How the Bible Became the Bible
Class 1: Early Christianities and Their Bibles
(This post is for my internship project at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Franklin, TN: a series of classes on the Christian biblical canon.)
During this class I shared some information about different sects within the early church. A lot of times we look back on the early church like it was totally unified, like back then everybody “got it,” whereas today we have so many different denominations arguing about how to interpret our faith. But actually beliefs about Jesus were just as diverse back then as they are today.
The reason I am starting off this class by talking about a few different sects is because each of these sects had a different understanding of what writings should be called Christian scriptures. Different beliefs would lead people to support different writings, and different writings would lead people to believe different things. All this disagreement was one of the main things that eventually led the ancient Catholic Church to start saying which books were “in” and which were “out.”
From the beginning, most Christians agreed that the Old Testament books were scripture (our roots are Jewish, after all). But as Christian writings were becoming used in more and more churches, they gained more authority. Different groups were drawn to different writings. Here are a few examples from the first and second centuries A.D. (These are all very simplified versions, because I just an amateur! I focus on the parts of their beliefs that pertain to their beliefs about scripture.)
I’ve linked each sect title to its entry in the online Catholic Encylopedia. Though we’ve all been taught to take Wikipedia with a grain of salt, it’s not a bad place to go for some easier-to-read information about these groups, written from a point of view that isn’t so decidedly Roman Catholic.
- “Gnostic” is a word we hear a lot today. It is actually an umbrella term used to talk about a whole bunch of different early sects.
- Gnostics believed that material things were lower than spiritual things. There were two gods: the lower god created material, but the higher god was purely spiritual. Since the lower god created humans and the world, we were far removed from the spiritual god. We need to come to understand the spiritual god in order to escape the material world (salvation).
- Jesus Christ was not really human, he just appeared to be. Jesus was purely spiritual, and Jesus gave some humans the secret knowledge of spiritual things.
- Examples of their scriptures: Gospel of Truth, Gospel of Thomas (“The Secret Sayings of Jesus”), Gospel of Mary, Genesis.
- Marcion, the founder of this group, believed there were two gods. The god of the Old Testament was the lower god and kind of nasty: that god created the world and created an impossible Law just to spite humans. This god was called the Demiurge.
- The better god was revealed in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ was not really human; he was this purely spiritual god appearing The Demiurge caused Jesus to be crucified. The higher god then accused the Demiurge of breaking his own law, thereby winning the souls of redeemed humans.
- For Marcionites, the Old Testament was not scripture: it was the story of the Demiurge, and Judaism was the religion of the Demiurge. They were anti-Jewish and rejected all Jewish influence on Christianity.
- Their Scriptures: the letters of Paul (except 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, which they may not have even known about) and the Gospel of Luke. But Marcion edited Paul’s letters and Luke, removing all the Jewish elements.
- Stuck close to the Jewish religion, because Judaism was the religion of Jesus and his first followers. Believed they represented the “original view” of Christianity.
- Believed that Jesus was fully human and not at all divine. He had been born of Mary and Joseph. Jesus lived a perfect life, and so he was a perfect sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.
- Scriptures: Old Testament and a gospel very similar to the gospel of Matthew (a very Jewish gospel)
- Montanists (or “New Prophecy”)
- Founded by Montanus, led by him and two women named Prisca and Maximilla. All claimed to be inspired by the Holy Spirit.
- Movement focused on the Holy Spirit’s continuing activity, especially in the form of new prophecies. People would enter into states of frenzy and ecstasy, like they were being possessed by God, speak in tongues, and deliver prophecy.
- Writings were usually not as important as new prophecies. But they did often refer to Revelation and to the Gospel of John (because of its emphasis on the Holy Spirit). They also had written copies of some of the new prophecies.
- Catholicism (called themselves the katholike ekklesia: “the universal assembly”)
- The “orthodox” or “mainstream” ones, at least from our perspective today
- Believed that Jesus was fully God and fully human.
- Writings: they believed that the Old Testament was still sacred scripture. The guidelines they used to determine whether Christian writing were scripture were:
- Is it orthodox? (Does it communicate the generally accepted beliefs?)
- Is it genuine? (Was it actually written by one of the original apostles or their assistant?)
- Is it generally acknowledged as scripture? (Do many congregations use it frequently as part of their worship?)
Dungan, David L., Constantine’s Bible, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006).
Kelly, J.N.D., Early Christian Doctrines, revised ed. (Peabody: Prince Press, 2003).
McDonald, Lee M., The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon, rev. and expanded ed. (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995).
O’Grady, Joan, Early Christian Heresies (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1985).
Next Class: June 21. Topic: “Eusebius Makes Important Lists” (how the Catholic Church made its first decisions about which writings were scripture and which weren’t)