We Compiled The Bible

We Compiled The Bible October 4, 2019

I have posted on how the Bible came to take the shape that we know, and how that precise shape varies in different parts of the Christian world. I recently came across a declaration that framed that story nicely, and which demands a “Discuss!” after it.

Catholics Come Home is an evangelistic ministry that appeals to former and lapsed Catholics and seeks to draw them back into active church membership, largely through ads, television commercials, and a practically-oriented website. They offer a selection of “evangomercials” (I groan as to the word, if not the content). Its methods are low key, non-confrontational, and amiable: no harsh polemic here, and definitely no threats of hellfire. The message is a friendly “So you’ve been away for a while? Hey, welcome home!” Reportedly, as measured by mass attendance figures, it has been very successful. Other churches and denominations should follow its general style and approach for their own purposes, but that is another story.

You see a sample of the group’s efforts by watching this commercial, which lists Catholic achievements through the centuries, and among these, we hear, “Guided by the Holy Spirit, we compiled the Bible. We are transformed by sacred scripture and sacred tradition, which have guided us for two thousand years. We are the Catholic Church.” The accompanying materials on the website do add a critical qualification here, namely “we compiled the Bible [I.E. THE NEW TESTAMENT]” [emphasis in original].

One obvious comment presents itself, namely that the church that “compiled” the Bible has its earthly heirs today both in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. But with that caveat, there is the assertion: the church predated the New Testament, and made it.

How you respond to that claim decides pretty immediately where you stand on the ecclesiastical spectrum, or the Protestant-Catholic divide. It gets to the heart of all debates about authority within the Christian faith. To over-simplify popular attitudes, Protestants think the church is built on the Bible; Catholics think the church formed the Bible – the institutional church, with its episkopoi and presbyteroi, and founded on the Petrine rock.

I like their “compiled” here, rather than (say) “selected,” because other words would get into the issue of why certain books were rejected – why for instance we include the Revelation of John but not that of Peter; or why the Gospel of Thomas never made the cut.

The implications need thinking about, if only to understand where rival traditions are coming from. One, I suppose, is the nature of that Spirit “guidance” that is mentioned, and how that continues within the institution, and the possible limits of later interpretation that it grants. Does that extend to allowing later churches to contradict explicit Scriptural commands or prohibitions? Also, as framed, this formulation specifies the absolute necessity for a church institution, however much or little that church makes explicit use of the Bible.

It all makes for a fascinating contrast with Protestant principles, above all sola scriptura itself. Scripture alone, replies a Catholic? But the church made that scripture, and it can only be interpreted through the church, and above all, through its traditions.

So Protestants might themselves reply: yes, the apostolic church formed the New Testament. But that church was very different from its medieval and later successors, and to the Catholic (or Orthodox) churches of today. But that opens the door to a follow up. If that is correct, then just when did the church lose that original glory and pristine authority? Not presumably before the fifth century, when the church was still holding ecumenical councils that Protestants still respect and follow. But that fifth century church was profoundly hierarchical, clerical, Marian, and monastic, with a strong view of celibacy. In fact, it looks awfully “catholic.” There’s a lot of history to grapple with in all this.

Putting the question another way, how would one challenge the idea that the church compiled (selected, constructed, formed) the Bible? Does anyone think that the New Testament emerged fully formed, according to universal consent, with everyone recognizing from the time of publication that Book A was inevitably destined to be part of scripture, but Book B was not, even if, at the time, far more people venerated and respected B than A? Through a process of debate and controversy that in some cases lasted centuries, the Christian world decided that the New Testament was going to include certain books and not others. That sounds to me a lot like the church “compiling.”

The New Testament was not a self-evident concept or text. It demanded decisions.

You could even argue that Catholics Come Home are being too modest, in that decisions made by the church ensured that modern Christians have the Old Testament they do, which outside Ethiopia at least, does not include such once-potent texts as Enoch and Jubilees. The church didn’t compile the Old Testament, but they selected. Matters might easily have gone another way.

This all raises interesting issues about how that church reached its conclusions, and no less significant, when. Well into the fourth century, and beyond, prestigious churches and church leaders were still debating the contents of the New Testament – not in the precise listing of canonical gospels, but certainly in the range of epistles and other texts that still retained high respect in some places but not others. Debates were long and ongoing, and someone had to make the decisions.

So what do we think? Did the church compile the Bible – well, the New Testament? If not, why not?




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  • Roger McKinney

    If you accept RCC history, then you have no choice but to conclude that the RCC gave the world the Bible. After all, Peter was the first pope so that’s when the RCC began. Better history shows that the RCC didn’t come into existence for many centuries after Christ.

    The RCC cheats by playing on two definitions of “church.” It can mean all Christians and it can mean the organization called the RCC or the hierarchical structure of the Orthodox churches. Using the first meaning, it’s true that the church gave us the Bible because it came from early Christians. But that’s trivial. It doesn’t follow, though, that the church with the second meaning gave us the Bible. By the time any church council voted on the contents, the matter had already been settled for centuries. The councils merely approved of what the churches had been doing for centuries.

    But even the idea that the RCC compiled the Bible is false. Many theologians assumed that the early churches accepted any piece of paper that the wind blew through their doors. They didn’t. They accepted only things written by or endorsed by the 12 apostles and Paul. They knew who had written letters or books because the writers didn’t use the federal postal system to deliver them. People known to the churches and trusted by them hand delivered the writings. Paul makes that very clear in his letters and we should assume the same for the others. That’s why tradition of who wrote what should carry the most weight.

    Finally, the real history of the church shows that at least for the first century it lacked any kind of hierarchy and was organized like synagogues because the first believers were mostly Jews. Just as there was no hierarchy of synagogues there was none for early churches. As far as we know, none of the Apostles pastored a church. Paul appointed a few pastors, but we don’t know that any of the other apostles did. Once the Apostles died, churches, like synagogues, would have elected their own leadership.

  • David Madison

    The formation of the Canon is an interesting subject but one with a huge potential for misunderstanding. There are plenty of people who would love to think that the Canon is completely arbitrary. In reality, there are very sound reasons for thinking it is anything but arbitrary. It is particularly easy to see why the four Gospels were chosen.

    The role of Providence in the formation of the Canon is also discernible for those with eyes to see. It is actually very useful to be able to compare the canonical Gospels with the apocryphal works. The comparison allows us to see the difference between authors who knew what they were talking about and authors who didn’t. And it is reassuring to know that the early Church was aware of the difference.

  • Philip Jenkins

    Well, I would disagree on several points.

    The sense of hierarchy is very strong indeed for second century figures, above all Ignatius at the very start of that century, and already by that point, it is evidently a church of strong bishops, presbyters, and deacons. And that is definitely around the time when that church is deciding the contents of the emerging New Testament.

    You say “They accepted only things written by or endorsed by the 12 apostles and Paul. ” That obviously does not apply to things like the gospels, which were not written until a time when most or all of those apostles would be dead – certainly John’s gospel. We have no idea what any of the twelve apostles were doing after (say) the mid-50s, with the exception of Peter, who died around 64.

    I don’t know what the term “pastored” means in that ancient context.

    Also, we really don’t have a detailed idea of how synagogues actually were organized in the first century. Most of our evidence from Jewish sources is a couple of centuries later.

  • MesKalamDug

    We all know that logical thought will never bring anyone into any denomination – but the various pretensions are amusing. All present-day Christians are equally remote from Ignatios and have equal right to claim him as their own. That the Protestants somehow lost their heritage is a Catholic notion.

    The church has nearly lost all memory of what must have been a bitter fight about bishops. I see First Clement as the best evidence for that battle. (I read Clement as an attempt by the church in Rome to induce the church in Corinth to turn back to the old collegiate government and undo their newly adopted bishop). Ignatius
    IMO brought the bishopric to Rome (and Telesphoros, who was a martyr, matched him and the first Bishop of Rome went to the games beside the Bishop of Asia)

    Speculation, of course – but my speculation.

  • J_Bob

    It appears that the early Church writers, indicated that the Gospels were written much earlier, i.e. Eusebius 8-1, and even John’s Gospel, Jn 5:1-5, noting the pool was in existence.

  • David Madison

    The late dating of the Gospels depends on the assumption that Jesus could not have foreseen the destruction of the Temple. That is not an assumption which a Christian has to make. Especially not when you consider another prediction which Jesus made: that his words would never be forgotten. From the perspective of someone living 2000 years later that looks pretty impressive.

    The thing about the Gospels is that they really do look like accounts written by people who were very close to the events, either eyewitnesses or those who knew the eyewitnesses. John’s Gospel in particular gives that impression. The alternative explanation is that the Gospels were written by authors who were very good at faking that impression. But, again, atheists can believe that if they want; we don’t have to.

  • Philip Jenkins

    If Jesus foresaw the destruction of the Temple, as reported in Mark 13, he also thought, wrongly, that that would lead directly to the apocalyptic Judgment, the return of the messiah, the coming of angels, etc, and all “at that time,” “in those days.” See for instance:

    “But in those days, following that distress,

    “‘the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light;
    the stars will fall from the sky,
    and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’[c]

    “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.”

    That did not happen in the 70s, nor in the first century. If Jesus was Christ, he did not prophesy falsely. Therefore Mark 13 is not an authentic prophecy of Jesus. It is the later church of the 60s and 70s presenting that later story through words attributed to him.

    Therefore Mark dates from around 70-75, and the other gospels later.

  • David Madison

    You could also say that Jesus got it wrong when he predicted that the stars would fall from the sky, since stars can’t actually fall from the sky. But that would be to miss the point. One has to be very careful in interpreting apocalyptic language, as N.T. Wright has argued. After all, fleeing “to the mountains” probably wouldn’t be much help if the stars were falling from the sky.

  • Philip Jenkins

    No, I am talking about specific timed prophecies linked to specific historical events. Like the Jewish war of the 60s and the fall of Jerusalem.

  • David Madison

    I agree that there is a specific prophecy about the destruction of the Temple. But one must be careful about language which appears to refer to events on what you might call the Cosmic scale. I believe that Jesus used such language along with more mundane language relating to a specific event.

  • Philip Jenkins

    Or put another way: these passages were clearly written in the 60s and 70s and are not in fact prophecies. They are what we call retroactive prophecy, which is a fairly standard genre of ancient religious writing. See for instance the Book of Daniel.

  • Charming Billy

    Even though a late, hierarchical church compiled the NT, the fact is, we have the NT it compiled. And that NT in itself doesn’t unambiguously endorse the later, hierarchical milieu in which the compilation took place. Wouldn’t that suggest that the post apostolic church recognized that the contemporary (to it) structure of the church wasn’t strictly scriptural or normative?

    Since the later church that made the NT didn’t see fit to include explicit scriptural endorsements of, for instance, episcopacy, Marian devotion or what have you, in the authoritative scripture it made, it’s hard to credit claims that these beliefs are to be authoritative for the church in the same way as scripture.

    Furthermore, this notion that the Church compiled the NT, while pretty accurate as it goes, omits the important fact that the church did not in any way compile or originated the gospel message to which the NT witnesses. Yes, the church proclaimed the Gospel, preserved it, and preached it. But the Gospel originated in the work of Jesus, and the Gospel was the origin of the church. So the Gospel made the church, and the church then made the NT as the authoritative witness and record of its origin and purpose. The Gospel calls the church into existence. The NT, the church’s book, is the authoritative commentary on and interpretation of the Gospel.

  • Philip Jenkins

    Very well put.