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The New Testament

TO DWELL AT TOO GREAT LENGTH on this matter of the "apocryphal" books of the Old Testament, however, could be very misleading, for in some significant respects it is entirely beside the point. Some much more critical issues are at stake. In order for these issues to be meaningfully or intelligently addressed, it is first necessary to understand and accept that the Church and the Holy Scriptures have a history... that is, that certain things happened in a certain order at certain times, and that, at least to a meaningful extent, we can determine what these were. We must, to reduce the matter to simplicity, admit that the Church existed on the Monday after Pentecost... but that at that point none of the books of the New Testament yet existed, and most of them would not be written for yet another twenty or more years, and a few not until nearly the end of the century. If we (or those with whom we discuss the Faith) deny the existence of this history, refuse to admit facts as part of divine Truth... then we really have nothing to discuss at all.

In the first weeks, months, 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. Lk. 8:2 1; 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" (Jn. 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 (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.

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