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History of the Bible’s emergence

The holy books did not come into being suddenly, in their current completeness. The time between Moses (1450 BC) and Samuel (1050 BC) can be called the formative years of the Holy Scripture. Inspired by God, Moses wrote down his revelations, laws and narrations, decreeing to the Levites who carried the ark containing God’s commandments, “Take this book of the law and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 31:26). The successive holy authors continued writing their books with specific requests that they be included with the five Books of Moses, as though it was one Book. For example, in Joshua 24:26 we find “And Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law,” i.e. in the book of Moses. Similarly with Samuel, the prophet and judge that lived at the beginning of the Kings’ period, it was written that “Samuel explained to the people the behavior of royalty, and wrote it in a book and laid it up before the Lord” (1 Sam. 10:25) i.e. to the side of the ark where the other books of Moses were kept.

        During the time between Samuel and the Babylonian bondage (589 BC), the Israelite elders and prophets acted as gatherers and guardians of the holy books of the Old Testament. In the books of Chronicles, the prophets are often mentioned as the main authors of Jewish writings. One must also observe the remarkable witness by the Judean historian, Josephus Flavius, to the practice by the ancient Jews of re-examining the text of the Holy Writings after every serious disturbance, for example after a lengthy war. This sometimes resulted in what seemed the emergence of fresh Holy Writings, which were permitted to be produced by God-inspired prophets with their knowledge of ancient events and their ability to record the history of their people with remarkable accuracy. It is worthy to note that Judean history records that their pious king Ezekiel (710 BC), together with some selected elders, produced a book containing the writings of Isaiah, Proverbs, Song of Songs and the Ecclesiastes.

        The period between the Babylonian bondage and the times of the Great Synagogue during Ezra and Nehemiah (400 BC), appears as the conclusive stage of transcription of the Old Testament’s “canonical” books. The main protagonist in this enormous effort was the priest Ezra, the holy teacher of God’s laws (Ezra 7:12) In collaboration with the learned Nehemiah (creator of an extensive library), Ezra gathered “Reports in the writings and commentaries of Nehemiah; and how he, founding of the library, gathered together the acts of the kings, the prophets, of David, and the epistles of the kings concerning the holy gifts” (2 Mac. 2:13). He assiduously examined all prior God-inspired writings and published them in one arrangement, including the book of Nehemiah as well as his book, under his own name. As the prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi were living in this era they, apart from undoubtedly assisting Ezra in his efforts, had their own books included in his writings. After Ezra, the Jewish people did not receive any more God-inspired prophets and consequently, all the writings that appeared from that point on, were not included as holy books. For example, the book of Jesus Son of Sirach, while also written in the Jewish language and regarded as worthy by the Church, is not part of the holy canon.

        The contents of the holy books of the Old Testament prove their ancient beginnings. The narratives in the books of Moses describe, with unmistakable clarity, the way of life in those distant days and the patriarchal structure of society. Because these descriptions correspond exactly with the ancient traditions of those people, the reader invariably feels that the author was present in those ancient times.

        The responses from experts of the Jewish language confirm that the very style of the writings stamps them as being extremely ancient: months have no names but are referred to simply as numbers i.e. first, second, third etc ... month, and the books themselves carry no individual identity being designated by their opening words e.g., BERESHIT (“in the beginning” — Genesis), WE ELLEH SHE’MOT (“and these are the names” — Exodus), etc. as though to prove that as there were no other writings in existence, there was no need to specifically identify the books by name. After Moses, subsequent writings of holy fathers bear corresponding characteristics of the spirit and the people of those ancient times.

The Old Testament
contains the following books:

Five books of the Prophet Moses or Torah (encompassing the foundation the faith of the Old Testament): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Historical books: Book of Joshua, Book of Judges, Book of Ruth, 1st and 2nd Books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, 1st Book of Ezra, Book of Nehemiah & the 2nd Book of Esther.

Educational Books (having instructional contents): The Books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Book of Ecclesiastes and Book of Song of Solomon.

Prophetic books (primarily containing prophecies): one book each of prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and twelve books of the minor prophets, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habbakuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.

 The names of the above list of holy books was taken from the translations of 70 Greek interpreters (Septuagint). The Jewish as well as some modern translations of the Bible have different names for some of the holy books.

        Apart from this list of books of the Old Testament, the Bible contains another following nine books, regarded as “deutero-canonical”: the books of Tobias, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Jesus Son of Sirach, Second and Third books of Ezra, and three books of Maccabees. They are regarded as such because they were written after the list of “canonical” books had been completed by Ezra. These books were always respected by the Early Church. In fact, the Greek Bible known as the Septuagint, which the Apostles and the early Fathers used, does not distinguish between the “canonical” and the “deutero-canonical” books. While the Russian version of the Bible, which follows the Early Christian tradition, contains both groups of books, some modern versions exclude the “deutero-canonical” books.

The New Testament

        The Church was born on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles (Acts 2). At that time none of the books of the New Testament yet existed. In the first years of her existence, the Church had no written documents whatever, except the books of the Old Testament as indicated earlier. The events of the Gospel were related from one believer to another by word of mouth; those who came to accept the Faith heard them from the believers. This was entirely in keeping with the culture in which the Church lived, which was above all else an oral culture. Relatively few people were able to read, let alone write, and so they heard the word of God and kept it (cf. Luke 8:21; 11:28). The holy Apostle Paul insists upon the matter: “Therefore brethren, stand fast and hold to the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word or our letter” (2 Thess 2:15).

        In due course, as the Church began to spread beyond her place of origin in Jerusalem and Galilee, communications between the local churches became necessary and letters were written. Some of these were of such great importance to understanding the Faith that they began to be read in church services, along with the Scriptures (the Old Testament). But copies existed initially only in the local churches to which they had been addressed, although in time in many others as well. As travelers moved from one place to another they carried hand-written copies of the letters for the edification of other believers. Some of these letters were written by the apostles, but there were others, written by other believers as well. Eventually, some of them came to have the character of what we now call “open letters,” addressed to the Church as a whole, rather than to any particular congregation. These are the “universal” or “catholic” or “general” epistles.

        As the Church spread, it also became necessary to commit the central core of the events of Our Lord’s life and His teaching to writing, to provide a written Gospel for those who came to the Faith far from the little out-of-the-way province of the Empire in which the Lord had lived and died. So it was that the four written Gospels came into being. But this came to pass only after the Gospel had been proclaimed and passed from one believer to another by word of mouth, by tradition (“handing-on”) for many years. It is readily apparent upon comparison that no one of the written Gospels contains the entire story. Just as important, perhaps more so, as one would assume, had he no prejudice to the contrary, all four of them together yet are less than the totality of the Tradition of which they are a part. As the Gospel of St. John concludes: “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written” (John 21:25).

        To be sure, all that is essential of the Lord’s life and teaching is to be found in the Gospels — but not all that is desirable or helpful to our salvation. Neither any one nor all four of the Gospels together were written to be absolutely exhaustive and final. Were that the case, of course, we would have no need of the rest of the New Testament, nor the Old Testament, either. (There have been heretics who claimed just such outrageous foolishness).

        The Revelation of St. John the Theologian (or the “Apocalypse”) and the Acts of the Apostles are of course “special cases.” The former, almost certainly the last book of the New Testament to be written, is agreed by most scholars to have been written by St. John near the end of his life, during the reign of Dometian, probably about A.D. 95 (although parts of it may perhaps have been written at an earlier date). It is the only book of the New Testament concerning which there was significant disagreement in the Church. There were parts of the Church for several centuries in which it was not accepted as part of the Scriptures (of this, more later). The Acts of the Apostles, written by the Evangelist Luke, of course could not have been completed any earlier than A.D. 63, as it refers to St. Paul’s imprisonment at Rome which continued into that year.

The canon of the New Testament

        The earliest known list of books which apparently were regarded as “scripture” in the Church’s history comes from about A.D. 130 and is known as the Muratorian Canon. Portions of the work have been lost, but it is apparent that it includes the four Gospels and most of the epistles of St. Paul, as well as various other books. But doubts existed in portions of the Church concerning the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Epistle of Jude, the 2nd Epistle of Peter, the 2nd and 3rd Epistles of John, and the Apocalypse (this lasted right up to the council which finally confirmed the canon). As noted earlier, there were portions of the Church in which other books than those we now recognize as part of the New Testament were accepted as such.

        It is not until A.D. 369, with St. Athanasius’s “Festal Epistle” for that year, that we can find a “table of contents” for the New Testament which corresponds exactly to that which we now accept. For 336 years the Church had been living, growing, developing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and only then would it have been possible (though not even yet with universal acceptance) to print “the Holy Bible” as we now know and accept it!

        This, of course, is already four decades after the Council of Nicaea, after the Creed had been written, after the Church (as many Protestants would have it) had been finally and ultimately corrupted by St. Constantine. The formal liturgical worship of the Church was already well-defined and so similar to that of the Orthodox Church today (a fact readily established by reference to indisputable historical documents) that a believer transported in time from then to an Orthodox Church service now would find himself completely at home.

        Only five years earlier than St. Athanasius’ Epistle, however, the Council of Laodicea (the canons of which were confirmed by the Sixth Ecumenical Council) promulgated a list of the books of the New Testament which was identical… except that it did not include the Apocalypse (Revelation) amongst “all the books that are to be read” (Canon 60). It was not for quite some time yet that there was truly universal agreement as to the books of the New Testament, and it was yet to be another thousand years before there would be a single book identical in contents to what we now call the Bible.

Other books?

        The picture we have, then, is that of a body of Church literature growing throughout the first 70 years of the Church’s life. Some of these books were originally known in only one or a few local churches; others more rapidly gained a widespread audience. What was considered “scripture” in a particular local church was that which was read at the Church services, along with the books of the law and the prophets, and the Psalms, from the Old Testament. But we have not yet touched upon the fact that in this rich climate — of the oral Tradition of the Church and the new books which spoke of salvation — there were also other books, quite a number of them, in fact. Some of them were written even during the time in which the books of the New Testament came to be; others were written within the same time-frame, but shortly later.

        Some of these “other books” may indeed have been written by the apostles themselves (e.g., the Epistle of Barnabas; the Apostolic Constitutions). Others were written by other members of the early Christian Church or by the immediate successors of the apostles in the governance of the Church (e.g., the “Shepherd” of Hermas; the epistles of St. Clement, of St. Ignatius, of St. Polycarp). Some of these books were in various parts of the Church (and some of them quite widely) regarded as “scripture,” exactly on a par with the Gospels and the other books of the New Testament as we now have it. These books, however, should not be confused with the wholly inauthentic books written later, in the second and third centuries, by various heretics, who attributed their forgeries to the apostles in an attempt to authenticate their heretical teachings — such as the “Gospel of Thomas,” the “Essene Gospel of Peace” and various others.

        One thing is inescapable: the Bible is a difficult book, sealed, so to speak, with seven seals (see Rev. 5:1). But the Bible is not difficult because it is written in some unknown language or in code. We may, in fact, be so bold as to suggest that the great difficulty with the Bible is its magnificent clarity and directness. For the mysteries of God are given to us in the context of the daily lives of ordinary people. It may be, in fact, that the whole story of our salvation seems just all too human — just as Jesus Christ, the Lord of all, God Incarnate, was to all appearances a very ordinary man, the son of a carpenter.

        The Bible transmits to us and preserves for us the Word of God in a form which human beings can grasp. When God spoke to man, the communication had to be in a form we could hear and understand. Divine inspiration does not get rid of what is human: it transfigures what is human. We must not think that human language degrades or darkens the glory of revelation nor that it restricts the power of the Word of God. We must rather believe this: that human words can be used quite adequately to convey the Word of God to us. His Word does not become tarnished or cloudy when it is expressed in human language. We are created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:27; 5:1; 9:6) and the very fact of this image and likeness makes communication possible. That God speaks to us in the forms which are our own thought and speech makes our language something greater, for now the Holy Spirit enables us to speak of God.

        Theology (literally “words about God”) is thus made possible through His revelation. And, yes, theology (truly defined) is our response to God who first spoke to us, whom we have heard, and of whose words we have a record, and now proclaim.

        This process is never complete, for we are never perfect in our development of theology: we must keep working at it. We always go back to the very same point of beginning, God’s Word, the Holy Scriptures, which is His revelation. Through the creeds, the doctrines of the Church, the Eucharistic liturgy and the various prayer liturgies, and other sacred signs and symbols, theology (and, indeed, true philosophy) witnesses to the meaning of that revelation.

        We must also realize, however, that in one respect the Scriptures are themselves a response to God, for they are at one and the same time the Word of God and the response of humanity. The Bible is the Word of God brought to us through the faithful response of those people who wrote it and handed it down to us. Indeed, in every case in which someone wrote, by the inspiration of God, a work which became part of the Bible, the presentation carries some flavor of that person, in being a response to God it is also an interpretation of the message received from God. Thus, there is certainly a sense in which all parts of Scripture reflect the context in which the revelation was given. It would be impossible for that not to be.

        Having received the revelation in the form of the Scriptures, the Church has, through her experience in the world through the centuries, found it necessary to produce explanations. These explanations, seen as a whole, form that which is the structure and pattern of beliefs which are to be found especially in the creeds and other decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, but also in the writings of the great theologians of the Church such as St. Gregory Nazianzus (called “the Theologian”), St. Basil the Great, St. John of Damascus, St. Symeon the New Theologian and others. They are also to be found in the liturgical services, especially in the hymns and prayers.

How to Read the Bible by Archimandrite Justin Popovich Return to the first page





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