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The Devel­op­ment of the Con­cept of Scrip­ture” In The Ear­ly Chris­t­ian Church

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Usman Sheikh

For the ear­ly Chris­tians before the late 2nd cen­tu­ry C.E., there was no such thing as an Old” or New” Tes­ta­ment as found in the mod­ern-day Chris­t­ian Bible today. The writ­ers of the New Tes­ta­ment were basi­cal­ly unaware that they were pro­duc­ing writ­ings equiv­a­lent to the sta­tus of scrip­ture”. Fur­ther­more, until the end of the sec­ond cen­tu­ry, the New Tes­ta­ment was not gen­er­al­ly called scrip­ture”, and it was only the Jew­ish Bible that was accord­ed that sta­tus. Our pur­pose in this arti­cle is to exam­ine what Chris­tians schol­ars them­selves say about the con­cep­tion of scrip­ture” and the devel­op­ment of this con­cept in the ear­ly Chris­t­ian church. 

Ear­ly Chris­t­ian Writ­ings : Were They Regard­ed As Scrip­ture”?

Ray­mond F. Collins writes that the Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ties of the late first and the begin­ning of the sec­ond cen­tu­ry were reluc­tant to qual­i­fy writ­ings pro­duced by Chris­t­ian writ­ers with the scrip­tures. That is because these Chris­tians already had the scrip­tures” with them, that was the Jew­ish Bible :

With­in Chris­tian­i­ty, almost as var­ie­gat­ed in form as was Judaism of the first cen­tu­ry, there devel­oped an ever-increas­ing esteem for the let­ters that had been writ­ten by Paul, the writ­ings that gave tes­ti­mo­ny ro Jesus, and texts that emanat­ed from Chris­t­ian prophets. We ought not to arrive too quick­ly at the con­clu­sion that the Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ties of the late first cen­tu­ry and the begin­ning of the sec­ond cen­tu­ry were eager to qual­i­fy the doc­u­ments pro­duced by Chris­t­ian writ­ings as Scrip­ture. In fact, the oppo­site would seem to be the case. There was a reluc­tance to equate Chris­t­ian writ­ings with the Scrip­tures. This reluc­tance is due, first of all, to the fact that the Chris­t­ian Church­es of the first sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions already pos­sessed the Scrip­tures.” These scrip­tures (hai graphai) were those writ­ings tra­di­tion­al­ly iden­ti­fied as the Scrip­tures. Rough­ly equiv­a­lent with what Chris­tians today iden­ti­fy as the Old tes­ta­ment, the Scrip­tures con­tin­ued to be val­ued by the Chris­t­ian church­es as the inspired word of God…

There was, how­ev­er, anoth­er fac­tor which imped­ed the recog­ni­tion of Chris­t­ian doc­u­ments as Scrip­ture. This was the val­ue the church­es ascribed to the liv­ing voice of Spir­it-inspired prophe­cy.Ray­mond F. Collins, Intro­duc­tion to the New Tes­ta­ment (New York, 1987) p. 15 – 16

There­fore the indi­vid­ual books of the New Tes­ta­ment were not con­sid­ered scrip­ture” by the ear­ly Chris­tians even though they val­ued the logion (oral) words of Jesus(P) in cir­cu­la­tion in the region, the tra­di­tions, or the liv­ing voice of Spir­it-inspired prophecy”.

We are also informed that the scrip­tures of the Jews remained the only author­i­ta­tive scrip­ture” for the ear­ly Christians :

Even­tu­al­ly Chris­t­ian the­o­log­i­cal reflec­tion and hos­tile rela­tions between Chris­tians and some Jews who did not accept Jesus led to the the­sis that the new tes­ta­ment (in the sense of covenant) had tak­en the place of the old, Mosa­ic covenant which had become obsolete”…Of course, even then the Scrip­tures of Israel remained the Scrip­tures for Chris­tians.Ray­mond E. Brown, An Intro­duc­tion to the New Tes­ta­ment, p. 4

It was only in the sec­ond cen­tu­ry that is there evi­dence of the use of the term New Tes­ta­ment” for the body of Chris­t­ian writings.

Only in the 2d cen­tu­ry do we have evi­dence of Chris­tians using the term New Tes­ta­ment” for a body of their own writ­ings, ulti­mate­ly lead­ing to the use of the des­ig­na­tion Old Tes­ta­ment” for the Scrip­tures of Israel. It would still be sev­er­al cen­turies more before Chris­tians in the Latin and Greek church­es came to the wide agree­ment 5 about the twen­ty-sev­en works to be includ­ed in a nor­ma­tive or canon­i­cal col­lec­tion. ibid.

Sim­i­lar­ly, The New Bible Dic­tio­nary states that :

It was towards the close of the 2nd cen­tu­ry that aware­ness of the con­cept of a canon and scrip­tur­al sta­tus begins to reveal itself in the thought and activ­i­ty of Chris­tians.J. D. Dou­glas (Org. Ed.), F.F. Bruce, R.V.G. Tasker, J.I. Pack­er, D.J. Wise­man (Con­sult. Ed.), The New Bible Dic­tio­nary (Inter-Var­si­ty Press, Lon­don), p. 196

That the des­ig­na­tions of the term Old” and New” Tes­ta­ments are terms only exis­tant in the late 2nd cen­tu­ry C.E. is obvi­ous when The Con­cise Colum­bia Elec­tron­ic Ency­lo­pe­dia (3rd ed.) informs us that

The des­ig­na­tions Old” and New” seem to have been adopt­ed after c. AD 200 to dis­tin­guish the books of the Mosa­ic covenant and those of the new” covenant in Christ. New Tes­ta­ment writ­ers, how­ev­er, sim­ply call the Old Tes­ta­ment the Scrip­tures”.

In oth­er words, the ear­ly Chris­tians do not regard the books in the New Tes­ta­ment today as scrip­ture” and that the aware­ness of the con­cept of a canon was a late devel­op­ment in the 2nd cen­tu­ry. So much for the claims of mod­ern-day Chris­tans that the New Tes­ta­ment writ­ings was whol­ly inspired” by God and is hence scrip­ture”!

The Devel­op­ment of the Con­cept & Under­stand­ing of Scrip­ture” In the Ear­ly Church

As we have already not­ed before, the New Tes­ta­ment was not gen­er­al­ly called scrip­ture” before the end of the 2nd cen­tu­ry C.E. As Lee Mar­tin Mc Don­ald and Stan­ley E. Porter informs us

Until the end of the sec­ond cen­tu­ry, how­ev­er, the NT was not gen­er­al­ly called Scrip­ture[.]Lee Mar­tin Mc Don­ald & Stan­ley E. Porter, Ear­ly Chris­tian­i­ty and Its Sacred Lit­er­a­ture (Hen­drick­son Pub­lish­ers Inc., 2000), p. 611

Fur­ther­more, they go on to say that even after the end of the 2nd cen­tu­ry the terms Old” and New” [Tes­ta­ment] did not gain suf­fi­cient recognition :

At the end of the sec­ond cen­tu­ry, apart from the term Scrip­ture,” there were no gen­er­al­ly accept­ed terms to iden­ti­fy this col­lec­tion of Chris­t­ian writ­ings. The terms Old Tes­ta­ment” and New Tes­ta­ment” had begun to be used in that cen­tu­ry but had not gained suf­fi­cient recog­ni­tion by that time…The most that can be said is that there was a gen­er­al recog­ni­tion of the scrip­tur­al sta­tus of the four Gospels , Acts, and most of the Epis­tles of Paul at the end of the sec­ond cen­tu­ry. ibid., pp. 615 – 616

So when did the devel­op­ment of the cur­rent under­stand­ing with regard to the con­cept of scrip­ture” in the ear­ly Chris­t­ian church began ? We are told that

The prob­lem with dat­ing the Mura­to­ri­an Frag­ment this ear­ly in the sec­ond cen­tu­ry is that, at that time, there are even few­er par­al­lels acknowl­edg­ing Chris­t­ian writ­ings as Scrip­ture, let alone as part of a fixed canon. The NT writ­ings, of course, had to be called Scrip­ture before they could be called canon, and they were only begin­ning to be called Scrip­ture in the sec­ond cen­tu­ry.ibid., p. 620

We have already seen that the writ­ers of the New Tes­ta­ment them­selves did not con­sid­er their own writ­ings as scrip­ture” and nei­ther did their imme­di­ate read­ers con­sid­ered them scrip­ture”. The ear­ly Chris­tians did not even had a notion of four gospels”. Thus, The New Bible Dic­tio­nary states that

The plur­al form Gospels’ (GK. evaun­gelia) would not have been under­stood in the apos­tolic age, nor yet for two gen­er­a­tions fol­low­ing ; it is of the essence of the apos­tolic mes­sage that there is only one true avan­ge­lion ; who­ev­er pro­claims anoth­er, says Paul, is anath­e­ma … The four records which tra­di­tion­al­ly stand in the fore­front of the New Tes­ta­ment are, prop­er­ly speak­ing, four records of the one gospel — the gospel of God…concerning his Son’.…It was not until the mid­dle of the 2nd cen­tu­ry AD that the plur­al form came to be used.The New Bible Dic­tio­nary, op. cit., p. 484

How did the ear­ly Church under­stood scrip­ture” then ? Lee Mar­tin Mc Don­ald and Stan­ley E. Porter explains

Scrip­ture is essen­tial­ly a writ­ten rev­e­la­tion of the word and will of God com­mu­ni­cat­ed to his peo­ple. When a par­tic­u­lar writ­ing was believed by a reli­gious body to have its ori­gins in God and that com­mu­ni­ty rec­og­nized its author­i­ty for the com­mu­ni­ty, then the writ­ing was ele­vat­ed to the sta­tus of Scrip­ture. This descrip­tion, how­ev­er, is only a part of an over­all under­stand­ing of Scrip­ture for the ear­ly church. Unlike in Judaism, the ear­ly church under­stood Scrip­ture to be essen­tial­ly escha­to­log­i­cal ; that is, there was the belief that the Scrip­tures had their pri­ma­ry ful­fill­ment in Jesus.…Paul adds that this ful­fill­ment is also found in the Chris­t­ian community…but he still sees Jesus the Christ as the norm for under­stand­ing and using the Scrip­tures (2 Cor 3:12 – 16). The church held that the OT writ­ings were of unim­peach­able authority…and that they had a chris­to­log­i­cal ful­fill­ment because they bear wit­ness to Christ. Their author­i­ty is acknowl­edged inso­far as they point to God’s activ­i­ty in Jesus Christ. There is no ques­tion that the OT (the lim­its of which were not yet ful­ly defined in the time of Jesus) was author­i­ta­tive in the ear­ly Chris­t­ian church­es…Lee Mar­tin Mc Don­ald & Stan­ley E. Porter, Op. Cit., p. 601

Thus, the Chris­t­ian writ­ings were only grad­u­al­ly ele­vat­ed to the staus of scrip­ture”, they how­ev­er were not seen as scrip­ture” from the very moment they were com­posed and nei­ther did the ear­ly Chris­tians look upon them as scrip­ture”.

…from the time of Chris­t­ian begin­nings the Jew­ish writ­ings that would even­tu­al­ly com­pose the Chris­t­ian Old Tes­ta­ment canon were broad­ly known and used and rec­og­nized as author­i­ta­tive, and hence were scrip­tur­al, though not yet canon­i­cal, for Jews and Chris­tians alike. Pecu­liar­ly Chris­t­ian writ­ings, how­ev­er, only lat­er and grad­u­al­ly acquired the sta­tus of scrip­ture. In that process, litur­gi­cal read­ing was an impor­tant fac­tor. Dur­ing the late first and ear­ly sec­ond cen­turies the books that were read in Chris­t­ian assem­blies were prin­ci­pal­ly the scrip­tures of Judaism. The ques­tion is in what form they were avail­able in ear­ly Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ties. It is not like­ly that in this ear­ly peri­od all church­es would have pos­sessed full col­lec­tions of Jew­ish scrip­ture. The scrip­tures of Judaism com­prised not a sin­gle book but a col­lec­tion of scrolls, five of the Torah and more of the prophet­ic books.…small Chris­t­ian con­gre­ga­tions prob­a­bly had only a select group of Jew­ish texts. Under the cir­cum­stances it may be that Chris­tians for a time found it con­ve­nient or nec­es­sary to use only extracts or tes­ti­monies” drawn from Jew­ish scrip­tures, instead of vol­umes of con­ti­nous texts. Dur­ing the same peri­od Chris­t­ian writ­ings were still mak­ing their way into cir­cu­la­tion and had not gained the sta­tus of scrip­ture. Nev­er­the­less, their instruc­tion­al val­ue for Chris­t­ian con­gre­ga­tions was sure­ly rec­og­nized, and a giv­en church would have used what­ev­er Chris­t­ian books had come to hand and proved to be help­ful. In this way Chris­t­ian writ­ings began to be read in the same set­ting as the Jew­ish scrip­tures.Har­ry Y. Gam­ble, Books And Read­ers In The Ear­ly Church : A His­to­ry Of Ear­ly Chris­t­ian Texts (Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press New Haven and Lon­don, 1995), p. 214

There­fore, we can only con­clude that the cur­rent belief hold by Chris­tians today, i.e. that the New Tes­ta­ment writ­ings are scrip­ture”, is cer­tain­ly a new inno­va­tion absent in the ear­ly Chris­t­ian church. So why do Chris­tians break away from their long-held tra­di­tion of uphold­ing the Jew­ish writ­ings (Old Tes­ta­ment) as their author­i­ta­tive scrip­ture”? Schol­ar C. F. Evans tells us that

So long as Chris­tian­i­ty stood close to Judaism, or was pre­dom­i­nant­ly Jew­ish, scrip­ture remained the Old Tes­ta­ment, and this sit­u­a­tion can be seen per­sist­ing in such a doc­u­ment as 1 Clement, with its fre­quent and almost exclu­sive appeal to the Old Tes­ta­ment text. The ele­va­tion of Chris­t­ian writ­ings to the posi­tion of the new canon, like those writ­ings them­selves, was pri­mar­i­ly the work of Gen­tile Chris­tian­i­ty, whose lit­er­a­ture also betrays a feel­ing that the very exis­tence of the Old Tes­ta­ment was now a prob­lem to be solved, and that there was need of some new and specif­i­cal­ly Chris­t­ian authority.…and what even­tu­al­ly took place was pre­cise­ly what in the ear­li­est days of the Church could hard­ly have been con­ceived, name­ly, the cre­ation of a fur­ther Bible to go along with that already in exis­tence, which was to turn it into the first of two, and in the end to rel­e­gate it to the posi­tion of Old’ in a Bible now made up of two tes­ta­ments. The his­to­ry of the devel­op­ment of the New Tes­ta­ment Canon is the his­to­ry of the process by which books writ­ten for the most part for oth­er pur­pos­es and from oth­er motives came to be giv­en this unique sta­tus ; and the Study of the New Tes­ta­ment is in part an inves­ti­ga­tion of why there were any such writ­ings to canon­ise, and of how, and in what cir­cum­stances, they came to pos­sess such qual­i­ties as fit­ted them for their new role, and made it pos­si­ble for them to con­tin­ue sim­ply as an expan­sion of, or sup­ple­ment to, some­thing else.P. R. Ack­royd & C. F. Evans (Ed.), The Cam­bridge His­to­ry of the Bible : From the Begin­nings to Jerome, Vol­ume 1, Chap­ter 9 : The New Tes­ta­ment In The Mak­ing by C. F. Evans (Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1970), pp. 234 – 235

Thus, we see how the reli­gion of Chris­tian­i­ty, from being mere­ly a sub­set of Judaism per se, even­tu­al­ly broke away from its Semit­ic roots as the num­ber of Gen­tile Chris­tians grew and the need for some new and specif­i­cal­ly Chris­t­ian author­i­ty began to man­i­fest itself among them.


The belief that the New Tes­ta­ment writ­ings are scrip­ture” was cer­tain­ly alien to the under­stand­ing of scrip­ture” as con­ceived by the ear­ly Chris­tians, as they strict­ly adhere to the Jew­ish writ­ings as author­i­ta­tive to them. More­over, we see that the terms Old” and New” [Tes­ta­ment] were devel­oped at around the same time as the Gen­tile Chris­tians in the late sec­ond cen­tu­ry C.E. began press­ing for the need of an appeal to a specif­i­cal­ly Chris­t­ian author­i­ty. Cer­tain­ly, we won­der at this inno­va­tion of the con­cept of scrip­ture” and who knows what else !

And only God knows best.Endmark

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