Content: Introduction. The Old Testament. The New Testament. Other Books. The Bible and the Church. Which came first? How can we understand the Bible? And where is this Church?
PERHAPS THE DAYS ARE GONE when very many people have the impression that the Bible was somehow mysteriously written in the English of the King James Version (KJV), all ready‑made and bound in a book, at some unknown point since the days of the apostles. Certainly, such a notion would be hard to find amongst Orthodox Christians. But in the society in which we live, perhaps many Orthodox folk included, there is often a “that's the way it is” attitude, attached to whatever concept of “the Bible” one happens to have.
A truly Christian understanding of the Scriptures, however, must be founded in Truth... not in a thoughtless acceptance of the “received” notion in one's own circle... be that circle Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Protestant. But Truth is a harsh master. If relentlessly pursued, it often forces dramatic changes in one's preconceived notions, religious or otherwise... and therefore, in one's whole life. Perhaps this is the reason for which it is so seldom pursued!
When we speak of “the Bible,” we speak of a collection of books. The earliest of these existed in oral form long before they were written down, but attained a written form many centuries before the birth of Our Lord. The latest of these books were written many years after His Resurrection... the very latest, probably, as late as the end of the first century, some 60 or more years after the Resurrection. The former, of course, comprise the Old Testament, and the latter the New Testament. When St. Paul speaks of “scripture,” it is to the Old Testament that he refers... few of the New Testament books had even been written yet, and complete agreement in the Church as to which books comprised the “New” Testament was yet several centuries off.
The Church existed for nearly 500 years before anything identical to what we now call “the Bible” could have been printed.
Yes... the Church existed in all her majesty and glory for nearly 500 years before anything identical to what we now call “the Bible” could have been unquestionably printed (had there been any printing presses). In fact, the many individual books, of both Old and New Testaments, existed first in papyrus scrolls, then later in hand‑copied huge volumes containing one or a very few books on vellum or similar material. A complete “Bible,” had it been possible to assemble one, would have occupied a good‑sized set of bookshelves.
But the contents of those shelves would have varied considerably from place to place, as we shall see. In this regard, however, the history of the Old and New Testaments differ considerably. Curiously, nonetheless, the notion common amongst many protestants that “Catholics” have a “different Bible” from that which they acknowledge (and therefore, presumably, Orthodox Christians as well) pertains exclusively to the Old Testament. This question, that of the “different Bible,” is likely to be one of the first to arise in any fundamental conversation between Orthodox Christians and Protestants.
THE BOOKS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT are quite varied in character, and have discrete histories. Generally speaking, they fall into four broad groups: the books of the Law (the Pentateuch); the history books (e.g., the books of Kings; the Prophets; and the books of Wisdom. It might be interesting to note in passing that the first “disagreement” concerning the “table of contents” of the Old Testament long pre‑dated the Christian era: the Samaritans were distinguished from the Jews by their refusal to acknowledge as “scripture” any books other than those of Moses, the Pentateuch.
Most of the books of the Old Testament were written originally in Hebrew or Aramaic, or a mixture of the two. There is, however, a whole group of books which are an exception, having been originally written (or at least only known to us) in Greek. These books are usually called the “Apocrypha,” or “hidden books” — a complete misnomer, as there is nothing hidden about them; they were an integral part of the Greek text of the Old Testament as it was in use at the time of Our Lord, the Septuagint. Many quotations from the Scriptures — the Old Testament‑ in the books of the New Testament are identifiably from this Greek text. (A glance at any reliable reference edition of the New Testament will readily confirm this... quotations which are clearly from the Greek text are usually identified as, e.g., “Ps 145:5, Septuagint). Nowhere, of course, do any of the New Testament books make any distinction between the various books of the Old Testament. It is of all this material that the holy Apostle Paul writes when he says “All Scripture is given by inspiration from God” (2 Tim 3:16).
It must be said that any volume which claims to be “the Bible” and yet does not contain these books is, at best, an expurgated or abbreviated Bible... and at worst an outright misrepresentation. It would be tedious and unnecessary to list all the books in question; the quickest way to determine whether a volume at hand is complete is to check the table of contents for the two best‑known books... the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes). All these books formed part of the original text of the King James Version of the Bible, and are simply deleted from the text in protestant printings.
Concerning the “table of contents” of the Old Testament, there was little serious discussion in the early Church. The apostles and the fathers alike consistently used the text of the Septuagint (Greek) Old Testament. They frequently cited in their writings passages which exist only in the Greek edition, or in which there is a significant difference in sense between the Greek and the Hebrew editions (as is frequently the case in the Psalms and even more so in the book of Jeremiah). This was no less true of the “other Jews” of the time of Our Lord.
These “apocryphal” books came to be an issue, not for the Christians, but for the post‑Resurrection Jews. They in many cases clearly prophesied concerning Our Lord and so were an embarrassment to those who refused to accept His divinity. Consequently, they were officially barred from the Jewish canon (official table of contents) of the Scriptures at the Jewish Council of Jamnia at the end of the 1st century A.D., 60 or so years after the Resurrection. The Protestant reformers of the 16th century chose to accept the authority of this Jewish council in preference to that of the Apostles and the Fathers.
We may reasonably ask why. It makes no sense that they should object to these books on the same basis as that of the rabbis of Jamnia. The answer to the puzzle is quite simple: the books (some of them) also make quite evident, prophetically, the special role of the Theotokos, the Mother of God, the maiden Mary of Galilee, in God's plan of salvation. Numerous passages from them are cited quite effectively by the Fathers in discussing the Church's understanding of the role of the Theotokos.
Consequently, the reformers simply opted to get rid of the books they disliked, using the pretext provided by the rabbis that the books did not exist in the Hebrew text. [Martin Luther did not quite have the courage (or the pretext) to continue the pattern and delete the Epistle of James (which flatly contradicts his teaching that salvation is “by grace alone”) from the Scriptures entirely... but he did attempt to rearrange the order of the books of the New Testament, placing this epistle at the very end, hoping that no one would read it. This “revisionism,” however, unlike the other, was not generally accepted. The “pick and choose” approach to the Scriptures has proven to be the normal method of Western interpretation.]
We can see the logical consequence of such proceedings today: A thousand and more protestant sects each claim to be “based on the Bible and the Bible alone.” Each claims to accept the Bible as the inspired word of God (we leave aside the modernists, who apparently believe whatever they see fit without reference to anything except themselves). Each quarrels with the other as to what the Bible says. Why? Quite simply, because the approach to the Scriptures is what is called the “proof text” method. Those portions of Scripture which happen not to support (or even flatly contradict) one's already established belief are either explained away or ignored ... just as the reformers simply threw away a whole collection of books of the Old Testament which they found troublesome.
TO DWELL AT TOO GREAT LENGTH on this matter of the “apocryphal” books of the Old Testament, however, could be very misleading, for in some significant respects it is entirely beside the point. Some much more critical issues are at stake. In order for these issues to be meaningfully or intelligently addressed, it is first necessary to understand and accept that the Church and the Holy Scriptures have a history... that is, that certain things happened in a certain order at certain times, and that, at least to a meaningful extent, we can determine what these were. We must, to reduce the matter to simplicity, admit that the Church existed on the Monday after Pentecost... but that at that point none of the books of the New Testament yet existed, and most of them would not be written for yet another twenty or more years, and a few not until nearly the end of the century. If we (or those with whom we discuss the Faith) deny the existence of this history, refuse to admit facts as part of divine Truth... then we really have nothing to discuss at all.
In the first weeks, months, years of her existence, the Church had no written documents whatever, except the books of the Old Testament as indicated earlier. The events of the Gospel were related from one believer to another by word of mouth; those who came to accept the Faith heard them from the believers. This was entirely in keeping with the culture in which the Church lived, which was above all else an oral culture. Relatively few people were able to read, let alone write... and so they heard the word of God and kept it (cf. Lk. 8:2 1; 11:28). The holy Apostle Paul insists upon the matter: “Therefore brethren, stand fast and hold to the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word or our letter” (2 Thess. 2:15).
In due course, as the Church began to spread beyond her place of origin in Jerusalem and Galilee, communications between the local churches became necessary... and letters were written. Some of these were of such great importance to understanding the Faith that they began to be read in church services, along with the Scriptures (the Old Testament). But copies existed initially only in the local churches to which they had been addressed, although in time in many others as well. As travelers moved from one place to another they carried hand‑written copies of the letters for the edification of other believers. Some of these letters were written by the apostles, but there were others, written by other believers as well. Eventually, some of them came to have the character of what we now call “open letters” addressed to the Church as a whole, rather than to any particular congregation. These are the “universal” or “catholic” or “general” epistles.
As the Church spread, it also became necessary to commit the central core of the events of Our Lord's life and His teaching to writing, to provide a written Gospel for those who came to the Faith far from the little out‑of‑the‑way province of the Empire in which the Lord had lived and died. So it was that the four written Gospels came into being. But this came to pass only after the Gospel had been proclaimed and passed from one believer to another by word of mouth, by tradition (“handing‑on”) for many years. It is readily apparent upon comparison that no one of the written Gospels contains the entire story. Just as important, perhaps more so... as one would assume, had he no prejudice to the contrary, all four of them together yet are less than the totality of the Tradition of which they are a part. As the Gospel of St. John concludes: “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” (Jn. 21:25).
To be sure, all that is essential of the Lord's life and teaching is to be found in the Gospels ‑ but not all that is desirable or helpful to our salvation. Neither any one nor all four of the Gospels together were written to be absolutely exhaustive and final. Were that the case, of course, we would have no need of the rest of the New Testament, nor the Old Testament either. (There have been heretics who claimed just such outrageous foolishness.)
The Revelation of St. John the Theologian (the “Apocalypse”) and the Acts of the Apostles are of course “special cases.” The former, almost certainly the last book of the New Testament to be written, is agreed by most scholars to have been written by St. John near the end of his life, during the reign of Dometian, probably about A.D. 95 (although parts of it may perhaps have been written at an earlier date). It is the only book of the New Testament concerning which there was significant disagreement in the Church... there were parts of the Church for several centuries in which it was not accepted as part of the Scriptures (of this, more later). The Acts of the Apostles, written by the Evangelist Luke, of course could not have been completed any earlier than A.D. 63, as it refers to St. Paul's imprisonment at Rome which continued into that year.
THE PICTURE WE HAVE, then, is that of a growing body of Church literature throughout the first 70 years of the Church's life. Some of these books were originally known in only one or a few local churches; others more rapidly gained a widespread audience. What was considered “scripture” in a particular local church was that which was read at the Church services, along with the books of the law and the prophets, and the Psalms, from the Old Testament. But we have not yet touched upon the fact that in this rich climate — of the oral Tradition of the Church and the new books which spoke of salvation — there were also other books... quite a number of them, in fact. Some of them were written even during the time in which the books of the New Testament came to be; others were written within the same time‑frame, but shortly later. [These books, however, should not be confused with the wholly inauthentic books written later, in the second and third centuries, by various heretics, who attributed their forgeries to the apostles in an attempt to authenticate their heretical teachings — such as the “Gospel of Thomas,” the “Essene Gospel of Peace” and various others.]
Some of these “other books” may indeed have been written by the apostles themselves (e.g., the Epistle of Barnabas; the Apostolic Constitutions). Others were written by other members of the early Christian Church or by the immediate successors of the apostles in the governance of the Church (e.g., the “Shepherd” of Hermas; the epistles of St. Clement, of St. Ignatius, of St. Polycarp). Some of these books were in various parts of the Church (and some of them quite widely) regarded as “scripture,” exactly on a par with the Gospels and the other books of the New Testament as we now have it.
The earliest indication we have that any of these books (both those we now regard as the “New Testament” and the others) were regarded as “scripture” is evidence of their use in the worship of the Church and of their citation in the writings of the Church Fathers. The early decades of the Church's life were preoccupied with missionary activity and persecution. If it occurred to anyone to make a written “table of contents” of the new scriptural books during this period, we have no indication of it.
The earliest known list of books which apparently were regarded as “scripture” in the Church's history comes from about A.D. 130 and is known as the Muratorian Canon. Portions of the work have been lost, but it is apparent that it includes the four Gospels and most of the epistles of St. Paul, as well as various other books. But doubts existed in portions of the Church concerning the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Epistle of Jude, the 2nd Epistle of Peter, the 2nd and 3rd Epistles of John, and the Apocalypse (this last right up to the council which finally confirmed the canon). As noted earlier, there were portions of the Church in which other books than those we now recognize as part of the New Testament were accepted as such.
It is not until A.D. 369, with St. Athanasius's “Festal Epistle” for that year, that we can find a “table of contents” for the New Testament which corresponds exactly to that which we now accept. For 336 years the Church had been living, growing, developing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit... and only then would it have been possible (though not even yet with universal acceptance) to print “the Holy Bible” as we now know and accept it!
This, of course, is already four decades after the Council of Nicea, after the Creed had been written, after the Church (as many Protestants would have it) had been finally and ultimately corrupted by St. Constantine. The formal liturgical worship of the Church is already well‑defined and so similar to that of the Orthodox Church today (a fact readily established by reference to indisputable historical documents) that a believer transported in time from then to an Orthodox Church service now would find himself completely at home.
What can one make of this? We shall have to come back to this momentarily... but first let us conclude the history of the “table of contents.”
Only five years earlier than St. Athanasius' Epistle, however, the Council of Laodicea (the canons of which were confirmed by the Sixth Ecumenical Council) promulgated a list of the books of the New Testament which was identical... except that it did not include the Apocalypse (Revelation) amongst “all the books that are to be read” (Canon 60). It was not for quite some time yet that there was truly universal agreement as to the books of the New Testament, and it was yet to be another thousand years before there would be a single book identical in contents to what we now call the Bible.
TO WHAT KIND OF CONCLUSION does this drive us? Obviously, the Bible came to be what it is, came into existence, only in the context of the living, dynamic Church of Christ, which had its origin at Pentecost (although its antetype, of course, was to be found in the Chosen People whose history led to the incarnation of the Son of God). It was the life of the Church throughout the first seventy or so years of her existence which, guided by the Holy Spirit, gave rise to the written texts which in due course were to comprise the New Testament. And it was the continuing life of the Church for more than another three hundred years which was required to refine and define the exact contents of the Scriptures.
Thus, it is pointless and misleading and even dangerous to discuss the Scriptures apart from the life of the Church. If the Scriptures as we know them could only come into existence through the action of the Holy Spirit upon and in the Church over a period hundreds of years, then obviously the rest of the experience of the Church during those same centuries (and subsequent ones as well) is of vital importance to their understanding.
And what is this “Church”? It is the same Church which was founded by Our Lord, governed by the Apostles in the earliest decades, later guided and shepherded by their successors, the bishops. It is the same Church which suffered intermittent persecution for three hundred years, which finally attained freedom under the reign of St. Constantine, which by the guidance of the Holy Spirit defined the meaning of the Scriptures as it confronted the perpetrators of the various heresies. It is the same Church which in the holy Councils wrote the Nicene Creed, summarizing the very essence of the Faith and the Scriptures, which in these same Councils wrote the Canons which are the guidelines even to this day for its life.
This is the same Church which teaches us to venerate the saints and their relics. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Church learned how to celebrate the holy Liturgy, the Lord's Supper, with dignity and splendor long before the time at which we can identify a final agreement concerning the contents of the Bible.
And so... we are forced, if we confront the facts with honesty and integrity, to one inescapable conclusion: it is only through the Church that we have access to the Bible at all. And it is likewise to the Church that we must turn for its understanding.
THIS CLASSIC RIDDLE (“which came first: the chicken or the egg?”) is very much to the point here. In point of time, it should be apparent that the Church long precedes the Bible as an integral collection of books, and considerably precedes even the individual books of the New Testament. Thus, it is quite certain that the Church founded by Our Lord was not “based on the Bible.” The Church created by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost had no Bible as we know it... and didn't have to have it to be truly the Church. It can be said with some justification that if every single copy of the Bible in existence were destroyed, the effect upon the Church would be minimal (although the context in which such an event could occur might not be!).
But the converse is not true. If there were no Church [but we are assured this will never come to pass... “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18)], the Bible would not be sufficient to provide what is needed for our salvation. If we doubt the truth of this, we need only cast our glance over the spectacle of what happens when people attempt to create their own “churches” based upon their own, private interpretations of the Holy Scriptures.
WE MUST, THEN, LOOK TO THE CHURCH if we are to have any correct understanding of Scripture. St. Peter insists: “No prophesy of the Scripture is of private interpretation” (2 Pet 1:29). But we must not expect to find this understanding by acquiring some compendium of the “true meaning” of the Bible. It is of wisdom, divine wisdom, that we speak... and this is not to be reduced to a series of sentences and paragraphs and books of merely human writing, inspired or otherwise. No... it is to the life of the Church that we must turn if we are to understand the Bible.
This life cannot be ours except by participation. We must be saturated in it through the prayers of the Church, through reading in the wisdom of the nearly two thousand years' writings of the Fathers of the Church, through the daily life of the Christian community. Apart from this life, there can be no real understanding, but only misunderstanding and perversion. The annals of the Church's history are filled with such... as are the shelves of any large library. Wherever man tries to rely upon his own “reason,” rather than upon God's Wisdom as imparted in the holy Church, heresy is the certain outcome... separation from the Truth.
BUT WHERE, AN HONEST INQUIRER can legitimately ask, are we to find “the Church”? This question could have been easily answered in the first few years of the Church's life. But it wasn't long before there were those who wished to substitute their own misunderstandings for divine understanding... even in the epistles of the holy Apostle Paul we can read of such. Long before the canon of Holy Scripture was firm, it was necessary for the Church to reject the false teachings of the Gnostics (who taught that salvation was to be attained by knowledge), of Arius (who refused to acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God), and of many others. And now we have a thousand and more sects claiming to be either a part of the Church or the only true Church.
Nevertheless, there truly is and never has been but one Church. That Church has always been at one with the teachings of the holy Apostles, and always in genuine historical and spiritual continuity with them. That Church first had to define itself as “catholic” or universal, in distinction from the “particular” or partial understandings of some of the early heretics. Later, it had to define itself as “orthodox,” as of the same Faith as the Apostles and the Church throughout the ages... in distinction from those who were “heterodox,” accepting “another faith.” From the very beginning, there has been much tolerance for sinners (even though not for their sins), but none for false teachings, for heresy: “If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:8).
Throughout, it is one and the same Church. At first, it existed only in the immediate area of Israel; soon, throughout the Roman Empire. It continued to grow and spread for nearly a thousand years, with the falling‑away of various heretical groups here and there (most of which have faded from existence) before the cataclysmic schism which plunged almost the entirety of Europe into the darkness of heresy... the schism which created the Roman Catholic Church. [In the West, the continuing decay of the Roman Church produced yet heresy upon heresy... the manifold protestant sects and their offspring.] But throughout the rest of the Christian world... all of the Middle East and parts of Asia... the one true Church continued to grow and flourish: the holy Orthodox Christian Church.
Today, the true Church, the Orthodox Church, is once again present in the West. But it is our responsibility as Orthodox Christians to see to it that the Truth is not only present, but available to those who thirst for it. If we permit it to be so obscured beneath the baggage of ethnicism that it remains inaccessible to those who seek the Truth, we shall be responsible for depriving God's “little ones” of the true Gospel.
But these words are directed both to those who are already Orthodox and to those who honestly seek divine Truth. And for all of us it is equally true that if we prefer our own private notions to the all‑embracing reality of God's Truth, we have made our choice... and shall have to live with the devastating consequences of that choice. If we are to attain the end which God intends for us, we must submit ourselves and our lives and our minds to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, of the Church. Only in the life of the Church is it possible for the Bible to be for us the living, life‑giving Word of God. Tom away from the true Church, as a child ripped untimely from his mother's womb, the Scriptures bring not Life, but death — whether the death of rationalism, or that of private “inspiration.” Only in the Church can we become one with Our Lord Jesus the Christ... He in us, and we in Him, that we all may be One in Him (cf. Jn. 17:22‑23).
THE ST. JOHN OF KRONSTADT PRESS
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|| Prayer of the First Hour || Third Hour || Sixth Hour || Ninth Hour || Vespers (Eleventh Hour) || Compline (Twelfth Hour) || The First Watch of the midnight prayers || The Second Watch of the midnight prayers || The Third Watch of the midnight prayers || The Prayer of the Veil || Various Prayers from the Agbia || Synaxarium