I’m currently teaching a Bible Study on the history of the Bible–not a history of the events chronicled by the Bible, a history of the Bible itself, who wrote it, how it was passed down through the centuries, and different ways people have read and interpreted it over the years. I was able to find many timelines of events in the Bible, but no timelines of the Bible itself. So, I took my notes from various Bible, Church History, and theology courses in seminary and put them together into one timeline. However, given the horrible weather we’ve had the last couple months, and the number of things that were cancelled/postponed, I had a lot of time to work on it, and being both a religion and a history geek, it kinda took on a life of its own. So here it is. Anyone may use this for any non-commercial purposes (in other words, you can do anything you want as long as you don’t sell it). If you make changes or corrections, please send me a copy.
Ca. means “circa” or “about,” and lets you know when dates are approximations. BCE means “Before the Christian Era,” CE means “Christian Era.”
Timeline of the Bible
By Anna C. Haugen, https://wordsoffaith.wordpress.com/2011/02/21/timeline-of-the-bible/. Please attribute where used, and e-mail corrections.
- BCE=Before Christian Era (BC)
- CE=Christian Era (AD)
- Ca.=circa, about
Ca. 2000 BCE. Proto-Hebrew people live in the Ancient Near East. They pass on stories through generations of how God works in their lives. Abraham and his family are key figures.
Ca. 1200 BCE. The exodus from Egypt. Since the Hebrew people do not possess writing, their history is still passed down orally. Modern archaeology has not discovered any evidence of the exodus, and the archaeological finds from Egypt and the Holy Land from this period don’t match the Biblical accounts, so the dating is hypothetical.
Ca. 1000 BCE. The Phoenician alphabet (ancestor of all Western alphabets) spreads throughout the region, being adapted as it goes. It contains no vowels, only consonants. Paleo-Hebrew is the version used in Judea/Palestine. Recorded history begins in Israel. Writing is rare, used by professional scribes mostly for business, tax, and government record-keeping purposes. It is laborious and time-consuming. Each text, once written, must be copied by hand; texts change over time through copying errors, even if there are no large edits. (It is very easy to miss a letter, a word, or a line, or accidentally repeat it, when copying something manually.) Some scribes edit the text if they do not agree with it. As all scrolls wear out eventually, there comes a point by which the originals are lost. The Bible and other ancient documents exist today only as copies of copies of copies of copies, allowing many different variations through error and deliberate choice as changes accumulate through the generations of copies.
Guilds of prophets exist, though we have no records of their prophecies and very few (Samuel, Nathan, etc) are remembered by name. The basic theological assumption is that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. There is no belief in an afterlife or that people could reach heaven outside of ecstatic visions; there is little or no distinction made between body and soul. Descendents and land are viewed as the ultimate good gifts for God to bestow: one lives on in one’s children. Sexual matters are primarily important only insofar as they affect marriage and family.
Ca. 1020 BCE. Samuel anoints Saul the first king of Israel.
Ca. 930 BCE. David’s son Solomon the Wise dies. His policies so divided the nation that the ten northern tribes secede rather than accept his son Rehoboam as king. The Northern tribes retain the name “Israel” while the two southern tribes rename their kingdom “Judah,” after the larger of the two tribes who remained loyal to Rehoboam. For the Northern Kingdom, the Exodus and the Covenant at Sinai are the dominant religious motif. For the Southern Kingdom, David and Zion are the motif. As time goes on and the kings of Judah fall short of the ideal, and particularly after the kingdom falls and the Davidic monarchy is no more, the focus on David turns into Messianism, the hope that God would send another king, a descendent of David, to restore the nation to its former glory.
Ca. 800-500 BCE. Writing is still confined to professional scribes, but is adapted to more uses, including religion. Laws (such as Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers), stories passed down from the oral tradition (Genesis, Exodus, Judges), wisdom literature (like Proverbs) and poetry (Psalms) start to be written down by both secular rulers and religious authorities. Official histories begin to be written (e.g. 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings). No “canon” of scripture exists; various versions of texts are created and modified as needed.
Ca. 800 BCE. Greeks adopt a variation of the Phoenician alphabet, and begin modifying it to fit their needs, most notably by adding letters denoting vowels.
Ca. 780s-720s BCE. The time of Biblical prophecy begins. A new kind of prophet arises who works outside of the prophetic guilds; most critique abuses and injustices in the nation and in the Temple. Amos, a shepherd from Judah (the Southern Kingdom), prophesies in Israel (Northern Kingdom). He focuses on social justice, connecting it to the Covenant and Exodus, with outspoken critiques of the rich who exploit the poor, and with priests more interested in maintaining their power and prestige than teaching God’s ways to the people. Hosea, a Northern prophet, uses symbolic acts such as marrying a prostitute to graphically illustrate the ways Israel has broken its covenant with the LORD. Hosea also critiques the power-politics of the royal court. Isaiah I (Isaiah chapters 1-39) prophesies in the south, preaching the need for Judah to be purified and trust in the LORD, but maintaining that God would keep the promises made to David in the end despite the coming judgment. He was a royal prophet closely connect with the court. Micah is a rural prophet in Judah who focused on social critiques.
720 BCE—The Assyrian Empire (whose capital is Nineveh, as in the story of Jonah) conquers Israel, deporting many into captivity. Many others flee south to Judah, taking religious and historical documents with them. The two religious traditions begin to merge again. Those who are taken never return; history does not record what happens to them (the Ten Lost Tribes).
Ca. 700 BCE. Romans adapt the Greek alphabet to their use, resulting in the modern Latin alphabet still used in Europe and America today.
627-612 BCE. The Assyrian Empire falls to the Babylonians. While the two empires fight, Judah is free to flourish. The prophet Nahum rejoices vengefully at Assyria’s fall, the only prophet in the Bible who does not critique his own people. Zephaniah charges the people of Judah with idolatry and infidelity to God’s laws and promises.
Ca. 610-580 BCE. Habakkuk critiques systematic injustice within Judah, wondering why God allows evil to exist. Jeremiah, a member of the hereditary priesthood, prophesies that Judah will be torn down for straying from God’s path but that God will build her up again. Jeremiah’s vision of the judgment is much darker than most prophets; he also does not hesitate to call out specific leaders (both royal and of the professional prophetic guilds) who are making problems worse. Since the LORD is the ruler of all history, Babylon is doing God’s will by attacking Judah and her neighbors. Jeremiah preaches doom while everyone was clinging to hope, but after the fall of Jerusalem, preaches hope while everyone else is full of despair. Lamentations (a collection of poems) is ascribed to Jeremiah, probably written during mourning for the fall of Jerusalem; it was probably used as a worship text.
586-538 BCE. Babylonian Exile. Babylon conquers Judah and deports the leaders into exile. Ezekiel was from a priestly family, an adult when deported to Babylon. He performs various symbolic actions and has many visions, with oracles of judgment and oracles of restoration. Obadiah calls for vengeance and prophesied the restoration of Judah and Jerusalem. Isaiah is added to (chapters 40-55[56-66]), probably by disciples of the original prophet who speak in his name to honor him. Themes include Zionism, light, and the Exile as a second Exodus. The prophecies of judgment have been fulfilled, so prophecies of comfort and future restoration dominate.
Exiles adapt Aramaic script (a version of the Phoenician alphabet more widely used outside of Israel) to their use, resulting in the modern Hebrew alphabet. They also begin collecting various religious and historical texts and editing them together, adapting them to meet the needs of a community in exile. This process will continue after the Exile is over. No single definitive version of holy texts yet exists; different versions coexist side-by-side.
Apocalyptic literature is born; Ezekiel and Isaiah have elements of it, as do other works. Apocalyptic literature combines visions (revelations) and grand views about God bringing about judgment and restoring the world to God’s plan. The object of this literature is to solve the difficulties posed by the righteousness of God and the suffering condition of His righteous servants on earth. This genre of literature will reach its height under Greek and Roman rule, as Jewish people cling to hopes of a future free of their occupiers. Apocalypses emphasize the study of history, dividing it up into periods to predict when the end will occur and what will happen to bring it about. This interpretation of history is usually associated with visions, and is always couched in metaphoric, symbolic, and intentionally cryptic language to prevent the authorities from understanding it. The codes were lost long ago and the symbolism/metaphors largely rely on a cultural context we haven’t shared in 2000 years, giving rise to a multitude of possible interpretations. Although apocalyptic elements can be found in many of the later books of the Hebrew Bible, Daniel and Revelation are the true apocalypses in canon.
Ca. 539-420 BCE. The Persians conquer Babylon in 539 and allow Babylon’s captive nations (including the Jewish people) to return home. Ezra and Nehemiah lead many back to Judah, and begin rebuilding Jerusalem and the civil and religious institutions. To maintain a Jewish identity in an unstable situation, they institute laws to separate Jews from Gentiles, preventing intermarriage and business partnerships, and creating distinctively Jewish ways of life. Ruth and Jonah are written, telling stories of how God welcomed and loved non-Jews in the past as a critique of the xenophobia of Ezra and Nehemiah. Isaiah is added to again (50-66), dealing with the disheartening realities of returning from exile to a devastated and divided land. This prophet maintains that the problems facing Judah are not just local conflicts but inherent to all of creation, and that salvation from them can only come from the LORD. Haggai and Zechariah exhort the people to rebuild the Temple. Malachi and Joel predict that the LORD will come in judgment again.
Ca. 400-300 BCE. Job and Ecclesiastes are written, exploring ideas about divinity, virtue, and justice. Poetry (psalms, etc.) continues to be written, as does other literature. The short story form is developed, as stories from earlier in Israel’s history continue to be written down (Ruth, Jonah, Esther, Tobit, Judith, etc.). Religious literature continues to be written; older works that are now held in much esteem continue to be revised, edited, and combined. Some books are considered more authoritative than others, and standard versions of some texts are agreed upon. The basic framework of the Hebrew Bible is now in place, and legends grow attributing various books to famous Jews of history (i.e. that Moses wrote Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, that Solomon wrote Proverbs, that David wrote all the Psalms).
332 BCE. Alexander the Great conquers Persia and its vassal states, including Judah. Retired Greek soldiers are settled in conquered lands to impose Greek culture on the “barbarians.”
323 BCE. Alexander dies and his empire is broken apart. Seleucus takes the former Babylonian/Persian lands, including Judah. Hellenizing (greek-i-fying) continues. Conflict intensifies between those Jews who wish to remain true to their heritage, and those who wish to take advantage of the benefits of Greek rule. Seleucid rulers give little consideration to Jewish religion. A Jewish community that stayed behind in Babylon flourishes, as do others established elsewhere under Persian rule, and more Jewish communities are built outside of Judea through trade networks. The concept of resurrection first appears; if the righteous do not receive blessings in this life (for example, if they are killed by foreign invaders), then there must be another life somehow where they receive their reward.
Ca. 200-132 BCE. Greek is now the common language of the entire known world, with Aramaic the common language of the Near East part of it. Jewish communities far from Judea may not speak Hebrew. Although religious texts continue to be written, a core group of texts (including those that are now in the Bible) are held in greater esteem for worship and devotional use. These books still do not have a single standard form, however, and exist in several versions. Jewish scholars in Alexandria translate them from Hebrew into Greek. The legend is that there were 72 scholars, who made identical translations. This version is called the Septuagint (from the Greek word meaning 70). Pious Jews never say the name of God (hwhy) aloud, saying Adonai, “Lord,” instead; this is reflected in the Septuagint.
Ca. 170-165 BCE. Daniel is written, an apocalyptic book about a Judean exile at the Babylonian court, with implied parallels between the Babylonian Exile and Judea under Seleucid rule. Unlike the rest of the Hebrew Bible, Daniel is written mostly in Aramaic, and thus is accessible to outsiders and/or Jewish communities living in foreign lands.
164-63 BCE. Antiochus IV tries to break the power of the Temple. He puts a statue of Zeus on the altar and makes Jewish holy texts illegal. Judah Maccabee (of the Hasmonean family) leads a revolt. The Temple is cleansed and rededicated to the LORD (Chanukah). As Seleucid attention is taken up by their wars with other empires, and they consider Judea to be a worthless backwater, the revolt establishes an independent nation with Hasmonean kings and a strong Temple and priesthood. Greek elements are purged.
63 BCE. Roman general Pompey conquers Judea, but leaves the Hasmoneans as vassal kings who pay tribute to Rome.
37-4 BCE. Herod I (“The Great”) is given the province of Judea as a reward for serving the Roman provincial government, breaking the rule of the Hasmonean dynasty. He is not ethnically Jewish, although he does at least nominally follow Jewish religious practices.
4 BCE-6 CE. Herod Antipater (son of Herod I) rules Iudea, is removed for incompetence.
6-39 CE. Herod Antipas (son of Herod I) rules Iudea. The Herodians are dependent on Rome and push Roman policies. Roman religion is a social activity that promotes unity and loyalty to the state, and as such they tolerate local religions but strongly encourage them to incorporate Roman customs and deities (including worship of Caesar). As this would be polytheistic, Roman rule is very unpopular in Iudea despite its material advantages.
Jewish society is very divided. The Sadducees are the priestly families. There are few of them, but they are rich and powerful and often appease the Romans to keep their position, functioning as a buffer between Rome and the Jewish people. Sadducees are theologically conservative, counting only the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) as Scripture, and denying the possibility of resurrection. Their piety focuses on the Temple sacrifices and rituals. Pharisees are mostly upper-middle-class and consider themselves the protectors of Jewish culture and religion. They believe in resurrection and consider all of what is now the Hebrew Bible to be Holy Scripture. Pharisees are much more willing to interpret the Law in common-sense ways for everyday life, making them the leaders of Jewish culture. Pharisaic piety focuses on worship meetings in private spaces (synagogues) and maintaining Jewish culture and religious identity. There are several other major religious factions of whom we know relatively little but which are apparently also influential.
Messianic hopes are extremely popular and inflammatory, as people hope for a God-given leader who can drive out the invaders and restore Israel, and possibly bring about the Day of the Lord (i.e. Judgment Day, which would then be followed by God’s direct reign on Earth). However, there is little common agreement on what the Messiah will be like, what he will do, and what it will mean. Many different theories and different claimants abound.
Ca. 5 BCE-30 CE. Jesus of Nazareth lives. He ministers ca. 27-30 CE, travelling around preaching and performing miracles and gathering disciples. Although his interpretation of the Law is similar to the Pharisees (and in some areas even stricter, such as divorce), they disagree in key areas such as the Sabbath and Jesus’ messianic status. The Sadducees, having much less in common with Jesus and afraid of a revolt which would lead to Rome crushing them, consider Jesus a threat and conspire to have him executed. After Jesus’ death, his disciples are energized by Jesus’ resurrection visits. They continue spreading his message, believing that he is the Messiah and will be coming back very soon, bringing the Day of the Lord with him. The majority of Jewish people, not believing that the true Messiah would allow himself to be put to death, and believing that a “son of God” with divine powers would mean giving up monotheism, do not accept their teachings. The followers of Jesus continue to worship as Jews in Jewish synagogues and in the Temple, but their beliefs rapidly diverge from those of their countrymen, leading to conflict and the beginning of the separation between Christianity and Judaism. Judaism is an officially tolerated religion in the Roman Empire. As a sect of Judaism, followers of Jesus receive some protection. As the two groups separate, the followers of Christ are in more danger from the authorities.
Ca. 35-65 CE. Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee who persecuted the followers of Jesus, is converted and sent by God to the Gentiles (non-Jews). When dealing with Gentiles, most of whom are Greek-speaking inhabitants of Roman territories, Saul uses the Greek form of his name, Paul. He disagrees with the leaders of the Jesus movement over whether or not Gentiles must convert to Judaism and follow Jewish law; a compromise is reached at the Council of Jerusalem (50 CE, Acts 15). This becomes another major point of contention between Jesus’ followers and the Jewish community. Though conflict remains throughout Paul’s lifetime, Paul works with the church in Jerusalem and raises money for their support among the congregations he founds. Since Paul’s work leads him from place to place, Paul remains in contact through letters (including Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon) many of which are copied and passed from church to church. The letters are written in Greek, and the congregations used the Septuagint version of the Hebrew Bible. Paul eventually dies a captive in Rome.
Ca. 45 CE. The name “Christian” is first given to followers of Jesus the Christ.
60-70 CE. Jews revolt against Roman rule. Jerusalem is destroyed (including the Temple), and most of its inhabitants are killed or enslaved. The power of the Sadducees is destroyed with the Temple, and they disappear as a class, leaving the Pharisees as the main leaders of Jewish religion, and the ancestors of all modern Jews. A collection of Jewish religious literature (including Biblical texts) is concealed in caves near the Dead Sea, a kilometer away from a settlement called Qumran. The Jewish Christian congregation in Jerusalem, until this point the acknowledged leader of Christianity and the core of the Jewish Christian faction, is destroyed along with the city. From now on, Gentile Christians will lead the faith, leading to increasing conflicts between Jews and Gentiles.
64-68 CE. Emperor Nero orders mild persecutions of Christians, blaming them for the Great Fire of Rome (perhaps to deflect blame from himself). Romans consider Christianity a “superstition” rather than a religion. Christianity is still a minor and obscure sect; most Romans have never heard of it and don’t care much about it one way or the other.
Ca. 60-70 CE. The first generation of Christians, those who knew Jesus directly, are dying off. Younger Christians begin writing down stories about Jesus told by their elders, so that such stories will not be lost. These accounts are shaped by the experiences and faith questions of their particular community, leading to differing views of Christ. Since the majority of Christians are now Greek-speakers these accounts are written in Greek, although several of the authors are Hebrew speakers for whom Greek was a second language. The Gospel (“good news”) according to Mark is one of the earliest, and quickly becomes popular, with many copies passed from community to community. It is short, intense, and fast-paced, beginning with Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River and ending with the disciples running away in terror after the Resurrection appearance in the garden. It explains Jewish customs and words for a Gentile audience. Many ideas which later writers explore are only implied; the basic beliefs of Christianity are still developing. Mark’s most common title for Jesus is “Son of Man,” a title used to in cryptic terms in apocalyptic works such as Daniel.
Ca. 60-350 CE. Becoming a Christian requires a three-year apprenticeship during which one learns the Scriptures and Christian traditions, and proves one lives a moral lifestyle. Members of some professions like prostitutes and soldiers must change their profession, as a Christian must be virtuous and a pacifist. Baptisms take place during the Easter Vigil, a long worship service the night before Easter Sunday. The forty days prior to Easter (which are now called Lent) are a time of intense preparation of candidates for baptism.
Ca. 70-120 CE. The first leaders such as Peter and Paul are dead or retired, but no structure yet exists for choosing new leaders. Followers of Paul write letters addressing problems the churches now face, giving the advice they believe Paul would have done. To honor their mentor, bolster their own authority, and remind their readers of their connection to Paul, they use Paul’s name (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians). No deception is intended. Other leaders also write letters. The most useful are copied and shared among the churches, and along with Paul’s letters, the Hebrew Scriptures, the Gospels, and other writings, are used for both worship and personal study. Although some works are widely shared, there is no “official” standard of which texts are authoritative. As the Jewish Christian leadership is largely gone, Greek-speaking Gentiles become the majority of the church. Theology (i.e. how people think about God and how they read the Bible) begins to be interpreted through the lens of pagan Greek philosophy rather than the Jewish world-view. Key among these beliefs is a belief in an immortal soul/spirit which may be separated from the physical body, for instance at death.
Ca. 75-80 CE. Matthew and Luke are written. Both use Mark as the basis of their account, quoting whole sections. However, both add things, and probably from at least two other sources of material: one source both of them had (accounting for material shared between them but not found in Mark) and at least one unique to their community. Matthew stresses continuity with Jewish history, prophesy, and law, and emphasizes the structure of the church. Matthew puts more emphasis on Jesus’ teachings than his miracles, with several long sermons such as the Sermon on the Mount. Luke often distances Jesus and his disciples from their Jewish identity. Luke lifts up Jesus’ miracles, the gentiles, the outcasts, and the women. Luke emphasizes the parables, with several key parables unique to his Gospel (The Good Shepherd, for example). Luke is the only Gospel to treat the Last Supper the way Paul does, as the model for a ritual to be practiced by the community. Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, a history of the early Christians after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, following particularly the ministry of Peter and Paul. Some of this contradicts the details given by Paul in Paul’s own letters, and Paul is never shown as writing letters; Luke probably did not have had access to copies of any of Paul’s letters. Acts highlights the persecution of the early church, the universality of the Christian message, and the work of the Holy Spirit.
Ca. 90 CE. The Gospel of John is written. It is completely separate from the other three, sharing no text, and organized very differently. (For example, Jesus’ ministry lasts longer than two years, while the other Gospels seem to assume that Jesus’ ministry lasted only one year. John places the Last Supper on the day before Passover, with Jesus crucified on the day of preparation; in the other three Gospels, the Last Supper is a Passover meal, with Jesus crucified the day of Passover.) John is the most thoroughly Greek of the Gospels. The community in which it was written seems to have had little contact with other Christian communities. Their main identity seems to have been as opponents of the Jews; there is little mention of Jesus’ own Jewish heritage, and no distinction between internal groups of Jews. “The Jews” are the main opponents in John, and the Romans are shown relatively positively; this may reflect the community’s own conflicts with Jewish neighbors. Throughout history, John has been used to foment anti-Semitism and justify atrocities against Jews. John contains much material not found in the other Gospels, including the “I am” statements. It also has the most theological discourse, privileging abstract explorations of Jesus and God over narratives of Jesus’ actions. Jesus is more closely identified with God than in the other three Gospels.
Ca. 90-100 CE. The three Epistles of John are written, either by the author of the Gospel of John or by someone else in the same community. They are written to combat the heresy that Jesus did not come “in the flesh,” i.e. that he was not truly Human. They also exhort their readers to love one another, a common theme in the Gospel of John as well.
Ca. 92-91 CE. Clement I, the first bishop of Rome, writes a letter that is widely circulated regarding church structure and the authority of church leaders. It will almost become part of the New Testament.
96 CE. Roman bureaucracy officially recognizes that Judaism and Christianity are separate.
98 CE. Jewish Rabbis at Jamnia establish criteria for Jewish Scripture. Works must be ancient (believed to be written before 400 BCE), written in Hebrew, and have good moral and spiritual content. Seven books in the Septuagint which no longer existed in Hebrew are discarded (Tobit, Judith, 1 &2 Maccabees, etc.) Some books are still disputed, such as Ecclesiastes, Esther, and the Song of Songs. Christians continue to use the Septuagint.
Ca. 100-250 CE. Christians are viewed with suspicion by Romans; some persecution occurs, though most of it is sporadic, local, and unofficial—mob violence rather than formal executions, and coming in waves rather than constant. What official persecution exists mostly targets clergy (priests and deacons).
Ca. 100-500 CE. The codex (modern book) is developed and replaces the scroll.
Ca. 120-650 CE. Some Christians accept Gnostic ideas, incorporating Christian stories into the Gnostic worldview. Gnosticism draws heavily on Greek philosophy and believes in “secret knowledge” (gnosis) shared only with a select few. Gnosticism is a heresy, but it had many adherents among Christians, particularly in Northern Africa.
132-135 CE. Bar Kochba revolt. Jewish revolutionaries, following a “messiah” named bar Kochba (son of the Star), revolt and are reconquered. Emperor Hadrian enslaves many throughout the region, exiles others, imposes harsh punishments, and changes the name of the province from Iudea to Palestina, after the ancient enemy of the Jews, the Philistines. The Jewish community is scattered; those who remain in the Holy Land are not in positions of power. It is end of any Jewish nation until the founding of the modern nation of Israel.
Ca. 140 AD. An influential Christian leader named Marcion circulates a list of “sacred” books that rejects all Jewish scriptures and some of the commonly accepted Christian writings. He is declared a heretic. Other church leaders begin to discuss creating a list of which books are scripture and which are not.
Ca. 150 CE. A longer ending is composed for the Gospel of Mark, including more post-resurrection appearances and the disciples going forth to spread the Good News. Christian communities generally agree that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the only true Gospels, and that the epistles in modern Bibles are the authoritative epistles. Other gospels, epistles, and writings begin to be discarded. The Hebrew Scriptures begin to be called the “Old Testament,” in contrast to the “New Testament.”
Ca. 170-202. Irenaeus is a bishop in Gaul. He was a student of Polycarp who was reputedly a student of John the Evangelist (the person who wrote the Gospel of John). He writes some of the first works of Christian theology, emphasizing tradition, Scripture, and the church structure. His most major work is Contra Haereses, denouncing Gnosticism and promoting the idea that there is one orthodox (“right belief”) Christian system of beliefs.
Ca. 200-220 CE. Tertullian writes the first body of Christian writings in Latin, covering a wide range of subjects. His most common subject is the condemnation of heresy. He denounces the tendency to appropriate pagan Greek philosophy into Christianity, emphasizes reality over spiritualism, and doesn’t like allegorical interpretations of Scripture.
203-254 CE. Origen runs a school for prospective Christians in Alexandria, and his writings become very important. He influences which Christian writings were authoritative, and would later be included in the formal list of the New Testament. He writes commentaries on Scripture, which he interprets allegorically, and writes one of the first summaries of Christian theology. Although he is literate in Hebrew, he was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. Origen believes that only the spirit matters; flesh is largely irrelevant in his view.
250-300 CE. Official persecution of Christians throughout the Roman Empire.
Ca. 250 CE. Paul of Thebes flees into the desert to avoid persecution, becoming a hermit known for his holiness. Others follow his example. When persecution ends and Christianity begins growing rapidly in money, power, and conformity to Roman social norms, some Christians are angered by excesses and become hermits in wilderness areas, following a “Desert spirituality” which drew heavily on the Old Testament imagery of God leading the Israelites in the wilderness for forty years as a form of purification and obedience.
285 CE. Emperor Diocletian splits the Roman Empire into the Western (Latin-speaking, Europe and Northern Africa) and Eastern (Greek-speaking, Byzantine) halves for ease of administration. For the next century, the two halves will be united and broken apart regularly. The Eastern half (where most of the Christians are) has more trade routes, more resources, more cities, and quieter borders. Although Rome is the founder of the empire, the empire’s political and economic power has long been centered in the East.
303-313 CE. The Great Persecution. Official, Empire-wide persecution.
306-324 CE. The Roman Empire has a civil war. Constantine the Great has a vision of the cross of Christ floating over his troops. Believing that a religion featuring one omnipotent God will better cement his moral authority than a religion of many competing gods, Constantine ends the persecution of Christians with the Edict of Milan in 312 CE, and begins favoring Christians. Constantine will not permit himself to be baptized until he is on his deathbed. Theology becomes intensely political; political and social factions begin allying themselves with various religious factions. Beliefs with powerful backers are less likely to be declared heretic; those that are, largely escape persecution.
Ca. 319-700 CE. Arianism develops and is influential despite being declared a heresy early and often. Arianism teaches that the Son did not exist before Jesus was born, and therefore is one of God’s creations (like humans or angels) and not equal to God the Father. Although it is a minority position, many influential secular and religious leaders follow it.
Ca. 319-373 CE. Athanasius of Alexandria defends orthodoxy against Arianism and writes the Athanasian Creed (still in use today, one of the Three Ecumenical Creeds). He also finalizes the official list of what books are in the New Testament.
Ca. 320 CE. Pachomius creates the first organized community of monks, in Egypt.
325 CE. First Council of Nicaea. Christians come together to decide theological issues. Arianism is declared heresy. The Nicene Creed is written, the date of Easter is set, Christ is declared to be “of one being” with God the Father (not merely “similar” to the Father).
Ca. 330-380 CE. Aksum (Ethiopia) becomes Christian.
343-386 CE. Cyril of Jerusalem is a priest and eventually bishop of Jerusalem. He is influential mainly in his emphasis of God’s loving and forgiving nature, as opposed to earlier and contemporary church leaders, who mostly focused on God’s wrath.
Ca.350 CE-present. Christianity becomes a religion with official backing. It is politically and socially expedient or popular, in many places, to be a Christian. Many new converts may not have much commitment to the faith, and requirements for joining become less strict, as do expectations of Christian behavior. Some aspects of society are reformed, but others are not. As Christian leaders gain power, secular leaders convert, and society is increasingly identified as a “Christian society,” the pressure for Christianity to conform to society’s standards rather than vice versa grows. Many church leaders use the Bible to justify society, rather than using the Word of God to guide their lives and their churches.
Ca. 370-390 CE. The Cappadocian Fathers (Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nazianzus) solidify the doctrine of the Trinity, establishing that the Holy Spirit shares the divinity of the Father and the Son. They also maintain that God is infinite and that thus salvation is potentially universal, and that the Bible should be read spiritually and allegorically.
374-397 CE. Ambrose of Milan is an influential bishop both theologically and politically. He is a vehement defender of orthodoxy against pagans and Arians. He believes that liturgy (patterns of worship and piety) should depend on the people, and that there is no “one right way” to do things. His advice on the matter has survived through the centuries as “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Ambrose also increases veneration for Mary, particularly for her virginity.
381 CE. First Council of Constantinople. The Nicene Creed is revised; Christ is declared to have been “born of the Father before all time.” This means that Christ (and hence the Trinity of Father, Son, Holy Spirit) existed before Jesus was born.
381-407 CE. John Chrysostom is a priest in Antioch, later Archbishop of Constantinople. A gifted preacher (Chrysostom means “golden-tongue”), Chrysostom believes that the key to Biblical interpretation is its applicability to everyday life. His sermons explaining the meaning of Bible passages remain influential to this day. He emphasizes the connection between a Christian life and serving the poor and needy.
Ca. 350-1000 CE. Christian missionaries begin to travel outside of the boundaries of the Roman Empire.
378 CE. The Western Roman Empire loses to the Goths, and the decline of Rome begins.
Ca.350-1054 CE. Christianity expands in the Latin-speaking West, particularly Europe. As the Western Roman Empire crumbles, fewer and fewer people speak both Latin and Greek. Latin speakers and Greek speakers begin to diverge on matters of worship practice and theology, although the core beliefs remain the same. The religious leaders of the two capitals Rome and Constantinople (the Pope and the Patriarch, respectively) each believe that they should lead the Christian church, causing much controversy and rivalry.
382-405 CE. Saint Jerome translates both the Old and New Testaments into Latin, using the Hebrew version of the Hebrew Bible instead of the Septuagint. Although Jerome believes that the books of the Septuagint not found in the Hebrew should not be included, Latin translations of them are added. This (known as the Vulgate) becomes the authoritative version of Scripture for the Roman Catholic Church to the present day.
395 CE. The Eastern and Western empires cease to be politically united for the last time.
395-430 CE. Saint Augustine of Hippo (in North Africa) publishes theological works in Latin that will shape Western Christian theology. He creates Just War theology and the idea of Original Sin. In the doctrine of Original Sin, Augustine believed that by eating the apple, Adam and Eve were infected by lust and sin, and that sex was thus the manner in which sinfulness was passed on to each new human. Jesus Christ was the sole exception, as he was born of a Virgin and conceived by the Holy Spirit, not sex. Augustine’s main purpose was to argue that humans are by nature sinful, and that we need God’s grace and forgiveness because we cannot overcome our own sinfulness without it. However, he also believed that lust was one of the gravest sins. His writings intensified misogyny within Christianity, and the belief that all sex was sinful, only allowable if it led to procreation, and also that celibacy was the highest calling of a Christian. Just War theory allowed for Christians to go to war under certain (limited) circumstances. Augustine agreed that all Christians must be pacifists in their personal life, but argued that a Christian country could use military force to preserve or re-establish a just peace.
Augustine also denied the idea that the validity of the sacraments depended on the holiness of the priest performing them, believing that God was the actor in the sacraments, not humans. Augustine believed (along with most theologians of his day) that the Biblical text should not be interpreted literally, particularly where it contradicts our empiric knowledge. Instead, the Bible should be regarded as an extended metaphor or allegory. For example, Augustine believed that the 6 days of the creation story in Genesis was not a factual account but a logical structure for the spiritual meaning of the story. Augustine also proposed the doctrine of amillenialism, in which the “Millenium,” the time of Christ’s reign on Earth as described in Revelation, is not a literal 1,000 years to take place in the future but the era between Christ’s resurrection and his second coming. Since Revelation is a vision, it is interpreted symbolically, with the assumption that the events described are not necessarily in chronological order, the better to match them with such texts as Matthew 24.
Ca. 400 CE. Christianity arrives in Ireland.
410 CE. Rome is sacked for the first time in 800 years.
412-444 CE. Cyril of Alexandria is Patriarch of Alexandria. He believes that the embodiment of God in the person of Jesus Christ spreads out from the body of the Son into the rest of the race, bringing grace and redemption and making believers new people in Christ. He successfully argues this view against those who believed Christ was merely a good moral example, and his interpretation is accepted as orthodox.
431 CE. Council of Ephesus reaffirms the Nicene Creed, and declares the Virgin Mary to be the “God-bearer,” the “Mother of God.” It also condemns Premillennialism as heresy. Premillennialism is the belief that God’s kingdom won’t come until after Jesus returns to destroy evil in a seven-year period of tribulation.
451 CE. The Council of Chalcedon settles some issues about the nature of Christ (both fully human and fully divine) and defines the concept of the Trinity (one God in three Persons).
476 CE. The Western Roman Empire falls to German barbarians. They consider themselves the heirs of the Empire, and embrace some of its culture, including its religion.
Ca. 480-530 CE. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite develops the idea of guardian angels.
595-604 CE. Augustine of Canterbury leads the first mission to England (at that time inhabited by Celtic tribes, and Germanic tribes such as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes).
Ca. 600-1200 CE. Parts of the Bible (Psalms, Gospels) are translated into Old English (the mostly Germanic language used in England before the arrival of the Normans).
Ca. 600-900 CE. Jewish scribes in Palestine and Babylon, the Masoretes (“traditionalists”), establish the standard Hebrew text of the Hebrew Bible, called the “Masoretic Text.” They choose from among the existing manuscripts for the readings they believe are the truest and most original reading, combining them into one version. Hebrew is no longer a “living” language, spoken by people at home and in their daily lives; only rabbis speak it. As the Bible must still be read aloud in Hebrew during Jewish worship, the Masoretes make it easier for people to sound it out by adding vowels (until then, the Hebrew alphabet only had consonants). Since they do not wish to alter the text itself, the vowels take the form of dots and lines above and below the consonants. In places where the text is ambiguous (where different vowels could be chosen, resulting in different words and thus different readings of the text), the Masoretes chose only one possible version, thus determining which reading is possible and eliminating the others. They also make divisions in the text which will later become chapters and verses.
610-632 CE. Mohammed founds Islam.
632-750 CE. Muslim rulers spread the faith through missionaries and conquest. The Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire is loses much of its territory. Muslims rule Spain, North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, parts of Turkey, and on into what is now Afghanistan.
Ca. 650-1000 CE. Irish monasteries preserve and copy old manuscripts, saving much that would otherwise have been lost. They send missionaries back to mainland Europe to create daughter monasteries there, bringing with them the emphasis on preserving the written word.
716-754 CE. Saint Boniface is a missionary in Northern France and Germany.
742-1249 CE. Christians reconquer most of Spain.
787 CE. Second Council of Nicaea. This is the last time all the major Christian groups and factions come together in a council and decide a theological issue together, partly due to the spread of Christianity and the difficulty of travel, and partly due to differences of language and opinion.
800-814 CE. Charlemagne (Charles the Great), King of the Franks, conquers most of Europe and is crowned Holy Roman Emperor. He promotes Christian study, art, literature, and music.
Ca. 1000 CE. Latin is still the language of educated/rich/powerful people in Europe, and the language of education and international relations. However, Latin was never common in some places (such as Germany and England), and has evolved into other languages (French, Spanish, Italian). The Bible is still only available in Latin or Greek.
1008 CE. The Leningrad Codex, oldest complete Hebrew Bible still in existence, is made.
1066 CE. William the Conqueror conquers England. French is the language of the Norman conquerors; the Anglo-Saxons they rule speak a Germanic language. Over time, the two languages merge together in both vocabulary and grammar to form English.
1095-1291 CE. Christian European rulers send crusades (mostly led by younger sons of knights and nobles who needed to win their fortune in battle) to reconquer the Holy Land from the Muslims and liberate the Byzantine Empire. While some genuinely want to free the Holy Land, many simply want to get rich, and attack the Byzantines as much as the Muslims, doing more long-lasting damage to Christian communities than Muslim ones.
Ca. 1170-1204 CE. Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides), a Jewish rabbi, physician, and Torah scholar from Spain, is extremely influential. His works will form a cornerstone of Jewish scholarship. Maimonides incorporates Islamic thought and Greek philosophy, and is the only Jewish scholar whose work is studied by Christians during the Middle Ages.
Ca. 1200-1228 CE. Archbishop Stephen Langton of Canterbury divides the Vulgate into the sections we now call chapters.
1240-1274 CE. Thomas Aquinas becomes one of the most influential scholars in the world. His writings are still influential today (particularly in the Roman Catholic Church). He studied theology, philosophy, and the natural sciences, and largely reintroduced the works of Aristotle to Europe; he learned of them through Maimonides. Aquinas believed that truth could be revealed in two ways, through reason and through faith. He believed God to be simple, perfect, infinite, unchangeable, and unified. He believed that the natural order as understood through reason was divinely instituted by God and to disobey it was sin.
Ca. 1300-1600 CE. The Renaissance. Growing prosperity in Europe allows more emphasis on culture and the arts. Literary works of antiquity are rediscovered, having been preserved either in monasteries, by Muslim scholars (at this time, the Muslim empires were highly cultured leaders in the arts and sciences, particularly medicine), or by the Byzantine Empire (brought to Europe after its fall). Art becomes more detailed and realistic. The Romans and Greeks are thought to be the highest model of civilization and culture. Renaissance scholars attempt to improve the world using both ancient and new techniques and ideas. Humanists study poetry, grammar, history, moral philosophy, and rhetoric, and emphasized the unique and extraordinary abilities of the human mind. A division between secular and religious scholarship begins.
Ca. 1380-1400 CE. Geoffrey Chaucer writes the Canterbury Tales, the first literary work in English (Middle English).
1380-1397 CE. John Wycliffe makes the first complete English translation of the Bible (based on the Latin Vulgate).
1440 CE. Johannes Gutenberg invents the printing press. Books can now be copied identically, and with much less time and effort, leading to greater standardization and lower costs. As the price of books goes down, the literacy rate soars. Cheap pamphlets become common ways of spreading ideas.
1453 CE. The Eastern Roman Empire (aka the Byzantine Empire) falls.
1492 CE. The last Muslims in Spain are defeated; the Christians create the Spanish Inquisition, designed to persecute, kill, and drive out any remaining Muslims and Jews.
1516 CE. Erasmus, a Catholic priest, Renaissance humanist and classical scholar, publishes the Greek New Testament. By promoting knowledge of the original text of the Bible, he raises questions that become pivotal during the Reformation. He uses the only Greek texts available to him, mostly late copies of the Byzantine tradition, which are full of errors and changes; Erasmus also made minor changes where he saw fit. Since none of his copies were complete, he filled in with pieces from the Vulgate translation translated back into Greek. His version (the “textus receptus”), becomes the standard for all New Testament translations until the Nestle-Aland version is made.
1521 CE. Diet of Worms. Martin Luther refuses to recant; the Protestant Reformation begins. As the Renaissance humanists have done with education and literature, the Reformers go back to the original sources, believing them to be more accurate. The Reformers believe that Scripture (not tradition) is the most important arbiter of theology and church practice. Biblical interpretation becomes the center of all religious debate.
1521-1534 CE. Martin Luther translates the Bible into German. Believing that the Hebrew version of the Old Testament to be more accurate than the Septuagint (the Greek version), Luther is the first Western scholar since St. Jerome to use the Hebrew. Luther discards those books and parts of books which are found only in the Septuagint and not in the Hebrew. After this, Luther continues to write a wide variety of theological works and Biblical commentaries, while teaching the Bible at Wittenberg University. His writings are widely circulated, and will remain influential for centuries, just as the translation itself will be. Luther famously insisted that the simplest and most logical interpretation (the “plain meaning of the text”) should be the first choice for interpretation, although he also used allegorical explanations in addition or in cases where he is unsure of the plain meaning.
1526 CE. William Tyndale publishes an English Bible translated from Hebrew and Greek. He is burned at the stake in 1536.
1529 CE. First attempt by the Ottoman Empire (Muslims from Turkey) to conquer Austria.
1534 CE. Henry VIII of England, annoyed that the Pope will not grant him a divorce, separates the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church.
1539 CE. The first AUTHORIZED (approved by the King and Anglican Church) English Bible.
1551 CE. Robert Estienne publishes a Greek New Testament divided into verses.
1553-1558 CE. Queen Mary tries to make England Roman Catholic again. English Bibles are forbidden; many Protestants flee to Geneva. They publish the Geneva Bible, which becomes the most popular English Bible. It is used by Shakespeare, John Bunyan, and the Puritans. It is the first English Bible with chapters and verses.
1582-1609 CE. An English translation of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate called the Douay–Rheims Bible is published.
1604-1611 CE. King James of England and Scotland commissions translators to create a new English Bible to replace the many earlier translations (the “King James Version” or KJV). It is based on earlier translations such as Tyndale’s and will become the standard of the Anglican Church. Where there is ambiguity, it reflects James I’s political and religious ideology, and it is designed for liturgical use—words and phrases are chosen for beauty and poetry over accuracy. It becomes the standard because it is the official version, and because it is cheap and easy to get.
1683 CE. The Ottoman Empire is no longer a threat to Europe.
Ca. 1680-1850 CE. Age of Enlightenment. Capitalism replaces feudalism as the primary form of economic organization in Western Europe. Industrialism and colonialism take root and grow. Reason becomes the primary source of legitimacy and authority; science and logic become the most important methods of understanding the universe. The split between secular and religious life widens as many Enlightenment thinkers dismiss mysticism and spiritual experiences as superstition. The goal was to “enlighten” the minds of Europe and free them from ignorance. The book industry expanded, as did educational institutions.
Ca. 1750-1920 CE. Historical criticism (“higher criticism”) becomes one of the most important methods of Biblical scholarship. This method starts with German Lutheran scholars as an attempt to match archaeological evidence from the Ancient Near East with events chronicled in the Bible. Historical criticism is an attempt to mesh Enlightenment ideology and literary criticism with Biblical scholarship; at times it challenges traditional understanding, and other times reinforces it. Source criticism looks for the original sources which were behind a given text. Redaction criticism examines the ways texts were edited over time. Form criticism studies different parts of the Bible separately (laws, poetry, stories, prophecy, letters, etc.) and tries to determine how those texts were originally used and how their original audience understood them. All are attempts to get as close to the original text as possible, both in form and interpretation. Most scholars are devout Christians who believe that understanding the texts in their original form will contribute to their understanding of the ways God has worked through God’s people throughout history.
Although historical criticism becomes the dominant lens for studying the Bible in all European and most American universities and seminaries (except conservative or fundamentalist schools), it is largely absent at the parish or congregational level. Some pastors believe it may shake the faith of their congregation, or cause a backlash.
Ca. 1850-1950 CE. Modern age. There is a widespread belief in Progress—the idea that as human society becomes more knowledgeable and more powerful, society will automatically get better. Mechanization, automation, standardization, and rationalization are the great goals. Both law and the sciences develop and grow in prestige. Facts (things which can be proved) are privileged over deeper philosophical and theological truths.
Ca. 1870-1915 CE. Postmillenialism reaches its height. It teaches that the thousand years of peace and righteousness will happen before Christ’s second coming, brought on by human progress and Christian social action such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army.
1878-1897 CE. Fundamentalism develops at Princeton Seminary as a reaction against historical criticism. It insists all of the Bible should be interpreted strictly literally, thus combining modern emphasis on facts/literalism with a rejection of modern methods of study such as historical criticism. “Fundamentalism” comes to refer to a wide range of conservative religious groups. It often results in a suspicion of higher education, as it may expose students and scholars to facts which contradict a literal interpretation of the Bible or other fundamentalist beliefs. Conservative and fundamentalist Christians who study elements of higher criticism sometimes have a crisis of faith or even lose their faith, as they have problems reconciling a literalist reading of the Bible with our knowledge of the history of the Ancient Near East and the ways in which the Bible came to be.
1898 CE-present. Eberhard Nestle publishes a version of the Greek New Testament drawn from many ancient manuscripts by comparing each one verse by verse and word by word, combining the most accurate readings into a single copy called a “critical edition.” Groups of scholars work to keep the edition as accurate as it can be given the manuscripts still in existence. Today, the Nestle-Aland Edition of the Greek New Testament is in its 27th edition and is the basis of all modern Protestant (and some Catholic) translations of the New Testament. (Of the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament we possess, 62.9% of the verses vary from manuscript to manuscript.)
1901 CE. The American Standard Version is published, translated by a group of English and American scholars. As new discoveries about the language and culture of Biblical times are made, new versions are made, the Revised Standard Version in 1957 and the New Revised Standard Version in 1989. The NRSV eliminates the masculine pronoun where no gender exists in the original language or where the masculine term is used but the author means the whole community. For example, St. Paul often called his audience “siblings.” Earlier versions translated this “brothers;” in the NRSV it is “brothers and sisters.”
1909 CE. C. I. Scofield publishes the Scofield Reference Bible, King James Version with theological commentary included. It becomes extremely influential among conservatives and fundamentalists, bringing Archbishop James Ussher’s calculation of the date of Creation as 4004 BC, Premillenialism, and Dispensationalism to a wider audience. Dispensationalism divides history into “epochs,” each with a different avenue towards salvation. By the 1950’s, Scofield’s Bible was used by half of all conservative Evangelicals in North America; some were unaware of any difference or distinction between the Biblical text itself and Scofield’s interpretation of it.
1946-1956 CE. A large collection of Jewish religious literature (including many copies of Biblical texts) is found in caves about a kilometer from a ruin known as Qumran. Due to the fragility of the scrolls, politics, academic infighting, and anti-Semitism, access to the scrolls and scroll fragments is limited to a very small group of Christian scholars. The examination of the scrolls and preparations to reveal transcriptions and photographs to other scholars drags out over the next fifty years. The texts fall into three categories: books and fragments of the Hebrew Bible, other general Jewish religious texts, and texts belonging to a specific Jewish sect unknown before the discovery of the scrolls. There are many places where Christian beliefs are imposed on Jewish texts.
Some of the Biblical scrolls are much closer to the Septuagint version of the text than the Masoretic version, thus proving that the differences between the two textual traditions are due to different versions of the Hebrew text itself, and not mistranslations/alterations on the part of the translators. By the 1970s, enough of the Biblical texts had been released that translators of the Bible could draw upon them, particularly the translators of the NIV and NRSV. The NRSV contains 20 places in Isaiah and 39 in 1 and 2 Samuel based on the Dead Sea Scrolls text rather than on the Masoretic text, plus the restoration of a missing line in Psalm 145:13 and a missing paragraph in 1 Samuel 10:27.
Ca. 1960 CE-present. Post-Modernism begins. Post-modernism questions the very idea of progress (that things will inevitably get better over time, and that scientific and material developments are the measure of a society’s worth). Post-modernism also allows for spirituality and mysticism and tends to favor more holistic attitudes.
1966 CE. The Roman Catholic Church makes the RSV the first approved English Bible. Catholic scholars also make a new translation, the Jerusalem Bible.
1978 CE. The New International Version (NIV) is published, designed to sound “modern.”
1985 CE. The Jewish Publication Society creates an English translation of the Hebrew (Jewish) Bible, called the Tanakh. It is the best Hebrew to English translation, preserving the word plays and poetry of the original while being readable English.
2005 CE. The New English Translation (NET) is published. It takes a more conservative slant (e.g. no gender-neutral language). It is available online at net.bible.org with 60,932 translators’ notes so that people who don’t know Greek or Hebrew can see the nuances.
2011 CE. The Common English Bible (CEB) is published by an alliance of scholars from a wide variety of denominations. Each passage was tested by ordinary Christians for readability before publication, making it both highly accurate and easily understandable.
Timeline of the Bible by Anna C. Haugen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.