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How Was the Bible Written and Transmitted?

Over a thousand-year period, biblical texts were written onto scrolls, copied by scribes, and circulated in various communities who deemed them canonical or not.

Qumran Rule of Community

We tend to think of the Bible as a book—and we’re not entirely wrong—but the Bible wasn’t always bound between two covers. The Bible we know today took a long journey through many eras, communities, and places before it became the sacred text we recognize today.

The word Bible comes from the Greek word biblia, which means “books.”  This is a more accurate description of what the Bible is—a collection of many books, like a library. Each biblical book has a unique history and took a distinctive route on its way to inclusion in the Bible.

Many authors in very different places and times wrote and edited the books that constitute the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament; all told, this process extended over a thousand-year period. There are many guesses about when people began writing the books that are now found in the Hebrew Bible. Traditionally, Christians and Jews dated the earliest biblical writings to the time of Moses, which might have been in the mid- to late second millennium B.C.E. (circa 1500–1200 B.C.E.) Many scholars now claim that the earliest biblical texts were written down in the eighth or even seventh century B.C.E. For most ancient texts such as the Bible, the exact dates of composition are unrecoverable.       

The earliest biblical texts were written on scrolls made from papyrus (a plant-based paper) or parchment (animal skins that had been scraped, burnished, and stitched together). It is very likely that all biblical books were initially written on scrolls. Only in the second or third century C.E. did scribes begin to write on papyrus or parchment that was folded and stitched into a codex, which more closely resembles our modern print book. After the invention of the codex, Christians tended to copy their scriptures into codex form, whereas Jews traditionally continued to copy their scriptures in scroll form.

In the ancient Near East, at the time when the biblical books were written and copied, scribes did the work of composing and preserving important documents. Scribes were special because they could read and write; literacy was not widespread. Scribes were also editors. A scribe might take several different scrolls with something in common and compile a single book out of them, or scribes living in different times and places might edit similar scrolls together in different ways. Say, for example, that a Jewish scribe living in Egypt possessed a number of scrolls and other written and oral traditions associated with the prophet Jeremiah. That scribe edited these texts and traditions together into a unified scroll, now called the scroll of Jeremiah. Perhaps another scribe living in Jerusalem then received a copy of this scroll but edited the text to reflect his own community’s theology and understanding of Jeremiah’s legacy. In this way, different communities would have distinct versions of the scroll of Jeremiah, and both these versions would circulate. We know that something like this process actually occurred, since different versions of the book of Jeremiah—and other biblical texts, too—existed side by side in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in other ancient versions and translations (the Masoretic and Septuagint texts of Jeremiah, for instance, also differ). Processes like this occurred numerous times before there was even a “Bible” as we know it.

The biblical books had to be copied over again and again so that they could be preserved for other people to read them. The process of rewriting the books of the Bible was not always perfect—sometimes mistakes were introduced or words were added or dropped. We call this whole process, including the accurate copies and the mistakes, the transmission of the text. That is, the text is transmitted (and sometimes changed) by scribes who copied the ancient scrolls over and over again.

In time, editions of these books were collected and religious communities gradually narrowed down the list of books they deemed authoritative. However, different communities used different criteria. This process of including certain books as Scripture and rejecting others is called canonization.

Of course, the books of the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) were seen as especially holy from at least the second century B.C.E. But even in the first century C.E., soon-to-be-biblical books such as Esther, the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, or Ezra were not easily distinguishable from books such as Jubilees, 4 Ezra, or 1 Enoch, which were just as sacred to many people at the time but somehow did not make it onto many canonical lists.

A list of books that are considered Scripture for any particular group of people is called a canon. This word comes from a Greek word meaning “measuring stick” and refers to a group opinion about whether or not a book “measures up” to being called Scripture and having sacred status. Jewish and Christian communities have different canons because Christians include the books of the New Testament in their Scripture. Within Christian tradition, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant communities have slightly different canons. Even among Eastern Christian traditions, there are very different canons, too.

  • Brennan Breed

    Brennan Breed is assistant professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. Much of his research focuses on the reception history of the Bible, which studies the ways in which biblical texts function in diverse contexts in liturgy, theology, visual art, literature, and politics.