Description of the holy bible – Part 5
The NEW TESTAMENT: In some ways this is a more clear-cut process. The letters of Paul are probably the earliest writings of the New Testament and they were no doubt preserved in the communities to which they were addressed. By the end of the first century A.D. they were combined in one collection.
The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection (the Passion Narrative) probably existed in written form from an early period. The Gospels themselves probably developed in a similar way to the Old Testament: oral and written traditions alongside each other. The Apostles would have had first-hand knowledge of the words of Jesus, but as they began to die the need to write down these words would have been realised.
Oral and written traditions
The books of the Old Testament cover a period of at least a thousand years and those of the New Testament some sixty years. The written records themselves fall roughly within the period 2000 B.C.-A.D. 100. How did they survive and how were they kept?
In two ways: orally and in writing. ‘Oral tradition’ means the passing on of information by word of mouth. In the ancient world (as in certain cultures today) important information, traditions and stories were handed on from generation to generation and from person to person in songs, anecdotes, poetry, proverbs, etc. In such cultures people have very accurate memories and oral tradition was an important way of spreading information.
At the same time writing existed from at least the third millennium B.C. and possibly even from the fourth. Records were scratched on stone, clay, potsherds (known as ‘ostraca’), wood and ivory. Cuneiform script was the earliest form of writing: it was made by impressing a wedge-shaped implement onto wet clay. Thousands of cuneiform inscriptions, including letters, official records, rule books and stories from Palestine, show us that writing was widely used throughout the ancient world.
Later papyrus (made from the papyrus plant growing along the Nile) was used and made into scrolls. The famous Dead Sea scrolls discovered in 1947 included copies of every Old Testament book except Esther and date from the first century B.C.It was probably during the second century A.D. that the first books appeared. The pages were stitched together and the ‘book’ known as a ‘codex’.
Translating the Bible
The earliest copies of parts of the Hebrew Old Testament were found at Qumran in 1947. These ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ date to the first century B.C. Before this discovery our earliest manuscripts were ninth century A.D., although these were copies and not originals (scribal copying was meticulous and since the text was regarded as sacred much thought was given to its preservation). The discoveries at Qumran also gave earlier evidence of the Greek text of the Old Testament. We also have some Greek papyri from the third and fourth centuries, which include fragments of Deuteronomy, a lot of Numbers, parts of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and Esther.
During the sixth to the tenth centuries A.D. the Hebrew text was carefully copied by the successors to the earlier scribes, called the ‘Masoretes.’ Their work is preserved in what is called the ‘Masoretic text’—a highly valued tool for translators.
For the New Testament there is much more available. A fragment of John dates from A.D. 130. (John Rylands papyrus), and there are third and fourth century papyri of other scraps of John’s Gospel, most of Paul’s letter, parts of the Gospels, and Acts. There are hundreds of codices (‘books’) dating from the fourth to the ninth centuries.
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