The History of the Bible

The history of the Bible and it's canonization are somewhat complicated, and most of it happened nearly 2 millenia ago, so history is extremely important in unraveling the mysteries of the most read and influential book in the world.  It's books and the interpretation of those books have caused many divisions, yet very few understand where the books of the Bible came from.  This is quite possibly one of the most important pieces of history, yet it has been forgotten.  This is merely meant to be a brief summary for the common layperson to comprehend.  This covers a lot of ground in a short time, but I hope to encourage all to dig deeper into the history of their faith.

Early Jews handed down the Scriptures orally.  Moses was the first we know of to write down these oral traditions in the Pentateuch, the first five books, in the 13th century B.C.  The word Torah denotes both the written text, Torah Shebischtav and the oral tradition, Torah Shebe'al peh.  In the 3rd Century B.C., the Greek Septuagint (LXX) was translated.  The Greek King of Egypt, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, asked Jewish scholars to translate the Torah from Hebrew to Greek.  According to legend, 72 Jewish translators were enlisted to complete the translation while in separate chambers.  The legend claimed all 72 produced identical versions of the the text in exactly 72 days.  The translation included the Deuterocanon; Wisdom, Sirach, Judith, Baruch, Tobit, and 1&2 Maccabees.  During the Maccabean period the Pharisees and Sadduccees first emerged. 

During the time of Christ, different sects followed differing texts.  The Sadducees only recognized the first five books of the Pentateuch.  The Pharisees recognized the law and the prophets but were still debating the Greek texts (Deuterocanon), some recognized it, others did not.  The Essenes at the time of Christ did recognize the Septuagint, and the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls verified some books of the Deuterocanon had actually been written in Hebrew back in the 1st century A.D.  The Septuagint is quoted in the majority of the Gospels and Epistles, implying that Jesus and the Apostles considered it reliable.  

When the Word became flesh, Jesus made the mysterious move of never writing anything down, other than writing in the sand.  We know he was literate, but why Christ chose to carry on the Jewish tradition of the oral tradition is a great mystery.  God walked among us and we only have records from witnesses, none from Him.  Instead of handing down a handbook, Christ in His infinite wisdom established a Church upon Peter (Mt. 16:19).  Peter was given the keys to the Kingdom, and the authority to loose and bind.  In Mt 18: 15-17 Christ implores his followers that if they have disputes, to take them to the Church to resolve it.  Following the Resurrection, in the Great Commission, Christ sent the Apostles, "as the Father had sent him in" Jn 20:19-23, to baptize all nations.  This is no small commissioning, and it is important to note that Peter and the Apostles had the authority to canonize whatever books they wanted. That said, historically they still preserved the books recognized by the Jews and used by Christ in his teachings.  

The Apostles followed that commissioning to the "ends of the earth".  The first Christians were all Jews, but by Christ assuming not just the role of the Messiah, but God in the flesh, this was a difficult teaching for many in the Sanhedrin to follow.  Over time the Sanhedrin's tolerance for Christians eroded, and the persecution of Christians increased.  It is extremely vital to remember the persecutions of the Romans and the Jewish Sanhedrin at this time.  The Roman persecutions lasted for nearly 300 years, and the Romans were pretty effective.  In the first 200 years every Pope but one was martyred, starting with Peter.  All the Apostles except John died a martyrs death, and John had survived being thrown in boiling oil.  The Romans were very good at their work, and many writings were destroyed.  Perhaps Christ was right in maintaining an oral tradition with an established Church hierarchy.   

The Apostles traveled to different corners of the earth spreading the Good News as they had been commissioned.  According to Epiphanius and Heesippus, the Apostle James wore the bishop's mitre.  The bishops were the successors of the Apostles in handing on the faith.  The Gospels were believed to be written between 70-100 AD.  It is important to note that when Paul speaks about the Scriptures in 2 Tm 3:16, he was not speaking about the book of Timothy, for he was still in the process of writing it.  Many early Christian communities were lucky to have a collection of 1 or 2 Epistles and a Gospel early on.  

The first Jewish War lasted from 66-73 AD.  In 70 AD Jerusalem was sacked by Rome, and the Temple was destroyed according to Christ’s prophecy.  During the siege of Jerusalem the Jews inside began to fight with each other.  The calamities taking place have been likened to Revelations by many theologians and early Church Fathers.  1,100,000 Jews died in the siege, a sizeable portion was at the hand of the Jews themselves and starvation. The Sadducees and the Pharisees were dismantled after the destruction of the Temple.  Rabbinic Judaism considers itself to be an heir of the Pharisees.  Around 188 AD, in the Third Jewish uprising following the loss of the other 2, Jews united under rabbi Akiba ben Joseph.  Akiba declared a new messiah, Simon bar Cochba.  Akiba is the first official record of Jews rejecting the Deuterocanon in Tosefta Yahayim 2:13. They also rejected the entire New Testament, and in removing Maccabees 1 & 2, they removed the only mention of Hannukka in the Bible.  Akiba's declaration came roughly 150 years after Christ, and recall the Sanhedrin rejected Christ as the Messiah, and removed Nicodemus as well as other sympathizers of Christians.  In the third Jewish War, Cochba was defeated by Rome.  Following the loss, both Jews and Christians were both barred from Jerusalem.

During the second century, Tertullian, a priest in Carthage, was the first to mention the New Testament, and Old Testament, which we all recognize in our Bibles today.  Irenaeus was the bishop of Lyons, France, and he was the first to mention the Tetramorph (4 Gospels) as canonical.  Origen lived from 185-254 AD, and was an early Christian scholar and theologian.  He started his career at the Catechetical School of Alexandria, but after being ordained a priest he became the chief theologian in Caesarea.  He established one of the earliest New Testament lists, but no major churches currently follow it.  He did not include James, 2 Peter, 2 &3 John; but did include the Shepherd of Hermes.  Under Gaius, Origen was unable to escape, he was tortured and pilloried for days without yielding, he died 2 years later.  

Constantine I was the son of a pagan emperor in the fourth century, but his mother was a Christian.  He had a miraculous conversion at the battle of Milvian bridge, and after being victorious became the Roman Emperor.  He was influential in the proclamation of the Edict of Milan which declared tolerance for Christianity in the Empire.  He called for the Council of Nicea in 325, which was the first Ecumenical Council, since the Council of Jerusalem mentioned in Acts.  He called the Council, but the bishops ran the council to respond to Arianism.  The Roman persecutions were over, and the successors of the Apostles could finally meet publicly without fear of persecution. Bishops from every corner of the globe came together, and compared the traditions that each had received from the Oral and Written Traditions of the Apostles.  This era contains the greatest amount of traditional writings and Biblical interpretations of early Christianity, primarily because this was a time of peace, and many wanted to preserve what the Apostles had handed on through the centuries, yet the canon of the Bible was still not universal.  It is also important to note that there were early Christians who wanted the Old Testament removed altogether, for they had still not forgotten about the persecutions of the Sanhedrin.

In 367 AD, Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, became the first to mention the 27 books of the New Testament in a list in his Easter letter.  It is the same list all Christians currently follow.   In 382 Pope Damasus I called the Council of Rome.  It declared the canon of the Bible that the Church uses today, except it also contained 1 Esdras.  1 Esdras was later called into question because it only has 1 unique chapter, the rest can be found in other books of the Bible.  In 393 the Synod of Hippo affirmed the same canon as Rome.  In 397 the Council of Carthage also confirmed the same canon.  Augustine, the bishop of Hippo, presided over both the Hippo and Carthage Councils, and considered the canon closed from Rome.  Following the Council of Rome, Pope Damasus I had commissioned Jerome to translate the Bible into Latin.  Jerome was an ascetic priest who translated the Vulgate Bible, the first official Latin translation of the original Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic texts.  To get more accurate in translating Hebrew, he moved to Palestine and studied under the aid of Rabbis to better understand the Hebrew language.  The Rabbis claimed the Deuterocanon was “Apocryphal” and not inspired.  Recall in 188 AD, over 200 years earlier, the Jews that remained after the destruction of the Temple, had rejected the Deuterocanon.  Jerome challenged Augustine and the rest of Christianity in this claim, under the influence of the Jewish Rabbis. He did eventually submit to Rome and translate the Deuterocanon, but in the footnotes of the Vulgate he left mention of the claim of Apocrypha.  His Vulgate is still the official translation of the Catholic Church.  Jerome is a canonized Saint and a Doctor of the Church, yet he was cantankerous by most accounts, and erred in labeling the Deuterocanon as Apocryphal.  But arguably the greatest translator the Church has ever had, and a great reminder that we’re all human.  Most of the division in Christianity today is rooted back in this little dispute between two great scholars and saints.

In the 13th century Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, became the first to develop a systematic division of the Bible which modern chapter divisions are based on.  The modern concepts of "chapter & verse", didn't even exist for the first millennium of Christianity.  Memorizing the Scriptures was fundamental for the oral tradition, but memorizing verses was unheard of without this development.

In 1517 Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses and started the Protestant Reformation.  Pope Leo X told him to recant on only 41 of the 95 theses or risk excommunication, Luther didn't recant.  The important point in the 95 theses was the canonical precedents already set, and no pope would have the authority to challenge indulgences, infallibility or Purgatory as they've been handed down by the Apostles.  Luther was an Augustinian priest, and oddly he sided with Jerome and not Augustine on the canonicity of the Deuterocanon.  After losing a debate on Purgatory he challenged the authority of referencing 2 Maccabees 12:46, which mentions prayer for the dead.  Luther fell back on Jerome and mentioned the Deuterocanon as Apocryphal.  But Luther only moved the Deuterocanon to a separate part of the Bible, he never removed the books from the Bible.  He also challenged Esther, Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelations, and moved them to a separate part of the Bible.  He added the word “alone” to the end of Romans 1:17 to read “the just shall live by faith alone”.  He claimed that was what Paul really meant.  No current Protestant Bibles carry that translation.

In 1545 the Council of Trent responded to the Protestant Reformation.  It articulated a dogmatic teaching on the canon of the Scriptures; affirming the original canon of Rome in 382 AD without mentioning 1 Esdras.  In 1604 the King James Bible was translated.  It also kept the Deuterocanon in a section labeled Apocrypha.  In 1610 the Douay-Rheims Bible was translated.  This became the Catholic English translation of the Vulgate.   In 1672 the Greek Orthodox also closed their canon of Scripture at the Synod of Jerusalem.  They affirmed all the books of Trent, but also included Psalm 151, 1 Esdras, 3 & 4 Maccabees, and the Prayer of Manasseh.

It wasn't until 1825 when the British Bible Society "Apocrypha Controversy" finally ended inclusion of the Apocrypha in any Bibles. One of the biggest factors was to reduce printing costs for Bible tracts.  Luther had first challenged these books 300 years earlier, but no one had the audicity to remove it, until it became a matter of economic gain.  In Rv 22:18-19 and Dt 4:2, it speaks firmly against adding or taking away from those books.  History declares irrefutably that the Deuterocanon does belong in the canon of the Bible.  But historically, the more important question than the canon of the Bible, is the authority of the Apostles and their successors who put those books together, i.e. the bishops.  Recall there wasn't a Bible canon for 350 years.  What was the Church doing that whole time?  

-"And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers."- Acts 2:42.


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