How did we Get our Bible?

I can go to the library and pick up a book from my favourite author. I know that she wrote it, either on paper or on a computer, and then it was accepted and published by a publisher, who had it printed and shipped to the library.

Complicated, but understandable.

What if I pick up a Bible? What’s the back story? There were many “authors.” They lived many years ago.

Some of them couldn’t write and dictated to a scribe, who wrote on a papyrus scroll. Papyrus is made from the leaves of a plant. We don’t have the actual copy of what the scribe wrote, because papyrus is perishable.

But people made copies, and hundreds of people made copies of those copies. After a few hundred years people made beautiful copies of these copies.

By this time the scroll had given way to the “codex,” which consisted of leaves of parchment stitched together and bound like a modern book. Parchment was made from animal skins. These were kept in monasteries or libraries, and some have survived.

Early Versions of the Bible

The earliest codices date back to the fourth century.

But in the process of all that copying, errors inevitably crept in.

Sometimes the copying was done by a roomful of scribes while someone read from the front of the room. People misheard, or maybe couldn’t keep up, or maybe there was some other noise. Someone sneezed?

Sometimes the next copier would try to correct something that didn’t seem (to him) to be right.

So the earliest copies that we have today don’t agree in every detail.

Textual Critics

How do we know what the original author actually wrote?

Determining this is the work of what we call “textual critics.” (The word “critic” has no negative connotations here; it just means a specialist in this kind of work.)

Textual critics usually work in teams. They have well-established criteria for determining which of two variants is probably the original one.

If your Bible has notes, usually in a middle column, you will occasionally see a note that says “some MSS (manuscripts) have . . . ,” tipping you off that there’s another possibility.


The good news.

There are very few places in the Bible where the variants make any difference to the sense. Mostly it’s a case of one variant saying “Jesus” where another has “Jesus Christ” or “Christ Jesus.”

There are just a few places in the New Testament where we have variant readings, with equal plausibility, that are quite different:

1 Corinthians 13:3. Some manuscripts say “that I may boast,” others “to be burned.” Difference of one letter in Greek.

Revelation 1:5 Some say “freed” us from our sins, others “washed.” Again, the difference of one letter in Greek.

We have hundreds of manuscripts of the Bible, way more than for any other document from the ancient world.

Nowhere in the Bible do these variant readings make any difference to anything important in our faith. We can absolutely trust whatever Bible we have.

We have hundreds of manuscripts of the Bible, way more than for any other document from the ancient world.

Annabel Robinson

If you’re interested and would like to know more, go to codexsinaiticus.org. It’s a beautiful website.

Or pick up a copy of Michael F. Bird’s Seven Things I Wish Christians Knew about the Bible. (2021, Zondervan)

What questions do you have about the Bible? Send us a message below if you have questions!


Scripture Union Bible Guides help you have meaningful Bible time. Learn more

Related Posts: Twenty Interesting Facts about the Bible

© Scripture Union Canada, 2021

More to explore

join our

Mailing List

Send Us

A Note

Sign Up To Recieve the Latest Posts in your Inbox