Inasmuch as it has pleased God to reveal Himself through a book — the Bible — it is proper that we should understand the special means used in compiling that holy Book.
History, as far as the Scriptures were concerned, was characterized by a providential preparation that paved the way for their writing, printing and distribution.
The Invention of the Alphabet
The earliest known method of writing was that of drawing pictures. It was laborious, to be sure, but it has this value: there is no language barrier to contend with. Between that stage and the much simpler method — the use of the alphabet in syllabic writing — lies the cuneiform and hieroglyphic script, which required elaborate training.
It is believed that Moses was the first writer of Holy Scripture. And, while it is true that he may have written in cuneiform script on clay tablets, archaeology reveals that it is more probable he wrote in alphabetic script. God, in His providence, may have from the very beginning had His Word produced in a form of writing that lay within the reach of the ordinary man. This we do know, that the earliest productions of the Holy Scriptures were closely associated with the invention of the original alphabet.
The Greek language: While our Lord Jesus and His apostles spoke mostly in Aramaic, the Greek language was used of God in the spread of the Gospel throughout the world. The Gospel message was for all nations (Matt. 28:19-20; Luke 24:47). To speed its journey, God had a universal language fully developed and ready for use. In the days of the apostles, the Greek language was international and, although in the early Church there were Aramaic-speaking Jews and Greek-speaking Jews, these all understood the teachings of the apostles because of a general knowledge of Greek. There is a reference to these two groups in Acts 6:1-6. Through this international tongue, the Roman road system, and relative international peace, God made possible a quick dispersion of His evangel over the ancient world.
The Invention of Printing
The invention of printing with the use of movable type in the middle of the fifteenth century was a great aid to the Reformation and the reproduction of the Holy Scriptures. Luther nailed his thesis to the church door at Wittenburg in 1517. The Greek New Testament was first printed in Europe in 1514. In 1522, Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German was printed, and in 1525, Tyndale’s New Testament in English was also similarly produced.
God, in His deep concern for man, through providential guidance, had the writing of the Holy Scriptures coincide with the invention of the alphabet. The early proclamation of the Gospel and the founding of the Christian Church along with the writing of the New Testament, coincided with the existence of an international language, Greek. He directed that the Reformation and the publishing of the Bible in European languages for ordinary men be expedited by the invention of the printing press.
The word canon is defined as a rule, a measure, or a list. The last is the sense in which it is to be understood in its relation to the Bible. The whole canon of Scripture is the list of those books accepted by the Church as inspired of God. Two questions arise relevant to this: why and how were books chosen for the canon of Scripture?
The Old Testament Canon: Many imagine that the inspiration and authority of a book resulted from its being canonized. The very opposite is true. A book was accepted, before Christ by the Hebrews and after Christ by the Church, because its inspiration, divinity, and authority had been already acknowledged. Consequently, the canon of Scripture is merely the list of those books already accepted because of their evident divinity.
Historians believe that Ezra had much to do with the formation of the Old Testament Canon, which was more than four hundred years before the birth of the Saviour. We might therefore ask if there are any proofs that the Lord Jesus accepted the Hebrew Canon? There are proofs that He did. The number and the arrangement of the books in the Hebrew Bible were different to ours, although both contained the same material. The thirty-nine books of our Old Testament only numbered twenty-four in that ancient Hebrew Bible. They also ended not with the Book of Malachi but with the Books of Chronicles.
For centuries, the Old Testament has been divided into three: the Law, the writings of Moses; the Prophets, the historical and the prophetical books; and the Psalms, all the poetical books. Our Lord acknowledged all three and thus endorsed the Old Testament Canon: “These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the Psalms, concerning Me” (Luke 24:44).
There is another proof. The books of Chronicles were the last books in the Hebrew Bible in Christ’s day. In speaking to the apostates who criticized Him, He said: “Therefore also said the wisdom of God, I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they shall slay and persecute: that the blood of all the prophets, which was shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation; from the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zacharias, which perished between the altar and the temple” (Luke 11:49-51). These words were tantamount to saying that a charge would be laid against the Jewish nation for every martyrdom recorded from the first to the last of the Old Testament. The two names, “Abel” and “Zacharias,” embraced the entire Old Testament Canon as it was arranged in the times of Jesus. The martyrdom of Zacharias is recorded in 2 Chronicles 24:17-22.
The New Testament Canon: The method by which the books of the New Testament were put into the sacred catalog was a simple one. First, the divinity of each book was self-evident. This may be readily demonstrated today by a comparative reading of an apocryphal book with a canonical book from the New Testament. The purpose, veracity, and divinity of the one, will be seen in contrast to the spurious, fictitious character of the other.
In the second place, there was, in the early Church, a Christian consciousness produced by the Spirit of God that quickened spiritual instincts and discernment. These resulted in special selective powers throughout the entire Church as it was scattered over the ancient world. No Church council undertook to choose the books we call canonical; these were accepted without agreement or planned action.
Thirdly, it seems that at the first, letters received by churches and individuals were lent to others who made copies for themselves. In this manner, the originals were duplicated and triplicated until there were numerous copies in different areas.
Justin Martyr, who lived about the middle of the second century of the Christian era (about fifty years after the death of the Apostle John), says that it was the custom in those early days to read the writings of the apostles and of the prophets at the church gatherings on the Sundays. The books of the Bible, at that early date, although hand written, were being spread among the churches of our Lord Jesus. How thankful we can be for such a Blessed Book!
“Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and Thy Word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart” (Jer. 15:16).