Who Gave Us The New Testament?


Again Magazine  Volume 15  No. 3  September,
1992  Page 7-10

WHO GAVE US THE NEW TESTAMENT?

By Fr. A. James Bernstein

“The history of early
Christianity clearly reveals that God used His Church, composed of
flesh-and-blood Christians, as active participants in the process of selecting
and establishing the New Testament canon, just as He used real people —with
feelings, emotions, unique backgrounds and perspectives—to write the
twenty-seven separate books.”

Sometimes it is
easy to overlook the obvious.  Take,
for instance, the New Testament.  Even
though  every Christian 
really knows better, it is easy to forget that the New Testament was not
written as one continuous book. Rather, it is a collection of twenty-seven
shorter writings which were penned by a variety of authors at differing times
and geographical locations and compiled much later. Nowhere in the New Testament
do we find a list of what books belong in the New Testament. The “canon” of
Scripture is, of course, not “scriptural.” 

This
brings up anther important question which may not be so obvious. Who, then,
decided which books should be included in the New Testament canon and which ones
left out?

As a
Jewish convert to Christianity via evangelical Protestantism, I once refused to
acknowledge that the Church had anything to do with compiling the
New Testament. I wanted to believe God chose and collected these books without
human involvement. The books, I assumed, somehow validated themselves beyond all
reasonable doubt, and early Christians merely recognized their obvious
scriptural status. 

Though
there is some degree of truth in this position, it is by itself naive and
unbalanced. The history of early Christianity clearly reveals that God used His
Church, composed of flesh-and-blood Christians, as active participants in the
process of selecting and establishing the New Testament canon, just as He used
real people—with feelings, emotions, unique backgrounds and perspectives—to
write the twenty-seven separate books. 

WHAT
BIBLE DID THE APOSTLES USE?

“All
Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (II Timothy 3:16). I had always
assumed that the “Scripture” spoken of in this passage included both the Old
and New Testament. In reality, there was no official “New” Testament
when this statement was made. Even the Old Testament was still in the
process of formulation, for the Jews did not decide upon a definitive list or
canon of Old Testament books until after the rise of Christianity.

As I
studied further I discovered that early Christians used a Greek translation of
the Old Testament called the Septuagint. *  This translation, which was begun in Alexandria, Egypt, in the
third century B.C., contained an expanded canon which included a number of the
so-called “deutero-canonical” books. Although there was some initial debate
over these books, they were eventually received by Christians into the Old
Testament canon.

In reaction to the
rise of Christianity the Jews narrowed their canons and eventually excluded the
deutero-canonical books—although they still regarded them as sacred. The
modern Jewish canon was not rigidly fixed until the third century A.D.
Interestingly, it is this later version of the Jewish canon of the Old
Testament, rather than the canon of early Christianity, which is followed by
most of the Protestant Church today.

HISTORY
IN THE MAKING

The
history of the New Testament canon and  
its development is a fascinating subject — and 
crucial to the understanding of both the Bible and the Church. For
over two hundred years a number of books we now take for granted as being part
of the New Testament were disputed by the Church before being included. Many
other books were considered for inclusion, but eventually excluded. I was
shocked when I first discovered that the earliest complete listing of all
twenty-seven books of the New Testament was not given until A.D. 367, by
Athanasius, a bishop in Egypt.

This
means that the first complete listing of New Testament books as we have them
today didn’t appear until over 300 years after the death and Resurrection of
Christ. Imagine it! If the New Testament were begun at the same time as the U.S.
Constitution, we wouldn’t see a final product until the year 2087!

During
the first four centuries there was substantial disagreement over which books
should be included in the canon of Scripture. The first person we know of who
tried to establish a New Testament canon was the second-century heretic,
Marcion. He wanted the Church to reject its Jewish heritage, and in so
doing dispense with the Old Testament entirely. Marcion’s canon included only
one Gospel, which he himself edited, and ten of Paul’s epistles. That’s it!

Many
believe that it was partly in reaction to this distorted canon of Marcion that
the early Church determined to have a clearly defined canon of its own.
The destruction of Jerusalem in A.D.70, the breakup of the Jewish-Christian
community of Jerusalem, and the threatened loss of continuity in the oral
tradition probably also contributed to the sense of urgency to standardize the
list of books Christians could rely on.

THE
GOSPEL ACCORDING TO WHOM?

The four
Gospels were written from thirty to seventy years after Jesus’ death and
Resurrection. In the interim, the Church relied on oral tradition—the accounts
of eye-witnesses—as well as scattered documents and written tradition. I was
very surprised to discover as I first studied the early Church that many
“Gospels” besides those of the New Testament canon were circulating in the
first and second centuries.

These
include the Gospel according to the Hebrews, the Gospel according to the
Egyptians, and the Gospel according to Peter, just to name a few.

The New
Testament itself speaks of the existence of such accounts. Saint Luke’s Gospel
begins by saying, “Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order
a narrative of those things which are most surely believed among us. . . it
seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things
from the very first, to write to you an orderly account. . .“ In time, all but
four Gospels were excluded from the New Testament canon.

In the
early years of Christianity there was even a controversy over which of
the four Gospels to use. The Christians of Asia Minor used the Gospel of
John rather than the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Based upon the Passion
account contained in John, Christians in Asia Minor celebrated Easter on a
different day than those in Rome, which resisted the Gospel of John and instead
used the other Gospels. The Western Church for a time hesitated to use the
Gospel of John because the Gnostic heretics also made use of it in addition to
their own “secret Gospels.”

Another
controversy arose over the issue of whether there should be separate Gospels or
one single composite Gospel account. In the second century, Tatian, who was
Justin Martyr’s student, published a single composite “harmonized” Gospel
called the Diatessaron. The Syrian Church used this composite Gospel in
the second, third, and fourth centuries. This is the very Church to which “the
Nazares” (Jewish ­Christians of Jerusalem) eventually migrated after the fall
of Jerusalem to the Romans in A.D. 70. The Syrian Church did not accept all four
Gospels until the fifth century. They also ignored for a time the three epistles
of John, and Second Peter.

OTHER
CONTROVERSIAL BOOKS

My
favorite New Testament book, the Epistle to the Hebrews, was clearly excluded in
the Western Church in a number of listings of the second, third, and fourth
centuries. Prominent among reasons for excluding this book were concerns over
its authorship. Primarily due to Augustine and his influence upon certain North
African councils, the Epistle to the Hebrews was finally accepted in the West by
the end of the fourth century.

On the
other hand, the book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse, written by the
Apostle John, was not accepted in the Eastern Church for several centuries. Once
again, questions concerning authorship of the book were at the source of the
controversy. Among Eastern authorities who rejected this book were Dionysius of
Alexandria (third century), Eusebius (third century), Cyril of Jerusalem (fourth
century), the Council of Laodicea (fourth century), John Chrysostom (fourth
century), Theodore of Mopsuesta (fourth century), and Theodoret (fifth century).
In addition, the original Syriac and Armenian versions of the New Testament
omitted this book. Many Greek New Testament manuscripts written before the ninth
century do not contain the Apocalypse, and it is not used in the liturgical
cycle of the Eastern Church to this day.

Athanasius
supported the inclusion of the Apocalypse, and it is due primarily to his
influence that it was eventually received into the New Testament canon in the
East. The early Church actually seems to have made an internal compromise
on the Apocalypse and Hebrews. The East would have excluded the Apocalypse from
the canon, while the West would have done without Hebrews. Simply put, each side
agreed to accept the disputed books of the other.

WHO
DECIDED?

With the
passage of time the Church discerned which writings were truly Apostolic and
which were not. It was a prolonged struggle taking place over several centuries
in which the Church decided what books were her own. As part of the process of
discerning, the Church met together in council. These various Church councils
met to deal with many varied issues, among which was the canon of Scripture.

These
councils met to discern and for­mally confirm what was already generally
accepted within the Church at large. They did not legislate Scripture as much as
they set forth what had become self-evident truth and practice within the
Churches of God. The councils sought to proclaim the common mind of the Church
and reflect the unanimity of faith, practice, and tradition of the local
Churches represented.

The
Church Councils provide us with specific records in which the Church spoke
clearly and in unison as to what constitutes Scripture. Among the many councils
that met during the first four centuries, two particularly stand out:

1. The Council of
Laodicea, which met in Asia Minor, around A.D. 363.
This council stated that
only canonical books of the Old and New Testaments should be used in the Church.
It forbade reading other books in Church. It enumerated the canonical books of
our present Old and New Testaments, with the exception of the Apocalypse of
Saint John. This is the first council which clearly listed the canonical books.
Its decisions were widely accepted in the Eastern Church.

2.
The Third Council of Carthage,
which met in North Africa, around A.D.
397.
This Council, attended by Augustine, provided a full list of the
canonical books of both Old and New Testaments. The 27 books of the present day
New Testament were accepted as canonical. It also held that these books should
be read in the Church as Divine Scripture to the exclusion of all others. This
Council was widely accepted as authoritative in the West.

A QUESTION OF AUTHORITY

As I
said at the beginning of this article, the history of the New Testament canon
and its development is crucial to a proper understanding of both the Bible and
the Church. The implications are indeed profound, and they call for some serious
heart-searching on the part of all Christians. I would like to conclude on a
personal note by showing you exactly how profound these implications can
be. For they brought about some radical changes in my life—not only in how I
came to approach Scripture and its interpretation, but in how I now relate to
Christ’s holy Church in its historical expression. 

Soon
after my own conversion to Christianity I found myself getting swept up
in the tide of Christian sectarianism which is so pervasive in the Protestant
world. In fact, I eventually became so sectarian that I came to believe that all
Churches were non-biblical. To become a member of any Church was to
compromise the Faith. A close friend of mine even wrote a book called The
Bible Versus the Churches,
in which he argued that the Bible was true, and
in conflict with Churches, all of which were false. 

For me,
Church became “the Bible, God, and me.” My attitude towards others was,
“Tell me what you believe and I’ll tell you where you’re wrong!” Even my
Christian friends became suspect. And my friend who wrote The Bible Versus
the Churches
came to believe that the Bible was in conflict with me
as well! We parted ways.

This
hostility towards Churches fit in well with my being a Jew. I naturally
distrusted Churches because I felt they had betrayed the teachings of Christ in
having persecuted or passively ignored the persecution of the Jews
throughout history. As I became increasingly sectarian, indeed even obnoxious
and anti-social, I slowly began to realize that something was seriously wrong
with my approach to Christianity. I also realized that many of my
Jewish-Christian brethren had also fallen into an elitist and sectarian
“super-Christian” mold, believing that they were on a mission to clean
up “Gentile Christianity.”

This
realization led me to a sincere study of the history of the early Church,
where I discovered four centuries of discussion and debate over which books
should be included and excluded from the New Testament canon. It soon became
clear to me that I was dealing with a larger issue— the issue of Church
authority.

Biblical
scholarship had given me four criteria to determine if a book was to be included
as canonical.

1. It
must be written by Apostles or disciples of the Apostles.

2. It
must be considered inspired of God.

3. It
must be accepted by the Church.

4. It
must conform to the oral tradition and rule of faith taught by the Church.

I had no
difficulty accepting the first two criteria. I wrestled mightily, however, with
the thought that the Church had been given the authority to judge what books
composed Scripture. Ultimately, it came down to a single issue. I already
believed that God spoke authoritatively through His written Word. Could I now
accept the fact that He spoke authoritatively through His Church as well—the
very Church which had protected, preserved, and actively produced the Scriptures
I held so dear?

THE CHURCH OF THE NEW
TESTAMENT
 

For the
earliest Christians, God spoke His Word not only to but through His
Body, the Church, and it was within His Body, the Church, that the Word
was confirmed and established. Without question the Scriptures were looked upon
by early Christians as God’s active revelation of Himself to the world. At the
same time, the Church was looked upon as the household of God, “having been
built on the foundation of the Apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being
the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being joined together, grows
into a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:20-21).

There
was no organic separation between Bible and Church as we find so often today.
The Body without the Word is without message, but the Word without the Body is
without foundation. As Paul says in I Timothy 3:15, “The church of the
living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” The Church is the living body
of the incarnate Lord. She is an integral part of the Gospel message and it is
within the context of the Church that the New Testament was conceived and
preserved.

This
study was instrumental in my eventual conversion to the Orthodox Faith.
If the Church was not just a tangent or a sidelight to the Scripture, but rather
an active participant in its development and preservation, then it was time to
reconcile my differences and abandon my prejudices. Rather than try to judge the
Church by my modern understanding of what the Bible was saying, I needed to come
into union with the Church that produced the New Testament, and let her guide me
into a proper understanding.

To make
a long story short, I am now an Orthodox priest serving in Seattle, Washington,
and am striving to witness to the power of God’s Holy Church. To those
who, like I once did, stand dogmatically on “Sola Scriptura,” in the process
rejecting the Church of God which not only produced the New Testament, but also
selected through the guidance of the Holy Spirit those books which compose the
New Testament, I would say only this:

Study
the history of the early Church and the development of the New Testament canon.
Use source documents where possible. (It is amazing how some of the most
“conservative” Bible scholars of the evangelical community turn into cynical
and rationalistic liberals when discussing Church history.) Examine for yourself
what happened to God’s people after the 28th chapter of the book of Acts.

If you
examine the data and look with objectivity at what occurred in those
early days, I think you will discover what I discovered. The history of God’s
Church didn’t stop with the first century. If it had, we would not possess the
New Testament books which are so dear to every Christian believer. The
phenomena of separating Church and Bible which we see so prevalent in much of
today’s Christian world is a modern phenomena. Early Christians made no such
artificial distinctions.

Once you
have examined this data, I would encourage you to find out more about the
historic Church which produced the New Testament, preserved it, and selected
those books which would be part of its canon. Every Christian owes it to himself
or herself to find out more about this Church and to understand its vital role
in proclaiming God’s Word to our own generation.

Fr.
A. James Bernstein is the pastor of Saint Paul Orthodox Church in Lynnwood,
Washington.

 

* THE PSALTER
ACCORDING TO THE SEVENTY

The Use of the
Septuagint by the Early Church

What Old
Testament text did early Christians use when they prayed the Psalms? 
Many are surprised to learn that the official text was not the
Hebrew or Masoretic text which forms the basis of most modern English
translations today.  In order to
understand why, it is necessary to know something of the background of the text
of the Old Testament. 

At the
time of Christ, the Apostles, and the early Church, Hebrew had long since ceased
to be the commonly spoken language, even among the Jews.  Although Jesus understood Hebrew, He would have spoken
Aramaic – the common language of Palestine – with His disciples. ; Jesus and
His disciples were probably familiar, at least to a certain extent, with Greek,
the common language of the Roman Empire. 

Because
Greek was the most widely spoken and read language of the empire at large, a
translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek had been accomplished,
according to tradition, by seventy translators, in the city of Alexandria,
during the third century before Christ.  The
name Septuagint means “according to the seventy.” 
The Septuagint, or LXX, was without question the most common text of the
Scriptures at the time of Jesus and the Apostles. 
It was the Old Testament of the early Church.

The
other text used at that period was the Hebrew text that had been preserved by
the rabbis and scribes of Israel.  Those
who read today about scriptural manuscripts will have undoubtedly run across
references made to the “masoretic” texts, which means the texts of the
scribes (who were known as “masoretes”).

In the
first century, after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and
the end of the Jewish priesthood, the authority of the rabbis in Israel became
absolute.  Before that time the
rabbis occupied a position secondary to the priests. 
The rabbis and scribes distrusted anything that was not written in the
traditional Hebrew language, and consequently they rejected the Septuagint text. 
But for the early Church the Septuagint was always used. 
When the New Testament quotes the Old, which it frequently does, and when
it quotes the Psalms, which it very frequently does, it quotes the Septuagint
text exclusively.  That is one of
the reasons why the Orthodox Church today still continues to use the Septuagint
text.

From
what Hebrew text was the Septuagint translated? 
The actual Hebrew manuscripts which formed the basis of this translation,
centuries before Christ, have been lost.  The Orthodox Church believes that the Hebrew text upon which
the Septuagint is based is actually older and more venerable than the Hebrew
text of the scribes.

Though
both texts, the Masoretic text and the Septuagint, are quite similar in many
ways, there are significant differences.  These
differences can primarily be summed up by saying that the messianic prophecies
found throughout the Psalms and the prophetic writings are far more explicit in
the Septuagint text than in the Masoretic text.

A
careful study of the Psalms reveals how crucially different the Septuagint text
is in these messianic portions.  Orthodoxy
regards the intensification of messianic prophecy that occurred in the
Septuagint text to be the inspiration of the Holy Spirit preparing Israel for
the coming of the Savior.  As the
time of the Messiah drew nearer and nearer, the prophecies of His coming became
more and more explicit.

For the
most part, translators during and after the Reformation, in an attempt to get
back to what they thought were the roots of the Old Testament text, chose
to use the Hebrew texts of the scribes and rejected the traditional use of the
Septuagint.  Therefore the Bibles
most commonly available in English, whether they be NKJV or RSV or another
English translation, are translations of the Hebrew text of the scribes, not
translations of the Septuagint.  The
traditional text of the Orthodox Church, however, whether it be in her singing
of the Psalms in worship, or her study of the Old Testament, is still the text
of the early Church:  the
Septuagint.