The Scripture in the Early Church
Keith Bintley, Bishops Stortford, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
On 22nd September 1827 Joseph Smith claimed to have been guided to a deposit of sacred golden tablets concealed in a hillside from which he transcribed the first Mormon book, the Book of Commandments. Although this may strike us as a little odd, would we be any better at explaining the origins of the Bible we value so highly? Of course handsome leather bound Bibles were not ‘discovered’ similarly tucked under a rock – but how was the Bible composed? Who decided what was scripture? If 'the Church' decided what was scripture should it have more authority than scripture, as some claim? And how can we be sure the word of God is complete today? These are not simply hypothetical questions. Since at least the 1960s Christians have been living in an increasingly individualistic and pluralistic society where all authority is frequently challenged and where there are many ‘holy books’. It is therefore vital that as Bible-believing Christians, whose sole authority is the Holy Scriptures, we are able to answer these questions.
First, some definitions. The term ‘scripture’ was the word used to represent the Greek word graphai meaning ‘writing’. The word Bible is derived from the Greek biblion, the bark of the papyrus plant which was widely used for writing material. The early church compiled a collection of books known as the Canon of Scripture. ‘Canon’ is derived from the Greek word meaning measuring rod. The apostle Paul uses the word in Galatians chapter 6. 16 to denote an authoritative standard to live by. Most importantly, writings which are ‘canonical’ carry all the authority of the divine Being as they were ‘breathed out’ by Him, 2 Tim. 3. 16.
THE OLD TESTAMENT
Scripture notes carefully how men like Moses, Joshua and Jeremiah recorded the revelation of God to them, Exod. 24. 4, 7; Josh. 24. 26; Jer. 30. 2. Other important books were written by leading Jews during this time such as the Books of the Wars of the Lord, Num. 21. 14, the Acts of Solomon, 1 Kgs. 11. 41, and the Chronicles of Nathan, 1 Chr. 29. 29, but these did not carry the same authority. The authoritative list of books known as the Old Testament was most likely settled centuries before the birth of Christ. According to Jewish tradition this occurred at the ‘Great Synagogue’ in the fifth century BC. The certainty of the Old Testament Canon is seen in the citation by the Lord and the apostles of virtually all its books. The prolific second century Christian writer Melito of Sardis, made a trip especially to Palestine to investigate the matter for himself, and was the first Christian who listed the Old Testament books. This list corresponds to the Old Testament we have today. The major difference with the Jewish scriptures today is in the threefold division of the Old Testament into the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. The former two contained much of the moral and ethical teaching hence the Lord’s reference to them, Matt. 7. 12. The Jews’ approach to their holy writings was one readily adopted by the emerging church as Peter makes clear, 2 Pet. 1. 21, ‘For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit’ ESV.
As a result of their belief in the inspiration of scripture, the Lord and the disciples quoted the Old Testament canon extensively to argue a point and believed its words even to the tiniest detail, Matt. 5. 17-18.
The selection of books was by no means arbitrary, and as we have seen above, only those books firmly established as authoritative were ‘canonical’. The care taken is illustrated in the treatment of fourteen books written in the four centuries between the Old and New Testaments. These books include such works as Tobit, Judith and Baruch and record the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the exile; stories of Daniel; and the Maccabean wars in the period before Christ. These works were included within the Septuagint, the Greek version of scripture universally adopted by the church. However, the brilliant Christian scholar, Jerome (AD 347-420), noticed a remarkable difference. As one of the few Christian scholars who could handle Hebrew he realized that these fourteen books were not included in the Hebrew Old Testament. These additional works he christened ‘Apocrypha’ meaning ‘hidden things’ and these works were not read out at public worship. Though these apocryphal books are, in some cases, a helpful historical record, there were and are sound reasons for their rejection. These books:
- were not quoted by the Lord and the apostles;
- did not claim divine origin;
- were not treated as scripture by the Jewish communities;
- contained historical errors; conflicted with Old Testament teaching.
It was not until the 1546 Council of Trent that the Roman Catholic Church declared the Apocrypha to be divinely inspired, a position consistently rejected by the Protestant church.
THE NEW TESTAMENT
We would do well to pause for a moment and put ourselves in the shoes of the early church fathers. They faced the seemingly impossible task of wading through a mountain of manuscripts from false apostles; letters written in the name of the true apostles; and the work of revered church fathers who knew the apostles first hand. There were around forty gospels alone and all of these documents had been written relatively recently.
The starting point was to give greatest recognition to those books written by the apostles themselves - which is most of the New Testament. This sound approach is endorsed by no less than Peter who clearly regarded the apostle Paul’s writings as scripture.
‘Our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you . . . in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures’, 2 Pet. 3. 16 ESV.
Other books such as Mark, Luke and Acts were regarded as having been written under the direction of apostles. Hebrews was uncharacteristically anonymous which sparked a long debate about the book’s authorship, but not authenticity. Origin, writing in AD 230 had little doubt about Pauline authorship and said of churches which shared his view ‘let it be commended’. Indeed, it was because the early church leaders had little doubt that Paul was the author of Hebrews that the book was so easily accepted as part of the New Testament canon.
Even though a vast amount of material was rejected, we need to bear in mind:
i) Some of the earliest church fathers actually knew the apostles. For example Polycarp, (AD 65? – 156) sat at the feet of the apostle John.
ii) The false gospels generally contained factual errors and fanciful stories such as the boy Jesus making clay birds which then flew away.
iii) From the outset influential church leaders such as Irenaeus, Justin Martyr and Tertullian began to draw up lists of these authentic and authoritative books. Defining what were the authentic writings has always been vital. As we have seen in earlier articles, from the outset the church was assailed with heresies that removed or added to scripture to support its theology.
iv) Scripture (or the apostolic writings) was given a high place in the church services. Even personal letters were read out to the whole Christian assembly. As a result the apostolic writings were constantly cited in the writings of the early church fathers. It has been claimed that the whole New Testament canon could have been reproduced from these quotations alone, and although this statement might be exaggerated, it makes the point.
By AD 313 the present day New Testament canon was essentially complete. In AD 397 the Council of Carthage formally acknowledged what the church had recognised for many years. The twenty-seven books we call the New Testament, were the authoritative and Spirit inspired writings of the apostles and approved disciples.
Scripture is therefore not the product of fantasy, heresy, or the church. It is the recognised work of the Spirit of God that has been attested to over millennia. With this in mind, we can easily agree with the sentiments of Augustine of Hippo, who wrote:
‘There is such depth in the Christian scriptures that, even if I studied them, and nothing else, from early childhood to worn-out old age, with ample time and unflagging zeal, and with greater intellectual ability than I possess, I would still each day find new treasures within them’.
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by Harper-Collins Publishers © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Brian Edwards, Nothing but the Truth, Evangelical Press, Darlington, 1993.
Josh McDowell and Don Stewart, Concise Guide to Today’s Religions, 1983, Campus Crusade for Christ.
J. McRay, see under Bible, Canon of Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Michigan, Baker, 1996).
N. R. Needham, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Part One. The Age of the Early Church Fathers, London, Grace Publications, 1997.