HUMA 3424 3.0 The History of the Bible

York University, Winter 2020

codex vaticanus

Image: a page from Codex Vaticanus, one of the earliest complete Bible manuscripts (4th century).

Instructor: Dr. Tony Burke
Phone: (416) 736-2100 ext. 33712

Office Hours and Location: Monday and Wednesday 4–6pm, Vanier College 247 (other times by appointment)
Class Time and Location: Wednesday 7–10 pm, DB 0009

1. Course Description

Most people take the existence of the modern English Bible for granted—they assume it sprang fully-formed from the hands of the ancient writers or even directly from God. But the Bible has been three millennia in the making. This course traces the development of the Bible beginning with discussions in the first to third centuries on canon formation, through the myriad translations made from antiquity to today, to modern scholars’ attempts to reconstruct the original form of the biblical texts. We will look also at the form various Bibles have taken—from the original scrolls and codices, to elaborately decorated manuscripts, to modern books—as well as the historical events that precipitated the creation of several key editions, and the impact these editions have made over time. Particular attention will be paid to the techniques of text criticism—i.e., the painstaking efforts to sift through the variety of readings in ancient manuscripts to recover the biblical writers’ original words.

2. Required Texts

Paul D. Wegner. The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origins and Development of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999 (ISBN 9780801027994)

Clinton E. Arnold. How We Got the Bible: A Visual Journey. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008 (ISBN 9780310253068)

Timothy Beal. The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011 (ISBN 9780547737348).

Other books of interest (not required):

De Hamel, Christopher. The Book: A History of the Bible. London: Phaidon, 2001.

Metzger, Bruce M. and Bart D. Ehrman. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. 4th ed. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

McDonald, Lee Martin. The Origin of the Bible: A Guide for the Perplexed. London/New York: T & T Clark, 2011.

Kruger, Michael J. Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2011.

3. Assignments

Academic Integrity: York University is very concerned about the increase in student plagiarism. As heinous a crime as plagiarism is, sometimes it is perpetrated in ignorance. Please consult the SPARK page on academic integrity to learn more about it and about the repercussions of committing plagiarism.

NOTE: All graded work in this course is to be submitted to (and brought to class in a hard copy). For an overview of this service and the University’s policies regarding, please see HERE. It is very simple to use. Go to for instructions on how to create a user profile. You can use whatever email address you wish but it must be a working one since you will receive emails over the course of the year. It is recommended that you NOT use internet email accounts (e.g., Hotmail, Yahoo, etc.). You create your own password so make it easy to remember. You will also require the following information to sign in initially: Class ID: 23356688. Password: bible.

Expectations: All written work in this course is expected to be of high quality—i.e., it must conform to the style and format guidelines typical of Humanities courses—and it must be your own. To help ensure that these requirements are met, you are urged to visit the on-line guides listed below. In addition, a style sheet of my own design is to be attached to your assignments (see the assignment descriptions below). No paper will be accepted without the style sheet attached. For additional writing assistance, visit

A. Reading Quizzes: to encourage students to consistently complete the readings for class, four reading quizzes will be held throughout the term. The quizzes will take place in the first 15 minutes of the classes held on Jan. 22, Feb. 12, March 4, and March 25. The best three of the four quizzes will be counted toward your grade; this allows you to miss one quiz without penalty (there are no other exceptions for missed quizzes). Value: 30%.
B. Encyclopedia Article: scholars often are called upon to submit short, general treatments of a topic for inclusion in a dictionary or encyclopedia. You are to model this practice by selecting an English version of the Bible made prior to the King James Version (choose from: Tyndale, Coverdale, the Great Bible, Edmund Becke’s Bibles, Geneva, Bishops’, and Rheims-Douay) and composing an essay similar in style and format as encyclopedia entries. Samples of such entries are available HERE. The essay should be 1500 words long (no longer), not including the bibliography, which should contain approximately six works (not including the course textbooks). These works should deal with both general and specific issues related to your subject. Some additional pointers:

  • begin with a statement of what makes the particular translation important in the history of the Bible, then follow with three sections under the titles: origins, features, and impact.
  • for the features section discuss what makes the particular Bible unique or special; this can include translation choices, the books included (just New Testament? just sections of the New Testament?), supplementary materials, decoration, etc.
  • format the bibliography according to APA style (as in the samples but with the date immediately following the author’s name).
  • cite your sources when and where you use them in the essay using parenthetical in-text citations—e.g., (Smith 1981: 12-15).

All essays must conform to the APA style guide; be sure to follow also the format guidelines on the STYLE SHEET and hand in the style sheet with your paper. The final component of the assignment is to work with the other students who have selected the same Bible and create a short lecture (10 minutes) on the subject of your research. Work out among the group how to divide the labour (perhaps one person can speak on each of the four sections to be covered in the essay); be sure to include visuals to accompany your discussion. Email instructor with your choice of Bible on or before January 22 (first come first served!). Due date: March 11. Value: 30% (failure to participate in the presentation portion of the assignment will result in an automatic deduction of 5 marks out of 30).
C. Book Review: prepare a review of Timothy Beal’s The Rise and Fall of the Bible. A typical scholarly book review should contain the following features: roughly 60% of the review is descriptive (i.e., a summary of its contents; the aim is to inform the reader about the book), and 40% is analytical (what are the book’s strengths and weaknesses? what are the author’s biases or particular viewpoints on the subject matter? what is the expected audience of the book? does the author write effectively for that audience? is the book a “good read”?, etc.). For more guidance on scholarly book reviews read the samples available HERE. The reviews will be discussed in class. Please follow the guidelines of this STYLE SHEET and hand in the style sheet with your paper. Length: five pages (double-spaced). Due date: April 1. Value: 30%.
D. Class Participation: to encourage an optimum of instructor/student interaction, a portion of your final grade is allocated to class participation. The grade is based on class attendance, and on asking/answering questions. Grade value: 10%.

Missing papers: In the event that papers go missing, it is your responsibility to keep a hard copy of all written work submitted for the course.

Late papers: the instructor, like you, is a very busy person. He likes to receive papers on time so that he can give them back to you within a reasonable time and then get on with other things he has to do (the instructor has other courses to teach and other papers to grade). Late papers complicate his life. So, he cannot accept late papers unless they are accompanied with documentation from Special Needs or Health Services. Contact the professor if you foresee problems handing in papers on time.

4. Important Dates

Jan. 19: Last date to enroll without permission of instructor
Feb. 3: Last date to enroll with permission of instructor
March 13: Last date to drop course without receiving a grade

5. Lecture Schedule

Please come to class having read the assigned primary and secondary readings. A lecture outline for each class will be posted on-line by Monday evening for the following Wednesday class. It is your responsibility to print your own copy of the outline and bring it to class.

Jan. 8 : Introduction to the course
Read after class: Wegner, chs. 1–5; Arnold, pp. 12–13, 18–21, 38–39.
Online Resources: for a helpful overview of the contents of the Bible, watch “How to Read the Bible: What is the Bible?

Jan. 15: Early Manuscript Production
Read for Today: Wegner, chs. 6; Arnold, pp. 8–9.
Online Resources: Medieval scribes often practiced a form of recycling: scraping off the ink on a manuscript and reusing it by writing a new text upon it. Such manuscripts are called palimpsests. For a look at how to recover the original text on a palimpsest, watch this video on recovering the undertext of the Codex Zacynthius, which features a sixth/seventh-century copy of Luke under a thirteenth-century text.

Jan. 22: Canon Formation
Read for Today: Wegner, chs. 7–10.
Online Resources: Lee Martin McDonald is one of the world’s foremost scholars of canon formation. In 2017 he took part in a lecture at the Lanier Theological Library on “How the Bible Came into Being.” You can watch McDonald’s lecture HERE.
** Reading quiz in the first fifteen minutes of class today covering Jan. 22 readings (chs. 7 and 9 only)**

Jan. 29: Text Criticism 1: Hebrew Bible
Read for Today: Wegner, chs. 11–12; Arnold, pp. 6–7, 10–11, 16–17, 22–23.
Online Resources: The Hebrew Bible was written originally without vowels. Around the tenth century a group of Jewish scribes called the Masoretes, created a series of dots and dashes that supply the vowel sounds. Learn more about the Masoretes in this video from the Ancient Hebrew Research Center.

Feb. 5: Text Criticism 2: New Testament
Read for Today: Wegner, chs. 13–14; Arnold, pp. 24–31, 88–89.
Online Resources: Watch Dr. Craig Evans travel the globe to track down the most ancient New Testament manuscripts in the documentary “Fragments of Truth.” Watch the trailer HERE.

Feb. 12: Early Versions
Read for Today: Wegner, ch. 15; Arnold, p. 14–15, 32–33, 36–37.
Online Resources: Father Columba Stewart works for the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, an institution that journeys to war-town areas of the world to photograph their libraries before they are lost forever. He is a captivating speaker. Watch his 2019 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities HERE.
** Reading quiz in the first fifteen minutes of class today covering Jan. 29, Feb. 5, and Feb. 12 readings **

Feb. 19: Reading Week ~ No class

Feb. 26: Bibles in the Middle Ages

Read for Today: Arnold, pp. 34–35, 40–45.
Online Resources: the British Library has a series of videos on Making Manuscripts. Watch this video on how scribes illustrated Bibles.

Mar. 4: The First Printed Bibles
Read for Today: Wegner, chs. 16–17 (up to p. 284); Arnold, pp. 48–51, 76–77.
Online Resources
: The Newberry Library has an online digital exhibit of The Bible in Print, 1450–1700. Includes images, texts, and videos of stories behind Bibles in the Newberry collection.
** Reading quiz in the first fifteen minutes of class today covering Feb. 26 and Mar. 4 readings ONLY**

Mar. 11: English Bibles Prior to 1611
Read for Today: Wegner, ch. 17 (p. 284–306); Arnold, pp. 34–35, 40–47, 52–63.
Online Resources: take a look inside early English Bibles in this virtual exhibit from Ohio State University.
** Encyclopedia article due today **

Mar. 18: The King James Bible
Read for Today: Wegner, ch. 18; Arnold, pp. 64–67.
Online Resources: British author Adam Nicolson offers a sweeping look at the work that went into translating the King James Bible (HERE).

Mar. 25: Modern English Bibles
Read for Today: Wegner, ch. 19–21; Arnold, pp. 68–75, 78–87.
Class Preparation: What goes into the production of a modern, prestige Bible? Watch this video of the making of a premium English Standard Version.
** Reading quiz in the first fifteen minutes of class today covering Mar. 8 and Mar. 25 readings **

April 1:  The Museum of the Bible
Online Resources: Take a tour of the Museum of the Bible with the Balancing Act (a daily morning show on Lifetime TV).
** Review of Beal, The Rise and Fall of the Bible due today **