bible

I was rather surprised to discover that the word bible is a much later coinage than I had thought. It doesn’t appear until the Middle English period and Chaucer is one of the earliest known writers to use the word.

Bible ultimately comes from the Greek βιβλία (biblia), which originally meant “little books.” Over time the Greek word lost its diminutive sense and biblia came to mean simply “books.” Latin borrowed the Greek word, but quite late; it appears in Latin texts from Britain by the seventh century C.E. The more common word in Latin to refer to the Christian scriptures was bibliotheca, another originally Greek word and which literally means “library,” showing that the Bible was viewed as a collection of books, and not as a single text.

Old English borrowed this Latin word, and biblioþece and bibliþeca were used by the Anglo-Saxons to refer to libraries, the Christian scriptures, and, in at least one case, a single volume that contained the scriptures.

The earliest known use of bible in English is in the Wycilffite Bible that appears in the manuscript Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce 369 from c. 1384. It is used in the sense of a “library,” and the word is used to translate the Latin bibliothecam. From 2 Maccabees 2:13:

He makynge a litil bible, gadride of cuntrees bokis.
(He is making a little bible, gathered of countless books.)

The Northumbrian poem Cursor Mundi uses bible in the sense of the Christian scriptures. The earliest manuscript version is London, British Library, Cotton Vespasian A.3 and dates to sometime before 1400. But the poem may have been written before 1325. It also appears in Robert Mannyng’s Chronicle of England. Mannyng died in 1338, but the earliest extant manuscripts date to around 1400. (Because scribes frequently make changes to the works they are copying, both deliberately and in error, even if one knows the date of primary composition of a work, it is problematic to date a particular usage earlier than the manuscript in which it appears.)

The first use of the word to refer to the Christian scriptures that we can be sure of is in the General Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, line 438 describing the Doctor of Physik, which dates to c. 1385–97:

His studie was but litel on the Bible.


“biblioþece,” “bibliþeca.” Dictionary of Old English: A to G Ed. Angus Cameron, Ashley Crandell Amos, Antonette diPaolo Healey et al. Toronto: Dictionary of Old English Project, 2007. Web. 16 March 2011.

“Bible, n.” “bibliotheca, n.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Second edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. Web. 16 March 2011.

“bible, n.” Middle English Dictionary. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2001. Web. 16 March 2011.

Latham, R. E. Revised Medieval Latin Word-List From British and Irish Sources, With Supplement. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980. Print.

Lewis, Charlton T. and Charles Short. A Latin Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1879. Print.

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