Welcome to the Fascinating Story of How We Got The World’s Greatest Book—The Bible. It is a captivating story that includes a little bit of everything: adventure and violence, mystery and bravery, and dumb luck or divine intervention—depending on your point of view. How in the world did we get this book that some people swear by—and other people swear at? You don’t have to be a skeptic to have a grocery list of questions about the formation of the Bible, such as: —Who wrote these documents and when? —How were these ancient writings transmitted through the ages? —As scribes made copies of copies, didn’t they make mistakes that caused the ancient writings to be changed and corrupted? —How was it decided which writings would be included in the Bible? —What are the Dead Sea Scrolls, and why are archaeological finds like these such a big deal? Devoted people dedicated their lives throughout time to put this unique book into the hands of people worldwide. Retrace the passion and intrigue behind the Bible’s creation.
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About the Author
Lawrence Schiffman, Ph.D. is the Judge Abraham Lieberman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. He is a specialist in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Judaism in Late Antiquity, the history of Jewish law, and Talmudic literature. He currently serves as the Director of the Global Network for Advanced Research in Jewish Studies. Active in many professional societies, Dr. Schiffman served as President of the Association for Jewish Studies and is currently on the Board of Directors of the American Friends of the Bible Lands Museum, Jerusalem and past Chair and Representative of the Orthodox Union for the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC), the Jewish liaison committee to the Vatican, and other religious groups. His publications include 15 books and over 200 articles on the Dead Sea Scrolls and Rabbinic Judaism.
Jerry Pattingale, Ph.D. is a scholar, researcher, author, and speaker. He currently serves as the Executive Director of Education at Museum of the Bible, where he oversees an international team of academics, writers, researchers, media specialists, and editors developing a Bible curriculum for students. He is a senior fellow at the Sagamore Institute, a regional policy think tank, an honorary senior research associate at Tyndale House, Cambridge, a distinguished fellow at Excelsia College, Australia, and is a research scholar at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He also directs NationalConversations.com, is an associate publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review and serves on the boards of Religion News Service and Yale University's Jonathan Edwards Center.
Read an Excerpt
IN THE BEGINNING
Encounter at Sinai
The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain; and the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. Then the Lord spoke to Moses.
— EXODUS 19:20–21 NASB
In 1843 Dr. Constantin von Tischendorf, an instructor on leave from the University of Leipzig, grew weary of studying old texts in the musty libraries of Europe. So, he packed his bags and took off. This young German scholar with piercing eyes and a shock of dark, wavy hair had one goal: to discover and decipher the oldest surviving copies of Scripture. Tischendorf was obsessed, and he was relentless. He spent thirteen months in Italy before making his way to Egypt. He was Indiana Jones minus the bullwhip (and plus a serious set of pork-chop sideburns).
In 1844, Tischendorf arrived at Saint Catherine's (or, as it is officially known, the Holy Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai), an ancient Eastern Orthodox monastery built at the base of the mountain traditionally claimed to be Sinai, in modern-day Egypt. Perhaps while in Italy he had read of the experience of Vitaliano Donati, professor of botany and natural history at the University of Turin. Donati had himself visited Saint Catherine's in 1791.
As far as we know, Donati didn't make any significant botanical discoveries in the sands around Sinai. He did, however, spy a book that captured his attention. He wrote in his journal of having seen an old Bible at Saint Catherine's "comprising leaves of handsome, large, delicate, and square-shaped parchment, written in a round and handsome script."
It may have been this reference that prompted the not-yet-thirty-year-old Tischendorf to cross the Mediterranean, trek hundreds of miles across the North African wilderness, and knock on the door of Saint Catherine's. At any rate, by coming to Sinai, he had come to the right place.
In a sense, the story of how the Bible came to be begins at Sinai. While the biblical stories start with creation, Adam and Eve, the Flood, and the patriarchs (early Hebrew leaders who followed God), the same text says it was Moses who recorded this narrative.
Many within the Judeo-Christian tradition have suspected that it may have been in this place, where Saint Catherine's Monastery now sits, that God first called to Moses from the midst of a burning bush (Exodus 3:1–6). As a matter of fact, if you ever have the privilege of visiting, the monks of Saint Catherine's will gladly show you a bush growing — but not burning — in their courtyard. They believe this is the actual bush referred to in Scripture!
Tradition says that Moses followed this divine call and made a beeline to Pharaoh's palace. There, equipped with a miracle-working staff, assisted by his brother Aaron, and enabled by the power of God, Moses liberated the people of Israel from many generations of slavery. Then he led them on a two-month journey back to Mount Sinai (which some traditionalists think was also called Mount Horeb). As the people camped at the base, Moses met with God on the summit (Exodus 19:1–2). According to the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament), after receiving God's law, Moses descended the mountain. There, the Bible teaches, in the rocky valley beneath Sinai, Moses read these divine decrees to the Jewish people. This is the place where the people of Israel entered into a covenant relationship with God.
We can't afford to miss this fact: it is while the Jewish people were at Sinai that we find the first biblical references to "the book of the covenant" (Exodus 24:7). In other words, it is in this remote desert place that, according to Judeo-Christian tradition, the laws, words, and what the Israelites believed to be the pronouncements of God first began to be written down. Consider these verses from the book of Exodus — a passage that describes events that reportedly took place at Sinai:
"Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD" (Exodus 24:4).
"[Moses] took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, 'All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient'" (Exodus 24:7).
"The Lord said to Moses, 'Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction'" (Exodus 24:12).
"When God finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God" (Exodus 31:18).
The belief of Judeo-Christian tradition is that the Bible, as we know it, began at Sinai. God spoke (and even wrote on stone tablets) certain words, and it is believed that Moses did a good bit of writing too (Exodus 24:4; 34:28–29). This revelation has been understood by both Judaism and Christianity to be the beginning of the composition of the five books of Moses (Torah). The exact nature of that process, however, has long been debated by religious thinkers and scholars.
If old biblical writings were what Dr. Tischendorf hoped to find, then stopping at Saint Catherine's was the best decision he ever made. The monastery was renowned even in the 1840s for its vast, valuable library. (Today it is regarded as the oldest continually functioning library in the world!)
We should note that Tischendorf did not unearth any broken stone tablets (as described in Exodus 32:19) at Saint Catherine's. However, the professor did make a startling and important discovery. According to his version of events (which monastery officials vigorously dispute), Tischendorf noticed some parchments in a waste bin near the monastery's furnace.
The scholar retrieved them and examined them closely. They were large, measuring about 15 x 13.5 inches. They had four columns of text on each side. They were handwritten in beautiful uncial (all capital letters) script.
Even in the dim light, Tischendorf could see that the parchments were part of a codex, an ancient manuscript formatted like a modern book. He realized they were from a very old Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Old Testament). In all, Tischendorf counted 129 leaves (pages) that seemed destined to serve as kindling!
According to Dr. Bruce Metzger, a noted Greek and New Testament scholar, one of the monks informed the horrified Tischendorf that two such baskets of "rubbish" had already been burned. Unable to conceal his concern, the visitor asked if he might have the stash of discarded parchments.
Perhaps only then perceiving their value, the monks' mood changed. They eventually agreed to let Tischendorf take one-third (or forty-three) of the leaves.
To his lifelong delight, Tischendorf had acquired a portion of a 1,500-year-old Greek version of the Bible! Now known as Codex Sinaiticus ("the Sinai book," because of where it was discovered), this fourth-century manuscript is especially prized because it helps modern scholars see how their ancient colleagues labored to preserve the correct wording of the biblical text down through the centuries.
Back in Europe, Tischendorf donated these forty-three leaves to the Leipzig University Library, refusing to divulge where he had found them. In 1846, he published their contents — the Old Testament books 1 Chronicles, Jeremiah, Nehemiah, and Esther. Then he began to dream (and perhaps scheme) of returning to Saint Catherine's to acquire the rest.
Dr. Dirk Jongkind, former curator of the codex at the British Library, says it is easy to imagine Tischendorf's excitement, as these leaves are not only old but majestic. Jongkind recently finished an exhaustive project that utilized this ancient codex, among others, to produce a rich, interactive biblical text project, The Greek New Testament, Produced at Tyndale House, Cambridge. He describes an encounter with the great codex:
Every time I see [it], the sheer size of the manuscript strikes me. Many Greek manuscripts are just fragments or have just one or perhaps even two columns; yet here we have four columns in the prose sections with generous margins all around. And then it quickly becomes clear how much this manuscript is an accumulation of many centuries of transmission history. The production phase with a team of different scribes is the oldest layer. Then you get a group of corrections that are made a few centuries later. You get medieval Arabic notes and some late Greek annotations all the way up to modern times with library stamps and folio numbers in pencil. The parchment is as thin as possible, the surface smooth, and, though some sections have suffered through the ages, the characteristics of good parchment have preserved most of the text in exquisite detail.
How did we get from Moses receiving stone tablets at the top of Mount Sinai to Constantin von Tischendorf drooling over old parchments at the base of Sinai some three millennia later?
How did this book we call the Bible come to be?
Ask random people on the street that question, and in most cases, you will get blank stares and shoulder shrugs. Or you may hear such wildly imaginative answers as:
"The Bible is a bunch of made-up stories that religious people claim to be revelations from God."
"I'm not exactly sure, but I'm guessing angels were involved?"
"At various times and places, God would start speaking out loud, and people like Moses and Paul would grab their writing utensils. They were like ancient secretaries. The process was like divine dictation."
"The Spirit of God would come over people and put them into a spiritual trance. When this happened, they scribbled furiously the inspired thoughts they were having, as if they were channeling God."
People have all sorts of theories and ideas about how the Bible was written. The truth is, we are not sure exactly how this mysterious process worked. All we know is that the Bible purports to describe remarkable, divine encounters. And it claims to convey the very utterances of God. This is why, some 400 times in the Hebrew Bible, we find the phrase, "Thus says the LORD."
Another thing we don't know is how soon after the fact biblical events were recorded. Traditionalists believe that Moses was the human writer chiefly responsible for the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament (known collectively as the Torah, Law, or Pentateuch). For them, this means that the process of Moses receiving and recording holy revelations began at Mount Sinai and continued for his remaining forty years of life. Between the events at Sinai and his final addresses to the Israelite people, Moses is said to have penned Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
Others, influenced by the nineteenth-century German scholar Julius Wellhausen, cite different writing styles and vocabularies throughout the Pentateuch. The idea behind what has been termed the documentary hypothesis is that these five biblical books were not penned by Moses between 1300 and 1200 BCE but were instead compiled by scribes between about 950 and 500 BCE. According to this theory, these writers relied on the nation's rich oral traditions and on written records that had been passed down by prior generations. (Considerable challenges have led to modification of specific details of the documentary hypothesis.)
Whichever view one takes about the authorship of the Pentateuch, two things are clear: Ancient Jewish culture, like other primitive and modern cultures, did tell, retell, and even memorize stories. And the ancient Hebrews could read, write, and keep records (Exodus 17:14; Deuteronomy 10:1–4; 27:2–3, 8; 31:19, 24–26). They recorded information — both important and trivial — for posterity. Archaeologists have found ancient Hebrew inscriptions on everything from walls to pottery.
To a degree, these realities make moot the question of when the original documents of Scripture came into existence. Before literacy was widespread, and even after it became common, history was preserved orally, via stories. This is how values were transmitted, how cultures bonded, and how people were entertained.
Can you picture a group of nomadic people clustered around a desert campfire at night as they sing a song about a great victory over an enemy tribe? Can you imagine them as they listen to a sage tell tales of ancient heroes? If so, then you have a good sense of how parts of the Hebrew Bible may have been passed down before they were put into written form. The book of Exodus describes Moses and the people preserving their history in this way: "Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD" (Exodus 15:1).
The Bible records another example of this kind of ancient recordkeeping (or remembering) in Jeremiah 36. God tells the prophet Jeremiah, "Take a scroll and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel and Judah and all the nations, from the day I spoke to you, from the days of Josiah until today" (Jeremiah 36:2).
This command implies that the prophet had either a remarkable memory or some kind of careful, written record of prior revelations. Perhaps it was a bit of both. Jeremiah summoned his secretary: "Jeremiah called Baruch son of Neriah, and Baruch wrote on a scroll at Jeremiah's dictation all the words of the LORD that he had spoken to him" (Jeremiah 36:4).
Whether you believe the stories in the Bible are real or made up, whether you believe they were written down right away or compiled much later, whether you believe the writers relied on great memories or reliable records or both, the message of the Bible — and the making of the Bible — are rooted in story. Good stories get told repeatedly, and the best stories almost always make their way into print.
This is true even in our time. You go to lunch with an old college pal who has a knack for getting into odd situations. Your friend, who is an engaging storyteller, proceeds to tell you about a bizarre weekend camping trip that included a flash flood, a runaway Shetland pony, and two Elvis impersonators. You are amused and amazed. Back at work, what do you do? You know exactly what you do. During a break, you turn to your colleague and say, "Okay, listen to the crazy story I heard at lunch ..." Maybe you even write up the account and e-mail it to a few others. Perhaps you share it on Facebook.
This is exactly what the ancients did — in the days before cubicles and social media. Memorable stories were repeated orally around campfires and at tribal gatherings. They were learned by heart and passed on to children and grandchildren while hunting, preparing food, or getting ready for bed. At some point, especially noteworthy stories were written down — not on the Internet, of course, but using ancient writing materials. By the time of the Greeks, they were even put into long prose form and recounted from memory in huge amphitheaters.
We don't know exactly when the biblical authors sat down to record Israel's religious history for posterity. But at certain points along the way, the spoken word became the written word. These inscribed words, like their oral ancestors, were then passed along. They were copied and recopied. Compared and corrected. Collected and organized. Translated from Hebrew into Greek, Aramaic, and other languages. Bound in book form and carried to obscure places — like to a monastery at the base of a mountain called Sinai. There they were read, then stored or hidden ... until someone with bushy sideburns came looking for them centuries later.
In 1853, Dr. Tischendorf returned to Saint Catherine's, in hopes of obtaining the eighty-six leaves of the rare manuscript he had left behind on his first trip. This time, the monks, suspicious of Tischendorf's not-so-veiled desire to remove documents from their monastery, were not as generous. He left with only a leather fragment of Genesis that he claimed was being used as a bookmark.
Ancient peoples wrote on all sorts of surfaces: wet clay, stone, bone, metals, and pottery (the shards of which are called ostraca). For the biblical writers, the preferred materials were parchment and papyrus.
Many people think of parchment as brownish-colored paper that appears old and wrinkly, like the material on which replicas of America's Declaration of Independence are printed. In the world of ancient documents, however, parchment is animal skin — the hides of sheep, goats, cattle, even antelope — stretched thin, dried, and then cut like paper. (Although there were different ways of processing skins, we are using the term parchment here to refer to animal skin prepared for writing.) The highest quality parchments are referred to as vellum.
Parchment, as you might imagine, was expensive to produce. A large codex such as Sinaiticus would require the skins of perhaps two hundred animals! For this reason, some parchments were reused. The old ink was scraped off, and new information was written on the leathery surface (such a recycled parchment is referred to as a palimpsest). Because of its durable nature, parchment was popular until the late Middle Ages. That's when the Chinese introduced a paper made of cotton or hemp.
Excerpted from "The World's Greatest Book"
Copyright © 2017 Museum of the Bible, Inc..
Excerpted by permission of Worthy Publishing Group.
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.
Table of Contents
What's So Great About The Bible? 1
1 In the Beginning: Encounter at Sinai 17
2 People of the Book: The Prophets and the Writings 35
3 The Times They Are a-Changin': Between the Testaments 53
4 What the Goatherds Found: The Dead Sea Scrolls 71
5 "Gospel Truth": Jesus and the Evangelists 97
6 Hatred and Heretics: Assembling the New Testament 115
7 The Masoretes and Jerome: Standardizing Scripture 133
8 Light in the Darkness: Jewish and Christian Bibles in the Middle Ages 153
9 Mr. Gooseflesh's Revolution: The Printing Press and the Bible 167
10 Plow Boys, Women, and Girls: Making the Bible Accessible 183
11 One Billion Copies and Counting: The Story of the King James Bible 197
12 On and On It Goes: Wondrous Discoveries, Wider Distribution 213
Recommended Resources 245