Recent polling data reports that a copy of the Bible can be found today in 90 percent of American homes. Although much has changed in the world around us, the Bible remains the most popular book in all the world.
“Throughout eons of human history, men and women have sought to live according to the Bible, and countless numbers have given their lives for it,” award-winning author and historian Rod Gragg observes. “Why has the Bible been so revered? How did it come to us? And why have billions of believers through the ages considered it to be inspired by God?”
These are a few of the questions explored in his latest book, “The Word: The History of The Bible and How it Came to Us.”
Here is a question and answer interview with Gragg:
Question: You’ve written many history books on a variety of topics. What let you to write a history of the Bible?
Gragg: Before being a historian, I’m a Christian, so I have deep respect and love for the Bible. As a historian. I always want to know the back-story, so to speak. So, it was my hope for a long time to be able to write a history of the Bible. It’s a fascinating story about the book of Books – the one book that that’s found in 90 percent of American households today.
Q: As is typical of your books, The Word has a lengthy bibliography and extensive source notes. However, you wrote the book for all readers, not just historians and Bible scholars, correct.
Gragg: Right – it’s based on sound scholarship, but it isn’t intended to be academic in style. It’s what’s called a “popular history,” meaning that it’s written for any and all readers. I like to think that I’m doing the research that the average person interested in the Bible would love to do if he or she had the time.
And it is an extraordinary history. When you hold the Bible in your hand today, it’s both inspiring and sobering to think about the countless people over the ages who have lived by its truths, and so many others who have died for it in order for us to have it. The history of the Bible is remarkable and inspirational.
Q: Among the many fascinating stories you share in this book, do you have a favorite? Did your research reveal anything that surprised you?
Gragg: Well, a lot impressed me deeply for sure. I think that some of the most memorable stories center around the early translators who risked so much to translate the Bible into English: Wycliffe, Tyndale, John Rogers and others.
I think about John Wycliffe, an elderly Bible scholar at the end of his days who translated the Bible into English because he wanted everyday people to have access to the Bible. This was before the Gutenberg movable type press, so His translation had to be hand-printed, and therefore, it was very expensive. Due to the costs, people tried to borrow or even rent a copy. It was said that the going rate to borrow a Wycliffe Bible was a full wagon-load of hay. Church authorities did not share that enthusiasm. After Wycliffe died, they had his body disinterred and burned, then his ashes were tossed in a nearby river. However, he had inspired the dream of a Bible in the English language.
Another favorite story of mine occurred much later in early Colonial America. It’s the story of the first Bible published in America, what became known as the “Eliot Indian Bible.” It was published in 1661 by John Eliot, who was a Puritan missionary to the Native American people of New England. He and a team of Indian consultants translated the Bible into the Wopanaak-Algonquin language, which not only opened the Scriptures to New England’s Native American people but also helped preserve their language.
Q: We hear about modern-day attacks on the Bible and Bible-readers around the world, but hasn’t that been going on since the beginning?
Gragg: That’s true – and attacks continue to arise in new places. The history of the Bible is filled with repeated attempts to suppress, eliminate or neutralize its message which is remarkable since the Bible is God’s love letter to humanity.
In fact, the book opens with an introduction that refers to King Josiah, who reigned over the southern kingdom of Judah in the 7th century B.C. and directed a Bible-based reform movement because his grandfather, King Manasseh, had attempted to replace the Bible with Baal worship. Attempts to suppress or destroy the Bible and persecute those who accept it as the Word of God have been a recurring phenomenon throughout history.
Q: What were some of the major attacks that the Bible has survived through the ages?
Gragg: The Word chronicles attempts to suppress, displace or destroy the Bible by first-century cults such as the Gnostics, waves of persecution under the Roman empire, barbarian raiders and invaders, the Communist governments of the Soviet Union and China among others in modern times. This includes Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, which attempted to replace the German church with a Reich Church that would substitute the Nazi swastika for the cross.
All attacks on the Bible failed to eliminate it, of course. It’s been said that the Bible has outlived a lot of would-be undertakers. I think many Christians would see that as fulfillment of an observation in the Old Testament book of Isaiah: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.”
Q: How many ancient Bible manuscripts exist today? What are some of the most important ones?
Gragg: More than 5,000 partial or complete manuscripts from the New Testament alone exist today. What’s believed to be oldest existing New Testament fragment is Papyri 52 or P52, which is held by the John Rylands Library in Manchester, Britain. It’s from John 18, reporting the trial of Jesus, and it dates from A.D. 90-150. It shows the Gospel was recorded by the mid-second century A’D’ or even the late first century, which is historically close to the events reported in the New Testament.
The three most important and famous ancient Biblical manuscripts are Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus and Codex Alexandrinus. Codex Sinaiticus, or most of it, is held by the British Library in London. It’s a translation of the Bible in Greek from more than 1,600 years ago, dating to about A.D. 340. It contains the oldest complete copy of the New Testament in existence, and about half the Old Testament. It was in the collection of St. Catherine’s Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt until the mid-19th century, when it was acquired by the German Bible scholar Constantine Tischendorf.
Codex Vaticanus is just about as old – it dates to the first half of the fourth century A.D. It’s preserved in the Vatican, which acquired it about fifty years before Columbus landed in America. Codex Alexandrinus is also preserved in the British Museum. It dates to the fifth century – about A.D. 425 – and is believed to have been kept in an ancient church library in Alexandria, Egypt. The existence of these and other ancient biblical manuscripts demonstrates that the text of the Bible we read today has been faithfully transmitted from ages past to modern times.
Q: How has the age of Bible manuscripts been determined?
Gregg: One method is radiocarbon dating which is sometimes used to determine the age of an object from antiquity. However, much more about ancient literature has probably been determined from linguistics and paleographical analysis which is the study of handwriting and its tools. But that’s another book in itself.
Q: There’s a common belief in some circles that the books of the Bible were selected by church councils, which picked some and dropped others. Did your research support that view?
Gragg: The church councils did not pick the books of the Bible. The Old Testament canon was already well-established by the Jewish community more than 250 years before Christ. As for the New Testament canon, orthodox Bible scholars believe that it was not a group of books assembled by chance or forced on the early church by fourth century church councils but was steadily and unhurriedly established through its acceptance by church congregations from the first century onward. Accordingly, the church councils did not pick the 27 books of the New Testament, but rather acknowledged what already had been accepted by the Christian community.
Q: When did the Bible as we know it today become established or canonized?
Gragg: All the books of the Old Testament are generally believed to have been completed by the time of the Old Testament scribe and priest Ezra (about 445 B.C.) with the Old Testament canon established by the third century B.C. After Roman forces conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the temple in A.D. 70, a Jewish center of Biblical scholarship arose in Yavne or Jamina, west of Jerusalem. Jewish scholars there over time acknowledged the 39 books that Protestant churches accept today as the Old Testament to be the Hebrew Bible. But those books had long been recognized by the Jewish people as being divinely inspired and thus canonical, so it was a matter of acknowledging what already existed.
The New Testament canon is believed to have been developed by the mid-to-late second century – by then the early church fathers had quoted from all 27 books of today’s New Testament. It was established not by a single meeting or by a pronouncement by a group of Christian leaders, but by the progressive, unhurried acceptance of those 27 books by Christian congregations in the era of the early church. Historically, Christianity has attributed the emergence of the New Testament as an act of the Holy Spirit. By the time the famous church councils began meeting in the 4th century A.D., the New Testament canon was already well-established by the use of those 27 books within the early church. So, the councils did not actually pick books and declare them to be the Bible; instead, they recognized or acknowledged the canon that already existed.
Q: Does the history of the Bible reveal how faithfully the biblical text has been transmitted through time?
Gragg: Orthodox Christianity holds that the reliability of the Bible is demonstrated through internal and external evidence. The external evidence is the remarkable manner in which the Biblical text has been preserved through the ages, and that there are more than 5,000 partial or complete Biblical manuscripts existing from antiquity that uphold the authenticity of the Scriptures as we have them today. The internal evidence is the Bible claims to be the Word of God, and continues to change lives when it’s read, through what has been called the internal witness or conviction of the Holy Spirit. Christianity says read it – start, for instance, with the Gospel of John. Read it, prayerfully, with an open mind and a willing heart, and the Holy Spirit can open its truths, and introduce the reader to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Q: The history covered in The Word extends from the invention of writing to modern-day English translations of the Bible. What are some of the inventions or technological advancements that helped most with the spread of the Bible?
Gragg: Throughout the ages, believers have been quick to apply technology to sharing the Bible. The book reports the impact on Bible publishing by the Gutenberg movable type press, for instance, which was invented in Europe about fifty years before Columbus landed in America. The first true book printed on it was the Bible (the Gutenberg Bible), and that was just the beginning. It revolutionized printing and made mass-produced Bibles affordable on the eve of the Reformation, which reemphasized a Bible-based faith. It was like the perfect storm, and it resulted in an explosion of Bibles in common languages.
The Word makes note of one often overlooked technological development that had a major impact on the spread of the Bible – that was the extensive network of roads built by the Roman Empire. Alexander the Great had spread the Greek language through much of the world with his conquests in the fourth century B.C., so there was a common form of mass communications as well by the first century A.D. The combination of Roman roads and the Greek language was another perfect storm, propelling the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout much of the world during the era of the early church.
Q: As modern-day Americans, we may take our English-language translation of the Bible for granted. Some people had to pay with their lives in order for us to have the Bible in English, didn’t they?
Gragg: That’s correct. I devoted an entire chapter to William Tyndale because his is such an extraordinary story. He was responsible for the first mass-produced Bible in English and paid for it with his life. Church officials in England tried to suppress it but couldn’t, though they did manage to burn one shipment of Bibles outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. When I’ve visited there, I tried to imagine that scene – burning Bibles outside the church. Tyndale’s famous dying words were “Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes!” And his prayer was answered: the same monarch who had persecuted him later authorized publication of an English-language Bible that was greatly inspired by Tyndale’s translation.
And there’s John Rogers, a close friend and associate of Tyndale’s. He followed-up on Tyndale’s work and translated the Matthew Bible. He was later executed, leaving behind a wife and ten children.
Q: Your book follows the Bible from antiquity through its English translations – who were the most important translators responsible for the English Bible we have today?
Gragg: John Wycliffe kindled the flame with his English-translation more than a century before William Tyndale did his work. The Tyndale Bible was coming off the press in Germany in 1525, when authorities stopped the presses. However, Tyndale did not give up, and managed to get a pocket-size New Testament published and into England in 1526. He worked with the original languages and use of the English language was elegant. Many of the phrases remain part of the English language today, although most people don’t where they came from. Phrases such as “the apple of his eye,” “eat, drink and be merry,” and of course, “the truth shall make you free.” His work was very important and significantly influenced English translations that followed.
His colleague, Miles Coverdale, published a complete English-language Bible in 1535. It was based on Tyndale’s New Testament, and included an Old Testament based on a variety of earlier works. That was followed by the Matthew Bible, which was published by Tyndale’s friend John Rogers, who used Tyndale’s revision of the New Testament and his Old Testament work. In 1539, King Henry VIII, who detested Tyndale, officially authorized a pulpit Bible for the churches in England that was ironically influenced by the Tyndale Bible. It was published by Miles Coverdale and was known as the Great Bible.
The Word also charts the remarkable story behind the Geneva Bible (brought to American by the Pilgrims) and the Bishops’ Bible (authorized by Queen Elizabeth I). Eventually, the Bishops’ Bible was replaced by another authorized edition: the King James Bible.
Q: You write about the immense popularity of the King James Bible. However, King James was not very friendly to those who proposed what became the King James Version, was he?
Gragg: No, he did not like the English Puritans, and they’re the ones who asked for a new English translation of the Bible that resulted in what’s known as the King James Bible. The Puritan movement arose among the faculty and student body at Cambridge University in the 16th century, and while they did not want to break away from the Church of England, they did want to reform it from what they believed were unbiblical practices. They thought that they might have friend on the throne when James I succeeded Queen Elizabeth, but they soon learned otherwise. King James was anything but a Puritan.
He did agree to meet with Puritan leaders at what became known as the Hampton Court Conference in 1604. They asked for numerous reforms to the Church, and he rejected all of them. However, he did agree with their request for a new English translation of the Bible, but for his own reasons. Out of that came the King James Bible which, of course, would become the most beloved English language Bible in history. It could have become known as the Puritan Bible (it was their idea after all), but since James I authorized it, it became famous as the King James Bible.
Q: How did a biblical worldview shape the culture, law and government of Colonial America? Was the intention of the founding fathers for the United States to be a Christian nation?
Gragg: It’s no accident that the Declaration of Independence, our founding national mission statement, begins by stating that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness.” The original English colonies were founded in the wake of a sweeping revival of Christianity in England (the English Reformation), and the English colonists who established the 13 colonies brought those core values with them when they settled in America. There was a great amount of theological diversity: Congregationalists in New England; Baptists in Rhode Island; Dutch Reformed in New York; Presbyterians in New Jersey; Lutherans in Delaware; Quakers in Pennsylvania; Catholics in Maryland; Anglicans in Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia; and Jewish communities in New York, Philadelphia and Charleston. A lot of diversity, but they were all people of the Book, and the Judeo-Christian or biblical worldview was firmly the foundation on which American culture, law and government developed.
As for whether the founders intended to establish a Christian nation, it’s clear that they did not intend to establish a theocracy (a national, government-run denomination like the Church of England), but they did intend to establish government, laws and culture based on the Judeo-Christian worldview, on biblical principles. The evidence for that is overwhelming and inescapable. John Adams, who was instrumental in the crafting of the Declaration of Independence went on record, to explain that the only principles that united the founding fathers in achieving independence were what he called “the general principles of Christianity.”
During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress repeatedly proclaimed national days of “fasting, prayer and humiliation” as well as days of national thanksgiving. They also established a national seal that features the all-seeing eye of God with the statement “He has approved our beginnings.”
At the first presidential inauguration, George Washington set a precedent by adding the words, “so help me God” to the oath of office, then concluded the official ceremony by bending down and kissing the open Bible. All of this and more are in the concluding chapters which trace the impact of the Bible on the birth of the American nation.
Q: There’s a little-known story in your book about Congress and the Bible. How did the United States Congress come to endorse what became known as the “Congressional Bible?”
Gragg: It is a little-known story, and it reveals the importance of the Bible in early America. In 1777, during the Revolutionary War, a group of clergymen alerted the Congress to a shortage of Bibles in the new United States due to interruption of trade with Britain. Congress responded by voting to authorize a version of the Bible and import 20,000 copies from a printer in Holland or Scotland for use in America. But, before Congress could appropriate the money to do so, the British army captured Philadelphia (which was the nation’s capital at the time) and Congress had to evacuate.
Afterwards, Congress did not have the money to print the Bibles, so it did not appropriate any funds. However, a Philadelphia printer named Robert Aitken published the first complete English-language Bible printed in America, and after the war, Congress officially endorsed it. So, the Aitken Bible became known as “the Congressional Bible.”
Q: What do you think is the most important thing for readers to glean from The Word: The History of the Bible and How It Came to Us?
Gragg: I think that it’s astounding when you think about it: the Bible is composed of 66 books compiled over the course of 1,500 years or more in three ancient languages by a diverse body of some forty writers (scribes, kings, prophets, poets, fishermen and others), yet compiled throughout the ages, it has a single unified theme that can be summarized in a one verse: John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, and whoever believes in Him shoud not perish but have eternal life.”