This is the base text for a talk which was given at the Magnolia Public Library on March 13, 2008. The talk was very well attended (over 50 people), well received, and a good Q&A followed.

I’m very glad to be here this afternoon to speak. And before I really begin, I want to offer a sort of introduction to our topic. The advertisements list the topic as “The Early Christian Church and Biblical Canon:
A Brief Timeline.” Basically, the way that it worked out in putting this together, we’ll be looking historically at how the Christian Biblical Canon, the Bible, came to be as it is today. There are many theological points that different people would make on this topic, but this morning we’ll simply be looking at it from a historical standpoint. How did the Christian Bible come to be in the form that we have it today?

This is a very relevant topic for us today, for several reasons. Firstly, we’re in a library, and the Christian Bible is a very important book in human history. In fact, the word “Bible” comes from the Greek biblos/biblion, which simply means a record, or a document, or a book. The other way this canon is widely referred to, “Scripture,” comes from the Greek word that means to inscribe or to write (graphi). The Christian Bible holds the record as the single best selling book of all times, and in several commentaries on the most influential books ever written, the Biblical canons (OT and NT separately considered) both ranked near the top of the list. The Bible been important for several of the world’s major religions, and has been very socially and even literarily important as well. So this is a text worth learning more about because of its significance on so many levels.

Firstly, we have to consider the Old Testament, which of course was not written to be part of the Christian Biblical Canon, but was the Scriptural Canon of Judaism. These books were received by the Christian Church into the Bible for obvious reasons—the Christian Church comes out of the Jewish Temple. The earliest leaders of the Christians, and the founder—Jesus Christ, were all Jews. So it’s only natural that these Scriptures became part of the Christian Bible.

Today we have two different canons of the Old Testament that are widely used in Christian Bibles. One canon includes the Deuterocanonical, or Apocryphal, books, and the other canon does not include these texts. These are books like Macabees, Tobit, additional chapters in Daniel and Esther. Now, the reason we have two Old Testament canons today is because, surprisingly, the canon of the Old Testament is not something that was closed, or finalized, until relatively late in history. We think about people in the time of Christ having a defined Scripture, like Jews and Christians do today. But that simply isn’t how it was. We’ll find a very similar story with the final codification of the New Testament as well—the communities (Jewish and Christian) didn’t really feel a need to set in stone what their Scriptural canon was. Most of the people weren’t literate—and the Scriptures were something you heard in Temple. So, setting down what the canon would be wasn’t really a priority. The people thought about their Scriptures in a different way than we do now (at least in the West)—not being an oral culture, and having the printed text of books that really makes final what they say.

There are three main divisions in the Old Testament—the Law, the Prophets, the Writings. And it’s this final section, the Writings, that isn’t formally closed until the end of the first century A.D., after the time of Christ. There are several theories about why the Jewish Scriptural canon is finally closed at this time, but it happens after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70AD. So the central place of worship was destroyed, and many of the Jewish people were sent away from Jerusalem for political reasons. Even with that little bit of background, historically, it does make sense to have a meeting and make some decisions. This meeting was a council of religious leaders that met in the late 1st or early 2nd century, some date the council as early as 90AD, some as late 120AD. And at this council, in the city of Jamnia (also Jabneh or Yavneh, which was a city in Palestine where many of the rabbinic leaders gathered after the destruction of the Temple) 38 books (Ezra and Nehemiah are listed together) of the Old Testament were laid out in writing. In other words, the Old Testament canon that excludes the Apocryphal books was decided on as the official canon of Jewish scriptures. Again, there’s some debate that maybe this council doesn’t really close the Jewish Scriptural Canon, but no other changes have been made to it since this Council in Jamnia. [This council established the canon authoritatively for nearly all Jews. Yet it should be noted that the council did not speak for all Jews, there were Jews living in Ethiopia who either did not hear of it or did not accept the decision of Jamnia. To this day they use a different canon than their Palestinian brethren (Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol 6, p 1147).]

So why do some people use an Old Testament canon that includes the Apocryphal books? The ancient Christian community received these books in the Septuagint. The Septuagint is the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, which was done at the command of the Egyptian pharoh Ptolemy in the city of Alexandria some 200 years before the writing of the New Testament. And this translation included the so-called Apocryphal books. And in the ancient Christian Church, this was the text of the Scriptures. The vast majority of the times the New Testament quotes the Old Testament, it does so from the Septuagint. The early Christian Church considered this an inspired translation (ex: from Isaiah), and from the earliest documents this larger Old Testament canon is the one used by the ancient Christians. [The Septuagint was not generally available in the form of a modern Bible (although there are some copies, called codices, which were bound in a form like a modern book), but as a collection of scrolls, and thus its table of contents was less fixed. Furthermore, even in the ancient codices there is some variation in the contents. In any event, one must recognize that at the time the New Testament was written the Septuagint was in wide use and was widely respected by the authors of the New Testament and the Jewish people living at that time — otherwise the New Testament writers would not have made use of it. Rapidly, however, it became more a Christian than a Jewish book. In fact, one can say with little exaggeration that it became the Christian Old Testament.]

So now, why do we have two OT canons? Some Churches have retained the Septuagint texts as their Old Testament (Roman Catholic and Orthodox). Other Churches have chosen to use the Scriptural canon of Judaism, which is actually (historically speaking) a decision made early in the Protestant Reformation, to use the Jewish canon for the “Jewish portion” of the Christian Bible. (As a historical note, the original KJV, one of the most widely used English translation of the Bible, from 1611 does include these Apocryphal books!)


Finally, we have the uniquely Christian portion of the Bible, the New Testament. The books of the New Testament begin to be written about 70AD, about 30 years after the life of Christ. Something that many people didn’t know until very recently was that there were many Christian documents and Gospels (“good news”) written in the early years of the Christian Church. In fact, Luke even begins his account by saying, “Inasmuch as many [italics added] have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us … it seemed good to me also … to write to you an orderly account” (Luke 1:1, 3). Many of these books were eventually rejected by the early Christians, and “lost.” [These were known, they weren’t really “lost,” they just weren’t used.]

What we today call “the Gospels” were written by men very close to Jesus Christ, to share their experiences of the life of Jesus. And the Epistles of the New Testament are letters written by early Christian leaders (namely Peter and Paul) to various Churches they had established. None of these books or letters are written in such a way that presupposes a Christian Bible. The books aren’t written for the purpose of being put together the way we have them today. They were written to specific audiences for specific reasons—teach, correct, chastise, preach. And over time, these books and letters were copied and shared between the various Christian communities. Remember, this is a time of little traveling, no printing press, this is copying by hand documents that are deemed important enough to copy. Sharing the letters of Paul, for instance, takes time. Not to mention much longer texts like the Gospel of Matthew. And for the first 300+ years of the Christian Church, they were heavily persecuted for political reasons in many parts of the known world (especially in the Roman Empire).

Now we get to some of the most surprising facts, at least in my mind. During the first four centuries of Christianity there was substantial disagreement over which books should be included in the canon of Scripture. Not so much as arguing, but different communities used different writings by different Christian authors in their worship and discussions. And these communities rejected different books as being of no use, or even bad for the Christian to read. We have several extant lists of books considered to be of great importance for the Christian community—in other words, lists of books very similar to the attempt to have a canon. [read some from Dr. Ford’s hand out]

The first person on record who tried to establish a New Testament canon (the first set of writings that claimed to be the exclusive and authoritative texts for Christians) was in the second-century (about 150 years after the time of Christ), by a man named Marcion, whose ideas and theologies were later rejected by the majority of ancient Christians. He wanted the Church to reject its Jewish heritage (he was anti-Semetic), and therefore he got rid of the Old Testament entirely. Marcion’s canon included only one gospel, which he compiled and edited from the existing gospels, and ten of Paul’s epistles. Everything else we have today as the Christian Bible was rejected. Many modern scholars believe that it was partly in reaction to this canon of Marcion that the early Church eventually did decide on what books should be included in the Christian Scriptures. Very similarly with the Jewish canon, the Christians didn’t feel a real rush to put together a collection of sacred Scripture. It took something happening—the destruction of the Temple and the scattering of the Jewish people, or the offering of a list of books that the Church didn’t agree with and constant problems with heresies—it took something from the outside before these communities finally did establish a list of writings that were to be considered sacred.

During the first four centuries of the Christian Church, many different groups of books were suggested as a Christian Bible (as we heard before). But it’s not until 367 AD that we have the first list of New Testament books that matches the corpus we have today. There was a list in 363 from a council in Laodicea, but it didn’t include Revelation. So the first list that matches the modern NT canon was in a letter written by the Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria in 367. This is approximate 330 years after the life of Christ that the Christian Church is finally at the point of having a Scriptural canon that’s agreed on by everyone. In 397 a council of Christian leaders met in Carthage, and they adopted the list of St. Athanasius. This council adopted the Septuigent Old Testament, and the 27 books that we have today as the Christian NT. And there hasn’t been a serious debate about the Biblical canon until fairly recent times.