Introduction to the Bible: Writing and Reading

How was the Bible written?

These early New Testament writings were on papyrus. The Egyptians were first to use stems of papyrus reeds as a writing surface, and they would press out the fibres of the stems lengthways, lay another layer crosswise on top, and stick them together with glue and water. Our word paper comes from papyrus, and the word Bible comes from the Greek word biblos, a book, which in turn comes from the name of a port called Byblus, from which papyrus was exported. However, papyrus was difficult to produce, not easy to write on, and not very durable. Parchment, or vellum, was found to be more satisfactory and the skins of sheep, goats, calves or antelopes were scraped and stretched to make it. Papyrus and parchment were stored in rolls (as the Dead Sea Scrolls) or in book form, called codices. Most of the main early New Testament manuscripts are in codex form.

Who could read the Bible?

By the Middle Ages the Church was very powerful. From the early days the language of the Church had been Latin, and to maintain the power of the Church it was an offence punishable by death to translate the Bible into English or to have church services in English.

Not until the 14th century did England have a complete Bible in its own language. At that time John Wycliffe and his followers, often called Lollards, voiced many criticisms of the Church. One of their chief complaints was that the people could not understand the priests’ mumbled Latin, and worse, that the priests themselves could not understand it. Under Wycliffe’s leadership, some of the Lollards translated the complete Bible from Latin into English, writing out each copy by hand.

The Church still banned English Scriptures in the 16th century when William Tyndale translated his New Testament which was printed in Germany. The books were smuggled into England by sympathetic merchants in bales of wool and wine casks with false bottoms. A complete copy of the first edition is now at the British Museum, and the only other surviving copy, which is incomplete, is in St Paul’s Cathedral library in London. This illustrates the Church’s efficiency in tracking down and destroying Tyndale’s Testaments.

What are we reading today?

The King James Version, also known as the Authorised Version which was published in 1611, was for 300 years the most widely read book in the English language. Even today the Authorised Version is what many English-speaking people think of as ‘The Bible’. But there is no such thing as ‘The Bible’.

Many ancient texts have been discovered since 1611, so the modern translations that we use today, such as the Good News Bible and the New Revised Standard Version, are more accurate than the Authorised Version. The modern translations of the Bible in contemporary English come alive and really feel like a word for today rather than a word for yesterday. There are also many paraphrased editions of the Bible available today such as Gospels in Scouse and The Message.

To read more in this series check out the Bible: the Origin, and Bible: How do we Interpret it?

Barbara is a retired Methodist Minister.

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