The Christian Bible developed over the first four centuries of the early church. It developed out of Jewish ideas of sacred writing but took its own path, with a particular emphasis on the apostolic roots of the new writings. The Christian Bible developed as a collection of collections, in concert with technological changes that led to the triumph of the codex over the scroll. In the fourth century, the orthodox church settled on a final canon.
If I asked the bishop of an early second-century church to hand me a Bible, he would probably give me a surprised look. Books as they exist today – codices – did not come into use until later that century. The bishop likely would be in possession of a few scrolls – copies of letters of Paul and perhaps a gospel or two. And, there was no such thing as a “Bible” – at the time, the Bible as we know it today did not yet exist.
The attitude toward a Christian canon is deeply influenced by the Jewish view of their scriptures. Unlike the Greeks or Romans, whose religion had no authoritative canon (the closest thing is probably Hesiod), The group of writings that the Jews consider authoritative is the Tanakh. “Tanakh” is an acronym: Torah (the law), Nevi’im (the prophets), Ketuvim (the writings). The Torah and the Nevi’im are considered more important than the writings. They are at the core of the earliest Jewish ideas. (Jesus says that he has come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.) Though these had always been at the core of Judaism, the Tanakh began to take its final form in the late 2nd century AD. At this point, when the temple had been destroyed and temple Judaism was replaced with Rabbinic Judaism, the Tanakh was translated into Greek.
Which books did the Christian canon include? It included the Hebrew scriptures, which Christians know as the Old Testament (including books considered to be apocryphal or deuterocanonical by some Protestants), and the New Testament. The Hebrew scriptures are about God’s covenant with Israel. The New Testament is exclusively Christian and depicts Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Israel and that covenant’s extension to the Gentiles. The first part of the New Testament is the four Gospels, which were settled upon between 150 and 200 AD. Thirteen letters of Paul are included; ten make up the main group, and three – 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus – which are referred to as the Pastoral epistles and whose Pauline authorship is in question. Nevertheless, these thirteen letters all shaped Christian doctrine. The New Testament also includes one book of romantic history, Acts, letters attributed to other apostles, like James and Peter, and one book of apocalypse, Revelation.
But why these books? Why were these scriptures considered binding? What made one letter better than another?
Eusebius wrote that some of the books, like the four Gospels and Paul’s letters, were universally accepted by the church. Others, like the Shepherd of Hermos and the Apocalypse of Peter, were commonly but not universally used. And some books, like the Gospel of Peter and the Acts of Andrew, were widely rejected. The qualifications for books to enter the canon: they must be orthodox, have apostolic authority, and be widely used by the early church.
Origen, an important figure in the development of orthodoxy, described the idea of the Christian Trinity – three persons in one being. According to Origen, these “persons” were equal in their divinity and all fully God – yet God was one. Origen was the first systematic theologian during the 3rd century. His first apologia was Contra Celsus, against Celsus, a pagan philosopher who attacked Christianity citing discrepancies Christian scriptures and philosophy.
Without the ideas of Origen, the Nicene Creed, would have been inconceivable. He moved trinitarian doctrine toward its complete expression in the Nicene Creed, rebutting subordinationist opponents who believed that Christ was created by and thus lesser than God. Origen emphasizes the importance of the incarnation – Christ – as the revelation of God. However, Origen did not explicate a complete orthodoxy, and some of his ideas, including his claim about the preexistence of the soul (as Plato had argued), were declared heretical. The Nicene Creed built upon the foundation that Origen had laid, clarifying and rephrasing some of his philosophy.
The early church believed that the original 13 apostles had authority and that their succession would be the continual basis for authority in the Church. Apostolic authority was transmitted in the office of the overseers – the Greek word is episkopos. The word episkopos gradually turned into the word “bishop” in English; the apostles were the first bishops, and the church’s bishops to this day are the continuation of the apostles. Peter, for example, was the Bishop of Rome.
Why did the Christian canon include the texts that it did? The church chose the books that were used by the apostles. These came to have authority in the orthodox church.
The Christian canon did not necessarily exclude all Christian writings that were considered orthodox. The Shepherd of Hermos was a Christian literary work written during the second century that was commonly used and considered orthodox, but it was not ultimately included in the canon because it was not widely used enough.
The canon was finalized in the fourth century, when Christianity was becoming widespread. Eusebius, Athanasius, and two remarkable codices tell us about the canon. Eusebius, considered the father of church history, reflected common attitudes towards the canon during the fourth century. A letter from Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, exists from 367 – in it is the canon that most Christians accept today. Two codices also survive – Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus – the former of which includes The Shepherd of Hermos, the Letter of Barnabas, and the Septuagint.
Orthodoxy, apostolic authority, and the canon developed together. The extent of Christianity, made possible by the charismatic elements unique to the religion, allowed these elements to develop – and made them necessary. We have already discussed the factors that led to the spread of Christianity, but we have not yet mentioned a crucial one named Constantine. Ten years after Diocletian’s Great Persecution, this Roman emperor would convert to Christianity and establish it as the empire’s official religion. Under Constantine, bishops from all over the Roman world would gather for a monumental council that produced the creed that remains the touchstone for Christian orthodoxy.