In the years after Jesus was crucified at Calvary, the story of his life, death and resurrection was not immediately written down. The experiences of disciples like Matthew and John would have been told and retold at many dinner tables and firesides, perhaps for decades, before anyone recorded them for posterity. St Paul, whose writings are equally central to the New Testament, was not even present among the early believers until a few years after Jesus’ execution.
But if many people will have an idea of this gap between the events of the New Testament and the book that emerged, few probably appreciate how little we know about the first Christian Bible. The oldest complete New Testament that survives today is from the fourth century, but it had predecessors which have long since turned to dust.
So what did the original Christian Bible look like? How and where did it emerge? And why are we scholars still arguing about this some 1,800 years after the event?
From oral to written
Historical accuracy is central to the New Testament. The issues at stake were pondered in the book itself by Luke the Evangelist as he discusses the reasons for writing what became his eponymous Gospel. He writes: “I too decided to write an orderly account … so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”
In the second century, church father Irenaeus of Lyons argued for the validity of the Gospels by claiming that what the authors first preached, after receiving “perfect knowledge” from God, they later put down in writing. Today, scholars differ on these issues – from the American writer Bart Ehrman stressing how much accounts would be changed by the oral tradition; to his Australian counterpart Michael Bird’s argument that historical ambiguities must be tempered by the fact that the books are the word of God; or the British scholar Richard Bauckham’s emphasis on eye-witnesses as guarantors behind the oral and written gospel.
The first New Testament books to be written down are reckoned to be the 13 that comprise Paul’s letters (circa 48-64 CE), probablybeginning with 1 Thessalonians or Galatians. Then comes the Gospel of Mark (circa 60-75 CE). The remaining books – the other three Gospels, letters of Peter, John and others as well as Revelation – were all added before or around the end of the first century. By the mid-to-late hundreds CE, major church libraries would have had copies of these, sometimes alongside other manuscripts later deemed apocrypha.
The point at which the books come to be seen as actual scripture and canon is a matter of debate. Some point to when they came to be used in weekly worship services, circa 100 CE and in some cases earlier. Here they were treated on a par with the old Jewish Scriptures that would become the Old Testament, which for centuries had been taking pride of place in synagogues all over latter-day Israel and the wider Middle East.
Others emphasise the moment before or around 200 CE when the titles “Old” and “New Testament” were introduced by the church. This dramatic shift clearly acknowledges two major collections with scriptural status making up the Christian Bible – relating to one another as old and new covenant, prophecy and fulfilment. This reveals that the first Christian two-testament bible was by now in place.
This is not official or precise enough for another group of scholars, however. They prefer to focus on the late fourth century, when the so-called canon lists entered the scene – such as the one laid down by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, in 367 CE, which acknowledges 22 Old Testament books and 27 New Testament books.
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Source: Religion News Service