The bedrock of 21st Century Evangelical Christianity is the Bible. Those of us who have spent time in the Evangelical tradition are familiar with slogans proclaiming the Bible as “66 books, written by 40 authors, over the course of 1500 years, telling one unified story.” Most Mainline, Orthodox, and Catholic Christians also value the Bible and implement it in their worship. Bible studies, devotionals, and exegesis courses abound today, allowing the average Christian the ability to access and analyze thousands of years’ worth of ancient documents at the turn of a page or the press of a button. In this environment, it is easy to forget that the church did not always function that way.
How did the early church operate before the Bible as we know it? And how did the Bible as we know it come to be?
We currently refer to the Bible as having two testaments: Old and New. These testaments (or covenants) communicate the idea of documents that symbolize a special relationship between God and His people. The Old Testament is filled with examples of covenants (Adamic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, etc.) where God makes a pact between himself and an individual or group of people, and the Scriptures are textual representations of how God has related to humanity, both before Christ, and through Christ.
“The Old Testament contains the books that tell the story of the Jews and their ancient worship of God, … [while] the New Testament stands for the books telling the story of Jesus Christ and the birth of the church.” | Bruce Shelley
Jesus affirmed the Old Testament of his day as the word of God (John 10:35, Luke 11:51, Luke 24:44); he approved of its teaching and commands (Matthew 22:36-40) while challenging the interpretations of his day (Matthew 5:17-20). The early Christians readily embraced Jesus’ view, although there was contention between Jews and Gentiles over its application (Acts 15). Jesus’ usage of the Old Testament is what solidified it as Scripture to those Christians who did not come from a Jewish background; some critics such as Marcion rejected the Old Testament, and Christians today are often confused and sidetracked by how God related to people before Christ.
Nevertheless, the Old Testament continues to be a critical component in understanding God’s story for humanity, the character of God, and the cultural background of Jesus.
The earliest communities of Christians were primarily Jewish, and the only religious books they had were the Hebrew Scriptures (the Law, Prophets, and writings of the Old Testament). These Christian communities saw Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of these Scriptures, especially prophetic works such as Isaiah. But as these communities developed, they began to read letters from apostles such as Paul and Peter aloud in their gatherings. (You can learn more about early church worship from this podcast). Eventually (around 60 or 70 AD), some authors wrote Gospels, which described the life and sayings of Jesus for future generations of Christians who were not eyewitnesses. These letters and gospels eventually became what we call the New Testament.
A word theologians use to describe the “officialness” of Scripture is canon, derived from a Greek term for a measuring rod. Eventually, the church had to decide which books were canon (Holy Scriptures inspired by God) or simply religious literature written by humans for the purpose of building up the church. This distinction is somewhat gray, and throughout church history, it has been a challenge to identify which books are canonical.
The following quote by Origen, writing in the third century, is typical of the early church’s view of Scripture:
“The Scriptures were composed through the Spirit of God, and have both a meaning which is obvious, and another which is hidden from most readers … The whole law is spiritual, but the inspired meaning is not recognized by all—only by those who are gifted with the grace of the Holy Spirit in the word of wisdom and knowledge.”