Welcome to part 1 of a series about the importance
of Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition based on the the booklet
Which Came First: The Church or the New Testament?
by Fr. A. James Bernstein
[To read the full unabridged booklet without comment from the author of this blog post, please do see the link above.]
Which came first?
Holy Scripture or Holy Tradition?
How can we know?
Why does it matter?
Second Timothy 3:16 (quoted above) is familiar to many Christians and is often used to defend the idea of divine inspiration of Scripture, but what does St. Paul mean by “Scripture” if he writes to Timothy before the New Testament canon even existed? Historically speaking, he can only mean what existed of the Old Testament canon at that time. It is true the New Testament, including this letter to Timothy would later be received by the Church as Holy Scripture, but to assume the New Testament existed at the time when this verse was written requires an anachronistic (i.e. chronologically inconsistent) reading of the text. It is the prayerful hope of the author of this blog post that the information from Fr James’ booklet will help Christians 1.) better understand how their Holy Writ came into being and 2.) better appreciate the necessity of Holy Tradition of the Church.
The Bible of the Apostles
- The Jewish Old Testament canon was not finalized until the Third Century AD.
- Early Christians used a Greek version of the Old Testament called the Septuagint which originated in Alexandria, Egypt. It contains an expanded Old Testament canon including the following “deuterocanonical” books:
- I Esdras
- II Esdras
- Additions to Esther
- Wisdom of Solomon
- Wisdom of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus)
- Epistle of Jeremiah
- Additions to Daniel:
- Song of the Three Children
- Bel and the Dragon
- Prayer of Manasseh
- Psalm 151
- I Maccabees
- II Maccabees
- III Maccabees
- The deuterocanonical books were received by early Christians as part of the Old Testament, because they used the Septuagint.
- In reaction to the rise of Christianity, the Jews narrowed their canons and eventually excluded the deuterocanonical books -although they still regarded them as sacred.
- This later Jewish Old Testament canon (a.k.a Masoretic Text) dates back to around the 9th Century, excludes the deuterocanonical books above and is used as the basis for the Old Testament canon in Protestant Christian Bibles.
* These books are referred to as “apocryphal” by Protestants, however, in 1615 Archbishop George Abbot of England forbade the King James Version of the Bible to be printed without the Apocrypha.
- It is safe to say there was no New Testament when St. Paul wrote to Timothy affirming “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (II Timothy 3:16), therefore Scripture in this context had to mean something different than the single volume that combines both Old and New Testaments called “The Bible” that we know, revere and depend on daily.
- The first complete listing of the New Testament canon was given to the Church by St Athanasius in his Pascal letter in AD 367 – over 300 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
- The four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) were written 30-60 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
How did the Gospel message thrive in the Church for the first 30 years after Christ if it was not yet in written form? Mainly through oral tradition and only parts of what would become the New Testament canon.
- As the eyewitnesses of Christ’s life and teachings began to die, the Apostles wrote as they were guided by the Holy Spirit in order to preserve and solidify the scattered written and oral tradition.
- During the first four centuries AD there was substantial disagreement over which books should be included in the canon of Scripture.
- The first person on record who tried to establish a New Testament canon was the second-century heretic, Marcion.
- Marcion’s canon included only one gospel, which he himself edited, and ten of Paul’s epistles. It must be admitted, the first attempted New Testament canon was indeed heretical.
- Conversely, the development of the New Testament canon evolved rather slowly over time according to God’s will but even then the process was rather complicated due several historical circumstances:
- The distorted canon of Marcion the heretic may have prompted the early Church to expedite its efforts to clearly define a canon of its own [that could be trusted].
- The destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 threatened the loss of continuity in the oral tradition and may have also heightened the sense of urgency for the Church to standardize the list of books Christians could rely on.
- During this period of the canon’s evolution, as previously noted, most churches had only a few, if any, of the apostolic writings available to them.
- The books of the Bible had to be painstakingly copied by hand, at great expense of time and effort.
- Most people were illiterate so the written books of the New Testament canon could only be read by a privileged few.
- The exposure of most Christians to the Scriptures was confined to what they heard in the churches i.e. the Law and Prophets, the Psalms, and some of the Apostles’ memoirs.
- The persecution of Christians under the yoke of the Roman Empire and the existence of many spurious documents of non-apostolic origin only further complicated matters.
In future posts we will see how the Church finally received the 27 books of the New Testament canon.
When the Apostles lived and wrote, there was no New Testament and no finalized Old Testament. The concept of “Scripture” was much less well-defined than we read and know today. It is Holy Tradition that allowed the Church to thrive in its first three centuries since it could not rely on the written Word alone. It is also Holy Tradition that determined the canon of Holy Scripture by the leading of the Holy Spirit.
- “Which Came First the Church or the New Testament?” by Fr James Bernstein (source for this blog post)