Arguing over the Old Testament

If you were surprised it took a few centuries (as the previous post described) to reach agreement about the contents list of the New Testament, you may be even more surprised by the length of time it has taken for the Old Testament. Christians have never produced a fully-agreed contents list for the Old Testament. Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Anglicans and Protestants disagree about which Old Testament books they should read in public.

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Making the New Testament

Discussions of which books are Scripture usually uses the language of canon explained in yesterday’s rather long post. So people discuss when the canon was “closed” – which means when the list was finally agreed. Books that made it into the canon are called canonical, those that didn’t are referred to as non-canonical.

I will use some of that language in this and the next post, exploring just a little more of the history of how Christians reached agreement (or mainly reached agreement) on which books are scripture. Key to that question is recognising which books the church should read in public worship, take as foundational in discerning God’s truth, and listen to prayerfully to hear God’s wisdom and guidance.

In this post I look at the New Testament; in the next one at the Old Testament. The first is about how the early Christians collected their own literature; the second about they appropriated literature they shared in common with early Judaism.

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Reading the right books: the rule of faith

The early church used key beliefs as a way of measuring which books belonged to the bible

This follows on from the post Reading the right books: memory.

It’s quite clear that the majority of the texts in what is now the Jewish bible and Christian Old Testament were regarded by the earliest Christians as scripture, even while some are used much more extensively than others. It’s less certain where they thought the boundaries were, or how clear a listing they carried in their heads. Jesus, like other Jews of his time, seems most commonly to refer to two broad categories of scripture “the law and the prophets” 1

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Reading the right books: memory

Over the last few posts, we’ve seen how there is a continuing thread running from Judaism into Christianity of reading the scriptures in the context of giving worship to God. One of the obvious questions that the early church then found itself asking was “Which books should we read in public worship?”. 

This was one of the key drivers in developing a sense of “bible”: making lists of the books that Christians should read above all when they met in public to worship God, and which would therefore also form their core collection of texts when they wanted to think about faith and life.

Some of these books were clearly inherited from Jewish tradition, from Jesus as a user and interpreter of scripture, and then from his apostles and the earliest Christian communities. These earliest communities, the ones we find reflected in Paul’s letters, didn’t know they were Christian, of course. They simply thought of themselves as people who were finding the Jewish prophecies of justice, mercy, and liberation through God’s saving presence, fulfilled in Jesus. Some were ethnic Jews, others were of diverse ethnicity, who nonetheless saw themselves as sharing the Jewish inheritance. 

Some scriptures were more central to their thinking than others. Genesis, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Isaiah, crop up all over the place, along with one key passage from the book of Daniel, concerning “the Son of Man”.1 Often the early Christian writers quote directly from a text, but very frequently they use language, concepts and phrases that are drawn from and shaped by texts they had in their heads rather than on their desks. Scriptures were memorized more frequently than they were consulted in the way we might look things up.

That sense of “I know what the text says, but I can’t quite remember where it’s from” is most obvious in the letter to the Hebrews. The writer has clearly memorised a great many scriptures, but still introduces a key quotation from Psalm 8 by saying: “But someone has testified somewhere” (Heb 2:5). It also means that sometimes the quotation or allusion a writer uses may not quite match up to the exact phrasing of the written text.

Once again, we’re reminded that most people in the ancient world experience books in memory, public hearing and performance. Reading is something they listen to. They are not individual readers looking things up in their own copies of books.


Notes

  1. The passage is Daniel 7:13-14. The phrase “son of man” is of course regularly used by Jesus. It seems to be deliberately ambiguous on his lips, as on the one hand it is an idiom meaning something like “A person like myself” – not unlike Queen Elizabeth II’s use of the word “One” to refer to herself. On the other hand, it could also be a title, referring back to a particular interpretation of Daniel. It seems that Jesus, using this phrase, is constantly inviting his listeners to ask themselves “what does he mean? Who is he?”