What is the origin of the word 'Bible'?

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How we get the word 'Bible' is tied to the history of the Bible itself. This is the story...

History of the word Bible

The word Bible is indirectly derived from the Greek word for papyrus. Papyrus was used to make a parchment for writing which was rolled into scrolls. The Ancient Egyptians had used papyrus for writing on for thousands of years. In fact the English word 'paper' comes from the word 'papyrus', but in Greek it was called βύβλος (byblos).

By the twelfth century BC, Phoenician traders were importing these papyrus reeds from Egypt, and then traded in paper and scrolls. The main Mediterranean port which they used was Gebal in Lebanon. It is mentioned in the Bible in 1 Kings 5:18, Psalm 83:7 and in Ezekiel 27:9.

Today the port is called Jubayl (جُبَيْل) in Arabic. However, the Greeks came to call the port Βύβλος because of its trade in papyrus. Or some people think it was the other way round, and the word for paper came from the name of the port. Either way Byblos gave its name to the scrolls, and later books, made from the papyrus. The name for the item as linked to the place stuck, in a similar way that today we say champagne which was originally a region of France, or cologne which is named after a city in Germany.

How the word evolved in Greek

The word βίβλος (from the port of Byblos) came to mean a scroll, and its diminutive form βιβλίον (biblion) was used to mean a small bound book or booklet. In plural these became βιβλία (biblia), meaning books.

These words were used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, called the Septuagint. In Daniel 9:2 we have Daniel 'meditating on the books' (ἐν ταῖς βίβλοις).
In the Bible Daniel refers to the prophetic writings as 'the books' (Daniel 9:2). In the early Jewish historical writing of 1 Maccabees, the author refers to the Hebrew Scriptures as 'the holy books' (1 Maccabees 12:9). In the New Testament Jesus refers to 'the Scriptures' in Matthew 21:42, and 22:29 and in Mark 14:49. St Paul also refers to 'the Holy Scriptures' in Romans 1:2. St Paul wrote to Timothy asking him to bring 'books, especially parchments' (2 Timothy 4:13) where books translates τὰ βιβλία (ta biblia).

Holy Books

Then in the Jewish and Christian context τὰ βιβλία τὰ ἅγια (ta biblia ta hagia) was used to mean the holy books, i.e. the Scriptures. Christian use of the term can be traced to the early centuries with the terms used by St Clement and Chrysostom. In the Bible itself we find books of the Old Testament referred to as the Scriptures, or the holy books in 1 Maccabees 12:9.


The Greek Empire was conquered by the Roman Empire, which adopted many of the ideas, and adapted some of the words. The Greek phrase τὰ βιβλία τὰ ἅγια (ta biblia ta hagia) came into ancient Latin as 'biblia sacra' meaning sacred books. In ancient Latin 'biblia' was a plural neuter noun, but by mediaeval times the sense of 'biblia' in Latin changed to be used as a singular feminine noun. Biblia then entered English via Norman French, which had adopted it from Latin, as the word for the Bible. The word 'Bible' usually only appears on the cover and not in the text itself, but the American Lutheran scholar William F Beck (1904-66) in his 'The New Testament in the Language of Today' published in 1963, used the word 'Bible' in the Gospels rather than the term Scriptures.

Singular or plural?

So according to the development of the word 'Bible', it has the sense of a plural word which came to be used as a singular word. In fact this is quite fitting since the Bible is printed as a single book, but it is an anthology or set of long books and small books or booklets.

Bible as a prefix

The word 'Bible' to mean book can be seen in the 'biblio-' prefix, derived from Greek βιβλίον (biblíon) in different words. The prefix can been seen in many European languages in the local word for library, such as bibliothèque in French, biblioteca in Portuguese and Spanish, and Bibliothek in German. In English a bibliophile is someone who loves books, and a bibliography is a list of books used as a source in an essay. There is even the word bibliomancy to describe the superstitious practice of picking a random book, opening it at random, to seek an answer to a question. A biblioclast is someone who destroys books, and a biblioklept is someone who steals books. Bibliolatry is the worship of books, used metaphorically to mean dependence upon books, or the excessive reverence for the Bible as literally interpreted, to the point of idolatry.

Alternatives to the word 'Bible'

The word 'Bible' or a form of it has been adopted into many languages, especially in countries where Western missionaries have introduced the Bible. However in many languages, especially those not from Western Europe, a word like 'Bible' is not used. In many languages the local equivalent of 'Bible' is a phrase which translates into English as the Holy Book. Many Jews also use the term Tanakh for the Scriptures, and Christians in Israel who speak modern Hebrew often use a phrase which translates into English as the Book of the Covenants.

One word, different contents

Today the word 'Bible' is used by Christians and many Jews, in the English language. The word is quite flexible and it may not be exactly the same set of books. The Bible for Orthodox Christians has more books in the Old Testament than the Bible for Catholic Christians, which in turn also has more books in the Old Testament than the Bible for Protestant Christians. When Jews talk about the Bible in their context, it does not include the New Testament at all.

Even within these traditions the books may be ordered differently. In Orthodox Bibles the General epistles come before the Pauline epistles, but in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles Paul's epistles come before the epistles by the other apostles. The books of the Jewish Bible have the same set of books as found in the Old Testament of Protestant Bibles, but ordered differently.

Bible as an authoritative book

Whatever people may think about the Bible, in our society the word Bible itself has taken on the positive meaning as an authoritative or reliable book. If you go into a bookstore you can find a "Cookery Bible" or a "Baking Bible"; you can find the "Cycling Bible", "Motorcycle Bible", "Biker's Bible", or a "Plumber's Bible" etc. These are not religious books, but in many subjects you can find books which use the word Bible in their title to add the claim to be the authoritative last word on a subject.

Today the Bible is the most translated, most printed, most studied, and most distributed and most influential book in the world, in print and online.