Where Did We Get the Bible? Part 1

To Take Our Bible Into Our Hands

Toward the end of the fourth century, a preacher named John Chrysostom said, “For we ought not as soon as we retire from the Communion, to plunge into business unsuited to the Communion, but as soon as ever we get home, to take our Bible into our hands, and call our wife and children to join us in putting together what we have heard, and then, not before, engage in the business of life.”

In a sermon on Acts 8:26-27, Chrysostom notes that the Ethiopian eunuch read the Scripture in public on his chariot, and he chides his congregation, “Not so [with] you: none takes the Bible in hand: nay, everything rather than the Bible.” He also colorfully declares that they might as well “tie up [their] Bible” if they will not listen to its content! From around this point onward, the churches could refer to the collection of sacred writings as simply, “the Bible.”

But, what about before this time? How did this collection that Chrysostom calls “the Bible” come about?

Outlining the Plot of an “Untold Story”

The task of describing the formation of the Christian canon is the task of telling an “untold story.” Although the development of the Bible as a whole is hugely significant, there is no ancient account of the process. In this way, we’re trying to tell an untold story. As you might expect, there are different versions of this “untold” story.

Depending on who is telling the story, the origins of the Bible can either sound inevitable or absurd! One way to highlight the divergent plotlines that are possible is to ask this question: “Did the Church create the Canon?” Or, “Did the canon create the churches?”

Was canon formation a process of selection, or could it have been a process of recognition? Was the canon a late invention of the fourth century? Or, was the canon an early reality in the life of the churches of the first and second centuries?

Though there are a host of questions we might pursue, we’ll focus on the resources you can use to answer this type of question: “Did the Church create the Canon?” Or, “Did the canon create the churches?”

A popular version of the story that is often told about the origins of the Bible comes from Dan Brown’s 2003 novel and later movie, The Da Vinci Code. In one particular scene, two of the main characters discuss the origin of the Gospels:

“Who chose which gospels to include?” Sophie asked. “Aha!” Teabing burst in with enthusiasm. “The fundamental irony of Christianity! The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great” [hundreds of years after the time of Jesus and the apostles].

More recently in 2015, a major article ran in Newsweek called, “The Bible: So Misunderstood it’s a Sin.” In this article, the author asserts,

“To understand how what we call the Bible was made, you must see how the beliefs that became part of Christian orthodoxy were pushed into it by the Holy Roman Empire. By the fifth century, the political and theological councils voted on which of the many Gospels in circulation were to make up the New Testament. With the power of Rome behind them, the practitioners of this proclaimed orthodoxy wiped out other sects and tried to destroy every copy of their Gospels and other writings.”

In these versions of the story, the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not an early collection of writings that gradually gained widespread support among the churches in the ancient world. Rather, these particular books were deliberately chosen by government officials and politically motivated theologians hundreds of years after the fact. In this rendering, the actual events and beliefs of early Christians have no organic connection with what eventually became the centerpiece of the New Testament.

So, how might we go about challenging Teabing and Newsweek’s claim?

It’s not enough to deconstruct the false narrative. We need to be able to tell a story about how the Bible came to be that better fits the evidence and does justice to God’s hand in the process.

The Terms of the Debate

A helpful starting point in this discussion is with the terms of the debate. As is often the case in popular apologetics, whoever sets the terms and parameters of the debate has a more solid footing in a back and forth dialogue.

Canon: The Greek term “canon” has two broad senses or nuances. First, canon can refer to a rule, norm, or guide. The word came to be used for a “measuring stick” or a “ruler.” This usage implied the authoritative ideas of “rule” or “standard.” A canon was something you measured something else with (e.g., “rule of law,” or “rule of faith”). Second, the term canon can refer to a list of items or some kind of catalogue. By the fourth century, the term canon came to mean a “list” of authoritative items (like people, tables of measurements, or documents). When referring to a catalogue or list of writings, we can think of “canon” as a collection of literature.

Scripture: The term “Scripture” comes from the Greek word that simply means “writings.” In certain contexts, the term means “sacred writings.” In this sense, the scriptures are writings that have been deemed authoritative or are considered normative by a particular group of people or community.

Canon of Scripture: The “canon of Scripture,” then, is an authoritative collection of authoritative writings. In other words, the individual documents within the collection are considered to be authoritative and divinely inspired. The collection as a whole is also considered to be authoritative and divinely inspired. In this sense, we can distinguish between canon and scripture, but we shouldn’t totally divorce the concepts. Because the idea of “authority” was connected to the idea of “canon,” we can call writings that eventually make up part of the biblical collection “canonical.” Around the fourth century, the collection of Old and New Testament writings was called a canon. In so doing, the early church was recognizing both the authority and interconnectedness of these writings.

Bible: Around this time, the church also began calling the canon the “Bible.” The word “Bible” meant “books,” so calling the canonical collection the “Bible” meant calling it something like, the “Book of books.”

Calling our collection a “canon” is a way of ascribing authority and reverence to it. The confession of the churches was that the writings themselves were authoritative and that the collection carried the cumulative weight of their combined witness to God’s special revelation.

Theologically, this collection as a whole is God’s special revelation to his people.

Read Where Did We Get the Bible? Part 2


Published October 25, 2017