Where Did the Bible Come From?


Sean McDowell explains where the Bible came from, who wrote it and when.

Today, the Bible, containing the Old Testament and New Testament, is the most widely circulated book in history. It has been translated into more than 2400 languages, and its distribution reaches into the billions. But where did this extraordinary book come from? Who wrote it and when?

The Old Testament

The Old Testament portion of the Bible was written in the Hebrew language, except for a few passages that were written in Aramaic. It was written over a period of about a thousand years. The first person the Bible identifies as its writer is Moses. He is credited with authoring all of its first five books. The date of Moses’ writing is considered to be during what is known as the late Bronze Age (1500s–1200s BC). The accounts of creation, Noah and the flood, Abraham’s journeys, and so on were likely passed down orally from one generation to another. It is also possible that hundreds of years before Moses, Abraham may have written down what his great-great-grandfathers knew about the early stories of creation. But it was Moses who compiled those early narratives.

The entire Old Testament today is comprised of 39 books: the 5 books of Moses (known as the Pentateuch), 12 historical books, 5 books of poetry, and the 17 books of the major and minor prophets. While it is clear who wrote many of the books of the Old Testament, other books simply don’t tell us.

The New Testament

The New Testament wasn’t written until after Jesus died, rose again, and ascended into heaven. During his time, the Jewish territories were primarily under the rule of the Romans and the descendants of Herod the Great. Greek and Aramaic were the primary languages. Most scholars estimate that the first writings of the New Testament were penned in Greek by the apostle Paul about 20 years after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Paul is credited with writing most of the New Testament epistles. The four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are anonymous and do not name their authors. But the early Church Fathers were nearly unanimous that the apostles whose names are borne by the Gospels were in fact their authors. These accounts are believed to have been written between AD 65 and 90, but there is some evidence they may have been written earlier. The New Testament includes 27 books in all.

The materials used to write in early times included

  • clay (Ezekiel 4:1)
  • stone (Exodus 24:12)
  • metal (Exodus 28:36)
  • papyrus, which was two layers of split papyrus reeds pressed together to form a papery sheet (Revelation 5:1)
  • vellum, made from calfskin; parchment, from lambskin; or leather, from cowhide (2 Timothy 4:13)

At some point each writing of Scripture had to be copied from the author’s original medium in order to preserve it for future generations. Ink would fade, leather and parchment would decay, and papyrus would crumble. This called for individuals to carefully transcribe the original writing, called the autographon (plural, autographa), into an accurate copy known as a manuscript. The process of making copies from previous copies preserved the writings we now know as the Scripture.

While we may have identified something of how we got the Bible we have today, the question remains: “Where did the words of the Bible come from?” The New Testament tells us clearly:

Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son (Hebrews 1:1-2).

“All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us…correct us…to prepare and equip his people” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). “You must realize that no prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophets’ own understanding, or from human initiative. No, those prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit and they spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:20-21). So the Bible actually comes from God. They are his words put in writing. A select group of men (known as prophets and apostles) wrote the Scriptures as they were guided and inspired by God.

The Almighty Creator God spoke verbally to the children of Israel from Mount Sinai just over three millennia ago (see Exodus 31:18). Then over the centuries he inspired more than 40 different prophets and apostles to write down his words to us. These authors were from every walk of life—shepherds, soldiers, prophets, poets, monarchs, scholars, statesmen, masters, servants, tax collectors, fishermen, and tentmakers. His Word was written in a variety of places: in the wilderness, in a palace, in a dungeon, on a hillside, in a prison, and in exile. It was penned on the continents of Asia, Africa, and Europe. It is written in a variety of genres, including biographies, narratives, poetry, law, letters, and more. With all its variety of authors, origins, and content, it achieves a remarkable purpose: It communicates to finite humans the very mind and heart of an infinite God. 

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