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July 25, 2011

When did an early collection of religious books become THE BIBLE?

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This question, in part, asks: when was a collection of Jewish writings connected to and used along with a collection of Christian writings—though, to be honest, the issue is much more complicated. Here is the first difficulty: although there are over 5000 manuscripts of canonical New Testament writings, only two small fragments from the second century survive (no manuscripts of any Christian text from the first century survive). Multiple copies of Christian texts began to appear in the third century and later. Near the beginning of the third century, fragments of two papyrus books containing collections of New Testament writings were found: P45 contained fragments of the four gospels and Acts; P46 contained fragments of Romans, 1, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, and Hebrews (missing: were 2 Thessalonians, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, James, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, Revelation, 1, 2, 3 John). Hence writings of the New Testament were collected together at least as early as the year 200, or about 170 years after the public career of Jesus. But we have no real knowledge about what transpired in the 170 years from about 30 to 200.

     Here is a second problem: what Jewish texts have been used by Christians as Holy Scripture? The data show several answers. Today, Jewish texts in the BIBLE used by Protestants number 39 Jewish writings. Jewish texts in the BIBLE used by Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, number 45 or 46 books (the Protestant 39 plus several others). The Jewish BIBLE, however, has only 24 books—the same material as the Protestant 39 but arranged differently to form 24 books. The additional books used by Roman Catholics and the Orthodox are known as “Jewish apocrypha” by Protestants (i.e., not canonical), but regarded as “deutero-canonical” by Roman Catholics—meaning that they were added to the canon later and are equal in authority to the Jewish 24/Protestant 39.

     When the earliest Christians migrated into the Greek-speaking world in the first century they used the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures), which contained the additional Jewish books used by Roman Catholics and the Orthodox, all of which the earliest Christians regarded as “sacred writings” (2 Timothy 3:14-17). Today Roman Catholics and the Orthodox still use a larger number of Jewish texts as Holy Scripture, while Protestants use a smaller number.

     The earliest survival of Jewish texts and New Testament writings in one collection is found in the 4th century Codex Vaticanus (ca. 325-350); this collection contained most of the Septuagint for the Christian Old Testament, plus many New Testament texts (it lacks 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Revelation and has excluded many sections in the writings it does include). Codex Sinaiticus, also from the 4th century, is believed to have contained the complete Septuagint (what Roman Catholics use for their Old Testament), plus New Testament texts, but it includes also the Epistle of Barnabas and portions of the Shepherd of Hermas, both considered spurious by Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea (around 325).

     This information suggests that associating the “sacred writings” of the Jews with writings of the Christians in one collection did not automatically confer the status of “sacred writings” on the Christian texts. A few years later, however, there can be no question that they had achieved that status. In 367 Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria sent an Easter letter to the churches in his see in which he referred to the Old Testament writings (with the exception of the book of Esther), plus the New Testament writings, as “divinely inspired scripture.” These books “included in the Canon” have been “handed down and accredited as Divine.” Further they are “fountains of salvation that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain.”

     He does not, however, describe the books, either separately or as a collection, as the “Word of God.” Likely it was because the Christian writers of this period, following John 1:1-5, reserved such a description for Jesus the Christ. It is interesting to note that the writers of the New Testament, “Christians” of an age earlier than Athanasius, did not even describe the “sacred writings” of the Jews as “Word of God.” Rather they reserved the expression “word of God” for the message that these earlier Christians preached (1 Thessalonians 2:13; Acts 4:31; Acts 13:5, 44, 46; Heb 13:7; 1 Peter 1:25; Luke 3:2-3)! The Jewish Bible they described only as “sacred writings” (2 Timothy 3:14-17).

     Our modern description of the Bible as the “Word of God” is clearly indebted to the Protestant reformers of the 16th century. Luther and Calvin, however, nuanced what they meant by calling the Bible the “Word of God.” Basically both Luther and Calvin stressed that the Bible is the word of God because its content speaks words of life to human beings. Calvin, however, insisted that the Bible was more than just a vehicle for the gospel but thought it was the “supreme and infallible authority in all things.” Luther, on the other hand, found degrees of religious value in the different books of the Bible, and reserved the highest value for those that presented the gospel—meaning he did not like some of them.

     Reflecting on our modern popular description of the Bible as “The Word of God,” I cannot help but think that the earliest Christians would regard such a description as a type of bibliolatry because it confers a quality on the collection that was foreign to their way of thinking. The reverential deference paid to the Bible by modern Christians of all stripes has effectively turned it into an icon (a sacred object)—effectively attempting to pass off a collection of texts, produced and designed by human ingenuity, as a declaration by God.

     Does anyone know when the Christian Bible first came to be called the “Word of God”? Who should receive the credit—or be saddled with the blame?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 6:00am

Charlie, in answer to your question, the Ozark Uncle (that's me) is quite sure the Bible was first called the "Word of God" in 1950 at the Ava (MO) Church of God. The Ozark Uncle was five years old, and in the care of his Grandma Brown. This loving but quite judgmental soul was determined that her small charge would worship the Bible and use its power to condemn those who did not follow her views.

The Ozark Uncle is again studying the Protestant Bible with a conservative group of men on Friday mornings. After the gathering a couple of weeks ago, he struck up a conversation with a man whose gay brother-in-law had turned suicidal after being left by his long-time companion. The Ozark Uncle was proposing that the man show extra compassion for his brother-in-law during this trying time.

With a quiver in his lip, the man pounded a finger on the Bible under his arm, and said, "Ken Brown, this is the WORD OF GOD. I believe every word in it." The Ozark Uncle let the conversation end but thought of all that he's read over the past few years (including your postings) that have formed his view. But he doesn't want to be the one who might utter a word to make the man lose his faith--he has long seemed very fragile and perhaps walks in fear that his "icon" might not actually be what he believes it to be.
Ken (and Joy) Brown, Springfield, MO
Posted by Ken Brown on 7/25/2011 at 8:09am

Intuition and academic scholarship are completely different paradigms. My strictly academic editor pounded that into me time after time as we worked together on The Temple Sleep. Scholars inherently distrust assertions of knowledge based upon intuition, for the reason that they do not have the tools to test its verity. We wonder why anthroposophy has made no inroads into the paradigm, the realm, of academic study. It is precisely that. Scholars rest their work on documents and artifacts. Fundamental Christians do, I believe, the same thing when they text proof the Bible. Paul said, “The written code kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6b). The ten commandments are relevant, I think, when they say we should not make any graven image. I shock people when I say that the literal words of our Bible are graven images, frozen and inflexible, in stark contrast to the nature of the supersensible realm, the realm of the Spirit. If this shocks you as it does most of those I say it to, consider these words of Rudolf Steiner from his March 6, 1910 lecture in Stuttgart entitled, “The Reappearance of Christ in the Etheric,” which is lecture 5, p. 83, in the 1983 book by the same name:
No matter how much those persons who wish to rely only on documents call themselves good Christians, they destroy Christianity; no matter how much they raise a hue and cry and how loudly they proclaim what they know about Christianity through the documents, they destroy Christianity. They destroy it because they reject a spiritual teaching according to which Christ in our century will become truth for human beings through vision.
The Bible will continue to be a priceless religious document, an artifact, no less, like a frozen footprint in the human journey through the ages. But we must keep these higher principles in mind as we study it, while lifting our eyes to the higher levels of insight of which Christ spoke when he said “I came to cast fire upon the earth” (Luke 12:49). Steiner’s words lift us, pointing us in that direction, yet he admonished that even they must continue to be understood in a living, and not a frozen, way. Deep contemplation and service must be our journey’s mode of progress.
Edward R. Smith
Posted by Edward R. Smith on 7/25/2011 at 11:32am