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A General Introduction to the Bible: From Ancient Tablets to Modern Translations

A General Introduction to the Bible: From Ancient Tablets to Modern Translations

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by David Ewert

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There are two strands woven together in the history of the Bible and its translations. One is the development of the biblical text: its materials, texts, and translations. The second is the story of the men and women who went to great extremes, at times risking death, in order to provide their generation with the Word of God in a language that could be


There are two strands woven together in the history of the Bible and its translations. One is the development of the biblical text: its materials, texts, and translations. The second is the story of the men and women who went to great extremes, at times risking death, in order to provide their generation with the Word of God in a language that could be understood. David Ewert skillfully combines both these elements in this informative and captivating book, beginning with what "Bible" means, how the Bible is organized, and how various books were named. He explores such other matters as the development of the biblical languages, the canon and the history of the testaments, and early versions of the Bible. English translations, from the time of Wycliffe to the present, are the focus of several chapters. A General Introduction to the Bible is filled with photographs of ancient texts, pages from various Bibles, photographs of key individuals and settings — all of which add understanding to the Bible's history. Maps and charts show the development of languages, textual families, and the relationship of various translations and revisions. There are suggested readings and an extensive glossary and index.

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A General Introduction to the Bible

From Ancient Tablets to Modern Translations
By David Ewert


Copyright © 1990 Zondervan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-310-45371-2

Chapter One

The Book Called "The Bible"


A. The Name of a Plant

When we call the Holy Scriptures "the Bible" we are actually using a word that in ancient times designated the papyrus plant. This reed plant, which grew on the banks of rivers, was particularly abundant in antiquity along the marshes of the Nile and in Syria.

There are several references to this plant in the Old Testament (Exod. 2:3; Job 8:11; Isa. 18:2; 35:7), but Greek and Latin authors have more to say about it. The Hebrew word for the marsh plant is gome-a word that is translated into Greek as papuros (the Latin spelling is papyrus) Clearly our English word "paper" (French papier, German Papier) is derived from papyrus, the writing material of the ancient world.

Another name given to this fibrous plant was bublos (the later spelling is biblos), a which has given us the Greek word for book, namely biblion. Since large quantities of papyrus were used and shipped from the Syrian port of Byblos it is surmised that the Greek word for book may have been derived from that place-name.

Until the third century A.D., writing was commonly on papyrus. This was made from the pith of the papyrus plant, which could be as thick as a man's arm. It was cut in strips about a foot long, placed on a flat surface and glued together crosswise like plyboard. When dried the whitish surface was polished smooth with a stone or other implement.

On the front (recto) side the fibers ran horizontally, on the back (verso) side vertically. Since the front side was smoother than the back, one normally wrote only on that side. Only rarely was the back side, where the fibers ran vertically, used for writing. If it was, then the scroll was called an opisthograph. The roll that John saw in the hands of the One seated upon the throne, had "writing on both sides" (Rev. 5:1), to indicate the fullness of God's plans and purposes.

Sheets of papyrus, and sometimes entire rolls, were called chartes (Latin charta-from which we get chart, charter, etc.). This word is translated as "paper" in 2 John 12-the only place it occurs in the New Testament. Papyrus, biblos (or bublos) and chartes all refer to writing material made from the reed plant.

B. The Name of a Roll

Although single sheets of papyrus served a variety of literary purposes, longer documents demanded that sheets of papyrus be spliced together to form rolls. Even though papyrus sheets were somewhat thicker than modern writing paper, they could be rolled quite easily. Rolls up to thirty feet in length were not at all uncommon. They were normally rolled around a stick, called the navel. The writing on these rolls of papyrus was done in columns.

This roll (or scroll) was then called a "book," a biblion-a word which was derived from biblos, the name of the rush plant. The New Testament word biblion (book) is really a diminutive of biblos. However, it lost its diminutive force, and another diminutive is used, namely, biblaridion. John the apostle was bidden by an angel to swallow such a "little scroll" (Rev. 10:9). The rolling up of a scroll provided this apostle with a vivid figure of speech, for in Revelation 6:14 the sky is described as vanishing "like a scroll (biblion), rolling up."

Papyrus rolls were often wrapped with cloth or parchment and stored in some kind of container, which at times had the author's name and the title of the book on it.

A major literary production called for several scrolls to be used. A single roll of a multivolume work was called a tomos (our "tome") or logos ("word," as Luke calls his Gospel in Acts 1:1). The entire work might be called a teuchos (our word Pentateuch means "five books").

C. The Name of a Book

As we have just seen, the word biblos, from which our word book (Bible) is derived, at first designated the papyrus plant, and then the sheets or rolls produced from papyrus. Eventually, however, the word was used for the book or codex as we know it today.

The roll form of a book was in many ways inconvenient, and this led to the development of the codex. Four or more double-size sheets were laid on top of each other, folded in the middle and bound together, forming a codex. The Latin word codex originally meant the trunk of a tree, and then a block of wood split up into tablets or leaves. Such wooden tablets (perhaps coated with wax) were bound together to make a book. The same was done with leaves or sheets of papyrus. A codex, then, is a leaf book.

While rolls and codices existed side by side for some time, eventually the codex won out over the roll as the better book form. One advantage of the codex was that one could more easily write on both sides of the individual leaves, and so the codex was cheaper to produce. Also it was much easier to locate passages in a codex than in a scroll, which had to be rolled back to locate the appropriate place.

It is believed that Christians helped to accelerate the changeover from scroll to codex. For example, Luke's Gospel would demand an entire scroll. With a codex, however, all four Gospels could be brought together in a single codex book. Moreover, with the development of the codex, papyrus fell more and more into disuse and more durable material, namely parchment, began to take over.

So then, the Greek word biblion (book) was first the name of the papyrus plant, second the name of the papyrus scroll, third the name of a codex. Finally, the Greek plural, biblia, was used by Latin-speaking Christians as a singular to designate the collection of the books that comprise the Old and New Testaments, our Bible.


A. The Meaning of "Testament"

If someone unacquainted with the Bible were suddenly introduced to a copy of the Scriptures and this person looked through it rapidly, he would soon discover that it falls into two unequal parts, called "The Old Testament" and "The New Testament" respectively. What would not be immediately obvious to such a novice is the reason why these two parts are called "testament." As the word is used in English today it reminds one of someone's "last will and testament." But the names of the two divisions of the Bible have little to do with that meaning. In fact it is a bit unfortunate that the word "testament" was ever applied to these parts of the Bible, particularly since there is a more suitable word in English, namely "covenant."

The blame for the use of "testament" to designate the two collections of sacred writings in English Bibles rests with Latin Christianity. In the standard Latin version of the Bible the two collections of books are called respectively Vetus Testamentum and Novum Testamentum. The Latin word testamentum translates the Greek word diatheke. This word can have the meaning of "testament," as we use it in English today, but it can also mean "covenant."

Diatheke is the word the translators of the Old Testament used to render the Hebrew berit (covenant) into Greek. There was another Greek word (syntheke = covenant) that they might have used, but it has the connotation that a covenant is made between equals. Diatheke was better suited to the biblical idea of a covenant that God initiates by his saving grace and freely bestows on his people.

When we speak of the Old Testament we mean the collection of those books that were produced by writers who were members of the covenant established by God with Israel. By New Testament we mean the writings of apostles who were members of the new covenant people, the church. "Old" is not a pejorative term; it simply refers to the books written prior to the time of Christ, who inaugurated the new covenant. From a chronological point of view the books of the New Testament are very old also.

In the Greek-speaking church the two parts of the Bible came to be called palaia diatheke (Old Covenant) and nea diatheke (New Covenant). Latin Christians bequeathed on us the translation Vetus Testamentum (Old Testament) and Novum Testamentum (New Testament), and we will have to live with those titles.

However, whether we speak of covenant or testament, a new reader of the Bible may still ask why these two collections should be so designated. And so we must inquire into the background of these titles.

B. Old and New Covenants

1. The Historical Background. The two pivotal points in redemption history that form the historical background for calling the two parts of the Bible "old" and "new" covenants are, if we may speak geographically, Sinai and the Upper Room. When Jesus in the high hour of his passion took the cup and said, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood" (Luke 22:20), he linked his death with the covenant made at Sinai in the days of Moses-a covenant ratified by blood. In that more distant past Moses was the mediator of a covenant; in the Upper Room Christ was the Mediator of a new covenant between God and humanity.

But why a new covenant? Why did not the old remain? Did God's promises to Israel fail? No, God was faithful; Israel broke the covenant. Did God not foresee that a sinful people would fail in its obedience to the demands of a holy God? Indeed he did, but he had made gracious provisions for his people to renew its covenant with Yahweh and to remain in fellowship with him. Israel, however, became apostate.


Excerpted from A General Introduction to the Bible by David Ewert Copyright © 1990 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

The late David Ewert was professor emeritus and retired as president of Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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General Introduction to the Bible: From Ancient Tablets to Modern Translations 2.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
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