Some North American Christians refer to themselves as “Bible Christians.” In other words, if it isn’t in the Bible, it isn’t so. They say the Bible is “the Word of God,” meaning it is to be taken literally. They believe the King James English version is only true translation and that it has never changed over time. They are faithful, and they are adamant.
Many of these Christians have little knowledge of early Church history prior to Martin Luther and the Reformation and have little to no knowledge of how the Bible they know today came into existence. They are unaware that for almost the first four hundred years of its existence, Christianity had no Bible, and after the Bible was created, even if portions were available, most Christians could not read it anyway.
There are two good sources on early Christianity and the creation of the Bible, one is a lecture by Pastor Andy Stanley and the other is a book by White called “From Jesus to Christianity.” They cover the same period in Christian history and come to the same conclusions despite denominational and educational differences.
The Organization of the Bible
The Christian Bible is a collection of books contained in a single volume, having two major divisions: the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament (OT) and the Christian Bible or the New Testament (NT). Although both the OT and NT are included in the Christian bible, the Catholic bible contains more books in the OT than the Protestant bible. All Christian Bibles contain the same books in the New Testament.
The list of books, approved in each collection, is a called a “canon,” a word referring to a unit of measurement or a list. A canonical book is a sacred book believed to be inspired by God and having value for faith and morals. Through the centuries, Christians have died for these books. (See R. E. Brown and R. F. Collins, “Canonicity” Chapter 66 in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, pp. 1034-1054, Prentice-Hall,1990)
The Old Testament/Hebrew Canon
The Old Testament Hebrew canon has three major divisions: the Pentateuch or the first five books of the bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy); the Prophets and the Prophetic Literature; and the Wisdom Literature. The Pentateuch is also referred to as the Torah or The Law. The Prophets can be subdivided into Early Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings) and Later Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel with the twelve minor prophets). Some authors divide them into Major (longer writings) and Minor (shorter writings) Prophets. The Wisdom Literature is composed of eleven books, including Psalms, Proverbs, Jonah and Job.
There are two canons for the OT. One is the canon of the Hebrew bible. These (39) books, in Roman Catholic terminology, are called “protocanonical” meaning that they are beyond dispute. The other is the Alexandrian canon which contains seven other books, called “deuterocanonical” meaning “similar in content or title” but not canonical. Some Protestant Bibles will contain these books placed in a separate section from either the OT or the NT called “Apocrypha.” Catholic Bibles also have a section called an “Apocrypha” which contains non-biblical books or “pseudepigrapha.” (See “Canonicity” in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary.)
In Jesus’ day, the Hebrew Bible (referred to as “Scripture” by the Gospel writers) was available in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Not all literate Jews could read and understand Hebrew (considered a dead language) so an Aramaic translation was used in local synagogues. Many diaspora Jews knew only Greek. The Greek translation is also called the Alexandrian version or the Septuagint.
Jewish and Protestant Bibles use a similar OT canon whereas Catholic Bibles use the Alexandrian Old Testament canon.
The New Testament or Christian Canon
The books in the New Testament canon are identical in Catholic and Protestant Bibles. The NT canon consists of four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), the Book of Acts, the Book of Revelation, and the Epistles or letters written by the Apostles to the new Christian communities or house churches.
The final list of books to be included in the New Testament was decided at the end of the fourth century at the Council of Hippo (393 AD/CE) and ratified at the Council of Carthage (397AD/CE). Although there were many Gospels and many “lists” of which books could have been included, the definitive list took almost 400 years to finalize. Prior to that time, the only written “Scripture” available was the Old Testament.
The four Gospels (Mathew, Mark, Luke and John) contain descriptions of the life and teachings of Jesus. Mathew (an eyewitness and an apostle), Mark (thought to have traveled with Paul and later a disciple of Peter) and Luke (a Greek physician and the only non-Jewish author in the Bible) are very similar in content focusing upon Jesus, the man. The Gospel of John (said to be an early eyewitness and a favorite Apostle), stresses Jesus’ divinity.
Acts (attributed to the Gospel writer Luke), is primarily an account of the evangelical travels of Paul. Acts also describes the international development of the infant church, its disagreements, and its methods of resolution, its organization, its martyrs and its theological arguments.
The Book of Revelation (attributed to the Gospel writer John), is a contentious book. Some believe it is a prophetic book, foretelling events to come in the third millennium. Others see it as an encoded book containing messages to 1st century Christians under the yoke of Roman persecution to inspire hope and encouragement.
The Epistles, written by eyewitness disciples, as well as Paul, are the letters sent out to the early churches in different countries. They offer encouragement, clarification of disputed issues, clarification of theology, and insights into the problems faced by the early churches.
Prior to the final decision on the canon of the New Testament (NT), the early church fathers (most of whom were disciples of the first disciples) wrote extensively about theology, the organization of the church, and how Christians were to live, pray and behave. These were the only written documents available to Christians and were the basis for Christian thought. Illiterate Christians relied on the biblical passages read at the Eucharistic and other liturgies, or the pictorial versions of those stories seen in statues, paintings and stained glass windows to tell them about their faith. A final, uniform, listing of authentic doctrinal sources, came as a relief to many.
The organization of the Bible will differ depending upon which Bible is used: Hebrew, Catholic or Protestant. All three agree to the inclusion of the first thirty-nine books of the Hebrew Bible which does not contain any of the books of the Christian Bible. Protestant and Catholic Bibles contain the same NT books but differ on the inclusion of books in the Hebrew Bible. Determination of the canon, as reflecting the authentic word of God, has taken centuries. This was not an easy decision to make. (A collection of other ‘gospels’ written during these years can be found in a book called “The Other Bible,” showing what the early fathers of the church excluded.)
Originally written in Greek, the NT books are said to have been translated into the vernacular of the time (Latin) in the 5th century, by Jerome, a linguist and a classical scholar. (Since Roman rule dominated most of Europe, the common language was Latin, and was used in all official documents, in meetings, and general speech.) The original documents Jerome used for the translation are no longer in existence. This translation, called the Latin Vulgate, is the standard translation upon which all subsequent translations were based.
Since the Reformation and the Gutenberg Printing Press, the Christian Bible (both old and new testaments) has been translated many times and into many languages. There are numerous English language translations each giving a different spin or nuance to the original text. Some of these translations are made from the original Greek, others from the original Latin Vulgate while many more are translations from other English translations or French versions. So, taking what the Bible says literally can be perilous. There is no way to know if the text is accurate unless it is compared to the original Greek.
All Christians believe that the Bible was inspired by God, but the Bible was translated by man, and men make mistakes. So, believing that the English version of the Bible is a literal transcription of God’s own words can lead to misinterpretation and error.