Many people are in a fog about how the Bible was composed, by whom and when. The answer to those questions is technical and lengthy, but this short summary should launch interested students into more reading.

The sixty-six books of the Bible are divided into two major groups: the Old Testament — called the Tanak (1) by modern Jewish readers — and the New Testament (2).


The autographs (original copies) of the Christian Bible’s sixty-six books were written in three languages: Hebrew and Aramaic for the Old Testament books, and Koiné Greek for the New Testament books. These were not special “holy” languages, but rather the ordinary tongue of the Middle East and the trade language of the Roman empire respectively.


How were these autographs transmitted to readers of successive generations and preserved over several thousand years? The means varied slightly between the Old and New Testament books. Broadly speaking, there are fewer extant copies of Hebrew/Aramaic texts, but of high quality, and relatively more extant copies of New Testament texts, but of lesser average quality. Through comparison of the available copies the text of the autographs may be deduced with an accuracy unparalleled to that of any other ancient document.

Old Testament copies

The autographs of Old Testament books range from about 2000 BC (Job) to the 5th century BC (Chronicles or Malachi). These originals have perished over time through use, war or other accident. But accurate copies still exist.

The Masoretic text of the Old Testament (from “Masoretes” or “editors”) is the basis of the modern Old Testament text. The Masoretes did their work in the period AD 500-1000, culminating in the traditional text established by the ben Asher family.

There are about 3,000 preserved copies of portions of the Hebrew Old Testament, including the Aleppo Codex (a three-column parchment which Moses Maimonides [AD 1135-1204] considered to be the most reliable), the Cairo Codex of the Prophets (AD 895, with the second division of the Hebrew Bible written and pointed by Moshe ben Asher), and the Leningrad Codex (the world’s oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible, very close to the ben Asher tradition). Most translations of the Old Testament since 1937 have been translated from a text based on the Leningrad Codex. Previous translations were based on the 1524-1525 Bomberg edition, prepared by Jacob ben Chayyim, a Jewish convert to Christianity.

In addition to these codices other Hebrew manuscripts, which range from small pieces to larger sections, represent a text very similar to the Masoretic text. These additional manuscripts include the Dead Sea Scrolls, fragments found at Masada (AD 66-73), and texts from Wadi Murabba’at (AD 135), among others. There are still manuscript witnesses to the ben Naphtali tradition, a parallel text tradition in the same centuries, which indicates that there were variations in the Masoretic tradition. Nonetheless the Masoretic text which serves as the basis for many modern copies has probably had no significant rival since the work of Rabbi Aquiba (AD 55-137).

Treating the documents with respect and accuracy, the Masorete editors devised a complex system of safeguards against scribal copying errors (3). They also sought to preserve the oral reading tradition by adding vowels to the original consonantal texts as well as accents and marginal notes.

The Dead Sea scrolls, discovered beginning in 1947, have illustrated ancient Hebrew scribes’ fidelity and care. The Aleppo text of Isaiah, for example (the oldest version of the Hebrew Bible then available), when compared with a Dead Sea scrolls version of the same book (dating from one thousand years before), shows no significant differences after ten centuries of manual manuscript transmission. The phenomenon is unique in world history.

New Testament copies

The autographs of the New Testament historical books, letters and the Apocalypse were all written during the 1st century (AD 40 – 90). Modern scholars compare over 5,000 preserved copies of portions or whole manuscripts of these documents to arrive at modern editions of the Greek New Testament.

The oldest copies were written on papyrus and date from between the 2nd and 4th centuries. Due to their fragility only small fragments of these texts have survived (for example, the John Rylands fragment, probably dating from around AD 125). About one hundred of these papyrus texts have been found to date.

Other copies were written on parchment, and date from around the 4th to the 10th century AD. These are uncials that use the formal square Greek letters we today would call capital letters. After the 10th century AD a new style of writing emerged now called cursive or miniscules. Most of the extant copies of ancient documents are in this grouping.

Other Greek texts which textual scholars can compare to establish the reading of the autographs include the lectionaries, which contain selected Scripture portions used in church worship services, probably beginning in the 4th century, as well as citations made by the Church Fathers.

By far the majority of the ancient Greek copies still available today for study (over 2800 miniscules) came from Greek Constantinople as Christians fleeing the Ottoman Turks in 1453 brought many ancient Greek documents with them. These are known as the Byzantine manuscript family. Other texts made in Egypt — today called the Alexandrian Manuscripts — are older but far fewer in number. They essentially include a handful of uncials. All the New Testament variant readings are most probably preserved in the extant manuscript traditions of the Alexandrian and Byzantine text types.


If the Bible is more like a library than a single book, how was the decision taken to include some volumes but not others? And who decided?

Old Testament canon

The Old Testament canon (“rule”) was composed gradually by the accumulation of Jewish prophetic books around the Law of Moses, which was written around 1400 BC. The Babylonian Talmud quotes a baraitha — a tradition from the period AD 70-200 — which assigns authoritative authors to all twenty-four books of the Hebrew canon. (4) The 1st century Jewish historian Josephus envisaged an unbroken succession of Jewish prophets between Moses (1400 BC) and Artaxerxes (465-423 BC), thus guaranteeing the continuity and trustworthiness of the records which they were believed to have produced. (5) Rabbis gathering in Jamnia in western Judea after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 debated and recognized the traditional twenty-four books of the Hebrew canon, which are the same as the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament today (the difference in number is accounted for by the division of the books of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah into two, and by the collection of the twelve minor prophets being grouped into one scroll and therefore counted as one book).

New Testament canon

Whereas the Christian church did not officially recognize the whole New Testament canon until the 4th century AD, the books were received immediately as authoritative for the Christian church after they were first circulated in the 1st century. Because they were written by eight or nine different authors within a short period and were circulated to places as widely separated as Jerusalem and Rome, the process of collection was progressive.

The major determining factor in recognizing the New Testament canon was the issue of apostolic authority. If a book was not written by an apostle or sponsored by one, its authority was rejected. The selecting process to differentiate between accurate accounts and spurious ones began early (cf. Luke 1:1-4; John 21:23-25).

Each one of the New Testament books is referred to by one or more of the Church leaders after the time of the apostles (AD 100 – 150). (6) Early translations (Old Syriac and Old Latin) and canonical lists (Muratorian canon, AD 170; Codex Barococcio, AD 206) allude to most of the books now included in the New Testament. Church councils debated the authority of a few (James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John and Jude), but by the end of the 4th century the councils of Hippo (AD 393) and Carthage (AD 397) the twenty-seven books in the present New Testament canon were officially ratified to conclude this lengthy process of recognition.

What about the Apocrypha?

The fifteen deuterocanonical books found today in Roman Catholic editions of the Bible were not recognized as part of the Jewish canon in the 1st century AD. Whereas they were included in 4th century AD copies of the Septuagint — the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures developed in Egypt around 250 BC — the rabbis gathered at Jamnia agreed that these books, whatever their historical interest for the Jewish people, were not books that “defiled the hands”, that is, they were not holy books bearing the marks of prophetic authority. They were therefore not recognized in the Jewish canon of the “Law and the Prophets”.

The Roman Church officially added the apocryphal books to editions of the Roman Catholic Bible after the Council of Trent in the 16th century. Many Protestant editions of the Bible since that time have not included them. Although the New Testament may allude to the Apocrypha, it never directly quotes from them. No ecumenical council of the church in the first four centuries AD favoured them.(7) For these reasons Bibel fir Lëtzebuerg, a.s.b.l.® will be translating only the sixty-six books comprising the earlier canonical books.

  1. ^ The term is an acrostic for the threefold division of the Jewish canonical texts: T for Torah (“Law”, 5 books), N for Nevi’im (“Prophets”, 20 books) and K for Ketuvim (“Writings”, 11 books).
  2. ^ The term “testament” connotes the notion of a covenant between a superior and an inferior, rather than a will left by a deceased parent.
  3. ^ John Mincey, “Preservation of the Copies”, in God’s Word in Our Hands, Belfast: Ambassador Emerald International, 2003, 125. See also J. Hampton Keathley, “The Bible, The Holy Canon of Scripture”, “They established tedious procedures to protect the text against being changed. For instance, (a) when obvious errors were noted in the text, perhaps because a tired scribe nodded, the text was still not changed. Instead, a correction was placed in the margin called qere, “to be read,” and that which was written in the text was called, kethibh, “to be written.” (b) When a word was considered textually, grammatically, or exegetically questionable, dots were placed above that word. (c) Minute statistics were also kept as a further means of guarding against errors: in the Hebrew Bible at Leviticus 8:8, the margin has a reference that this verse is the middle verse of the Torah. According to the note at Lev. 10:16 the word darash is the middle word in the Torah, and at 11:42 we are assured that the waw in a Hebrew word there is the middle letter. At the end of each book are statistics as: the total number of verses in Deuteronomy is 955, the total in the entire Torah is 5,845; the total number of words is 97, 856, and the total number of letters is 400,945.”
  4. ^ F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, Downers Grove: IVP Press, 1988, 29-30.
  5. ^ Ibid, 33.
  6. ^ Geisler and Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, Chicago: Moody Press, 1968, 186-190.
  7. ^ Ibid, 171.


  • F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, Downers Grove: IVP Press, 1988, 29-30.
  • F. F. Bruce,, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973, 10-28.
  • F. F. Bruce, “Transmission and Translation of the Bible”, EBC, Vol. I, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1979, 39-46.
  • Norman Geisler and William Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, Chicago: Moody Press, 1968, 211-286.
  • J. Hampton Keathley, “The Bible, The Holy Canon of Scripture
  • John Mincy, “Preservation of the Copies” in God’s Word in Our Hands, Belfast: Ambassador Emerald International, 2003, 126-127.