How was the Bible Preserved?

A summary of people who preserved and printed the Bible

According to the apostle Paul in Romans 3:2, the Old Testament was entrusted, along with the oracles of God, to the Jews who meticulously hand-copied their holy Hebrew Scriptures. Their scribes developed intricate methods of counting words and letters to ensure that no errors had been made. Copies of Old Testament scrolls were found to be virtually identical to the previous oldest scrolls from 1000 years later.

Most biblical scholars believe that the New Testament was all originally written in Greek though some early christian writers give indications that at least two New Testament books may have been originally Hebrew or Aramaic and soon after translated into Greek.

Papias (ca. 130 CE):

“Matthew composed his work in the Hebrew dialect, and each translated as best they could” (Quoted by Eusebius in Ecclesiastical History, 3.39).

Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 6.14.2

“In the work called Hypotyposes, to sum up the matter briefly, he [Clement of Alexandria c. 185 AD] has given us abridged accounts of all the canonical Scriptures…The Epistle to the Hebrews he asserts was written by Paul, to the Hebrews, in the Hebrew tongue, but that it was carefully translated by Luke, and published among the Greeks.”

Hebrew in these quotes is more likely to refer to Aramaic, a similar language to Hebrew.


In the first few centuries after Jesus Christ's ministry there were available hand copied New Testament manuscripts in Greek, Aramaic, Latin and Coptic (Egypt).

The oldest Greek manuscript fragment has been dated to around 110-130 AD. Two of the oldest full codices (book-form) of the New Testament are the Vatican Codex and Sinaitic Codex which date to around 325-350 AD.

The main Aramaic manuscripts, referred to as the Peshitta, are a collection of 360 New Testament manuscripts dated from the 4th to the 9th centuries AD that were copied with the same precision as the Jews copied the Old Testament scrolls. 

The Old Latin version used by the western church in Rome was translated around 150 AD. “Some of the Old Latin copies are as old as the celebrated Vatican and Sinaitic Manuscripts. The Old Latin is by far the most important of the Latin versions since it reaches back very close to the time when the last books of the New Testament were written” (How We Got the Bible, Neil Lightfoot, p. 54).

The Latin Vulgate was another Latin translation by Jerome written composed between 410 and 435 AD. It became the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church and was standard Bible for over 1000 years for Western Christianity up to the Reformation.

Many books were written by early christian writers who are referred to as the early church fathers. They contain many quotations from the New Testament. Bruce Metzger states that “so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone in reconstructing practically the entire New Testament” (How We Got the Bible, Neil Lightfoot, p. 56).

Old English first developed as a distinct language from the Germanic branch of languages around 500 AD. In the centuries that followed up to the Norman conquest a number of partial translations were made of the Bible into Old English.


Caemon (c. 680).    Caedmon retells portions of the Bible in story and poetry form on subjects ranging from the creation to the spread of the gospel by the apostles. 
Aldhelm (c. 700).  

Aldhelm translated the Psalms into Old English.

Egbert (c. 710).  

Egbert of Northumbria translated Matthew, Mark and Luke into English.

Bede (c. 735).  

Bede translated John's Gospel into English.

King Alfred the Great of Wessex (871-901).


Alfred translated portions of Exodus, Psalms and the Book of Acts into English.

Aldred (c. 950).


Aldred, Bishop of Durham, creates an interlinear translation by writing a word-for-word translation in the Northumbrian dialect of Old English in between the lines of a Latin manuscript of the New Testament. 

Aelfric (c. 955-1020)


Aelfric translates into Old English the first seven books of the Old Testament.



Following the Norman conquest French was made the official language in England and no further translation work is known about until the 1300's.


john wycliffeJohn Wycliffe (c. 1320-84)

During his lifetime John Wycliffe had wanted common people to have the Bible. Wycliffe said, “Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English.” Wycliffe and a team of students translated the whole Bible from the Latin Vulgate which was completed in 1382. It was the first full translation of the Bible into English.

John Wycliffe and his translation were despised by the Roman Catholic Church who resisted any efforts to make the Bible available into western European languages as part of their way of maintaining control over the religious life of the common people. The Bible in their eyes, at the time, was only meant for the priests to study in the original Latin. Even Catholic mass was all in Latin, not the common language of the people. 

The Catholic Church declared Wycliffe a heretic and issued 5 papal bulls for his arrest. They burned many copies of his Bible. Over 40 years after Wycliffe's death the Pope ordered his remains be exhumed, then burned and thrown into the River Swift. Despite the Catholic Church's efforts after his death, some 170 copies of Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible still exist to this day. Following his death it became illegal in England in 1408 to translate or read the Bible in common English without permission of a bishop.


Invention of Printing (1455)

Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1455. In that same year he published the Gutenberg Bible which was a printed copy of the Latin Vulgate. The first Bible in Hebrew was published in 1488.

Martin Luther made a translation of the New Testament in German in 1522. The invention of the printing press and the Protestant Reformation, which Luther sparked, stimulated a growing demand for copies of the Bible and translations into native languages other than Latin. 

The earliest Bibles have no chapter and verse distinctions. Stephen Langton, from the University of Paris, was the first to divide the Bible into chapters in 1227. A Paris printer, Robert Stephanus, added verses to the Bible around 1550.

William Tyndale (c. 1492-1536)

William Tyndale was a brilliant Oxford scholar who spoke seven languages and was skilled in both Hebrew and Greek. His aim was to create an English translation of the Bible that wasn't based on Latin but on the original Hebrew and Greek. A member of the clergy told Tyndale that Englishmen were “better without God’s Law than without the Pope’s.” In response to that Tyndale said, “I defy the Pope and all his laws; if God spares my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.”

Tyndale translated the New Testament into English from Greek in 1525. He sought permission to publish it in England but was denied. With the financial support of some wealthy merchants, Tyndale moved to Germany and began printing the New Testament in 1526. Around 6 000 copies of the New Testament were published and were being sold in England, many of them smuggled in sacks of corn and flour.

Bishop Tunstall of London, bought many of these copies and had them burned. With the proceeds of the print run, including the money paid by Tunstall, Tyndale paid off his debts and printed a new updated version. By 1530 his translation also included the first five books of the Old Testament. Tyndale translated around half of the Old Testament before he was imprisoned and later executed by church authorities.

Tyndale translated directly from the Hebrew and Greek and he is called the father of the English Bible. About 90 percent of his translated words were used in the King James Version. Tyndale lived with English merchants in Antwerp before he was finally betrayed and arrested in 1535. He was put in jail for a year and a half. He was put to death by being burned at the stake in Brussels on October 6, 1536. His final words when being burned at the stake were “Lord, Open the King of England’s eyes” (Tony Lane, “The Crown of English Bibles, in Christian History, Issue 43, p. 8-9).

Tyndale Bible - Gospel of John

First page of the Gospel of Saint John, from the 1526 Peter Schöffer printing of William Tyndale's English translation of the Bible.

The Coverdale Bible (1535)

Miles Coverdale was a friend of William Tyndale and he completed Tyndale's translation of the Old Testament while Tyndale was imprisoned. He published the first complete English Bible in print form in 1535. Coverdale, unlike Tyndale, used the Latin for translating the remaining books in the Old Testament.

The Matthew's Bible (1537)

John Rogers, under the pen name Thomas Matthew, published another English version in 1537. It was the first Bible printed with the king's permission. His translation also included some 2 000 marginal notes. Despite his version being approved by King Henry VIII, Rogers was later burned at the stake when the Catholic Mary Tudor later took the throne.

The Great Bible (1539)

The Great Bible was a revision of Matthew’s Bible. “Edited by Coverdale, it was the first of the English Bibles authorized to be read in the churches. Henry VIII wished to have a Bible for all the English and so a copy of the Great Bible was placed in every church in the country. People flocked to see and read the Bibles which had been placed in the churches. The preachers would complain that the people chose rather to read the Bible than listen to their sermons. Tyndale’s dying prayer at last had been answered: the Lord had opened the king of England’s eyes” (How We Got the Bible, Neil Lightfoot, p. 129-30).

The Geneva Bible (1560)

When the Roman Catholic Queen Mary Tudor came to the English throne many Protestant translators fled to Geneva where they produced the Geneva Bible. The translators of the Geneva Bible were well-skilled to make revisions from the original languages. The Geneva Bible was the first printed Bible to use chapters and verses and it was smaller and sold at a more moderate price. It also included commentary notes that represented John Calvin's views. The Geneva Bible was the Bible that was used by Shakespeare and taken to America by the Pilgrims in 1620. Its revision of 1640 omitted the Apocrypha, the first English version to do so.

The Bishop’s Bible (1568)

The next English monarch was the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I who came to the throne in 1558. She insisted that every parish church was to have an English Bible. The Bishop's Bible was a new revision of the Great Bible by several bishops in response to the Geneva Bible which was not accepted by the clergy in England because of its controversial notes. The Geneva Bible still retained much greater popularity over the Bishop's Bible as most versions of the Bishop's Bible were large and cost significantly more than the Geneva Bible.

king jamesKing James (“Authorized”) Version (1611)

In 1604 soon after his ascension to the throne of England, King James I, covened a meeting of religious representatives known as the Hampton Court Conference. John Reynolds proposed having a new authorized version of the English Bible which would be acceptable to all parties within the church that would be for both public and private use. The king agreed to this and commissioned 54 scholars to undertake a new Bible translation. The king gave instructions that the version had to conform to the church structure of the Church of England and its belief in an ordained clergy and that there were to be no marginal notes like the Geneva Bible.

Six teams of scholars over the next six years were involved in the new translation which made use of all the other English translations as well as available Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. The work of each team was to be cross checked by the other teams. This translation would be the work of a team of translators. In 1611, the first copies of the new "Authorised" version were printed. Within a few decades the King James or Authorised Version truly became the standard for English-speaking people in England and wherever the English set up colonies around the world. The edition used today was revised in 1769. The removal of the Apocrypha from the King James Version was a move led more by printers than the translators and revisers of the text as it reduced the cost and increased the appeal to non-Anglican readers of the Bible.

The King James Version became the most widely printed book in history and is noted for its "majesty of style". The translators wanted to produce a Bible translation that was dignified and resonated when read publicly. This was part of the reasoning behind the choice of archaic English words such as thee and thou and -eth at the end of words. Even by the time of the 1611 version the use of such words was far less common and been replaced by our more modern version of such words as seen in the works of Shakespeare and Marlowe.


King James Bible, First Edition Title Page, 1611

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