New Testament Primer: How We Got the New Testament

Because of the Jews, the Christians from the beginning possessed a body of scriptures as a unique heritage. But unlike orthodox Jews, who believed the collection to be completed scripture, Christ's disciples knew there was now a richer portion. They didn't abandon the Old Word, for new understanding had made it more precious than ever. But they now had a New Word as well—Christ's teachings and the powerful example and acts of his life.

The testimonies that have come to us of this New Word are those of apostles or of disciples closely associated with apostles: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Several ancient sources confirm that the gospel bearing the name of Matthew was written by the apostle Matthew, otherwise called Levi, the tax collector, who is said to have been run through with a spear as a consequence of his written and oral testimony.

Matthew spoke powerfully to his own people, longing for their eyes to be opened so they could see that the man Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies and was their long-expected Messiah. His testimony is sweetened by many direct quotations of the Savior's own words. It is Matthew to whom we are indebted for a detailed recounting of Christ's Sermon on the Mount. In fact, there is a recorded statement by a bishop named Papias in the first half of the second century that Matthew was the one who compiled a record of Christ's sayings in Hebrew, and that others used his record as a source for their own testimonies of Christ's life and teachings.1

The testimony of Mark may be in a sense the testimony of Peter, for Mark was Peter's interpreter, and the relationship was so close Peter referred to him as "son." There is some evidence that Mark made his record under Peter's guidance and authority. The same bishop Papias wrote that Mark traveled with Peter and recorded the things Peter taught about Christ's life and teachings.2

Mark, then, strongly reflecting Peter's testimony, portrayed Christ mostly in his mission as Redeemer, the acts of Christ's life being his major focus. It is generally agreed his testimony was to the gentiles. His message was that Christ could heal the deaf, the blind, the lame and could redeem those bound in sin, that he had been resurrected and thereby had overcome death for all. A spiritually hungry gentile world needed such knowledge and hope.

The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were both written by Luke, a close companion of Paul (Acts 16:10, 20:6; 2 Tim. 4:11), and therefore bear Paul's influence. But the authority behind Luke's account is also derived from Luke's claim to be a messenger of the Savior and to have sought original sources, the witnesses of the original apostles themselves and other eyewitnesses. (See JST Luke 1:1-4.)

Many see Luke's testimony as emphasizing the universality of Christ's mission. He traces Christ's lineage clear back to Adam, perhaps as witness that Christ has relationship to all mankind. Since Luke's testimony includes both his gospel and the book of Acts, his account is more complete, disclosing Christianity's history from its humble birth in Bethlehem to its struggles to survive in Rome. Since Luke traveled extensively with Paul, he was able to recount not only Christ's life but the birth pangs of the church itself as it began to spread into the world.

John's gospel stands alone, the tenor of its content unique. According to the Book of Mormon, John was given a special calling pertaining to the Book of the Lamb of God. Nephi writes:

"And I looked and beheld a man, and he was dressed in a white robe. And the angel said unto me: Behold one of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. Behold, he shall see and write the remainder of these things [Nephi had been shown highlights of Christ's life]; yea, and also many things which have been. And he shall also write concerning the end of the world. . . . But the things which thou shalt see hereafter thou shalt not write; for the Lord God hath ordained the apostle of the Lamb of God that he should write them.

"And I, Nephi, heard and bear record, that the name of the apostle of the Lamb was John, according to the word of the angel." (1 Ne. 14:19-22, 25, 27.)

It is interesting that for a time the gospel of John was a work whose authenticity was attacked most strongly by scholars of the higher criticism. Yet in modern times more fragments of John in ancient form have been found than any of the synoptic gospels, and its great worth is becoming more widely recognized.

Part of the difference in John's gospel is that he wrote it to members of the church. Therefore, he spoke on a higher plane, giving deeper understanding to things already known. He reaffirmed above all else that Christ was indeed God who had taken upon himself flesh, saying, "These are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name." (John 20:31.)

It was John who, listening to the Savior's teachings, was more sensitive to their symbolic meanings. It was he who recorded for us that Jesus Christ was the lamb who would be slain for us, the bread from heaven who would nourish us, the light that would enlighten us, the vine from which we could draw strength and through which we might bear fruit. And finally, it was John generally who revealed some of the most intimate of Christ's teachings, those given just to his apostles, as at the last supper and after his resurrection.

The first and the best texts of the New Testament, then, like those of the Old, came from the prophets, either by their own hands or by the hands of very close assistants, somewhat like apostolic scribes.

We see too, because Christ is viewed from many different angles or perspectives, that each writer of a gospel distinctly adds to the overall picture. Indeed, there are some special values in having four different accounts of Christ's life. While there are some dissimilarities and numerous theories as to why they exist, we must remember there is much more unity than disunity. As A. R. Fausset points out in a Reader's Bible Aid, "Reconcilable diversity is a confirmation of truth, because it disproves collusion, and shews the witnesses to be independent. Sameness in all four gospels would make all but the first mere copies."3

Of course for some time a number of scholars have not accepted the gospels as having come from the apostles or from the apostolic period, believing they were written quite some time after the actual events. However, discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls shows that extensive literary activity was a part of that period and most likely was a part of the new Christian movement as well. For Latter-day Saints, who have been taught that the Lord with care provided from the beginning for a record of his work among men, and who know that he carefully instructed his Nephite followers during his visit to them to make records of his sayings, it would be very difficult to believe that he did not make provisions for the recording of his Palestine teachings and for his acts of atonement, crucifixion, and resurrection, particularly since he intended the gospel to go to all the world for succeeding generations. The only way that could be accomplished efficiently would be through written records.

While we must offer high praise to the writers of the four gospels, who labored greatly in a period of severe persecution to preserve for us these precious accounts, we must also recognize the greater gift behind them—from the Savior himself. His gift of his incredible life was the "raw material" to which the gospel writers gave written shape. He was the Word! He was the Old Word being fulfilled, and he was the New Word being lived. This "greatest story ever told" did not spring from someone's imagination; rather, its impact and power are inescapably bound to its reality—and more so because it was deliberately lived, even to its utmost bitterness:

"After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst. Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a spunge with vinegar, and put it upon hyssop, and put it to his mouth. When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost. . . .

"But when [the soldiers] came to Jesus, . . . one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water. . . . For these things were done, that the scripture should be fulfilled, A bone of him shall not be broken. And again another scripture saith, They shall look on him whom they pierced." (John 19:28-30, 33-34, 36-37.)

Christ's contributions to the strength of the New Testament can also be seen in his spoken word. One writer says, "When speaking to a group and with prophetic fervor [Christ's] discourse would be marked with intensity and rhythm not dissimilar to poetical passages in the Old Testament prophets."4

As the Old Testament had been established step by step, so the New Testament had begun to grow. The book The Bible through the Ages claims that apparently the four gospels were united in time into a four-gospel scroll manuscript. Some believe that because Matthew was the most popular, it was placed first. We know more certainly that by A.D. 170 there were codices (or books) available containing the gospels, Acts, and Paul's letters.5 It appears however that other gospels were written by other apostles. Manuscripts of writings claiming to be such have become more widely known and available in recent years. There undoubtedly were such gospels. The problems are finding them in pure form and ascertaining true authorship. The whole problem of materials corrupted or lost altogether from the record was prophesied in the Book of Mormon, as was the eventual influence of this growing body of writings.

The angel said unto me [Nephi]: Knowest thou the meaning of the book?

And I said unto him: I know not.

And he said: Behold it proceedeth out of the mouth of a Jew. And I, Nephi, beheld it; and he said unto me: The book that thou beholdest is a record of the Jews, which contains the covenants of the Lord, which he hath made unto the house of Israel; and it also containeth many of the prophecies of the holy prophets; and it is a record like unto the engravings which are upon the plates of brass, save there are not so many; nevertheless, they contain the covenants of the Lord, which he hath made unto the house of Israel; wherefore, they are of great worth unto the Gentiles.

And the angel of the Lord said unto me: Thou hast beheld that the book proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew; and when it proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew it contained the fulness of the gospel of the Lord, of whom the twelve apostles bear record; and they bear record according to the truth which is in the Lamb of God. Wherefore, these things go forth from the Jews in purity unto the Gentiles, according to the truth which is in God.

And after they go forth by the hand of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, from the Jews unto the Gentiles, thou seest the formation of that great and abominable church . . .; for behold, they [the Gentiles] have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious. (1 Ne. 13:20-26.)

There are indeed many witnesses that a far larger body of literature from the early Christian period existed than we now have in our possession. In fact, it is amazing just how sparse our record really is. While the four testimonies that bear witness of Christ's life do so with much power, they do not cover the greater part of his life. In Mark's story, for example, only thirty-one days are accounted for. Furthermore, in the New Testament the total sayings attributed to Christ can be read in one hour. When one considers the numerous occasions that he taught, and the times his sermons extended well into the day or the evening, we realize that only a very small portion of his teachings has survived.

But the real gap in the New Testament accounts is the period after the resurrection. We know that at that time Christ spent forty days with his apostles—forty days in which he expanded upon his word. How vital those teachings and instructions must have been! Yet they are almost totally missing from our current New Testament.

Also, as we know, after the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, much of the New Testament consists of a collection of letters. Having so much of the New Testament in letter form has proved both a strength and a problem for Christianity. The strengths are pointed out by Richard L. Anderson, who shows that beyond their value for spiritual upliftment, the letters help verify the accuracy of the history and the doctrine expressed in the Gospels.6

On the other hand, because of the loss of precious knowledge from the New Testament texts, the letters have had to assume a role for which they were never intended. The Gospels as we have them focus primarily on the life of Christ, on those teachings that bear witness that he is the Christ, and on his teachings about how man ought to live. They do not contain a complete presentation of the full range of gospel doctrines and principles. Generally, therefore, Christian sects have obtained many of their doctrines from the epistles. But the epistles themselves, though they contain doctrine, do so in patches and pieces. Most of them were written in response to specific needs and questions arising in specific geographical areas of the early Church.

Furthermore, some were quite informal or personal, and though sometimes their authors requested that they be read in church, for the most part the authors probably did not intend for their letters to be bound as scriptures. In addition, the letters often contained many items of unequal weight and importance. Basic knowledge of the gospel was presumed to exist among the early Church congregations, so details of many gospel principles were left out of the epistles. Thus, many things were only alluded to, such as baptism for the dead and the roles of the various priesthood leaders. It is this partial explanation that has caused confusion for later readers. In fact, it could be argued that this unfortunate lack of clarity of doctrine is largely responsible for many of the later divisions of belief among Christian sects.

But though we grieve for what was lost, we can still rejoice in what we have in the New Testament record. In spite of its imperfections, this record alone, as the "Book of the Lamb of God," has the honor of detailing the sacrifices and sufferings of Jesus the Christ. It alone contains the power of Christ's mortal living example and the majority of Christ's earthly teachings. Even fragments of the gospels are precious for what they contain— and for how we received them. Almost always, behind every worthy piece of literature there is a fascinating story. And with the knowledge that revelation never comes easily, the stories behind the formation of scripture surely would prove to be the most fascinating of all.

Unfortunately, in most cases we know little of the specifics of those forces that pressed upon each New Testament writer and brought from his pen God's word. But we know that the things Christ prophesied to them would come to their minds later. We know on the eve of his death he warned that they would be hated, they would be persecuted, they would be cast out of their own synagogues, and they would be slain. Early Christian writings and tradition affirm that these warnings were realized. Clement of Rome wrote that before their deaths the apostles suffered much. "By reason of rivalry and envy the greatest and most righteous pillars [of the Church] were persecuted, and battered to the death. . . . Peter, who by reason of wicked jealousy, not only once or twice but frequently endured suffering and thus, bearing his witness, went to the glorious place which he merited. By reason of rivalry and contention Paul showed how to win the prize for patient endurance."7

Because we possess a more prolific and personal set of writings from Paul, we can learn through his experiences a little of what all must have endured. Paul's insights and writings were spawned by experience. He could write, then, of the miracle of Christ's grace because he had personally experienced it. He had set himself upon a course of crushing the seeds of Christianity, only to be turned from pursuit of that disastrous course by the direct intervention of the Lord. The weight of that indebtedness was one reason he accepted so readily his appointed missions to unknown lands and people, everywhere preaching and writing of the salvation that comes through Christ.

But the strengths of Paul's writings came from other influences as well. In his labors he experienced stonings, scourgings, mockings, illness, and accusations. He faced death many times, and his escapes were narrow. His traveling for the word was constant. He was shipwrecked. He knew loneliness. Like Christ, he was deserted by friends. He was accused, chained, imprisoned—with imprisonments as long as two years. He was tried again and again, finally condemned, and at last martyred.

Out of all these experiences came his letters. He wrote when he suffered "trouble, as an evil doer, even unto bonds" (2 Tim. 2:9); nevertheless he could rise up and say, "But I determined this with myself, that I would not come again to you in heaviness" (2 Cor. 2:1). And he wrote, "We were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life." (2 Cor. 1:8.) And finally he submissively wrote, "For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand." (2 Tim. 4:6.)

While in prison, he pleaded for his scriptures: "The cloke that I left . . ., when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments." (2 Tim. 4:13.) He loved the scriptures, and in his loving, wrote scripture: "From a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect." (2 Tim. 3:15-17.)

As Paul spoke of the writings he so greatly loved, so in time his writings have come to be greatly loved, as are the writings of all his companions who bore witness through pen of their faith in Jesus Christ. Though we know more of Paul's trials, he surely spoke for all who used the pen to spread the gospel when he said, "For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote unto you with many tears." (2 Cor. 2:4.)

The Book of Revelation, written by John, began also in a period and place of sorrow—from a lonely exile on a barren rock: "I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, . . . was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ." (Rev. 1:9.) Undoubtedly more powerful even than the physical isolation and loneliness that surrounded John was the spiritual isolation he suffered. We can sense it as we read his words. For John did not write in a time of success, but of gloom. He was probably the sole remaining apostle in the Old World, and he deeply grieved over the terrible deaths of so many he cherished. The young struggling kingdom was beset upon from all sides. The saints were hunted, persecuted, and slain. But more distressingly, the Church was being ravished from within by false teachings. Undoubtedly the loneliness and sorrow that burdened John contributed strongly to the passion in his words over the joy of light and hope that flooded him as he saw the revealed, living Christ: "I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death. Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter." (Rev. 1:18-19.)

John wrote, as he was commanded and as he was shown, the trials and sufferings and judgments contained in the history of the earth and how all things were inevitably progressing to a glorified kingdom in a glorified world. The contrast of the darkness that he had experienced with the light that he was now experiencing helped turn his record of that vision into powerful, striking literature.

John also saw and revealed his own personal lot of bitterness, which would come to him for the sake of God's word, though it would also be sweet—both initially and ultimately: "I went unto the angel, and said unto him, Give me the little book. And he said unto me, Take it, and eat it up; and it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey. And I took the little book out of the angel's hand, and ate it up; and it was in my mouth sweet as honey: and as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter. And he said unto me, Thou must prophesy again before many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings." (Rev. 10:9-11.)

Although Revelation is placed at the end of our collection of New Testament scriptures, it is not the last book written. The last written was by John, but the distinction of finality for the books of the New Testament goes to his epistles.8

One authority comments on this cessation of the writings: "As far as the Biblical Dispensation is concerned, [John I] is probably the last recorded inspired writing of which we have record. After it was penned, the long night of apostate darkness descended upon the earth; the heavens were sealed and God no longer communed with men in open vision and by angelic ministration."9

As the testaments of those prophets who bore witness of Christ's coming ceased, so the witnesses of those knowing Christ in the flesh also ceased. Another dispensation had ended. For a time the heavens were shut up and must await another day for the love of God for his needy children to again fling them open.

The Book of the Lamb of God had been written, eventually to be united as an Old Testament and a New Testament. While many cultures have developed and passed on to later generations choice riches, the choicest of all came from the Hebrews.

"[The Hebrews] accomplished little of note in the political or military spheres; their later history was a bitter and unsuccessful struggle for freedom against a series of foreign masters. . . . They left no painting or sculpture behind them, no drama, no epic poetry. What they did leave is a religious literature. . . . [They had] an attitude different from that of all the peoples surrounding them, a conception of divine power and of the government of the universe so simple that to us, who have inherited it from them, it seems obvious, yet in its time so revolutionary that it made them a nation apart, sometimes laughed at, sometimes feared, but always alien."10

As Nephi asked, "Have ye obtained a Bible save it were by the Jews?" (2 Ne. 29:6), it would be wise if we all perceived and remembered more poignantly the greatness of this gift of heritage, and the accompanying travails, labors, pains, and diligence of those who recorded their powerful testimonies and therefore helped bring salvation to a dark and dying world.

It should be obvious that all the writings that now make up the New Testament did not jump from men's pens into leather-bound books. As with the Old Testament, the process was slow and piecemeal. Each part was written separately, and those who were fortunate enough to privately possess any scriptures probably, like Paul, would have had separate parchments or scrolls.

Precisely what was accepted as authoritative scriptures by the early Christians is uncertain. Just as the early Christians accepted as authoritative far more Hebrew records than appear in our current Old Testament, so these church members drew upon a body of Christian literature far more extensive than that contained in our current New Testament.11 The processes by which these manuscripts were sifted, with only some receiving recognition as "canon," occurred at a much later date.12

Furthermore, the scriptures they did have were well utilized. Just as the Christians inherited their scriptures from the Jews, so also did they inherit their methods of study and learning from the Jews. As in the synagogue, so in the early Christian meetings was the reading of scriptures a primary part of learning and of worship. In both places, the scriptures held a chief place of honor. To hear them read was a major purpose for attending services.13 The fact that many members were not literate and could not read them for themselves, and the fact that copies of the scriptures were not readily available to all the members, contributed to this need for central reading.14

By the end of the second century A.D., most Christians accepted a list of certain books as authoritative, called them the New Testament, and read them in services along with the Septuagint. Furthermore, they began to appear in codex form (book-like collections of manuscript sheets) rather than on papyrus rolls.15

But study and reading also went on in private, where possible. In fact, scripture reading was a central part of a devoted Christian's life. The literate read to the illiterate in the privacy of their homes. Sometimes slaves read to illiterate masters. And some members attributed their conversions to the gospel to such scripture readings.16

There is also little doubt that as time passed, the scriptures themselves produced incentive for illiterate Christians to become literate. Indeed, as in Jewish families, scripture study was the basis of a family's education, with study begun when children were yet small. From the earliest time, scripture study had been encouraged by church leaders. Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 120 to 220) wrote, "Let a man take refuge in the Church. Let him be educated in her bosom and be nourished from the Holy Scriptures. . . . Eat ye from every Scripture of the Lord."17

The scriptures were memorized as well. Eusebius spoke of a blind man who "possessed whole books of the Holy Scriptures not on tables of stone, . . . nor on skins of beasts or on papyrus . . . but . . . in his heart, so that, as from a rich literary treasure, he could, ever as he wished, repeat now passages from the Law and the Prophets, now from the historical books, now from the Gospels and the Apostolic epistles."18

Just as Christians from the outset had recognized that the scriptures were germane to the spiritual well-being of the Church, so also did their enemies. As opponents saw the rapid-fire spread of this new religion, they realized that its books were a key to its destruction. Therefore, as they persecuted and slew the leaders, they also sought to destroy their scriptures.19 This persecution, with its accompanying destruction of books, continued through the third century after Christ.20

During this time, many scriptures were sought out for destruction, particularly the community caches in the churches. For protection, the churches appointed certain individuals as custodians of their scriptural treasures. Betrayal of this responsibility was regarded as a serious transgression, with excommunication its result. While some were unfaithful to their charge and under pressure betrayed their trust, many more were faithful. Some caches of the scriptures were even buried during periods of danger, so that they might be preserved.21

Another danger, even more insidious, also threatened the scriptures. While at least some of the scriptures survived the onslaughts of persecution and burning, holy writ suffered even further from a change in interpretation.

It is generally conceded that Christ, his apostles, and the earliest Christian fathers interpreted the Old Testament as continual prophecy of the coming and mission of the Messiah.22 One scholar admits that "the writings of early church fathers . . . differ little from that of New Testament authors, in that the Old Testament was regarded as a prediction of the New Testament and Christ as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy."23 This writer goes on to explain that the early church fathers saw the Old Testament as "Christian literature," as "parabolic throughout," truly understood only by Christians because" everything in the Old Testament was a prototype of Christ."24 Among the writers who used this method of interpretation were Clement of Rome (A.D. 100), Justin Martyr (ca. A.D. 155), and Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 200).25

Nevertheless, as time passed there were changes in the methods of interpretation. One individual who exerted a great influence in changing the interpretation of scripture was the Christian scholar Origen (A.D. 185-254). While Christ and his apostles had opened the eyes of the Christians to the concept that Old Testament events were "types" or foreshadowings of Him, they never placed in question the basic realities of these events. But Origen, heavily influenced by Greek thought, came to feel that many Old Testament events were totally figurative, that there was no reality behind them. Moreover, he vastly broadened the scope of symbolic interpretation. Rather than seeing Old Testament events as types that taught specifically of Christ, he saw them as more generalized "allegories" with a wide-ranging potential for interpretation. Tragically, this made it easy to read almost anything one wished into the scriptures.26

Furthermore, he, like many during his time, rejected the anthropomorphisms in the Bible, asserting that any belief that Moses really saw God must "fall into the absurdity of asserting that God is corporeal."27 He interpreted scriptural references to immortality as meaning a "spiritual continuity" rather than a "resurrection of the physical body."28

However, in addition to these strong and misdirected changes in methods of interpretation, Origen exerted some sound influences upon scriptural studies. He saw a necessity to seek for truly accurate original texts. Beginning a work that took him more than twenty years, called the Hexapla because of its six parts, he made comparisons of the Hebrew, Septuagint, and other Old Testament translations. However, after his death, careless scribes did not include many symbols that kept his procedure clear, and the undertaking, mammoth as it was, in the long run caused as much confusion as clarification.29

Origen's broadened method of interpretation and his research are generally praised by most scholars of today. They see his new interpretations as having a "lasting, liberating influence" upon biblical studies.30 Sadly, these scholars tend to ignore the realities of subsequent events. For, Origen's attempt to locate original sources was a step forward in scriptural studies, but in general his work produced a great step backward. The change of interpretation had the unfortunate result of encouraging a wide-ranging allegorical interpretation that eventually was used to discourage lay Bible reading. Consequently, in Origen's time grew the erroneous idea that only the learned could understand the scriptures. Eventually, because "allegory" came to be the major way to interpret the scriptures, church leaders felt that only they could understand them.31 The movement in this direction was to become tragic.

By the fourth century A.D., many changes had occurred. On the one hand, outward appearances might indicate that the scriptures had triumphed. Under the influence of Constantine, the religious traditions of so-called Christianity and its holy scriptures seemed to prosper. In A.D. 332, the emperor Constantine ordered fifty sets of scripture made on vellum (animal skin), asking that they be "easy to read and conveniently portable" and stated as their purpose: "for the instruction of the church."32

But there are also clues that these open displays of success were deceiving and that many things were amiss. For one thing, education in general had declined in the third century, and Bible study had dwindled because church members found it boring. It wasn't that collections of scriptural writings weren't being made or sold; in fact, merchandising of scripture increased, and they even became popular sellers. But the purposes of possession had changed. The wealthy sought very fine and elegant copies—not to be read, but for display. In fact, some church leaders found it necessary to reprove the rich for not reading their expensive copies and to remind them that in comparison many of the poor showed more faithfulness by sharing and reading the few scriptures they'd been able to copy for themselves by hand.33

But in addition, for growing numbers of Christians, the biblical records began to take on an aura of abnormal sanctity, becoming objects of superstition and even being used as magic charms. The "lazy-minded found it easier to revere its pages than to try to understand them."34

The political upheavals of the fifth century, such as the invasions by the Goths and Vandals, also apparently contributed to declining scriptural usage. One fifth-century theologian in Antioch commented on the situation in his time: "Of other scriptures, most men know nothing. But the Psalms are repeated . . . by those who know them by heart, and feel the soothing power of their divine melodies."35 For most persons, the Psalms alone became the scriptures.

By the fourth century precisely what was "official scripture" was finally decided. Athanasius (A.D. 293-373), the bishop of Alexandria, publicly listed as authoritative scripture the same twenty-seven books we have in our present New Testament. Some books whose authority scholars like Origen had questioned were included on this list—among them the books of James, Hebrews, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John. Other books that had been held dear by some early Christians were not on the list, including the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache, 1 Clement, the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Shepherd of Hermas.36

The list which Athanasius drew up was also accepted as canonical (though not without debate), by the majority of those church leaders present at the councils of Laodicea (A.D. 363), Hippo (A.D. 393), and Carthage (A.D. 397). The last council, after much disagreement on certain books, ratified as New Testament canon these same twenty-seven books and decreed that none besides these should be read in the churches as divine scripture.37

It should be pointed out that the questions of canonicity taken up in these councils pertained to Old Testament scriptures as well as New. Some scriptures of the Old Testament period that were not in the Hebrew Bible but were in the Greek Septuagint were accepted as canon by these councils, although there had also been prior disagreements about their respective worth. These became the Apocrypha, which were reaffirmed by Catholicism at the Council of Trent in 1546 and are still today a part of the Catholic scriptural body.38

But in addition to these writings that were passed on as the Apocrypha, there were others that were not passed on. In particular, apocalyptic or prophetic writings were those most often cast aside—such works as the book of Enoch, for example. Dr. Hugh Nibley points out the irony that these writings, which had been rejected as canon by Pharisaic Judaism but accepted as precious by the first Christians, were in time also rejected by later Christians.39 In recent years discoveries of ancient texts, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, have reopened the questions of what other writings were inspired and where the most accurate texts might be.


1. See Irving Francis Wood and Elihu Grant, The Bible as Literature (New York: Abingdon Press, 1914), p. 232.
2. See Fred Gladstone Bratton, A History of the Bible (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959), pp. 165-66.
3. The Bible Reader's Manual, a Supplement to the King James Version of the Holy Bible (Glasgow, Scotland: Collins Clear-Type Press, 1959), p. 58.
4. Wood and Grant, p. 253.
5. See Harry Thomas Frank, Charles William Swain, and Courtlandt Canby, The Bible through the Ages (New York: The World Publishing Co., 1967), p. 127.
6. See Richard L. Anderson, "Types of Christian Revelation," in Literature of Belief (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1981), p. 61.
7. "Clement of Rome's Letter to the Church at Corinth," tr. C. C. Richardson, in A History of Christianity: Readings in the History of the Early and Medieval Church, ed. Ray C. Petry (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice- Hall, 1962), p. 7.
8. See J. R. Dummelow, ed., A Commentary on the Holy Bible (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1936), p. 1057.
9. Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, Vol. 3 (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1973), pp. 371-72.
10. Maynard Mack, general ed., World Masterpieces, Vol. 1 (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1956), p. 2.
11. Hugh W. Nibley, Since Cumorah (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1967), pp. 33, 103.
12. Fred Gladstone Bratton, A History of the Bible (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), pp. 190-95.
13. Frederick C. Grant, Translating the Bible (Greenwich, Conn.: The Seabury Press, 1961), pp. 16, 31.
14. Geddes MacGregor, The Bible in the Making (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1959), pp. 69-70.
15. Ibid., pp. 61-63.
16. Ibid., pp. 87-88.
17. As quoted by H. G. G. Herklots, How Our Bible Came to Us (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), p. 96.
18. Herklots, p. 96.
19. Harry Thomas Frank, Charles William Swain, and Courtlandt Canby, The Bible through the Ages (New York: The World Publishing Co., 1967), p. 131; Herklots, p. 81.40
20. MacGregor, pp. 90-92.
21. Herklots, p. 81; MacGregor, pp. 90-92.
22. Bratton, pp. 285-89; Enid B. Mellor, The Making of the Old Testament (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1972), pp. 185-89.
23. Ibid., p. 287.
24. Ibid., pp. 287-88.
25. Ibid., pp. 287-89.
26. Mellor, pp. 188-90; Bratton, pp. 290-93.
27. Bratton, p. 292.
28. Ibid., pp. 292-93.
29. Herklots, pp. 120-21.
30. Mellor, p. 190.
31. Margaret Deanesly, The Lollard Bible and other Medieval Biblical Versions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1920), p. 27.
32. Herklots, p. 82.
33. MacGregor, pp. 90-93.
34. Ibid., pp. 93-94.
35. Ibid., p. 95.
36. Bratton, p. 195.
37. Ibid., p. 195.
38. See D&C 91 for the word of the Lord to Joseph Smith concerning the Apocrypha.
39. Nibley, p. 103.
40. Grant, pp. 36-37.

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