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. ) i.e. to the side of the ark where the other books
of Moses were kept.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 EarlyChurch.
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
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 ; ).
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 ).
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.
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
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
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.