The Bible sits on the desk, nightstands, and bookshelves of millions of people. Passed down from generation to generation, the Bible is the best–selling book of all-time, and generally respected even by people of other religions. In our modern society, the accessibility of the Bible has increased all the more, being fully available online and through digital apps on our smartphones and tablets.
Considering the prominence and accessibility of the Bible today, one would be right to ask where this book came from. Unlike just about any other book, we can't simply call up the publisher's public relations department or send an email to the author. But like other books, the Bible we hold in our hands today (or read on our smartphones) had an origin and development. Although we would be fully accurate in saying that the Bible came from God, it's also accurate to say that the Bible was written by human authors. The formation of the Bible is an amazing process.
What Is the Bible?
Before we discuss how the Bible was assembled, we should understand what the Bible itself actually is. Because of the way Bibles are published, it is often seen as a singular book. However, the Bible itself is a collection of writings. With many different styles of writing and genres, the Bible is better understood as an anthology of writings that tell a singular and grand overarching story (see the article, "The Bible Story").
Specifically, the Bible contains 66 distinct books under two major divisions. The first 39 books of the Bible were mostly written in the Hebrew language and are commonly referred to as the "Old Testament." The second set of 27 books was originally written in the Greek language and is called the "New Testament." These 66 books span stories that occurred over at least 4,000 years of human history, with as many as 40 different human authors. Diverse cultures, backgrounds, writing styles, and genres were used to write the Bible.
So how did this all come together? How were the writings of 40 different authors over thousands of years gathered into one book?
Who Wrote the Bible?
First, we must acknowledge that much of the Bible didn't originally exist in written form. Most of the Old Testament and at least the four Gospels were likely written after the events transpired. For example, Moses wasn't alive during the creation of the earth and everything in it, rather He wrote down the story as it was passed to Him and preserved by God. Similarly, the Gospels were most likely written long after Jesus died. Luke, for example, notes that He wrote His Gospel after extensive research and interviews (Luke 1:1–4). We trust that all that they wrote was fully truthful and accurate, because we know that Scripture is not man's creation, but rather the very breath of God Himself (2 Tim. 3:16–17).
The Bible itself tells us where and how these different books were written and placed together as Holy Scripture. First of all, the Bible tells us that it's from God Himself. Again, "All Scripture is inspired by God" (2 Tim. 3:16, CSB). The Greek word for "inspired" could be literally translated "God-breathed." God has intended and inspired every word of Scripture. He is the primary author of the Bible.
And yet, God has used human authors as the agents through which He has written the Bible. 2 Peter 1:20–21 tells us that, "Above all, you know this: No prophecy of Scripture comes from the prophet's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the will of man; instead, men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit" (CSB). Peter says that the authors of the Bible were inspired and led by God to write the various letters and books that we have as the Bible today.
We might ask, then, how did God inspire every word of Scripture through these human authors? Did He put them in a trance and override their personality and intellect? Did these writers achieve a level of enlightenment that tuned them into God unlike any other human being ever had been before? Not quite. Instead, we would say that God used the personalities, intellects, and abilities of each writer of Scripture to communicate His Word. Common people, used in uncommon ways, put real ink on real paper as God directed them.
Further, this human involvement is why the Bible contains so many different types and styles of literature. The Bible includes poetry, story, legal codes, personal letters, apocalyptic revelation, drama, and even fortune-cookie-like sayings. God used royalty, shepherds, fishermen, doctors, farmers, prophets, priests, pagans, musicians, aristocrats, and other ordinary people to write the Bible. The personalities of the writers and their abilities were fully used as God led them to write. They were not robots; they were messengers.
How Was the Bible Assembled?
If over 40 authors, living on three different continents, with generations of time between the first writing and the last word, wrote the 66 books of the Bible, then how did these books become recognized as God's words and be placed together into one book? This assembly has been known as "canonization." Canonization is the identification of writings that were authoritative for the Church because God inspired them. Those writings that were both authoritative and inspired were recognized as God's Word and as such assembled into one book, the Bible.
Contrary to modern arguments, the canonization of the Bible did not occur when a church or government determined what books were "in" and what books were "out." Yes, it's true that the rise of Constantine was a huge boost for Christianity's legality in the ancient world, but this event did not all of a sudden make the Bible authoritative or complete. The acceptance of the books of the Bible as being both authoritative and inspired by God occurred as the books were written, understood, and received as God's Word.
The Old Testament writings were fully accepted by the Jews and Jesus as God's authoritative and inspired Word. The Jews of Jesus's day identified the 39 books of the Old Testament in three categories; the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms. When Jesus appeared to His disciples after His resurrection He told them that "'everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.' Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures." (Luke 24:44–45, CSB). Notice that Jesus mentioned all three categories as being fulfilled by Him.
As the story of Jesus's life, death, and resurrection unfolded in history, the men given authority from Jesus began to write to churches and individual believers to encourage and lead them in their faith. These writings from the Apostles were recognized to be inspired by God and were received as Scripture. Even the Apostles themselves recognized each other's writings as being inspired by God–they equated them with the authority and inspiration of the Old Testament Scriptures (see Peter 2 Pet. 3:15–16). These writings were preserved, carefully copied, and included in the larger work of writings that today we call the Bible.
Though these writings were considered authoritative relatively quickly, the oldest document with the full list of New Testament writings is Athanasius's list from 367 A.D. We have to remember, however, that one couldn't simply email Bible books to others in this day. It took time for books to circulate, to be accepted widely by church leaders, and to be pulled together into one 66-book library.
As many other books came along that contradicted the accepted books of the Bible, the early church worked to set in stone the books that were authoritative and inspired. The heretical views of other books were examined and discussed through early church counsels, which led to a clear and final identification for the whole Church. One of the great stories of the first centuries after Jesus's resurrection is the amazing way in which God and His Church protected the truth of Scripture from error or worse.
By God's grace, His Word has been preserved and protected today. The very words that the saints of the Old Testament and the apostles of the New Testament wrote under the full inspiration of God are contained in our Bibles. When we read the Bible, we can be confident that we are hearing God's voice just as He first spoke it to our spiritual parents long ago.