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Religion Library: Christianity

Sacred Texts

Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka

Because Judaism and Christianity canonized, or authoritatively affirmed, the scriptures separately, the first Christians included seven books in the Old Testament that were not in the Jewish canon. The Christian Old Testament and the Jewish scriptures were different until the Protestant Reformation, when reformers revised the Old Testament canon to agree with the Jewish canon. The Catholic Bible now refers to these seven books as deuterocanonical (meaning "belonging to the second canon"), while the Protestant Bible refers to them as apocryphal (meaning "outside the canon"), and some Protestants do not recognize them as having any kind of canonical status.

The early followers of Jesus were Jews, and so their scriptures were the Jewish scriptures. They read them and studied them, praying their prayers and singing their songs. When eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus began dying, their memories became precious. People began writing them down. Soon there was a proliferation of gospels and letters, and churches began the process of vetting them for authenticity.

Athanasius of Alexandria

The idea of a New Testament canon first emerged in the 2nd century C.E., when Church leaders began making lists of the books determined to be authentically apostolic. In 367, Athanasius of Alexandria listed all twenty-seven books of the New Testament in a letter and referred to it as the canon. Athanasius's list was widely recognized in the eastern churches, and then was approved by a number of authoritative councils in the West. In this way the New Testament became the second part of the Christian Bible.

Earliest surviving text of the New Testament (ca. 120 CE): Greek text from John 18The twenty-seven books of the New Testament were all written in Greek. The four Gospels each give an account of the life of Jesus, highlighting the events leading up to and including his death by crucifixion and subsequent resurrection. They conclude with the events after his death, when followers shared stories of having seen Jesus alive again. The Book of Acts, which was originally part of the Gospel of Luke, gives an account of the first Christians and the apostles Peter and Paul.

Matthew (by El Greco) Source: twenty-one epistles, or letters, are examples of communications between individuals and groups within the Christian communities of the first century. The last book, Revelation, is also an epistle, though it is distinctly symbolic and apocalyptic in content.


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