The Christian scriptures were not always as we know them today. In fact, it has only been about 1600 years that the current list of books and letters that comprise the Bible has been used. For quite some time, the Christian scriptures were left in an open status, and even today, there are a few versions used by differing Christian communities. Over time, the universal Church was able to canonize an authoritative set of Scriptures representing her faith. Because of the witness of history by the ancient Church, she was able to compile the Bible and testify to its truth and inspiration by God.
While the Gospels were still being written, Christians said “the Scriptures,” and meant the scriptures that the Jewish people were using in the synagogues at the time of Christ and the Apostles, what we now call the Old Testament. Even during that Early Church period, though, the Old Testament scriptures were not made up of universally agreed upon books. There were two sets of books commonly used as the Old Testament scriptures, one Hebrew version and the other Greek. The latter was the more commonly used outside of the church in Palestine, since Greek was a popular language of the time, as is evident in the fact that the entire New Testament was written in Greek.
While the Greek version of the Old Testament, called “the Septuagint” was already being widely used in the communities, the Jewish rabbis and scribes were still disputing which books they should consider Scripture. Eventually, over a few centuries after Christ and the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD at Jerusalem, the Jewish rabbis began using only books that they had copies of in Hebrew, rather than Greek. The Hebrew canon of Scripture is currently the one Protestant Christians use. However, from even the Apostolic times and following, the Septuagint was in continued use by both the Eastern and the Western Christian Church. In fact, the majority of Old Testament quotes that are made by the New Testament authors are directly from the Septuagint version. Of course, for the universal Christian Church, the authority of the scribes and Pharisees had ended with the birth of the Church and the handing on of Christ’s authority to the Apostles.1 Thus, there was no need to copy what the Jewish leaders were doing with their canon of scripture.
As for the New Testament, the list of “books” or letters had not been finalized for several hundred years after the death of the Apostles. Both the Greek Old Testament and various letters to church communities from the Apostles and other bishops were widely read within the liturgy. Many communities had their own letters or writings they had received and which were read as Scripture. The church in Corinth, for example, read the letters of St. Clement, bishop of Rome (c. 92-99 AD), alongside the other scriptures for a few centuries.
In the fourth century, the universal Church began to canonize her own New Testament, while officially defining which Old Testament to use. St. Athanasius, whose theological efforts around 325 AD solidified how the Church understands Christ’s divine and human identity, is often credited with at least having a list of books the same as what the Christian Church now uses as its New Testament. The Synods of Hippo (393 AD) and Carthage (397 AD) in Africa compiled a list of books both the Old and New Testaments of which they submitted to Rome for ratification. This list of 73 books is the same as that used by the Catholic Church universally today.
Common Sense Catholicity:
Jesus did not leave a book for his followers to read. He left us people, whom he called the Church. The people of God are a historical people, with a historical witness to real events in time. This is true for the universal Church as it is for the people of Israel. The Scriptures are evidence and product of that historical witness by the people of God.
The people of God wrote the Scriptures over millennia. For the New Testament, all of it was written within the first 100 years after Christ. The Apostles were first to witness the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They handed it on to most towns and communities by word of mouth, later to some by written letter. The Apostles in turn placed in positions of teaching authority those deemed worthy to carry on that witness, either because they had seen the historic events themselves, or had been witnesses to them secondhand. The Apostolic Succession down through the ages has given to us a clear and visible lineage of Tradition of the truth of the event of Jesus Christ and the significance of his Person to those who believe the Word.
The Church is a living witness to history – the history of the acts of God and his peoples. Of course, that history was originally comprised by the historic events in relation to Israel. It was upon the event of Jesus being born, living, healing and preaching, suffering and dying, then finally rising again and ascending to Heaven that the same people of God were able to give witness to Jesus’ fulfillment of all the law and prophecies of time past. That same people were able to testify to the events of Pentecost, to the teachings of the Apostles and of their successors, to the practices of faith in the communities, and especially to the validity of the writings in Scripture.
While the Church holds that the Scriptures are inspired by God, written by broken humans, those same Scriptures needed when they were written, and still need just as much now, a living witness to stand by and testify to the true events they contain. That witness is the universal Church, extended from the Apostles themselves. The Scriptures were never alone, and never can be alone; for, it is the Church who extends out her hands with those same Scriptures, binding them together and saying, “These texts, these letters – they are true to my Faith and witness.” It is she, the Church, who is “the pillar and foundation of truth,”2standing firm to say, “I was there.”
1 Matthew 23:2; 16:18-19
2 1 Timothy 3:15