The Making of the Old Testament
Looking at the Bible as it stands today, we find it is composed of 73 separate books – 46 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New. How has it come to be composed precisely of these 73, and no more and no less?
Well, taking the Old Testament, we know it has always been divided into three main parts – the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings.
The Law, was the earliest substantial part, which at one time formed the sole book of Scripture that the Jews possessed. It was believed the Moses wrote it, although we know now that he did not.
To this were added, the Prophets and the Writings.
At what date precisely the “canon” of the Old Testament was finally closed and recognized as completed for ever is not absolutely certain. Some would decide for about the year 430 BC under Esdras and Nehemiah, resting upon the authority of the famous Jewish historian Josephus, who lived immediately after Our Lord, and who declares that since the death of Ataxerxes, 4244 BC, “no one had dared add anything to the Jewish Scriptures, to take anything away from them, or to make any change in them.” Other authorities contend that it was not till nearly 100 BC that the Old Testament collection was finally closed by the inclusion of the “Writings”. What we do know is that for 100 years before the birth of Christ the Old Testament existed as we have it now.
Of course, here we are talking about the Old Testament in Hebrew. But after what is called the “dispersion” of the Jews, when they scattered abroad and settled in many lands outside Palestine, they began, like most emigrants, to lose their Hebrew language and gradually became familiar with Greek, which was then a universal language. Then it was necessary to have a copy of the Scriptures in the Greek language. The translation was called the Septuagint. In Latin, this words means 70, because it was supposed to have been the work of 70 translators who performed their task in Alexandria, where there was a large colony of Greek-speaking Jews. It was begun about 280 years before Christ and became the Bible of all the Jews of the Dispersion in Asia and Egypt. It was the version used by Christ, the Apostles, and by Jews and Christians in the early days of Christianity. It is from this version that Jesus Christ and the New Testament writers and speakers quote when referring to the Old Testament.
What about Christians in other lands who could not understand Greek? New Christians had to be supplied with the Scriptures (i.e. the Old Testament) in their own language, and this gave rise to translations into Armenian, Syriac, Coptic, Arabic, and Ethiopian for Christians in those lands. For the Christians in North Africa, where Latin was best understood, there was a translation made into Latin about 150 AD. This was later replaced by the most important version made by St. Jerome. We call this version the “Vulgate”, because it was written in “the vulgar tongue” – that is the language of the people.
This was in the 4th. century. By this time there was a great need to have a correct text in Latin because there was a danger, thought the variety and corrupt conditions of many translations then existing, that the pure scripture would be lost. Jerome was a monk and the most learned scholar of his day, and at the command of the Pope (St. Damascus) in 382 AD, he made a fresh Latin version of the New Testament (which only about this time became the books we have today), making corrections by the earliest Greek manuscripts he could find. Then in his cell at Bethlehem, approximately between the years 392-404, he also translated the Old Testament directly into Latin from the Hebrew instead of working through the Greek version. This version that we call the Vulgate was the official text in the Catholic Church down to the Reformation. It was revised several times, stripped of inaccuracies that came from other copies of the Bible.
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How we got the Bible copyright © 2004 Fr. Francis Jamieson. For more about Fr. Francis, click here