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

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.1

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.2

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.3

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.4

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[.]5

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.6

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.7

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.8

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…9

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.10

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.11

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.

Conclusions

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.

Footnotes

  1. Raymond F. Collins, Introduction to the New Testament (New York, 1987) p. 15-16 []
  2. Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 4 []
  3. ibid. []
  4. 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 []
  5. Lee Martin Mc Donald & Stanley E. Porter, Early Christianity and Its Sacred Literature (Hendrickson Publishers Inc., 2000), p. 611 []
  6. ibid., pp. 615-616 []
  7. ibid., p. 620 []
  8. The New Bible Dictionary, op. cit., p. 484 []
  9. Lee Martin Mc Donald & Stanley E. Porter, Op. Cit., p. 601 []
  10. 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 []
  11. 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 []

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