The Origin of the Bible

800px-Gutenberg_Bible,_Lenox_Copy,_New_York_Public_Library,_2009._Pic_01
The Gutenberg Bible
Photo by NYC Wanderer (Kevin Eng), Wikipedia

All Christians revere the Bible as the written word of God. Few, however, know why that is. In fact, most Christians just assume that to be the case without ever questioning it. They hear it from their pastors and their churches. Everybody says it. But how do we know the Bible really is the authentic Scriptures for all Christians? There is really only one way. We need to know where the Bible came from.

So, where did the Bible Come from?

That’s a very good question, and to understand where the Bible came from, we have to know a little history. Let’s go back, way back, to the 1st century AD. Jesus and his apostles were travelling the countryside in Galilee and Judea. They were Jews, and because they were Jews, they were using the Jewish Bible. Today we call that Jewish Bible the “Old Testament.” This was all they had at the time.

Now they didn’t carry one around with them. No. Back then, Jewish Bibles were written on parchment scrolls and were very large. They were also extremely expensive, as they had to be hand-copied by Jewish scribes. So they were kept locked up in a circular box, called a “tabernacle,” most of the time. This was kept in the local synagogue. They were taken out, and unrolled to a particular place for reading and study. Jewish rabbis were men who were able to commit these Scripture passages to memory, and demonstrated some mastery of the what the text said and what it meant.

However, there wasn’t just one Jewish Bible. In fact, there were THREE! You see, each mainline Jewish sect had its own canon it considered authoritative. (A canon is a list of books that make up a Bible.) In first-century Palestine, this is what existed…

  1. The Torah – These were the first five books of Moses, originally written in Hebrew. All Jews considered these books authoritative. However, the Sadducees limited their canon to just those five books and excluded everything else, such as the psalms, prophets, history, etc. Jesus and his apostles clearly disagreed with this approach.
  2. The Tanakh – These were the first five books of Moses, plus the writings of history, psalms, poetry, and the prophets. Some were written in Hebrew, others in Aramaic. In total, there were about 39 books. This was the canon of the Pharisees. From the writings of the apostles we learn that Jesus and his followers agreed more with the Pharisees than they did with the Sadducees, and accepted the Pharisaical canon of Scripture as more authoritative. This is commonly known as the Protocanon (proto- is Greek meaning “first” so “first-canon”), because it was the first canon of Scripture used by the ancient Jews primarily in the Holy Land.
  3. The Septuagint – These were all the books mentioned above in the Tanakh, plus seven more, for a total of 46 books with longer editions to the books of Esther and Daniel. The Septuagint was a Greek translation of the Pharisee canon (Protocanon or Tanakh) that had some additions which many Jews considered authoritative as well. Among those Jews were Jesus and his apostles. This is commonly known as the Deuterocanon, (deutero- is Greek meaning “second” so “second-canon”), because it was the second canon of Scripture used by the ancient Jews who lived outside of the Holy Land.

Upon examining the writings of the apostles, it becomes apparent that they accepted as authoritative both the Tanakh (Protocanon) and the Septuagint (Deuterocanon) on equal footing. This is why the early Church synods decreed that the Old Testament should always have 46 books, based on the expanded Deuterocanon (Septuagint), because that canon already had all the books of the shorter Protocanon (Tanakh). Thus, Christians have always had 46 books in the Old Testament.

It wasn’t until Martin Luther came along in the 16th century that the Christian canon of Scripture was revised. Luther removed 7 books from the Old Testament, preferring to copy the Protocanon of the Pharisees, and reducing the Protestant Old Testament to 39 books. Today, Christians who follow the teachings of Martin Luther (Protestants) have just 39 books in their Old Testament, while as Christians who strictly follow the apostles’ canon (Catholics) have 46 books in their Old Testament.

What kind of Bible do you have? If your Old Testament has 39 books, your Bible is a Protestant Bible, and it’s modelled after the canon of Martin Luther and the Pharisees. If your Old Testament has 46 books, your Bible is a Catholic Bible, and it’s modelled after the teachings of the Apostles of Christ and the bishops of the early Church. Examples of some English Bibles that contain all 46 Old Testament books are as follows…

  • New American Bible (NAB)
  • New Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition (NRSV-CE)
  • Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition (RSV-CE)
  • Revised Standard Version – Second Catholic Edition (RSC-2CE)
  • New Jerusalem Bible (NJB)
  • Good News Translation – Catholic Edition (GNT-CE)
  • Douay-Rheims Bible (DRB)
  • King James Bible – with Apocrypha (KJV-Apocrypha)

Now when it comes to the New Testament, all Christians of all types agree. There are exactly 27 books, no more and no less. How did the early Christians decide on these books?

The answer requires a little more knowledge of history. From the time of Jesus, all the way into the 4th century (about 360 years later), Christians had no set New Testament. What they had instead was a number of scrolls that came from the apostolic era. What scrolls they used had a lot to do with where they were located, and each area used a slightly different set of scrolls. Thus, early Christianity had no set or standardised New Testament canon.

A couple centuries prior to this, a dynamic and charismatic lay-preacher named Marcion created quite a stir. He was a wealthy ship owner and son of a bishop in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). He rejected the Old Testament entirely, and pitted the Gospel against the Old Testament, the Christian God against the Jewish God, as if they were two separate gods, the Christian God being good and the Jewish God being evil. Marcion came up with the first list of books (canon) for his New Testament. It consisted of just 12 books, which included his own epistle and a modified version of the Gospel according to Luke. He accepted the following Christian writings in this order:

  • Gospel according to Luke (Marcion’s version)
  • Antithesis (Marcion’s Epistle)
  • Galatians
  • I Corinthians
  • II Corinthians
  • Romans
  • I Thessalonians
  • II Thessalonians
  • Ephesians
  • Colossians
  • Philemon
  • Philippians

That happened in AD 144. Marcion was later denounced as a heretic and his New Testament list (canon) was rejected as deficient. Still, while most Christians used all of these books, with the exception of Marcion’s epistle and modified gospel, there was no continuity between communities. Some used all of these, some less and some more. This remained the status quo until the late 4th century.

So when the early Church met at the Council of Nicea (AD 325) to refute the rogue priest Arius and his heresy (the denial of Christ’s divinity), they also reaffirmed their refutation of Marcion, and they made two monumental decisions that would change the history of Christianity forever.

The first was the creation of the Nicean Creed. This creed would be learnt and recited by all Christians every Sunday for the rest of history. This creed is still recited to this day in all Catholic churches, as well as Eastern Orthodox churches, Anglican churches, Lutheran churches, and several other churches.

The second was the decision to standardise a New Testament canon based entirely on the Tradition of the apostles, as still taught and preserved by the Catholic bishops of that time, so as to counter the heresies of Marcion and his false New Testament canon. Thus, the decision was made to compile the New Testament we all know and use today. But for years the work was ongoing among Catholic bishops to discern the required books within apostolic Tradition.

In AD 367, about 40 years after the Council of Nicea, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, Egypt, compiled a list of 27 books, starting with the Gospel of St. Matthew, and ending with the Apocalypse of St. John (Book of Revelation). His work was a compilation of lists derived from other Catholic bishops in Europe, west Asia and north Africa. Bishop Athanasius was a fierce opponent of Arianism, and was well-known in the region for keeping his dioceses clean of the Arian heresy. At the Synods of Rome, Hippo and Carthage (late 3rd century), Athanasius’ list of 27 books was adopted as the Christian New Testament. In the year AD 405, Pope Innocent I decreed that all Christians would now use this 27-book list (canon) as the universal and standard Christian New Testament.

  • Matthew
  • Mark
  • Luke
  • John
  • Acts of the Apostles
  • Romans
  • 1 Corinthians
  • 2 Corinthians
  • Galatians
  • Ephesians
  • Philippians
  • Colossians
  • 1 Thessalonians
  • 2 Thessalonians
  • 1 Timothy
  • 2 Timothy
  • Titus
  • Philemon
  • Hebrews
  • James
  • 1 Peter
  • 2 Peter
  • 1 John
  • 2 John
  • 3 John
  • Jude
  • Revelation

That’s how we got the Bible. It came from the tireless work of Catholic bishops in the 4th century, and the decree of a pope in the early 5th century. The Old Testament was decided early, by the apostles, and affirmed by the pope and Catholic bishops of the 4th century. The New Testament wasn’t decided until the late 4th century, and affirmed by a pope in the early 5th century. These are the historical facts of how we got the Bible.

If you like your Bible, and you appreciate that it doesn’t contain the heresies of Arianism and Marcionism, you can thank Pope Innocent I and Catholic bishops of the 4th century. Sadly, many Christians today show no appreciation to the Catholic Church for its gift of the Bible, and instead accept the Bible while proverbially “spitting” on its original publisher. It’s an odd behaviour to be sure, but very common these days.

2 thoughts on “The Origin of the Bible

Add yours

  1. Shane:

    I have 2 questions about your piece on “The Origin of the Bible”:

    1. You say, “Christians had no set New Testament. What they had instead was a number of scrolls that came from the apostolic era. What scrolls they used had a lot to do with where they were located, and each area used a slightly different set of scrolls. Thus, early Christianity had no set or standardised New Testament canon.”

    I have been unable to find, online, a detailed list of the different churches showing which scrolls they had and used at different times, and how this changed over time as the years went by.

    I am aware that the church at Corinth continued treating “1 Clement” as Holy Scripture until the 300’s sometime (if “as Holy Scripture” can properly be inferred from Corinth’s inclusion of it in liturgical reading alongside the Pauline, Petrine, and Johannine epistles).

    But that’s just one church. Are there others, for which we have this information?

    If so, where can I find their lists? And if not, on what basis can we claim that they were not using the same 27-book NT canon we have today?

    2. Origin had a New Testament canon circa 200 A.D. I’ve had one Protestant interlocutor argue that…
    (a.) Origen’s New Testament canon is identical to the 27 books we use today;
    (b.) Origen’s canon represents a widespread and normative tradition already present in Origen’s day; and,
    (c.) this shows that the actions of Catholic bishops in the 4th century weren’t particularly relevant to the finalizing of the New Testament canon.

    This interlocutor argues that, rather than relying upon the reliability/authority of 4th century Catholic bishops for their canon (a position which would obviously undermine Protestantism), the modern Protestants are merely relying upon a widespread consensus-of-usage from the earliest Christians. This argument holds that Origen is one such Christian, but that if future archaeological discoveries should uncover yet-earlier canon lists, those lists would be the same.

    Shane, how would you refute the position described above? And (returning to Question 1, which seems relevant here) do we have evidence of variation in canon-lists around the time of Origen? (If we do, then that would undermine the argument that Origen’s list represented a reliably-uniform existing consensus.)

    Thanks!

    P.S. For context: I am asking as a Protestant-to-Catholic convert, who has dozens of other reasons for concluding that Sola Scriptura is bogus. My Catholic faith doesn’t hinge on the question of how/when the New Testament canon was settled. Nevertheless, I’d like to phrase my arguments with maximum accuracy.

    Like

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