"All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness." (2 Timothy 3:16)
Translators of the English Bible chose "scripture" to render a Greek word that literally means simply "writing." In the above quote, Paul clearly was not referring to writings in general, but only to those deemed by traditional consensus to have a sacred quality. Which writings were those? The clue is in the preceding verse: "And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus."
He meant the books of the Old Testament considered canonical in his own time. That New Testament Christians believed "inspired scripture" was the Old Testament is corroborated by II Peter 1:21: "For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake [as they were] moved by the Holy Ghost." The key phrase is "in old time."
Many gospels, epistles, and revelations were written during the Apostolic age and later, but it had not yet been decided which of those were to be considered divinely inspired and canonical. The authors of the New Testament were admonishing, advising, and encouraging churches or individuals; they did not know they were writing books of the Bible.
How would a reader in those days identify "inspired scripture" when they saw it? We are so used to Bibles printed on special paper in a familiar format that we forget the original appearance of the documents. Imagine an ordinary long handwritten letter with no indication of chapters and verses, perhaps not even divided into paragraphs. Would you recognize it as scripture, and if so, on what basis? If you did accept it as such and others disagreed, or you disagreed with the choices of others, how could the controversy be resolved to everyone's satisfaction?
The issues of "inspiration" and "canonicity" must be explored in some detail to understand how we got the Bible we have and to appreciate the significance and value of the excluded books. Understanding the >Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament made in the inter-testamental period, is a good place to start. Everything happens in a context, and it is helpful to consider this subject in a very large one.
Which Old Testament book was the last to be written is uncertain, but most scholars believe it was Daniel, dated 165 B.C. Esther may have been written a little later in the same century, but in any event, almost two hundred years separate the writing of the latest book of the Old Testament from the first book of the New Testament, which probably was I Thessalonians, written about A.D. 50.
But the history of the Old Testament ends with the Babylonian Exile in 538 B.C. The last events explicitly recorded (in Nehemiah 13:4-31) took place during the second governorship of Nehemiah about 433 B.C. Even if we believe with many scholars that Ezra, who wrote of the return of the Jews from Babylon and the rebuilding of the Temple under the governorship of Zerubbabel (Ezra 7-10), really came after Nehemiah instead of being his contemporary, that would bring the historical timeline down to only about 398 B.C. So by the most conservative estimate the gap in the Bible story covers nearly four hundred years -- a considerable period in the life of any people.
During the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, the land of the Jews was a very small province of the vast Persian Empire. Almost nothing is known of Jewish history in the fourth century B.C. They made no record of one of the most significant events in the whole story of ancient civilization -- the conquest of the East by Alexander the Great -- although it is alluded to in Daniel 11:2-3 and probably in Zechariah 9:13.
Shortly after 333 B.C., when Alexander defeated the army of Darius at the Battle of the Issus, Palestine became a part of the vaster Greek Empire. For the Jews, it only meant one tyranny had replaced another. They were confined to a small unproductive area of the central highlands surrounding Jerusalem in Palestine, which was a poor country at best, and boxed in by the desolate Jordan valley and by enemies and foreigners: the Edomites, later called Idumeans, and the Samaritans, basically of the same race and religion as the Jews but who became their inveterate foes during post-exilic history.
But the Greeks, in contrast to the Persians, aggressively propagated their culture among other peoples. Alexander was not merely a conqueror; he was a missionary of Greek culture (Hellenism). Wherever he went he established Greek colonies, such as Alexandria in Egypt, which were designed to be centers of influence for the Hellenizing of the "orient." The Jews in Palestine, melancholy and depressed over their successive loss of political liberties to the Babylonians and then to the Persians and Greeks, felt hopeless. (A brief resume of these events is given in the Apocrypha in I Maccabees 1:1-4, 15, where the author bitterly complains of Jews who became Hellenized, who "made themselves uncircumcised, and forsook the holy covenant, ... and were sold to do mischief.")
Enterprising younger Jews felt so pressured by the prevailing pessimism that they increasingly emigrated to the great cities of the "pagan" Greek world. Before long, the Jews of the Diaspora (dispersion) outnumbered those of Palestine.
The Jewish population in the great Egyptian seaport and university city of Alexandria became so large there that two out of the five quarters of the city were assigned to it. Here the Jews first came into significant contact with Greek life and thought, and here they first began to read the writings of pagan philosophers and poets. Out of this mingling of Greek and Jewish culture there inevitably arose a new kind of Jewish thought and practice, so different from that of Palestine that we call it Alexandrian (or Hellenistic) Judaism.
(In the New Testament we read that Paul found Jewish communities everywhere on his missionary journeys and preached in their synagogues at Ephesus, Philippi, Athens, Corinth, and in the capital city of Rome itself. Yet in Alexandria, the most important center of Jewish life in the Greco-Roman world, there is no recorded visit by him or any other Christian missionary of the first generation.)
When Alexander died in Babylon at the age of thirty-three, there was no one strong enough to take his place, so the empire quickly broke up into several parts. This crisis is referred to explicitly in the Apocrypha (I Maccabees 1:5-9) and indirectly in the Old Testament canon (Daniel 11:4.) One of Alexander's officers, Seleucus, eventually became ruler of Syria and Mesopotamia. The capital of the Seleucids was established at Antioch in Syria, a new city Seleucus had founded for the purpose.
Egypt and its adjacent territories, including the land of Israel, fell to Ptolemy, the most able of Alexander's generals, the founder of a strong dynasty which was long to rule over that part of the world. The prolonged and bloody warfare of the Ptolemies and the Seleucids comprise much of the subsequent secular history of the Near East. They fiercely contended for Palestine, located between the two. Daniel 11:5-9 summarizes the history of this time, but in language completely intelligible only to one already familiar with the course of events.
Alexander's successors were also of Greek descent and felt charged with the mission of bringing their language and culture to their subjects. The chief city of the Ptolemaic Empire was naturally the great new Hellenistic city of Alexandria.
Some Jews became pagans, but even the majority of the faithful eventually forgot how to speak or read the languages of Palestine, Hebrew and Aramaic. The need arose by the beginning of the third century B.C. for the books of the Semitic Old Testament to be translated into Greek, now their daily language. Yet the initiative for this ambitious project is said not to have come from the Jews, but from the Greeks themselves.
An improbable but classical version of the story comes from an ancient book called Aristeas to Philocrates (or The Letter of Aristeas). This purports to be written by a certain Aristeas, a pagan official of the Egyptian court, to his brother. According to him, King Ptolemy Philadelpus, the Greek ruler of Egypt, ordered Demetrious, his royal librarian, to collect as many of the books in the world as possible. (Since the Alexandrian library contained the greatest collection of books in ancient times, the story thus far is in accord with history.)
It then goes on to relate that Demetrius suggested the inclusion of the Jewish books of the Law, but explained that these works were written in another language and alphabet and would have to be translated before they could be used to any advantage. The king sent an embassy (of which Aristeas himself was a member) to Jerusalem with lavish gifts for the Temple and a formal request that seventy-two men, six from each of the tribes of Israel, be dispatched to Egypt to make an official translation of the Scriptures. The high priest, flattered, acceded.
When the seventy-two elders arrived in Egypt, the king entertained them at a magnificent banquet during which he engaged them in philosophical conversation and was much impressed with their wisdom. At the conclusion they were taken to a secluded estate on an island and there began the work of translation. (Some versions of the story assert that the elders worked in separate cells, and proof of their divine guidance was that the finished products agreed in every detail.) By a strange coincidence the work was completed in exactly seventy-two days, after which it was solemnly read in the presence of the king. The story ends with an account of how the elders were sent back to Palestine, laden with honors and more tangible rewards.
Because some versions of the legend say seventy instead of seventy-two translators were involved, the name Septuagint (often abbreviated by the Roman numerals LXX) came to be attached to the work. The story told by Aristeas relates only to the translation of the Law (the first five books of the Bible), but the name commonly is applied to the whole Greek version of the Old Testament.
Although the tale cannot be accepted as historical truth, it does show the esteem in which educated Alexandrian Greeks held the Jews. Long awed by the cultural accomplishments of the Greek world, the Jews kept alive the legend in The Letter of Aristeas and took pride in the Septuagint because it witnessed to their own former national achievements and testified to the nations that subjugated them that Jewish culture was equally worthy of honor. This understandable motive much later inspired Josephus to write the Antiquities of the Jews to show that the history of the Jewish people was as ancient as that of the Greeks and Romans.
Most of Palestine was part of the Egyptian empire from the death of Alexander in 323 B.C. until 198 B.C. Antiochus III, often called "the Great," ascended the Seleucid throne and by the defeat of Ptolemy V, a mere child, added Palestine to his dominions. The fate of the Jews there was no longer linked to Egypt, but to Syria. Daniel 11:10-16 cryptically describes how "the king of the north" (Antiochus) defeated "the king of the south" (Ptolemy) and then came to stand in Palestine, "the glorious land."
In the year 175 B.C. Antiochus IV rose to the Seleucid throne. According to a common practice of both Seleucid and Ptolemaic kings of adding extravagant appellations to their names to distinguish them from predecessors, he took the name Antiochus Epiphanes, meaning "God made manifest." Although a capable ruler and lover of gorgeous spectacles, he was prone to extreme cruelties when angered; the Jews in Palestine soon gave him good reason to be angered.
On a campaign against Egypt he was thwarted at the moment of victory by Roman interference and driven away. When a rumor reached Jerusalem that Antiochus had been killed, one of the Jewish factions struggling for control of the high-priesthood seized the opportunity for open rebellion. Antiochus furiously punished them by inaugurating the first religious persecution in the history of the world by ordering all copies of the Law to be destroyed and forbidding circumcision and the observance of the Sabbath.
His soldiers massacred many Jews, and he himself not only robbed the treasury of the Temple of Jerusalem but sacrilegiously entered its Holy of Holies and sacrificed to Zeus a swine, the most unclean of animals to the Jews, on the altar. (This is described in the Apocrypha at I Maccabees 1:41-63 and II Maccabees 5:5-16.)
For this blasphemy, Jewish canonical and apocryphal books of this period characterized him as "a vile person" (Daniel 11:21), a monster with "eyes like the eyes of a man and a mouth speaking great things" (Daniel 7:8), "a wicked root" (I Maccabees 1:10), and "the murderer and blasphemer" (II Maccabees 9:29). This altar was the object which I Maccabees 1:54 and Daniel 11:31 called "the abomination of desolation" or "the abomination that maketh desolate." (See also Mark 13:14.)
A guerilla war (described with great factual accuracy in I Maccabees and with considerable romantic elaboration in II Maccabees) led by a family named Maccabee fought the Syrian army for three years until the Jews regained most of Jerusalem and rededicated the desecrated temple. This event has been commemorated ever since by the festival of Hanukkah, meaning Dedication (I Maccabees 4:59). It is observed by Jews today at about the same time as Christmas and is the feast referred to in the New Testament at John 10:22.
After the death of Antiochus Epiphanes, the war continued against his successors. The nature of the Jewish movement changed into a war for political independence and even for the subjugation of neighboring peoples. Not all Jews supported this fanatical nationalism after religious liberty had been won and the Syrians seemed willing to compromise. Ultra-devout groups, particularly the so-called Assideans (also spelled Hasideans and, in Hebrew, Chasidim) believed that deliverance from the yoke of the heathen must come from God, not man. Having won their primary goal, these religious pacifists withdrew support from the Maccabees.
(These people are commonly supposed to be the ancestors of the Pharisees of New Testament times, whose attitude toward the Romans was practically identical with that of the Chasidim toward the Syrians.)
Political rivalries within the Seleucid Empire itself eventually forced it to officially recognize the Jews as a completely independent nation -- for the first time in four hundred years. In the year 143 B.C., says I Maccabees 13:41, "the yoke of the heathen was taken away from Israel."
However, the new state was torn by jealousies and hopelessly corrupt. Modern Jews insist that Judaism never engaged in religious persecution, but to their later sorrow and present shame, it did occur once. After all members of the first Maccabee generation died, another named John Hyrcanus ruled capably from 134-104 B.C., but he introduced a policy of forcible conversion by which adjacent nations (notably the Idumeans, the Jews' immediate neighbors to the south) were coerced to accept Judaism at the point of the sword. The party of the Pharisees first appeared during his reign.
John was succeeded by his son Aristobulus, who reigned for only a year (104-103 B.C.), but left behind him a reputation for cruelty which might have shamed even an Antiochus Epiphanes. His brother, Alexander Jannaeus, reigned for about twenty-seven years (103-76 B.C.), and had much more opportunity for exhibiting the thorough debasement of his character. Most of his subjects despised him. The Pharisees, driven into open rebellion against him, were persecuted with almost inconceivable ferocity.
Only one of the later Maccabees (now called Hasmoneans, after a distant ancestor) can claim our full respect. This is Queen Alexandra, who had been wife successively to Aristobulus and Alexander Jannaeus, and came to the throne on the death of the latter. She made friends with the Pharisees and ruled for nine years (circa 76-67 B.C.) in peace and prosperity. After her death, as her two sons, Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus II, quarrelled over the succession and the Hasmonean kingdom became intolerably corrupt
The Roman general Pompey was now marching triumphantly through the Near East. When he arrived in Damascus, both of Queen Alexandra's sons sent embassies begging his intervention on their behalf. But the people of the land also set an embassy to denounce both of them and to ask that neither be permitted to rule. In 63 B.C., Rome formed a Jewish puppet government under its oversight and took over the country. The "yoke of the heathen" settled down once more upon Jewish necks never again to be removed until modern times.
A quasi-Jew of the Idumean nation (which had been forcibly converted to Judaism during the rule of John Hyrcanus) who had a tenuous connection with the Hasmonean house through his wife, Mariamne, won his way to power through intrigue and violence. This was Herod "the Great." He provided a stable government and had fine buildings constructed as Rome's representative. He even built the Jews a new Temple to replace the rather shabby one that had been standing since the days of their return from Exile.
This completes the inter-testamental period's history of the Jews, for in the last days of Herod's reign, Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.
The Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria had a different understanding of the canon of Scripture from that of the Jews of Palestine, for the Septuagint included among their sacred books a number of works which had either been composed in Alexandria or had become popular there. The Jews of Palestine did not accept as canonical in any sense the extra books which were so popular in Alexandria. These extra books are called the Apocrypha, which can be defined as those books, or parts of books, that are not found in the Hebrew Old Testament -- with one slight qualification:
Our English Apocrypha contains all these books plus three more of somewhat special character: II Esdras, which was never a part of the Septuagint; the Prayer of Manasses, which appears in some Septuagint manuscripts among the canticles appended to the Psalter, but seems to have had no official status; and I Esdras, which is regularly included in extant manuscripts of the Septuagint, but appears to be merely a fragment of an alternative (perhaps older) translation of the canonical books of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, which are also present in the Septuagint in their complete form.
Four hundred years of history and two hundred years of literary development divide the Old and New Testaments. It is necessary to know the events of that troubled period to understand what shaped the world in which Jesus and his disciples moved.
Jewish subjection to the Herods and to Roman procurators, and the war against Rome in the later inter-testamental period is included in the Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews by the Jewish historian Josephus (circa A.D. 37-95), but for the earlier part of the history we can read Josephus' own primary source -- the Apocrypha, especially I Maccabees. The Wisdom of Solomon shows us the road which leads from the prophets of ancient Israel to the Gospel of John and the New Testament epistles. The delightful little book of Tobit introduces us to the kind of home in which Jesus lived and the kind of people who listened to him. Second Esdras, wild and fantastic as it may seem (though no more so than the book of Revelation), gives us a deeper understanding of that strange way of thinking called "apocalyptic" which also appears in the closing chapters of Daniel and which influenced so profoundly the minds of men in the generation of the Apostles. Ecclesiasticus helps us trace the line of development which leads from the "wise men" of the Old Testament to the "scribes" of the New; and the two books of Maccabees can guide us through the most significant and memorable crisis of the intervening period -- the heroic struggle of the Jews against the pagan forces that threatened to deprive them of their God and their religion, a struggle which was decisively important in forming the character of the Jewish people in New Testament times.
The literary activity among Alexandrian Jews during the inter-testamental period greatly influenced the early Church, especially the voluminous writings of Philo Judaeus, a contemporary of Jesus, whose works attempted to reconcile Old Testament history with the speculations of Greek philosophy. Christ and the Apostles were Palestinian Jews who spoke Aramaic and understood Hebrew and for whom the Bible meant the Hebrew Old Testament. However, the early Christian Church was a Greek- speaking Church (the New Testament was written in Greek) and its Gentile converts, who could not read Semitic languages, naturally considered the Old Testament to mean the Septuagint.
This explains a curious fact which all careful readers must have noticed. If you take the trouble to look up a reference made by a New Testament writer to some passage in the Old Testament, in many cases you will find that our Old Testament (translated from the Hebrew) says something quite different. For example, Hebrews 10:5 contains a quotation from Psalm 40 which runs "Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me." If you look up this verse in the King James version of the Psalter (40:6) you will find it reads "...mine ears hast thou opened." The same epistle relates in 11:21 that Jacob "worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff," a reference to Genesis 47:31. But the English Old Testament states in that passage that he "bowed himself upon the bed's head." In both cases the author of Hebrews is quoting from the Septuagint whereas our common English translations of the Old Testament are made directly from the Hebrew. Historically, the most serious single difference between the Septuagint and the Hebrew is with regard to the quotation from Isaiah 7:14 made in Matthew 1:23. Matthew reads "A virgin shall be with child and bring forth a son," although the original Hebrew reads "young woman," as the Revised Standard Version now reminds us. These examples are sufficient to illustrate that the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew was the authoritative Old Testament for Christians of the age in which most of the New Testament was written.
Although the Jews had once esteemed the Septuagint as inspired as the Hebrew scrolls read in their synagogues, they repudiated it as soon as it became the Christian Bible. Confronted by proof texts quoted by Christians on key doctrines, especially the Matthew-Isaiah one (although "young woman" was a maiden of marriageable age, which in those days did mean a virgin), the Jews then claimed the Septuagint was an imposture and a fraud of the devil. One of their later rabbis picturesquely expressed the prevailing view when he proclaimed that darkness fell upon the earth for three days when their Bible had been translated into Greek. So completely was the Septuagint condemned by the Jews that even the text of it would have been lost if it had not been preserved by the Church.
However, the Jews who could not read Hebrew still needed a Greek version of the Scriptures, so they made other translations that followed the Hebrew text meticulously. These newer versions are known by the names of their translators, Aquila and Theodotion. They did not, of course, include the extra books of the Alexandrian canon, the Apocrypha.
Despite the acrimonious controversy between Jews and Christians over the Septuagint, the Church felt no essential doctrine depended on discrepancies between it and the Hebrew scriptures and the Septuagint, or some translation of it such as the Old Latin, continued to be the official Bible of the Church until the end of the fourth century when Latin became the official language of the Western Church. (The Western Church was the church of Rome; the Eastern Church meant the Greek-speaking churches and their converts elsewhere, which now are known collectively as the Eastern Orthodox Church.)
In A.D. 383, Pope Damasus commissioned one of the greatest Biblical scholars of all time, St. Jerome, to make a new and more accurate translation of the Bible into Latin. Jerome already knew some Hebrew, but set out to master it, consulting Jewish rabbis (at least one of whom aided him at the peril of his life) to ensure accuracy. Jerome decided that only books found in the Hebrew (or partly in Aramaic, as in the case of Ezra and Daniel) were authoritative, assigning lesser status to the extra books of the Greek Old Testament. He named these the Apocrypha, meaning "hidden away." Two of them, Tobit and Judith, he translated from existing Semitic manuscripts, but translated the Septuagint additions to Daniel and Esther from Greek; the others he left in their Old Latin form. Jerome's translation came to be called the Vulgate (Latin for popular version), which soon became the standard Bible of the Church in the West and remains the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church to the present day.
Strangely enough, although the Roman Catholic Church accepted Jerome's great translation, it did not accept his theory about the Old Testament canon, The official Old Testament of the Roman Church today has no separate section called the Apocrypha; its canon of Scripture is that of the Alexandrian Jews, and Jerome's apocryphal books are included at various places among the books translated from the Hebrew Old Testament. Roman Catholic scholars refer to the books outside the Hebrew canon as deuterocanonical, but the term is not meant to imply that they are of less authority.
At the end of the whole Bible, the official Vulgate has a supplement containing three books which were widely read, but were either not a part of the Septuagint or had only a dubious claim to be regarded as such. These are the Prayer of Manasses and the books which the Vulgate calls Third and Fourth Esdras. (The two latter are included in our familiar English versions of the Apocrypha as First and Second Esdras.)
The Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century reconsidered the Apocrypha. Martin Luther removed the apocryphal books from the strictly canonical books and put them into a separate section by themselves between the Old and New Testaments. In addition, books of the Old Testament were put in a new order and some were restored to their ancient Hebrew names, so I-IV Kingdoms became I-II Samuel and I-II Kings; I-II Paralipomenon became I-II Chronicles. The books which the Septuagint, and consequently the modern Roman Catholic Bible, calls First and Second Esdras became once more, for the Reformed Churches, Ezra and Nehemiah, and this made it necessary to rename the old Third and Fourth Esdras to First and Second Esdras. This reshaping of the Old Testament was according to the plan laid down nearly one thousand years before by St. Jerome.
Although this was a better chronological order, it also marked the beginning of a decline in the appreciation of the apocryphal books. While the reformers were well aware of the historical importance of these books, they were unanimous in refusing them any canonical recognition. This was partly the result of taking St. Jerome's theory seriously and recognizing that the Jews themselves denied their authoritative character. These abstract considerations were undoubtedly reinforced by the fact that one of the apocryphal books, Second Maccabees, countenances the idea of the intercession of saints (15:14) and the practice of prayers for the dead, and could even be quoted in support of the custom of offering requiem masses (12:43-45). Since these were fundamental matters of dispute between the Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church, it is not surprising that their attitude toward the Apocrypha sometimes tended to change from objective tolerance to active hostility.
However, Protestants continued to read and study the Apocrypha because it was printed as an integral part of the King James Version. Then in 1827, the British and Foreign Bible Society, followed by the American Bible Society, decided not to include the apocryphal books in their editions of the Bible. For obvious reasons of economy, the practice swiftly spread to other publishers, and it soon became difficult to obtain ordinary editions of the Bible which included them. The present disregard for the Apocrypha dates from this comparatively recent event.
Yet the demarcation between what may be considered inspired scriptures and what may not be, is not as clear as St. Jerome and the Protestant reformers supposed. An impartial reader has difficulty in discerning on what basis Ecclesiastes is canonical, and the apocryphal books Ecclesiasticus (also called the Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach) and the Wisdom of Solomon are not. Or why the ferociously nationalistic book of Esther (in which even the word God does not appear) stands wholly within the stream of divine inspiration, while the book Judith is omitted. Or why the apocryphal Song Of The Three Children, Susanna, and Bel And The Dragon (in which the prophet Daniel figures prominently) should be thought less inspired than the canonical book of Daniel. Examples could be multiplied.
Protestant theologians have never reached agreement on a doctrine of "inspiration." Only "Fundamentalists" find no difficulty accepting a mechanistic, dictation theory by which the inspiration of each and every word is guaranteed. "Evangelicals" wrestle with the issue from three angles: (1) Extent: how much of the Bible is inspired? (2) Method: did God dictate the actual words, or inspire thoughts to be expressed in words of the writers' choice? (3) Locus: does inspiration reside in the thoughts or the words? (This third aspect matters little, as long as there is consensus on the first two.)
Most evangelical Protestants state their position to the effect that the inspiration of the Bible is plenary (all of it) and extends even to the words -- in the original texts. This last caveat spurs a futile search for the "originals," as if documents exist somewhere with "original copy" stamped on them.
Evangelical protestants miss the point that the New Testament did not produce the Church, but the Church produced the New Testament. Having rejected the authority of either the Roman Catholic or the Eastern Orthodox Church, they are forced into this awkward, even untenable, position.
The real issue is not some abstract theory of inspiration, but the historical fact of canonicity. "Canonical" means prescribed by authority. For the Old Testament, it means those books Jews regard as inspired and authoritative. For the New Testament, it means those books the Church regards as inspired and authoritative. There were good reasons why several hundred years elapsed after the life of Christ and the Apostles before the Church could decide on the canon.
First, the books had to be written. Immediately following the Crucifixion, the first Christians (almost exclusively Jews) lived out Christ's teachings in small, self-sufficient communes. Events were fresh in their memories; no one needed a written record. But by A.D. 70, the Apostles had too many converts to rely on oral transmission of the gospel, and written records became necessary. A great many documents were produced, most of which are no longer extant.
Second, the Church was too busy surviving intense persecution to have enough leisure to decide many pressing issues. For a long time dissensions and internal controversies had been brewing, but not until after the last persecution at Rome (A.D. 303-311) and Constantine established official toleration of Christianity by the Edict of Milan (A.D. 313) could the Church deal with its urgent but postponed matters. Now great general meetings could be convened to resolve doctrinal disputes. Bishops, the leaders over a jurisdiction of area churches, jointly were able to summon priests and deacons from their congregations to represent virtually all of Christendom to these ecumenical councils. In A.D. 325 the heresy of the Arians was condemned in favor of Athanasius at the Council of Nicaea.
Much has been made over the sometimes divisive and bitter debates at the ecumenical councils, but the final decisions were based on one supreme criterion: what have all Christians, at all times and in all places, believed to be true? It was irrelevant what odd interpretation of doctrine was championed by some Christian in some place. Did all Christians at all times and places hold that view? This standard dispensed with heresies and established dogma alike. It also was the guide to establishing the canon of sacred scriptures.
Two major councils in North Africa, in Hippo in 393 and in Carthage in 397, finally tackled the matter of the canon. The two great authorities at both councils were Augustine (the bishop of Hippo) and Jerome. The Old Testament canon of the Alexandrian Septuagint (which included the Apocrypha) was easily established, but deciding the New Testament presented difficulties. So many books existed from which to choose: those in our present New Testament, the twenty-five included later on in this study, and sixty-eight others which are not now extant, but were mentioned in the writings of Church leaders in the first four centuries! This latter category includes the following:
Augustine himself mentioned An Epistle of Christ to Peter and Paul, as well as some other books under the name of Christ; An Epistle of Christ produced by the Manichees, and The Acts of the Apostles used by the Manichees; The Acts of the Apostles by Leucius, and The Acts under the Apostles' names by Leontius.
Jerome alluded to The Acts of the Apostles by Seleucus, The Acts of the Apostles by Leuthon, and false Gospels published by Lucianus.
Eusebius mentioned The Gospel of Titan, and The Catholic Epistle of Themison the Montanist.
Epiphanius himself mentioned all the following: The Acts of the Apostles (made use of by the Ebionites), The Gospel of the Ebionites, The Gospel of the Encratites, The Gospel of Eve, Books under the name of Matthew, The Gospel of Merinthus, The Gospel of Perfection, The Gospel of Philip, and The Acts of Thomas.
Pope Gelasius mentioned The Gospel of Barnabas, The Gospel of Andrew, The Books of Lentitus, The Acts of Philip, The Revelation of Stephen, and The Gospel of Thaddaeus.
Eusebius, Epiphanius, and Pope Gelasius mentioned The Acts of Andrew. Other books under the name of Andrew were mentioned by Augustine and Innocent I.
A Gospel under the name of Apelles was mentioned by Jerome, who with Origen and Ambrose mentioned The Gospel According to the Twelve Apostles.
The Writings of Bartholomew the Apostle are mentioned by Dionysius the Areopagite, and Jerome and Pope Gelasius referred to The Gospel of Bartholomew.
The Gospel of Basilides was mentioned by Origen, Ambrose, and Jerome.
The Gospel of Cerinthus was mentioned by Epiphanius, and The Revelation of Cerinthus was noted by Caias Presyterus.
A Hymn Christ Taught His Disciples was mentioned by Epist. ad Ceret. Episc. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Jerome all mention The Gospel According to the Egyptians.
The Gospel According to the Hebrews was mentioned by Eusebius, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Jerome.
Eusebius referred to The Book of the Helkesaites, and Jerome noted The False Gospels of Hesychius.
Origen mentioned The Book of James, and other books forged and published under the name of James were reported by Epiphanius and Innocent I.
The Acts of John were mentioned by Eusebius, Athanasius, Philastrius, Epiphanius, and Augustine; Epiphanius and Innocent I referred to other books under the name of John.
Epiphanius mentioned A Gospel under the name of Jude, and Irenaeus noted A Gospel under the name of Judas Iscariot.
The Gospel of Marcion was mentioned by Tertullian and Epiphanius.
The Gospel of Matthias was mentioned by Origen, Eusebius, Ambrose, and Jerome; The Traditions of Matthias was referred to by Clement of Alexandria, and Innocent I noted another book under the name of Matthias.
Eusebius, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Jerome referred to The Gospel According to the Nazarenes.
Tertullian, Jerome, Pope Gelasius wrote about The Acts of Paul and Thecla. (One extant version, however, is presented later in this study.)
Origen noted a book titled The Doctrine of Peter, and he and Philastrius mentioned The Acts of Paul; Clement of Alexandria commented on a book titled The Preaching of Paul (and Peter); A Book under the name of Paul was noted by Cyprian, and Ephiphanius, Augustine, and Pope Gelasius mentioned The Revelation of Paul.
The Acts of Peter was mentioned by Eusebius, Athanasius, Philastrius, Jerome, and Ephiphanius; The Gospel of Peter was referred to by Eusebius, Origen, Tertullian, Jerome; The Judgment of Peter was noted by Jerome, Ruffin; The Preaching of Peter was mentioned by Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius, and Jerome; The Revelation of Peter was mentioned by Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius, and Jerome; and various other books under the name of Peter were noted by Innocent I.
The Gospel of Scythianus was mentioned by Epiphanius and Cyril.
The Gospel of Thomas was mentioned by Cyril, Origen, Eusebius, Ambrose, Athanasius, Jerome, and Gelasius; other books under the name of Thomas were noted by Innocent I.
The Gospel of Truth, used by the Valentinians, was referred to by Irenaeus, and Tertullian commented on The Gospel of Valentinus.
Unofficial but substantial agreement by various Church Fathers in the first four centuries on the most authoritative books already existed:
Origen (circa A.D. 210), a Presbyter of Alexandria who went to incredible means to know the Scriptures, omitted The Epistle of James and The Epistle of Jude from his catalog of authoritative books but seemed to accept them fully in other parts of his writings.
Eusebius Pamphilus (circa A.D. 315) whose writings show his care in determining which books were genuine, listed all the books of the canonical New Testament, but noted that the epistles of James, Jude, II Peter, II John, III John, and Revelation had not yet been accepted by all churches.
Athanasius (circa A.D. 315), the Bishop of Alexandria, cataloged all the canonical New Testament books.
Cyril (circa A.D. 340), the Bishop of Jerusalem, listed all the canonical New Testament except Revelation.
The Bishops who had assembled in the Council of Laodicea (circa A.D. 364) accepted all books of the present New Testament except Revelation.
Epiphanius (circa A.D. 370), Bishop of Salamis in Cyprus, cataloged all the canonical New Testament.
Gregory Nazianzen (circa A.D. 375), Bishop of Constantinople, cataloged all the canonical New Testament except Revelation.
Philastrius (circa A.D. 380), Bishop of Brixia in Venice, listed all the canonical New Testament, except he mentions only thirteen of St. Paul's epistles (probably omitting the Epistle to the Hebrews, which was certainly not written by Paul), and he left out Revelation.
Jerome (circa A.D. 382) listed as canonical all the New Testament but spoke dubiously of the Epistle to the Hebrews, although in other parts of his writings he seemed to accept it.
Ruffin (circa A.D. 390), Presbyter of Aquilegium, listed all the books of the canonical New Testament.
Dionysius the Areopagite, a pseudonym of an unknown author (circa A.D. 390), did not mention the books by name, but quoted from all the New Testament canon.
Augustine (circa A.D. 394), Bishop of Hippo in Africa, listed a catalog in perfect agreement with the canonical New Testament.
Through the force of their voluminous writings, men such as Tertullian, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and Irenaeus had major voices in the decision to establish the official canon. The greatest difficulty was in choosing the Gospels. Those of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are synopses of Jesus' life, while John's Gospel concentrates on a few specific miracles performed by Christ; these four were chosen after much controversy, for the number four for the Gospels was apparently very important. Irenaeus, for example, says in his Adversus haereses that, just as there are four winds, there must be four Gospels, for the Holy Spirit, the inspiration for all divine writing, is embodied in the wind.
At the third Council of Carthage, the forty-four Bishops and Church representatives assembled finally agreed to all the present New Testament canon.
The criterion for judging heresies played a partial role in accepting or rejecting books. It was not sufficient for a book to have been widely circulated, widely read, or even highly esteemed regionally. What had all Christians at all times and in all places thought of it? St. Paul, Christendom's greatest expounder and explainer of doctrine, had always been universally accepted; his authority as the primary interpreter of the Gospels was so firmly established by the time of the Church Fathers that all of the letters in the New Testament by persons other than Paul are in thematic agreement with his letters, and any apostolic letters differing from his own, even without contradicting them, were rejected.
The Gospel of Thomas, popular among the Gnostics, was rejected on a vital point of accepted doctrine: it opens by saying that he who understands the words of Jesus will be saved. This, of course, is in direct contradiction to the chosen Gospels and Paul's Epistles, which say that it is he who believes that will be saved.
Of other accounts of the life of Jesus that were rejected (including those presented in this study), many were considered supplementary rather than false. This was true of the accounts of Christ's infancy, I and II Infancy and The Protevangelion.
Although The Gospel of Peter was once held as highly as those of Matthew and Mark, and more highly than those of Luke and John, it was ultimately rejected because it differs too much in its details from the three chosen synoptic ones.
The Gospel of Nicodemus includes a vividly dramatic account of Christ's descent into hell between the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and describes his expulsion of Satan from hell. Because Matthew 4, Mark 1, and Luke 4 already gave an account of Christ's conclusive victory over Satan in the forty days in the desert this was not considered necessary for the New Testament canon.
The Shepherd of Hermes (a trilogy of Visions, Commands, and Similitudes) was recommended for use at one time or other by Jerome, Origen, and Tertullian, was not ultimately esteemed truly divine. As long as he was an orthodox Catholic, Tertullian approved it, but when he later became a Montanist, he called it "foolish." (The Montanists, a zealous but sometimes overly- emotional sect emphasizing extreme moral purity, nonetheless were the first to begin formulating the doctrine of the Trinity with a definition of the personality of the Holy Spirit.)
A large group of manuscripts by obscure sects were discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945 and the Dead Sea Scrolls near ancient Jericho (between Israel and Jordan) in 1947.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are pre-Christian, and probably came from the Essenes, a Jewish sect that emphasized ceremonial purity. The Nag Hammadi documents are the work of a Christian Coptic sect called Gnostics, who believed in salvation through wisdom and knowledge rather than by faith or good works.
By contrast, documents in this study (the so-called "lost books of the Bible" or the "New Testament apocrypha") are works by Christian writers whose themes are close to the New Testament and carry on the antiquity of the Church from the time of the Holy Scriptures of the New Testament to about a hundred and fifty years after Christ. Other books provide additional insight into the circumstances and thought processes of early Christians.
Copies (written in Greek, Latin, and so forth) were never in fact lost, but preserved in museums and special collections. However, they were not translated into English and collectively published until 1926.
I have retained the translators' division into chapters and verses to reference comments, but I have modified their use of sentence structure and archaic English pronouns (no doubt influenced by the King James Version of the Bible) into modern, and hopefully more readable, style. The King James Version is used for quotations from the Canon, unless otherwise noted.
We must keep in mind that Christ taught his disciples many things between his Resurrection and Ascension that are not recorded in scripture, but preserved only in the tradition of the Church.
"Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures." (Luke 24:45) We do not know all the details of this enlightenment.
"Until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen: To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God." (Acts 1:2,3) We do not know what is included in these "commandments" and "speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God."
"Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen." (Matthew 28:19,20) "All things whatsoever I have commanded you" includes the post-resurrection teachings not recorded in the New Testament.
Not only do we not directly know all that Christ taught to his disciples alone, but neither can we know all that he did before or after the Crucifixion:
"And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book." (John 21:30)
"And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen." (John 21:25)
We should be humbled by these limitations to our knowledge and by the vastness of our ignorance.
Lastly, we ought to approach the study of sacred books not merely to learn more about books, but to learn more about God.
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