How Did We Get the Bible?

By Daniel DeWitt

It’s a whale of a tale. And it’s entirely told by one person. If he’s lying, there’s no way we could know. But it’s all just fiction, after all. I’m talking about, of course, the story of Moby Dick.

The author, Herman Melville, tells the tale through Ishmael, the sole survivor. The captain and his crew all perished at sea. Ishmael alone made it back to provide the details of the great adventure. If he’s making parts or even the whole thing up, we could never know. We just have to accept his word by faith.

Some people think of the Bible in the same way. I’ve heard skeptics speak of the Bible as if it’s wholly detached from the real world. Yet archeologists like the Nobel Prize winning Nelson Glueck or Sir William Ramsay of the University of Oxford, recognized the trustworthiness of the Bible as a guide for their research. As Glueck once remarked, “It may be stated categorically that no archeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference.”

1. The reception of the Word of God

The Bible is not the product of any one person. Forty authors penned the Bible, in three languages, from three continents, over a period of more than 1,500 years. Though composed over centuries by different men in different languages, the Bible tells one comprehensive story.

These biblical authors had to pass community standards in order to be recognized as having authority to write as one speaking for God. A person couldn’t just aspire to be an author of Scripture. The Old Testament authors were directly called by God and the New Testament authors were either apostles, eye-witnesses of the resurrected Christ, or close associates of an apostle.

The Spirit of God spoke through these men who were called by God and led them to write God’s words. The apostle Peter speaks of this when he says, “First of all, you should know this: No prophecy of Scripture comes from one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the will of man; instead men spoke from God as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:20-21).

There also were community standards for what should be received as Scripture. For example, with the New Testament, the writings had to be universally recognized among faith communities far and wide. The writings had to clearly fit with other received texts, and not introduce contrary doctrine. A careful study of early church history shows that believers understood themselves, not to be determining what was inspired Scripture, but rather receiving what was clearly inspired by God. We see Paul making mention of this in his letters, “This why we constantly thank God, because when you received the message about God that you heard from us, you welcomed it not as a human message, but as it truly is, the message of God, which also works effectively in you believers” (1 Thess. 2:13).

2. The preservation of the Word of God

We call these original writings — penned by the hands of the biblical authors — the “autographs.” When a faith community received them, and recognize the authority of the author and their inspiration from God, they would make copies to send on to other believers. Since there were no copy machines, this was the only way to mass-produce biblical content.

As you might imagine, those reproducing the originals by hand would sometimes record a mistake here or there. Yet scholars who study these copies, conclude that the vast majority of differences among the handmade copies are trivial. The few verifiable mistakes made by copyists don’t affect any major doctrine in the Bible. That’s why Bible translation committees are able to study the vast number of copies and faithfully reproduce trustworthy editions of the Word of God as it has been received throughout the history of the church.

We cannot end without recognizing a rather important historical detail related to the preservation of the Word of God. There are more ancient copies of the Bible, by far, than any other writing of antiquity. For example, there are only seven ancient copies of the philosopher Plato’s writings. The oldest copy of Plato’s work is from around 1,000 years after the original was written. Yet philosophy departments at prestigious universities around the world study philosophy and the works of Socrates as recorded by Plato.

In contrast, we have more than 5,000 ancient Greek copies of portions of the New Testament. Some of these copies can be traced back to within the very lifetime of the original audience. It’s true: We have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the historical evidence for the New Testament.

The only non-biblical literature that even comes close is the writings of the poet Homer. Still, the Bible has 10 times the amount of historical evidence preserved in the Greek language alone. If you include other ancient copies in languages like Syriac, Latin, or Coptic, the number increases exponentially.

Christians can confidently read, study, memorize, obey, and share the very Word of God received by believers throughout history. As the Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer once said, “[God] is there, but also he is not silent; that changes the whole world.”

Indeed. We have the Word of God, and that changes everything.

Published May 17, 2019

Daniel DeWitt

Daniel DeWitt (Ph.D., Southern Seminary) is the director of the Center for Biblical Apologetics & Public Christianity at Cedarville University. He is the author of multiple books and posts regularly at his blog,