Archive for March, 2016

19th March
written by Jeffrey Long

The Christian Bible is made up of two volumes, The New Testament and Old Testament.

The New Testament, considered the first volume of the Christian Bible, though it follows chronologically the Old Testament, is the collection of 1st century books and letters collected about Jesus and the early church.

It is made up of:

  • Four gospels which outline the life, and teachings of Jesus the Messiah,
  • The Acts of the Apostles, a history of the 1st century church,
  • Twenty-one letters, known as epistles, of the 1st century leaders,
  • Revelation, a 1st century Apocalypse.

The New Testament was not written by a single author at a specific time. Consequently, it is a tapestry of leaders, writers and editors spanning the millenia.

Christianity before the Bible

These books are believed to have been written in the 1st century, no later than 150AD. In its infancy, Christianity existed without authoritative texts. The books that arose from that movement and eventually came to be our Bible did not themselves claim to be revelation. Jesus didn’t write anything down. He didn’t dictate his sayings to an author. Following his death and resurrection, sayings of Jesus were passed around. These included sayings, sermons, and stories about his life, death and resurrection. Spirit-filled believers and teachers traveled from place to place sharing the gospel.

Writing of gospels and letters

Eventually, authors collected these traditions into the four books we know today as gospels. These gospels contain a tapestry of sayings, parables, and narrative from a variety of sources.
Each author seems to have had a variety of sources at their disposal. Some of these sources overlapped with the other authors, while others were unique. This made each gospel unique in ways that emphasized and de-emphasized aspects of Jesus teaching and tailored the messages to the specific needs of their audience.

Christianity also spread through the exchange of letters attributed to Jesus’ apostles, most notably Paul. These letters were addressed to specific city churches throughout the Roman empire. But they were also circulated amongst other churches.

Other books written at the time of the early church

In the 20th century, we became aware of many other gospels and letters circulating at the time that didn’t make the final cut of our Bible. We have found books attributed to the apostles Thomas, Judas, and Peter, as well as Jesus’ mother Mary. For a variety reasons, these documents are not considered authentic. But they give us a window into the diversity of the early church.

Diversity of first century Christianity

This variety of letters and gospels helps us to see that first century Christianity was a very diverse movement. The books of our Bible are representative of a movement that was being shaped and formed over time, from a variety of influences. Scholars call this time “proto-orthodox” because it is a time when orthodoxy was being worked out. This is a different perspective on early christianity that contradicts the common view that the bible represents a unified message originating from the apostles.

Collecting the gospels and letters into the canon

In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, different Christian groups began to identify specific gospels and letters as legitimate and held them as collections. The process of collecting these books was motivated by the necessity to nail down the authoritative voice of Christianity. Some groups told fanciful tales about Jesus to lend credence to their philosophy. The early church fathers identified these groups “gnostics,” but we now know that gnosticism, like early Christianity, was not a unified movement either. There were many different groups with different beliefs and ideas.

As the church developed towards orthodoxy, her leaders tried to determine which of these writings to include in the canon, by ascertaining which they believed came from the authentic oral tradition of Jesus’ sayings, and which were legitimate letters of the apostles.

Their criteria: (From Steve)

1. Authorship – [A legitimate claim needed to be made that a book had been] written by an apostle or a close associate of an apostle. For example, [though] Mark was not an apostle, [he was believed to have been] a close associate of the Apostle Peter. The Apostle Paul fit this criteria even though he was not one of the original 12 disciples, because he saw Jesus in a vision.

2. Nature of the Book – Did the message of the book agree with the content of divine revelation in the Old Testament? Did the book reflect the character of the person and work of Jesus Christ and agree with the existing apostolic writing?

3. Universality – Was the book being read and practiced in the churches throughout the Body of Christ? This criterion addresses the degree to which the people of God recognize and accept the authority of the book under consideration.

The writings of the early church fathers and historians identified many different lists of what different Christians believed should be included in the Christian Bible. But by the 4th century, there was near unanimous agreement about which gospels and letters should be included in the Bible we have today. In a letter from 367 AD Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria listed the 27 books that we now consider the New Testament canon, using the word “canonized.”

Identifying the books of the Bible as holy scripture

As these books made their journey from their original author to their inclusion in the canon, a change occurred in how to understand them. These books became more than mere books. Leaders claimed these authors were inspired by God and that their words were His revelations. The label of divine scripture was assigned to them in an effort to discriminate orthodoxy from heresy, though none of the texts themselves claimed to be oracles. The church adopted the word “scripture” to describe them, and elevated these books to the same level the Jews held the Old Testament.

Acknowledging Christianity’s Jewish origins, the early church also adopted the Septuagint, the latin translation of the Hebrew Bible. The early church believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Hebrew Bible’s prophecies of a Messiah. The Hebrew Bible eventually came to be known to Christians as the Old Testament in contrast to the Christian Bible’s New Testament.

This canon of books, and ideas about its authority carried the church through the medieval/ middle ages/ dark ages, from the 4th through the 16th centuries. The authority of Popes, and bishops was established on the nature of these books as divine revelation. This also granted them divine authority as the Bible’s sole interpreters. And to question their opinions, was to question God.

A strong case can be made that these beliefs about the canon held Christianity together for 1500 years. But it also paved the way for problems that occurred… and whose ramifications are still being felt today.

To learn more:

The Formation of the Proto-Orthodox New Testament


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