THE PICTURE WE HAVE, then, is that of a growing body of Church literature
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. [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.]
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.
The earliest indication we have that any of these books (both those
we now regard as the "New Testament" and the others) were regarded as
"scripture" is evidence of their use in the worship of the Church and
of their citation in the writings of the Church Fathers. The early decades of
the Church's life were preoccupied with missionary activity and persecution. If
it occurred to anyone to make a written "table of contents" of the new
scriptural books during this period, we have no indication of it.
of the New Testament.
The "Table of Contents"
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 last 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
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
This, of course, is already four decades after the Council of Nicea,
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 is 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.
What can one make of this? We shall have to come back to this momentarily...
but first let us conclude the history of the "table of contents."
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.
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