THE ORIGIN OF THE SCRIPTURES
December 11, 2007
image: text decay (cc) YanivG
Before starting the journey into the Bible to unearth what the text says about the Christian faith, it's useful to at least have a surface understanding of how the Bible came to exist. The phrase, "because the Bible says so" is not useful if the text -- especially the whole text -- is disembodied; if one cannot explain how the text came to exist in the context of reality, one cannot rationally use it to justify any sort of action or behavior.
How did we get this book that we're supposed to trust? How did we get all of these translations of the text? Why do some bibles have books that other bibles don't? I think these are vital questions for the believer who wants to understand their faith. I hope to answer some of that, but I also hope to provoke more questions. Half of the journey of discovery is finding the right questions.
The Origin of the Christian Bible
I've heard people mention the Council of Nicaea as the organizing body for today's Bible, but after doing some research on my own, it turns out that those people are entirely wrong. This text was particularly useful in sorting out the confusion. As it turns out, neither the first Council of Nicaea (met in 325 A.D., and specifically addressed Arian Controversy, which proposed that Jesus was a created being, rather than being of the same "substance" as God; more of that can be read here) nor the second Council of Nicaea (met in 787 A.D., and promoted the placement of icons/symbols -- the cross, statues/paintings of Mary, of angels, of saints, etc.) had anything to do with the canonization of the Bible; rather, it was a Council of Carthage in 397 A.D. that presented a list of books to be included as scriptures.
The Wikipedia article linked to the Councils of Carthage mentions the books secured by the canon established in 397 A.D.:
The Council of Carthage, called the third by Denzinger, on 28 August 397 issued a canon of the Bible restricted to: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Josue, Judges, Ruth, 4 books of Kingdoms, 2 books of Paralipomenon, Job, Psalter of David, 5 books of Solomon, 12 books of Prophets, Isaias, Jeremias, Daniel, Ezechiel, Tobias, Judith, Esther, 2 books of Esdras, 2 books of Machabees, and in the New Testament: 4 books of Gospels, 1 book of Acts of the Apostles, 13 letters of the Apostle Paul, 1 of him to the Hebrews, 2 of Peter, 3 of John, 1 of James, 1 of Judas, and the Apocalypse of John.
You'll notice that this official list bears some resemblance to our modern Bible, but it's not a complete match. The New Testament matches and is closed at this point. (As a note of clarification, the name Judas in the list refers to the apostle Jude, and should not be confused with Judas Iscariot.)
The Old Testament section of that list, however, has some books that the Orthodox Catholic church includes in their text, although non-catholic denominations do not. This has created quite a bit of controversy and debate over the validity of the texts (Tobit/Tobias, Judith, Machabees/Maccabees, etc., collectively referred to as "the Apocrypha"), but the fact that the Jewish scriptures themselves do not include those Jewish texts convinces me that they are not "scripture," however useful they may be.
How did the members of the council of Carthage compile the texts? It's probably safe to say that they didn't just sit around and pick arbitrary books that they liked. The council's objective (as was the case with all such councils) was to create unification between all the churches that had spread from the time of Paul. With a decentralized network of churches, the risk of errant or heretical teaching was mitigated by the work of the councils.
Because the Christian religion was so widespread at the time (thanks and no thanks to Emperor Constantine in 313 A.D.), it makes sense that much of the text was already in circulation and accepted. The council's decision to canonize the text seems more likely to close an existing selection, rather than to create a new list.
Anyhow, while all of this gives a brief glimpse into how the books of the Bible were canonized, it says nothing about how they came to exist in the first place nor how we arrived at a multitude of translations. I'll tackle that subject in the next few posts.
Note: I don't believe the various church councils were always correct; as mentioned earlier, the second Council of Nicaea restored the previously abolished use of icons, suggesting that they could be used to reflect on the holiness of Christ, of the saints, and of Mary. It was decreed that crosses be placed on churches, and that ornate tapestries and statues of Jesus and the saints be erected within them. I believe that this opened the door to the commercialization of Christianity, leading to the eventual sales of "WWJD" bracelets and gold cross necklaces, neither of which have any bearing on the faith.