If you’re new to the Bible, you may have questions about things that more seasoned readers take for granted. For example, where did it come from? Why are some things in italics or in red? Is there a reason the books are in a certain order? Knowing some background information can help answer many of your questions.
The number one thing to know is that the Bible may have had numerous authors, but it was only inspired by one being. It is the divine inspired word of God. Man may have penned the actual words, but God directed what was to be said.
The name “Bible” comes from the Greek word “biblos”, which means “book”. It’s divided into two main sections: the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament is comprised of 39 separate books, while the New Testament has 27 – for a total of 66. These books are then broken down into smaller chunks known as chapters. These are divided into even smaller pieces called verses.
The division of the Bible into two main sections is extremely important. The Old Testament lays a foundation, covering history from the very beginning until Jesus. It gives us the laws by which God wants us to live. It offers numerous prophecies, including the coming of Jesus. Simply put, it is the preparation for the coming of Jesus.
The New Testament is the fulfillment of the prophecies. It’s mainly about Jesus’ life and teachings. It explains how our relationship and worship of God is different due to Jesus’s death on the cross. It also details the end of days.
Original Languages of the Bible
The Old Testament was written almost entirely in ancient Hebrew. A very tiny amount was written in Aramaic. In fact, only four or five passages are in ancient Aramaic. So, I’ll focus on the Hebrew language for the Old Testament.
Even though the lettering looks similar to what printed Hebrew looks like today, it was a very different language back then. Hebrew was not as common among the public in those days. Aramaic was the common spoken language of the people around Israel. Greek was the most common in most other areas of the Biblical lands, both written and spoken.
Very few people can easily translate ancient Hebrew. It was written without spaces between words. Translators often have a hard time knowing where one word ends and another begins. To make matters worse, it had 22 consonants, four of which could also be used as vowels instead.
However, no vowels were used in the written texts of the Bible. It was just expected that the reader would know which vowels to add just by the context of the manuscript. Ancient Hebrew also did not use capital letters, making it difficult to detect proper nouns and the beginning of sentences. Furthermore, it is written in columns rather than in rows.
Most of the New Testament, on the other hand, was written in Greek. Punctuation was used only in some cases. Many times only capital letters were used. Again, there were no spaces separating the words, and the use of abbreviations further complicated translation. Much of the original Greek was also in cursive. It’s hard enough to read someone’s cursive handwriting in your own language. Imagine how hard it is when also trying to translate an ancient and very confusing text.
Chapters and Verses
Most of the original manuscripts had at least a few marks to indicate divisions between major sections of text. Unfortunately, these sections were huge. As more and more people studied the Bible, they began to make marks of their own to show more helpful, shorter groupings of text.
These divisions became so useful in studying that leaders began using them as guides when teaching or preaching the Bible to others. Of course, as time marched on, the number of divisions grew. Eventually, these logical divisions gave rise to what we now see as chapters.
Each chapter is further divided into verses. How the Bible is divided into verses can be confusing. Many times the ends of verses don’t coincide with the end of sentences or even thoughts. Verses are mainly used as a way to more easily find specific material or specific small sections in such a big text. Remember, most divisions came from scholars as they were studying the Bible. They have little to no bearing on the meaning of what you’re reading.
Text in italics is a word or phrase slanted to the right. In today’s languages, italics is usually used either as a way to show titles or as a way to grab your attention. This is not true for the Bible. Italics was not in the original written texts. It was added later by someone to help make the meaning of a word or phrase clearer.
For example, there are cases where there is no direct translation for certain words in the ancient languages. There are also cases where words from ancient times have completely different meanings now. To translate as closely as possible in such instances, it’s sometimes necessary to substitute or add in extra words. These extra words would be in italics.
You will also find that many sections of the Bible are in red. This denotes words actually spoken by Jesus while he was on this Earth. Not all Bibles have this red lettering.
How the Old Testament Is Organized
Many people think that the Books of the Bible are in chronological order. This is not true. In the Old Testament, they are grouped into four main sections: Law, History, Poetic Wisdom, and Prophecy.
Organization of the New Testament
The New Testament can also be grouped into four main sections: Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Revelation.
Basically, the Gospels tell of the good news of Jesus Christ. They focus on his life, teachings, and how the laws change due to Jesus’ coming. Acts is more of a historical account of what the apostles did after Jesus’ ascension. The Epistles are letters written explaining how people and the church in general are expected to act and apply Jesus’ teachings. Lastly, Revelation is the prophecy of the end of days and our eternal reward.
Major Translations: A VERY Brief History
The first major translation of the Bible came before there was even a New Testament. In the centuries just before Christ, the Jews were becoming widely scattered. Hebrew was being replaced by the more common Greek language of those around them. To keep the Old Testament from being lost with the old Hebrew, the high priest ordered about 70 people to translate it into Greek. Therefore, this translation is called the Septuagint – from the Latin word for 70. It was completed in the third century B.C. It was very popular and widely accepted by many different cultures.
The Latin Vulgate
Of course, things always change. Latin eventually became the norm. It was the official language of the Roman Empire. As the Romans conquered more and more people, more and more of the world began to speak Latin. In the fourth century A.D., the Pope ordered a new official translation for the Roman Catholic Church into Latin, including both the Old Testament from the Septuagint and some of the New Testament Greek manuscripts.
This Latin translation is known as the Vulgate. Vulgate comes from the Latin term “vulga”, meaning “vulgar”. In that day, vulgar was the term used when referring to the everyday language of the common people. If you’ve ever heard of The Gutenberg Bible, it is a printing of the Vulgate.
The Wyclif Bibles
What about English? The first two translations of the complete Bible into English were done by a man named John Wyclif, along with some associates. They were both translated from the Vulgate in the late 14th century. The first was a “transliteration” from the Vulgate, a one-for-one translation that does not change any of the Latin word order and syntax. The second was a translation into a more normal, readable English form.
There were two problems with the Wyclif Bibles. They were handwritten, making them very expensive. Secondly, English laws existed that severely restricted who could own and copy the Scriptures. As a result, the first English versions were not very popular and had a very limited impact on the world.
The Tyndale Bible
Enter William Tyndale. He believed everyone should be able to own a Bible. Therefore, he wanted to write a new, more accessible version. He also felt his version would be more accurate if he translated it directly from the earliest Greek and Hebrew manuscripts – not a translation of a translation as all other versions had been until that point. Due to English law, he had to move to Germany to accomplish this task. Between 1525 and 1535 he published his work, including most of the Old Testament and all of the New Testament.
His New Testament translation in particular was extremely important. It became the basis for most succeeding versions of the Bible since that time. However, Tyndale’s version of the Bible was not accepted by Church authorities. His translation was banned, and he was condemned to death. Tyndale tried to finish the rest of the Old Testament before his death, but was unable to do so.
King James Version
There were several other major translations after Tyndale. However, the biggest one came with the crowning of a new King. When James I became King of England in 1603, many in the Church vehemently disagreed about which version of the Bible to use in church. So, King James commissioned a new translation. It was to be a compromise, a compilation created from all of the earlier translations found to be acceptable by Church leaders. It took six separate teams of translators to complete the masterpiece.
The translators worked to create a version that was extremely accurate and refined, yet easily understood by the common man. No other version of the Bible has had such a big impact on the world.
However, nothing is infallible. It is, after all, a translation. So, even though the King James Version is one of the most accurate and understandable versions, it is not without errors.
It was created long before modern science uncovered new information about the ancient Middle East. It was long before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the earliest Biblical manuscripts ever found. Even methods in translations and ancient manuscript restoration have been greatly improved since its creation. Plus, the English language is fluid. Meanings and connotations of words can change over time.
Because of this, some have tried to improve upon the King James Version. The best one I recommend is the New Scofield Study Bible. It is basically a King James Version that has simply been re-verified and updated. All changes from the original King James are shown in brackets and the original word or words are retained in the margins for reference. It is also a great Bible in terms of being a study guide.
Hopefully this gives you a little background on the origins of the Bible – the languages, its history, and its organization. Although very brief, this information can serve as a foundation on which to begin building your knowledge of the Bible. There are also many other excellent translations that are in modern English that you may find easier to read, such as the New King James Version.