cetera) being read alongside those that would eventually gain admittance into the first standardized Bible, produced in Latin in the year 400 AD, composed of 80 books.

So what were those other books, such as the Epistle of Barnabas? Where did they come from and what happened to them?

3. The Purported Accounts of the Life, Teachings, and Times of Jesus Christ…

Before moving to a discussion of the events directly pertaining to the process of assembling the first standardized Bible in the late fourth century, the religious texts excluded from the first standardized Bible should be properly introduced and explained. The Apocrypha, translating literally to “Hidden Books”, is the title given to those gospels, epistles, acts, dialogues, and sayings left out of the Bible. Most were written in the second and third centuries following the death of Jesus. Some were dedicated to describing the early childhood of Jesus (the Infancy Gospels), others to secret teachings given by Jesus to particular disciples (The Secret Book of James and the Gospel of Judas). In the latter, only Judas is able to understand the true message of Jesus’ teachings.

As previously stated, the reason for the omission of these and the other Apocryphal writings was based on individual examination of source material and consistency with by that point established doctrine by the major churches, particularly in Rome, but also in Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Constantinople. By the early second century the various Church leaders were already debating the authenticity of various writings attributed to the life and philosophy of Jesus. Though there was general agreement between the early churches, differences in interpretation persisted beyond the early synods (church councils) of the 4th century, culminating in the Great Schism between the Orthodox and Catholic religions in the year 1054.

Both the Old Testament and New Testament have their own Apocrypha. Below I have created a list of some of the more notable writings of each. As well as what details scholarship has unearthed regarding authorship and date of origin, I have included a few bits of commentary here and there on their content.

A Select List of the Jewish Old Testament Apocrypha

1 Esdras – Part of the Septuagint,[6] 1 Esdras is accepted as Canonical by most Eastern Christian denominations, while having never been included in the Western Scriptures. Much of the Book of Ezra is contained within it. Similarities with the writing in the Book of Daniel suggest 1 Esdras originated in Lower Egypt as the work of multiple authors.

2 Esdras – Mostly concerned with a Jewish Apocalypse scenario, 2 Esdras is generally accepted to be a work of no earlier than the late first century AD. Largely thought to be the work of multiple authors, it is considered Canonical today by the Ethiopian Church (they maintain the text dates back to the time of the Babylonian Exile).

The Book of Tobit – The Book of Tobit is considered Canonical by both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, however, as it was considered Apocryphal by post-Masoretic Judaism, the Book of Tobit was rejected by the Protestant movement. I don’t know how to summarize the Book of Tobit briefly as the narrative is tripartite and neatly interwoven, but it is well worth a read.

The Book of Judith – Deuterocanonical, a part of the original Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint), the Book of Judith is thus, like the Book of Tobit, considered Canonical by the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Faiths, while excluded by the Protestants on account of it’s abandonment by Judaism. Too filled with historical errors to be read as anything but an attempted allegory based on limited information—or imaginative license—the Book of Judith centers around the state Israel being under attack by an enemy king, whom Judith seduces and beheads.

Bel and the Dragon – The three narratives comprising Bel and the Dragon first appear in the Septuagint as additions to the Book of Daniel. Modern scholarship suggests the origin of Bel and the Dragon to be of the aforementioned Persian Period. As a Deuterocanonical writing, Bel and the Dragon stands rejected by Protestants and Jews while being accepted by the Catholics and Eastern Orthodoxies.

1 Maccabees – Again, a part of the Septuagint, 1 Maccabees is rejected by most Jewish sects and so by the Protestants as well; while the Catholics and Eastern Orthodoxies accept 1 Maccabees as Canonical. Interestingly, it is in 1 Maccabees that the story of Hanukah is first related. It’s exclusion from the Hebrew Bible—based on extensive research—seems not to stem from any question of dubious authorship—though it’s author and origins are largely unknown, but most likely either from a political fight between the Sadducees and Pharisees at Jamnia—the hypothetical/historical council at which the Hebrew Bible was first formalized in the late fourth century—or as a political move intended to appease the Romans, who after the suppressed Jewish revolt around 70 AD would not have looked kindly on the inclusion of a book about successfully rebellious Jews.

The Book of Wisdom – A collection of exhortations relating to the obligations of, particularly, rulers to seek wisdom and justice, and to eschew the pursuit of the hedonistic and exploitive in belief that life is short and best lived in pursuit of temporal pleasures. The Book of Wisdom is part of the Septuagint, written originally in Greek, and was likely composed around the time of Jesus’ birth.

Several other Old Testament Apocrypha worth looking into: 2 Maccabees, the Epistle of Jeremiah, the Book of Baruch, and Susanna among them. In total the Old Testament Apocrypha are usually numbered as 15.

A Select List of the New Testament Apocrypha[7]

The First Epistle of Clement – composed around 100 AD and addressed to the Christians of Corinth. Though anonymously recorded, the letter is traditionally ascribed to Clement I, Bishop of Rome around that time. Apart from chastising the congregation for unseating those the Church had appointed to lead them, the letter also castigated those whose faith was wavering as Jesus had yet to return as expected to usher in the new kingdom. Though ultimately excluded from the final cut for the Canon, it is listed in the Codex Alexandrinus (a 5th century Greek Bible) as Canonical, and was widely read in the centuries between its composition and the standardization of the New Testament in the late 4th century.

The Second Epistle of Clement – considered Canonical by the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Second Epistle of Clement was decidedly not authored by the likely eponymous author of the First Epistle of Clement. Probably authored sometime in the early second century, it is largely devoted to reflecting on the irrationality of Pagan beliefs—the worshipping of wood or metal idols: the worship of the makings of man. It is also contained in the Codex Alexandrinus.

The Shepherd of Hermas – A text very popular among the early Christian Churches, The Shepherd of Hermas is found in both the Codex Siniaticus and Claromontanus. Attributed to around the mid-second century, it was originally written in Greek and was among those scriptures in the Apocrypha, which suggested Jesus was born a mere mortal man and was subsequently chosen by God because of an innate quality of spirit he possessed.

The Epistle of Barnabas – Distinct from the also Apocryphal Gospel of Barnabas, it also enjoyed great popularity among the early church Fathers, but by the time of the church councils of the fourth century it had fallen out of favor. Composed sometime between the Jewish revolts of 70 and 132 AD, the Epistle of Barnabas offers commentary on a wide range of topics—including the non-literal reading of Old Testament calls to sacrifice, as well as interpretation of Jewish practices such as scapegoating as foretelling the death of Christ at the hands of the Jews.

The Apocalypse of Peter – The only two known versions of the Apocalypse of Peter diverge widely, but whatever its original form it is listed on Muratorian Fragment, the earliest known list of New Testament writings. Apparently quite popular following its promulgation, likely around the turn of the first century, the Apocalypse of Peter consists of the risen Christ explaining to his disciples the various punishments awaiting sinners in Hell, as well as those blisses to be experienced by the faithful in heaven.

The Gospel of Thomas – Discovered in 1945, part of the Nag Hammadi Library, the Gospel of Thomas consists entirely of sayings attributed to Jesus. While approximately half of these closely or perfectly parallel those of the accepted Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) it makes no mention of the Divinity of Jesus, the Crucifixion, Resurrection, or Second Coming. Though it had fallen out of historical view for nearly two millennia, the early fourth century Church Father Eusebius makes mention of the Gospel of Thomas, labeling it full of spurious and heretical ideas. It is one of the principle Gnostic Gospels.

A few further notes: Depending on how one counts, the New Testament Apocrypha can total up over 100 writings—some written as late as the 3rd century. It should be noted that all the books contained in the New Testament Canon are regarded as having been written prior to 120 AD. The oldest known surviving copy of the Greek Bible (with both Old and New Testament at least partially still intact) is the Codex Sinaiticus, from the late fourth century. And finally, while the church in Rome had proclaimed and ratified these books as the official canon by the end of the fourth century[8] the various Orthodox Churches did not do so until as late as the seventh century.

4. Render Unto Caesar…

We are nearly there, but no talk of fourth century Christianity can begin without first touching on the Romans. Undisputed rulers of the Mediterranean, North Africa, Eastern Europe, and parts of East Asia, for several hundred years by this point, the Roman Empire, as a unified whole, was nearing its end. Already having been split into two by the Emperor Diocletian around the year 284, the Western Roman Empire would fall in the year 410 following the sacking of Rome by Alaric. While various Emperors had intermittently persecuted the Christian community, the Empire was generally tolerant of religious minorities. The Christians had proved a special case—for the Christians had been by and large unwilling to make religious sacrifices in the name of the Emperor as required. Polytheism (belief in many gods) being by far the most dominant form of religious belief at this stage in the history of the Mediterranean, most people saw no problem with making sacrifices to the gods of others—including sacrifices to the Emperor himself. This made the Christians easy and frequent scapegoats. State initiated violence would eventually claim the lives of an estimated several thousand before, miraculously, Christianity was first legalized, then, only a few decades later, made the official religion of the Empire.

As far as our focus is concerned, the story can pick up with the ascension of the Emperor Constantine in the year 313. Having fought his way to the throne, the legend is that prior to the decisive battle for the Purple, Constantine experienced a vision/dream, in which in the sky the sign of the cross appeared and a voice told him to “conquer by this.” That battle, the battle of the Milvian Bridge, was a decisive moment for Christianity. With Constantine on the throne, two years later the edict of Milan would legalize the practice of Christianity, end legal discrimination against them, and return confiscated church property. By this time the popularity of Christianity had grown substantially, and persecution of its adherents had steadily declined over the late 3rd century. Shortly following the Edict of Milan the Emperor Constantine would call for the first of the great church councils; for having legalized Christianity, and being quite interested in it personally given his purported visionary experience, he wanted to know: what were Christians? And what did they believe?

As it turned out, there was some disagreement.

5. The Councils of Nicaea and Rome…

As has been mentioned repeatedly in passing, by the time of the synods of the fourth century, a great deal of uniformity already existed among the various existing Christian Churches of the time. The previously referenced Muratorian Fragment, the oldest known list of New Testament Scriptures gives a great many—including the four Gospels—that would eventually be included in the Canon.[9] Debate continued, particularly over the Epistles and other Acts right into the fourth century, for the precise nature of Christianity needed to be defined.[10] However, by the mid-third century the four Gospels had been widely accepted, and therefore a great deal about the nature of the Christian Faith decided. By the time of the Nicaean Council in 325 no official Canon had yet been promulgated. Though Bibles were ultimately created around the year 330, per the Emperor Constantine’s direction, disagreements over scripture were to continue. Athanasius, then Bishop of Alexandria, one of the preeminent Christian thinkers of the day, and leading polemicist, produced in his Easter Letter of 367 an exact list of what would less than two decades later be officially adopted as New Testament Canon at the Council of Rome in 382.

Select New Testament Canon, Probable Dates of Origin, as well comments on Authorship

The Gospel of Matthew – Unlike the earlier Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of Matthew is particularly keen to emphasize the Divine nature of Jesus,[11] presenting the Annunciation and Immaculate Conception as well as birth in Bethlehem—in fulfillment of the Old Testament Prophesies. Accepted by most scholars to have been authored some time in the late first century, the Gospel of Matthew is not attributed to any known author.

The Gospel of Mark – First taking form by around the year 60 AD, the Gospel of Mark is almost universally accepted as the earliest of the Canonical Gospels to be composed. Also not attributed to any known author, the Gospel of Mark is now widely accepted as having been a primary source of material for the Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke (the trio forming the so called “Synoptic Gospels”).

The Gospel of John – Traditionally attributed to the oral teachings of one of the disciples who had known Jesus personally,[12] the Gospel of John came into its current approximate form around the year 100 AD. Long a matter of debate, the Gospel of John is now generally accepted to have been the work of an unknown author. Due to its many similarities in language and theme, the Gospel of John is traditionally grouped with the Epistles of John and the Book of Revelations, as likely originating from the same community.

The Gospel of Luke – The longest book in the New Testament Canon, a great deal of contention surrounds the Gospel of Luke[13] as two early manuscript copies diverge significantly. The shorter, and generally considered to be altered, Western version won out over the Alexandrian during the deliberative process surrounding the creation of the first standardized texts for the New Testament Canon—the source for which dates to approximately the year 90 AD, anonymously attributed.

The Acts of the Apostles – Generally dated to around the same period as the Gospel of Luke, Acts of the Apostles is attributed to the same anonymous author of that Gospel. The principle matter dealt with in Acts of the Apostles is accepted as providing explanation for how it was that Jesus, a Jewish religious teacher, whose message and disciples had been both been Jewish—although his Messianic message had been rejected by the Jews—came to be at the center of a religion (by that point) definitely Gentile in constituency.

The Book of Revelation – The final book of the New Testament Canon, nothing is broadly academically accepted to be known about the author of the book—though a great deal of speculation surrounds its authorship. Commonly thought to have originated in the late first century AD, the Book of Revelation was the last book to be accepted as Canonical, though debate was intense and for centuries continued.[14] While probably existing in the common cultural consciousness as foretelling a future Christian Apocalypse, that reading is by no means the only or most widely accepted during that time.

* In case it was unclear, it should be noted that no original copies of any of the Gospels are known to have survived to the present day—or any time in the last millennium. The texts that survive are third-generation copies at the earliest, and generally with no two texts being completely identical.

6. Christianity: A Brief Tour from Then to Now…

It has been suggested that the real miracle of Christianity is that such an outsider should come in and upset the established religious, political, and social hierarchies of its time. It has, in fact, been often referenced as a sign of Christianity’s legitimacy. How, after all, could a few unlettered laborers—fisherman, shepherds, craftsmen—successfully spread the message of a crucified man with such success if not for its Divine Inspiration?

Whatever your opinion, apart from helping normalize monotheism it inverted the traditional binary values: that which was good had nearly always been equated with that which was strong; for Christians, however, the opposite was to be true: Suddenly, blessed were the weak, the contrite—more difficult to get into heaven for a wealthy man than for a camel to pass through the eye of needle. It is not difficult in the market place of ideas to see how such a creed could take hold—when fear of famine, war, or pestilence overhung each moment, and the average person could expect to lose one of every two children prior to the age of ten—eternal life and a doctrine demanding the strong submit themselves to the authority of God in service to the weak must have seemed like quite a good deal.

Though at this point in our story, the turning of the 5th century, the earliest known standardized Bible had been completed, as the various Bibles of the present day bear little resemblance to those of two thousand years ago, I will quickly take us through the Middle Ages, through the Great Schism and Protestant Reformation, right up to the Modern period and present day.

Following the Edict of Milan in 313, the councils of Nicaea and Rome in 325 and 382, the Emperor Theodosius would cement the status of Christianity by all but outlawing the practice of all other religions in the Roman Empire by the 380s. The Edict of Thessalonica, as it was called, made Christianity the official religion of the Empire and would set the course for Christianity to dominate Europe for the next two thousand years.

However, by the time Christianity was made the official state religion of the Roman Empire, the Western half of the Empire was already on its last legs. Within two decades (410 AD) Rome would be sacked for the first time in 600 years. It is indicative of the story of Christianity, though, that by the time Rome was sacked by the Visigoths the invading Germanic tribesmen had already been Christianized—their King, Alaric, a devotee of Arianism. Rome would be sacked twice more in the following forty years. Ravenna, which had been made the capital of the Western half of the Roman Empire in the year 402 for reasons of defensive strategy, would be sacked 476. With that, the Western Roman Empire was no more. As noted in the case of Alaric and his Visigoths, all those sackings were the work of Gaelic and Germanic tribesman—all of who had already been successfully converted!

While the Eastern Roman Empire would continue on until the final fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the Western Roman Empire disintegrated into loosely cooperative—though frequently warring—kingdoms and papal states. Consequently, for the next thousand years the most constant, unifying governing force in Western Europe would be the Catholic Church. The Pope, wielding the power of God’s ordination in one hand and the power of excommunication[15] in the other, he was seldom not among the most powerful men in Europe. Having successfully stanched the invasion from the Iberian Peninsula by the conquering Muslim armies of Arabia that had spread over northern Africa and into what is now Spain,[16] Christian Europe would eventually answer back with a series of Crusades—the first of which was declared by Pope Urban the Second, in 1095. There were several different major Crusades, as well as multiple minor ones, each with a slightly different declared aim, but the principle aim was generally waging Holy War with the intent of driving the Muslims from the Holy Land—or expunging heresy as in the case of the Albigensian Crusade.

Just prior to the First Crusade the first of two major splits would occur in the Christian house. It was a split that had always loomed—if not always existed in point of fact. Years of doctrinal tension culminated in some quite rash politics, the result being that both the Pope in Rome and the Patriarch in Constantinople (the equivalent of the Pope of the Orthodox Church) excommunicated one another, effectively shutting each other out. The Catholics of the West and the Orthodox practitioners of the East had always suffered a tenuous relationship, but this would be arguably the all time low point.[17]

Following the final Crusade in the late 13th century, it would be a little over two hundred years before the Protestant Reformation—the second major splitting of the Christian church—occurred. Again it was frustrations with Rome, and with papal authority in particular, that led to the breakup. Already rebellious German states, smarting under religious and political authority, eagerly took up the cause. And so began the Knights’ Revolt in 1522, the first of nearly 40 religious wars that would span the next 150 years—only five years after the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Apart from the nearly continual warfare that accompanied its development came the various Bibles of the developing Protestant denominations, particularly those in Germany, France, and England. These Bibles (of which there were the Coverdale, Luther, Geneva, Bishop’s, and King James, among others) diverged principally from the existing Catholic Canon over the aforementioned Deuterocanonical books. These are books of the Old Testament such as Tobit and Judith, which are considered part of the Old Testament Apocrypha by most Jewish sects, and thus not worthy of being intermixed with the scripture of the Bible.[18]

Given the Bible’s preeminence among Protestants, it seems appropriate that it was the Gutenberg Bible—the first mass-produced book in history—that was the driving force of the Reformation. While versions outside the traditional Latin had been in existence for centuries, these were the possessions of Kings or other wealthy nobles. Aside from most peasantry being illiterate, books were insanely rare and likewise expensive. As not only the first widely available book, it was also the first time many had heard or seen the Bible printed in a language spoken by the common people. It was a literal revelation: hitherto, the common person had no way of knowing what the Bible said or didn’t say. The Bible of their Sunday services was written entirely in Latin, and the primary texts upon which it was based (which they had no access to or probably any definite knowledge of) were written in equally inaccessible Greek or Hebrew. The message of the Protestant Reformation, with its project of mass literacy was clear: it was time for Christianity to once again upset the established order. No longer would a central bureaucratic authority—whose existence was nowhere found in the Bible—serve as the arbiter of truth. Instead, the truth of the Bible was an experience discovered by the individual, whose eternal soul was capable of interpreting the true word of God.[19]

In Conclusion:

To those expecting more details, perhaps of the period between the first standard text and the Protestant Reformation, or in the divergent Bibles promulgated by various Christian sects, I do apologize. My intention with this Appendix was never to comment on the Bible itself, but only the circumstances of its historical origins. It seemed a logical best use of my time considering that it seems more people know what the Bible says as opposed to who decided it would say what is says and why. This knowledge is, in my opinion, a crucial missing element from the common cultural consciousness. Would the Bible be so venerated if its very human, practical origins were well known?

Below is a short list of the Christian Bibles you are most likely to encounter, along with the dates of their first publication in English.

The King James Version – 1611

The NIV (New International Version) – 1978

The Douay-Rheims Bible – 1582 (approx.)

The American Standard Version – 1901

The Revised Standard Version – 1966


[1] Perhaps most frequently remembered for having been the religion ultimately rejected by St. Augustine, after having studied and practiced its precepts and teachings for many years. [2] From a theological standpoint, what made early Judaism markedly different from its contemporaries was its belief in a single, omnipotent God. [3] For these reasons it is impossible to say which of the stories of the Old Testament came into being first. Some say Job, others Genesis—for our purposes it is enough to say with fair certainty that by the time of their return to Israel (around the second century BC) the Jewish people had the Torah officially down in writing. As an interesting additional detail, it is widely accepted that the books Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings originated as a single work during the aforementioned period of the 6th century, the so called “Persian Period” of Jewish history. [4] Perhaps an exception to this exists. However, one does not immediately come to mind. [5] On the matter of Acts, if one is at all doubting the overwhelming importance of Paul on the early Christian Church, consider the fact that the New Testament includes more writings from Paul and about Paul than depict the life and teachings of Jesus. [6] The first translation of the Hebrew books of the Jewish faith into Greek during the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC. [7] Unlike the Old Testament Apocrypha, which are rather few, orderly and accounted for, the Apocrypha of the New Testament are multitudinous and disputed—some even presenting alternate teachings of Jesus as well as historical accounts of his life. As it is beyond the scope of this treatment to go into detail regarding the contents of the Apocrypha, I have chosen present as my examples of New Testament Apocrypha those five which are historically verifiable as the last cuts made to the list of New Testament Canon, as well as a personal favorite, the Gospel of Thomas. [8] The Council of Rome, in 382, promulgated a complete and final list, and later the Council of Trent, in 1545, would reaffirm these. [9] And this around the year 200. [10] It is here that the many esoteric theological debates would generally take center stage. [11] Which as we saw during our brief look at the New Testament Apocrypha was by no means a given at the time of its composition. [12] The Apostle John. [13] As well as Acts of the Apostles, as we shall see. [14] To the present day the Book of Revelation is rejected by many Eastern Churches. [15] The action of officially excluding someone from participation in the sacraments and services of the Christian Church. Besides its impact on the soul of the individual in question, as a King this threat was a serious cudgel, for the lifting of excommunication required the doing of penance—putting your gold or soldiers at the Pope’s disposal in many cases. [16] See, the battle of Tours in 732 AD. [17] At least until 1204, when Latin and Germanic crusaders would sack Constantinople, in an odd twist that would conclude the Fourth Crusade. [18] A notable exception being Luther himself, who included them, but with the note that they did not have claim to the same moral authority as the rest of the Canon. [19] It seems therefore unsurprising, then, that the readings developed by the ever-fecund Protestant folds tended toward literalism. After all, what more obvious reading from a book can a person can get than what the book literally says? Apart from the numerous problems that come from reading literally texts that were written in many cases to be read figuratively, given the generally low level of education to be found in Europe—and across the world—among the masses during this period makes the tendency toward Literal Biblicism seem quite impossible to avoid.