The books that make up the Bible are called “the canon”. Canon does not mean “collection” though, it means “measure.” How did the canon (the Bible as measure) come to be? And what does it mean?
The Bible is the book of the community; the community is not Book-based like the Islamic religion, for example, although there is some kind of comparable relation between community and Book. But the Bible is not like the Koran a book revealed to one man, but a collection of books of different types and different authors from different times and places. Nor is the Bible revealed to its authors in the same way as the Koran was revealed to Mohammad, despite his illiteracy. The Biblical authors were not mediums, they were men and women who co-operated to form a word of God and humanity. The Bible is as much “the word of Man” as “the word of God”, just as Jesus was just as much “the Son of Man” (the title he actually preferred) as “the Son of God.”
A Covenant People
The Jewish people were marked out by God by circumcision, then more spectacularly, under Moses, by the giving of the Torah at Sinai. The English word for Torah is “law”, but Torah is not law in the English sense of “the law of the Land” or the “law of God” over and above us that must be obeyed. Torah is about the establishment of given relations, with one another and with God. The Torah is the founding text of the people, and of the Prophetic writings (Nevi’im) that come later and of the writings (Ketuvah) and of course the Zohar, Mishnah and Talmud after that. The Jewish Virtual Library entry for Torah says:
The Torah was often compared to fire, water, wine, oil, milk, honey, drugs, manna, the tree of life, and many other things; it was considered the source of freedom, goodness, and life; it was identified both with wisdom and with love. Hillel summarized the entire Torah in one sentence: “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow”. Akiva said: “The fundamental principle of the Torah is the commandment, ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself ‘”.[i]
Although we speak today of “Judaism” and think of it as a religion, this is in fact the invention of 19th century German theologians and philosophers of religion. The Jews are a covenant people and by that covenant they carry a promise and uphold a promise, of God, for the world: that I will be with you always; and together we will mend the world.
The Jew was supposed to incubate the promise of God for recreation and to pollinate the whole world with it. Perhaps though, once again, God, as in the days of Noah, overestimated human nature. It would seem so, for the nations around the Jews tended to want to wipe them out rather than learn anything from them, a tendency that Christianity continued right up into the World Wars, and has now been taken over by Islamic nations religiously devoted to wiping Israel off the map in the Middle East.
On the other side of the equation, the Jews tended to keep God’s promise for the world too much to themselves, either preferring to become like the nations (which God eventually let them do in the age of Kings) or wanting to keep rigidly apart from other peoples. Jesus would permanently change both tendencies. First, Jesus said the Kingdom of God is not of this world, but includes all the world; secondly, Jesus said let your light shine (but not like the hypocrites do, make it real). Both tendencies would belong to the New Covenant, the church, and would include all those who wished to be included.
As every Christian knows the church begins through the Easter events, with Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit on followers of Jesus, to empower the Christ nature within; for as Paul explains it is Christ before, behind, within, and ahead of them now. To love their neighbour follows because Christ is in them too, ready to be activated by the healing or balmy touch of the Spirit.
There are a dozen Gospels, or more, besides the four Gospels in the New Testament, and any amount of letters from Apostles – or ostensibly from them. These circulated freely in the early Church once they came to be written, but as time wore on, it was noticed that there were differences between communities in the way they expressed what they thought about Jesus and “the Way”, depending upon what apostolic writings were influencing them.
By the time of the 4th century, the Church had been going for 300 years without what we call the New Testament. The continuity of the church was made possible because the communities were apostolic foundations. So James headed up the church in Jerusalem and Peter in Antioch and Paul founded a lot of communities as we know, and there was a living transmission via a laying on hands and ordination from one leader to the next. They were called episkopos in Greek and Latin or “bishops” in old English (with slightly different spelling and pronunciation).
The apostolic-based leadership gave the early church stability and “truth” in the sense that these were the true communities. One could not, as today, merely start your own Church on your own whim, as it were, or from an ostensible “calling” of God, you needed to be ordained from within to do so. The “true” church was rooted in the Apostolic transmission, that is how it was known to be true. Truth itself was not a concept like today, or an idea, or something you “believed in”, it was communitarian.
The apostles were authoritative because they had lived and moved with Jesus, and they passed their authority on in what is called the apostolic transmission. This is basically an oral master-disciple relation and transmission, symbolised by a laying on of hands and ritual prayers. Such prayers were already known to Christians from rabbinic Judaism, and anyway were ubiquitous in the ancient world.
The liturgical sources prior to the New Testament were – and still remain in Greek Orthodoxy – a living fountain of the truth of Christology (thought about Christ), pneumatology (thought about the Spirit), and thought about other things such as the theotokos (Mary Mother of Jesus). These liturgical sources were part of the oral tradition that existed before and later alongside the written tradition. These oral traditions were written down bit by bit, with variants from place to place, and came together in the glorious liturgy of St. John Chyrsostom from the fourth century, the foundation of apostolically guaranteed and spiritually based Christian worship in the original sense.
The community from the earliest times developed creeds, which were a symbol (symbolon) of faith, not mere statements of faith or “confessions” of belief. For example, the statement in the Nicene Creed of 325 that Jesus is one of essence (homoousios) with the Father is not a statement of fact. It is metaphysical! Metaphysics is not about facts, but about the conditions of being, in this case of faith’s being (which is not the same as being faithful!).
Symbols have a direct intuitive meaning that must be grasped instantly or missed altogether. Creeds are symbolic. To faith creeds bear witness. To those without faith they are inexplicable. Creeds are for insiders, not outsiders.
So the apostles developed a creed (or the early Fathers did in the name of the apostles), and then there was the Nicene Creed. These predate the New Testament and are crucial placeholders for faith. The creeds were the criteria used by the bishops who decided what would comprise the New Testament and what must be left out. The large majority of texts were excluded. The common creed gave the church the means by which to judge whether a scripture was Christian or not.
However, as time wore on, even these creedal communities as they spread out and because they did not share the same new scriptures, began to follow different trajectories prompted by different ideas. Fraudulent apostolic writings proliferated. This was the cause of the problem. Even today we do not know who wrote Hebrews.
Back then unknown men and women wrote Gospels and Epistles and ascribed them to one or another original follower of Jesus. When communities relied on these scriptures, problems of disunity and different culture began to occur. Ultimately the creeds by which Christian truth could be measured were too symbolic, too cryptic. At a certain point in time, the church realized it needed to ratify and to endorse the authoritative texts, which would mean every other text would automatically lose equal authority, and may even need to be prohibited.
Weighing down on the side of stability, Christians shared the Jewish Scriptures in the form of the Greek, and then the Latin translation of them. The Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures, some of which were held by this time to be written in Greek not Hebrew was made in Alexandria in the 2nd century before Christ. It was made by 70 scholars, legend has it, whose translations all agreed. This is the Septuagint translation (translation of the seventy). The aforementioned liturgical (worship) traditions all used the Septuagint version of the Psalms and the rest of the Old Testament as it then came to be known.
When the Septuagint translation was done the Jews themselves had not finalized the text so the “inspired” Septuagint translation pre-empts the Jewish fixing of the canon in the sense of finalising the actual text or words that would comprise it. This finalisation of the Jewish canon did not take place until after the time of Christ, in fact roughly 500 years after the New Testament was established. Hence, historically speaking, and paradoxically the Old Testament is more recent than the New!
The Jewish Scriptures were ultimately finalised in the Masoretic text version with the first complete Jewish Bible by Rabbi Aaron ben Moses ben Asher in 930, the so-called Aleppo Codex, with more accurate versions to come in the 10th and the 11th centuries. The Masoretic text version is the one translated as the Old Testament in English language bibles so second millennium Christians, which is to say all Protestant churches do not use the Bible of the Early Church, even as they pay often vociferous lip service to the Early Church. .
The Old Testament in English Bibles today is not the one used by the church of the first millennium, or by the Apostles and Early Church. The apostles, evangelists and Early Church all used the Septuagint, which has books, such as Wisdom, Sirach, 2 Maccabees that the English Bibles today do not have and that only the first millennium denominations (Orthodox and Catholic) still use. Although, the missing books – so called deuterocanonical books – are quoted implicitly and explicitly in the New Testament, or so it seems to me as an academic reader. (I am aware this is a contentious area for some Protestant groups because it threatens to undermine their identity which is staked on the inerrancy of the English translation of the Bible).
To read the Bible but never to have read Wisdom or Sirach in my view is to operate in a blinkered way. There is no proper understanding of Paul if you do not know Wisdom 10-19 about how the Wisdom of God works in history because this is what gave the Early Church the hermeneutic (interpretative standard) by which to judge the Jewish Scriptures as an “Old Testament” in the first place.
Paul’s differentiation of the “wisdom” of the world and the “truth of the Cross” in Corinthians but the implicit hermeneutic throughout his letters has to be read against Wisdom 6-9, from where he is glossing. TheChristian idea of the Holy Spirit in Luke and Paul needs to be read as a take on Sophia in Wisdom where hokhma would appear “incarnated” from the narrative, just as later from the Gospel narratives it will be said – and John will openly interpret it as such – that “the word” (of Creation) was incarnate in the flesh.
The Resurrection of the Dead appears rather metaphorically and obliquely in a couple of places of the Old Testament, but the Christian interpretation is driven from the books of Maccabees.
The most famous Old Testament reference to the Resurrection of the Dead apart from Ezekiel’s dry bones, which is metaphorical and indirect, is Daniel 12: 2. The Early Church did not hang on these scarce examples, but were bold about the resurrection of the dead because this stood in line with the planet shaking Maccabeans. When one of them is being put to death he does not care and exclaims aloud to his murderers: “I have received these limbs from God, but for love of his laws I now consider them as nothing. For I hope to recover them from God.” (2 Mac. 7:11).
All the early Christian martyrs from Stephen onward replicated this faith. Mary witnessing the death of Jesus has echoes the mother who witnessed the horrific martyrdom of her seven sons in one day, “but she endured it with joy for she had put her hope in the Lord.” (2 Mac 20) As they are being tortured to death she preaches the resurrection of the body to each son affirming that the Creator of the world will give them back their bodies. (2 Mac 7: 23)
The whole sense of the end of the world and the pending new age, of judgement and salvation, death and resurrection revolve around the meaning of the temple and its holiness: in Christianity, not just “the body of Christ” the church as in later Christendom, but obviously in the Early Church, every human body. This was what was so different about Christianity from the Jewish emphasis on text and the pagan emphasis on personal immortality and an afterlife. Later of course Christianity would regress to pagan ways, just as the ancient Israelites were recorded to have done on many occasions in the Biblical Ketuvah (Writings).
The style of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) is picked up from Maccabees, it is written in the same Greek as the New Testament and has the same colloquial style that connects salvation history to historical event just as the New Testament does.
John 10: 22 refers to Jesus coming up to the temple in Jerusalem for Hanukkah, the feast of dedication or festival of lights, to do with the events narrated in 2 Maccabees. He is in the temple because it was the rededication of the temple that Hanukkah is about. The discussion that Jesus then has with the Sadducees that follows cannot be understood unless we recognize the parallel between the consecration of the temple by Judas Maccabeus and the Father’s consecration of Jesus (the light of the world, the new temple). The Jews questioning Jesus want to stone him for blasphemy because he then also quotes Torah to them.
What books should comprise the Christian Scriptures? This was the question facing church leaders in the 4th century. You can imagine what a fraught argument it must have been as living communities defended texts by which they lived, and did not know what to say about texts others said were evangelical, which they did not know. Not everyone knew John’s Gospel, or Hebrews or all of Paul’s letters.
It was Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria – the city that was the intellectual centre of the world at that time, where before Christ the Septuagint translation had been made – who furnished the gathered assembly with his list, which listed all the books of the New Testament as we have it today. The assembly of church leaders followed Athanasius’ list.
Thus was the New Testament born at the Council of Constantinople, the capital of the Christian world, in 381. Ultimately it was not one man’s authority that decided, but the community’s sense of what was central, authoritative, sacred and inspired with regard to its witness to the Messiah Jesus.
The Church is not based on the Bible; rather, the Bible is a product of the Christian community and something that had to be worked out and negotiated at Council over a considerable period. With the Bible, the community has Scriptures in common wherever it is. That is the first thing of note. The Scriptures thus signal a new unity.
The second point of note is that the Bible provides the record of what God has done, it serves as a guide to recognise what God is doing, what we Christians must do, and what we may expect. By the Bible the community can test what state of spiritual health it is in. It can see itself, as in a mirror, and can know itself both constitutively and teleologically. That is to say, the community can know from where it hails and to where it is headed and what it must be. The Bible is a canon because it is a measure of all this.
From a Pentecostal point of view this is important because it shows how the Spirit does come first, to form community, to provide leadership, and to produce holy writings by which the communities of the Christian diaspora can know their story and gain orientation and steerage from it for the future, to recognise the Spirit as it continues to move.
Christianity is essentially diasporic and uncentered, essentially a network of communities born and sustained in the Spirit. But the Bible sustains it, in the Spirit, by giving a basis by which to measure its doings and directions.
About the Author:
Associate Professor Matthew Del Nevo is the Director of Learning and Teaching at Alphacrucis College.