I am teaching a class on the history of the bible in my church next week. I am going to use this blog to formulate my thoughts. Over the next several posts, I want to briefly cover the evolution of the bible since the death of Christ. We'll cover the conditions surrounding several key points which help to track the original canon through history to see why the Bible remains the best selling book the world over. I will also point out some differences between the 1599 Geneva, King James, Douay Rheims, NIV, and CSB versions.


The original Old Testament books were written in Hebrew and Aramaic. In the 3rd Century BC, 72 Jewish scribes translated the Pentateuch (Torah) into Greek for the Alexandrian Library. The rest of the books in the Old Testament, along with some of the more popular apocrypha were translated over the next few hundred years. This came to be known as the Septuagint (LXX) after the number of original translators involved.

By the time Jesus arrived, it would seem that the Prophets and Psalms were completed and the Greek translations were in use in synagogues. Hebrew and Aramaic were still in use in Israel, but the greek text appears to have been used along side of the original tongue. The books of the New Testament were written in Greek language, but it's believed Jesus and his followers spoke Aramaic. It also seems like references to Old Testament scripture in the New Testament rely heavily on the LXX translations which suggests reading of Greek may have been encouraged.

After Jesus' death and the forming of the church, the followers of the Way considered the Hebrew scriptures sacred, and they began to build what would later be called the New Testament. There are debates on the specific dates of each of these writings, but there is good reason to believe most, if not all, were completed before the destruction of the Temple in 70AD. The Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) was closed by somewhere around 90AD.

Translation to Latin

Initially Rome was incredibly hostile toward Christianity, but in the 3rd century AD, Christianity was given legal protection within Rome. Shortly after it was legalized (~323AD) Christianity became the official religion of the state. After the Catholic (Universal) church was formed, a new process of refinement began to shape the scripture into what we think of today as the bible.

By this time, the common use of Greek in the western part of the Roman empire was waning, and latin, the native language of Rome, was becoming the dominant language. This posed a problem as most of the manuscripts used up to this point were as noted earlier, primarily greek. There were a number of attempts to translate the greek language texts into the latin to ensure that access to the history of the church wasn't lost. Most, if not all of these early attempts at translation have been lost in time because none were of satisfactory quality according to the church leaders.

Around 382AD, Pope Damasus commissioned St Jerome to produce a latin translation that could be approved for official church use. Jerome was chosen for this task because he had been trained as a great linguist by Cicero and was very well learned in the Latin language. The Gospel was completed in about a year. Afterwards he began translating the LXX version of the Psalms and Job before starting over using the original Hebrew for the Old Testament translations. His work was not immediately supported by many Christians. On the one hand, in the eastern parts of the empire, latin didn't have the same kind of popularity as it had in Rome. Additionally, the use of the Hebrew text was controversial as many members of the church were interested in distancing themselves from the Jewish heritage of the early church. One outspoken opponent of the Latin endeavor was St. Augustine of Hippo who corresponded with him in writing regarding his thoughts on the issue.

I beseech you not to devote your labour to the work of translating into Latin the sacred canonical books, unless you follow the method in which you have translated Job, viz. with the addition of notes, to let it be seen plainly what differences there are between this version of yours and that of the Septuagint, whose authority is worthy of highest esteem. – St Augustine circa 394 AD

Jerome appears to have either not received or simply ignored Augustine's epistle to him asking him to reconsider the translation because just a year prior to the completion he seems to have sent another letter which indicates it was at least the 3rd attempt to discuss the issue.

As I have sent you two letters already to which I have received no reply, I have resolved to send you at this time copies of both of them, for I suppose that they never reached you. If they did reach you, and your replies have failed, as may be the case, to reach me, send me a second time the same as you sent before, if you have copies of them preserved: if you have not, dictate again what I may read, and do not refuse to send to these former letters the answer for which I have been waiting so long.
For my part, I would much rather that you would furnish us with a translation of the Greek version of the canonical Scriptures known as the work of the Seventy translators. For if your translation begins to be more generally read in many churches, it will be a grievous thing that, in the reading of Scripture, differences must arise between the Latin Churches and the Greek Churches, especially seeing that the discrepancy is easily condemned in a Latin version by the production of the original in Greek, which is a language very widely known; whereas, if any one has been disturbed by the occurrence of something to which he was not accustomed in the translation taken from the Hebrew, and alleges that the new translation is wrong, it will be found difficult, if not impossible, to get at the Hebrew documents by which the version to which exception is taken may be defended.– St Augustine circa 404 AD

Jerome did send a reply to this message, and in it you can get a taste of the tension between these two great minds on the issue of using the LXX which they called "the seventy". Jerome notes that the LXX was not without it's own issues, and he points out that the version in use in the church at that time was not the one that was originally penned by the original seventy scholars.

You must pardon my saying that you seem to me not to understand the matter: for the former translation is from the Septuagint; and wherever obelisks are placed, they are designed to indicate that the Seventy have said more than is found in the Hebrew. But the asterisks indicate what has been added by Origen from the version of Theodotion. In that version I was translating from the Greek: but in the later version, translating from the Hebrew itself, I have expressed what I understood it to mean, being careful to preserve rather the exact sense than the order of the words. I am surprised that you do not read the books of the Seventy translators in the genuine form in which they were originally given to the world, but as they have been corrected, or rather corrupted, by Origen, with his obelisks and asterisks; and that you refuse to follow the translation, however feeble, which has been given by a Christian man, especially seeing that Origen borrowed the things which he has added from the edition of a man who, after the passion of Christ, was a Jew and a blasphemer.  – St Jerome circa 404 AD

In spite of this contention that existed, Jerome pushed forward with his work. The first complete translation of the Old Testament and Gospel to Latin was finished in 405AD, just over 20 years after he had started. St Jerome did not translate the remaining portions of the New Testament himself, so his work was only part of the full Latin text that would become the official Latin Vulgate Bible. By the 6th century, the full Bible seems to have been entirely translated and circulating in the church. The Vulgate remained the official language of the Bible for Rome and her subjects for nearly a thousand years.

The handwritten Latin Vulgate Bible never really accessible to most Christians because it was cost prohibitive, and a lot of the common folk were unable to read latin as the church grew and the language started to become antiquated. The Church also retained exclusive power to interpret the meaning of the text which meant even if there were a family bible in a household, it was unlikely they would actually read it on their own. This limited access to the bible allowed for a theological drift in the church that ultimately resulted in what is now known as the Protestant Reformation. I will detail the some of the relevant bits of the reformation movement in the next post in this series as this seems like a good break point.