Advent Edition 2009
vol 20, nos. 333-358

Rock Solidly Set in Stone

Part 3 of a Series on the Bible of the First Century Church

    Many assimilate Carthage with Hannibal and his siege on Rome, but Carthage should go down in history as the turning point in establishing the course of today's Bible for it was at the Council of Carthage in 397 that the Church Fathers determined what should stay in and what should be expunged from all the writings accumulated over the first few centuries, most from the First Century Church. Thus St. Jerome was assigned to finish the task with the Latin Vulgate with the full approval and Authority of the Successor of St. Peter in harmony with the perennial, infallible Magisterium of the Church. It would remain solid until the Protestant Revolution when the apostates sought to revert back to early times and thus, rather than seeing that the early Church had it right, countered with the Jewish tiers which even then still included prayers for the dead which those who, in the early 16th Century thought they had a better idea than God, could not abide by. Machabees had to go as well as other books that proved the fact that they had left the Church established by Christ. Christians? Hardly. It would take the Council of Trent to clarify that and to re-establish once and for all the contents of Divine Revelation. It took Hannibal two decades to invade Rome in the Punic Wars two centuries before Christ. It would take only 50 years in our times for the conciliar usurpers to undermine all holy Mother Church had built up over two millennia in trying to overthrow Eternal Rome. We can take consolation that in the end, Hannibal was not successful and the conciliar usurpers will fail as well.

      " must be clear that the most authentic contemporary continuation from the First Century Christian congregation would be the Catholic Church, which uses the same Bible as was used by Jesus Christ and the Apostles back then, though we also have the benefit of knowing with absolute certainty what they could not have known back then, namely which books are the most truly relevant to understanding the Gospel, versus which are merely of helpful interest but not essential knowledge for our salvation. Knowing all of this also gets us into a right relationship with the Bible, for we see it as an agent of the Church, capturing and freezing in time forever the state of the original Church, but never intended to be itself some sort of sole source of our Church, as so many "Bible-only" sects promote. The Bible belongs to the Church, who is responsible for its contents in every sense of the word, along with God of course, Who inspired it, and not the other way around."

    Throughout most of the First Century, both Christians and Jews alike shared the same set of Old Testament books, which is to say the texts listed in part two of this series. But things did not remain thus for long. By the end of the First Century and getting into the Second, the Jews began to resent the way the Christians were using "their" books to draw people away from Judaism and into the Church.

    The real quandary for them was that their own books really do point to the Christian Gospel as something yet to come. One must grant however that things were most decidedly trending in a Christian direction as the time of Christ itself approached, almost on an exponential curve. After some consideration, the solution found was to eliminate the more recent books wherein most of this trending could be seen. The bigger question now was where precisely to draw the line.

    With one notable exception, the New Testament was originally penned in Greek, and as being in Greek, it quoted the Greek Bible (Old Testament, Septuagint). As the Septuagint introduces much that is specifically Christian (such as its translation of Isaiah 7:14, but many other similarly Messianic renderings as well), it seemed a reasonable thing to abolish. Furthermore, the Greek language was also associated with the overall Hellenization of Israel, seen as a cultural corruption, making it all the easier to inflame a Jewish nationalistic bias against anything Greek.

    So, the Septuagint came to be rejected by the Jews, though it had been Jews who had produced it in the first place. With that rejection came also a very simple line of delineation as to what accepted books would be excised and what ones could be kept. They would abolish a number of the recent books, though originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic, which even by then principally survived only or mainly in Greek, and some of which had simply been written in Greek in the first place.

    Though it took some dickering over a few books that either barely made it in or barely got removed, and even a couple cases in which portions of the book were excised while other portions were kept (Esther and Daniel), the result was the Masoretic text as has been preserved and used by Jews to this day. And unlike the Greek translation and the Christian Bibles, the three-tiered structure was retained, and is how Jewish Bibles continue to be structured to this day.

    Over the course of the Second Century, the Jews also produced several new Greek translations of their Bible, this time being based strictly on the Masoretic text, containing only the books of that text, and also expunging as many Messianic translations the Septuagint had as the text could allow without deviating too far from the Hebrew and Aramaic original. Oftentimes, a mere change of vowel points or word spacing could accomplish the change they needed, and after all, the vowel points and word breaks were not in the originals first penned centuries earlier. Over the following millennia the Jews would produce a number of similar translations into Arabic, Syriac, and other languages, culminating with two prominent English translations in the Twentieth Century by the Jewish Publication Society, all following the same pattern.

    Meanwhile, the Christians, having been finally booted out of Jewish society, at first simply stuck with the set of books (and translation) accepted by both from the time back when before they parted company. But despite this separation some Christians sensed the lack of respect held for the distinctively "Greek" books of the Septuagint, and began using those books less, particularly in their discussions with Jews, and also with others who might be influenced by Jews, or with whom they were in competition for converts with, and it seemed most effective to use mostly or even only the books currently (late Second and Third Centuries) respected by the Jews.

    While most Ancient Fathers opined with St. Augustine that all the books were to be accepted as inspired, even if some were less helpful for certain uses, others, a minority to be sure, but including no less than St. Jerome as their champion, came to believe that these "Greek" books of the Septuagint were somehow kind of "second class" and not to be regarded as inspired. Another factor was the grim persecution that made the keeping of extensive libraries difficult for Christians, and so often only the more "important" books might even be on hand in a certain area.

    Finally, the Church began to prepare translations into Latin of Scripture, and once again, these "Greek" books came pretty much at the end, not only in the volume, but also in the last tier, and finally being often viewed as being at least "less important" than the other Biblical books, some of these books had still not as yet been translated by the time St. Jerome was enlisted to prepare much of what would come to be the Latin Vulgate text. Needless to say, he cared little for these books and prepared only rather hasty and cursory translations of them into the Latin, and despite that hurry, these texts remained as authorized texts for these books as recognized by the Church.

    As early as the Council of Carthage (397 A. D.), the Church formally delineated the actual canon of Scripture as is recognized by the Catholic Church today, namely:

    CANON (Council of Carthage, 397 A. D.):
      1 Genesis
      2 Exodus
      3 Leviticus
      4 Numbers
      5 Deuteronomy
      6 Joshua son of Nun
      7 Judges
      8 Ruth
      9 4 books of Kingdoms (I, II, III, and IV Kings, or I and II Samuel and I and II Kings)
      10 2 books of Chronicles (I and II Chronicles)
      11 Job
      12 the Davidic Psalter (does not say whether 150 or 151 Psalms)
      13 5 books of Solomon (did not enumerate, but generally known to have been Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Wisdom of Solomon, and Ecclesiasticus)
      14 12 books of Prophets (the "minor prophets": Hosea, Amos, Micah, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zachariah, and Malachi)
      15 Isaiah
      16 Jeremiah (no mention of whether "Jeremiah" here was meant to refer only to the book itself or to the small corpus of books relating to him, namely also Lamentations, Baruch, and the Letter of Jeremiah)
      17 Daniel (no mention of whether with or without the "additions")
      18 Ezekiel
      19 Tobias (Tobit)
      20 Judith
      21 Esther (no mention of whether with or without the "additions")
      22 2 books of Ezra (some room for confusion here since it could either refer to the two Ezra books in the Septuagint, the first of which is now known as the Apocryphal book of I Esdras and the second to Canonical Ezra and Nehemiah together, or else more likely and generally understood to be simply the Canonical Ezra and Nehemiah)
      23 2 books of Machabees
One sees here that, with the exception of a few possible ambiguities, the Roman Catholic Canon appears to have been explicitly confirmed by the end of the Fourth Century. The Council of Trent therefore did nothing new but nail down what few remaining ambiguities existed in the Canon as published back at the Council of Carthage. Yes, the books of Daniel and Esther must include the separately challenged sections thereof. Yes, Jeremiah also includes Lamentations and Baruch (which in turn includes the Letter of Jeremiah as Baruch chapter six), but not any other books of Baruch. And no, the "2 books of Ezra" do not include the Septuagint's apocryphal "I Esdras" but only the standard Ezra and Nehemiah, nor is the 151st Psalm part of the Psalter. However, the Prayer of Manasseh, Psalm 151, and I and II Esdras were also accepted by the Church at that time as the most significant "also-rans" for Scripture in that they were also included in the official Latin Vulgate, albeit as "apocryphal." Mention of the remaining ancient books is simply omitted.

    But note the year for the Council of Carthage. That comes more than 350 years after the death of Christ, during which time all of these books (and many others) found use by the earliest Christians, including most notably the writers of the New Testament. And this brings us now to the New Testament.

    At first, the Christian congregation had no New Testament books even so much as written, but as the first few began to be put to writing, most of the earliest New Testament writings were letters of St. Paul, which were written to specific congregations. This new cycle of scripture writing took some time before all the relevant writings were even completed, let alone widely available throughout all Christian congregations, let alone sorted out as to exactly which are to be regarded as Sacred Scripture and which are not. It was quite possibly with St. Peter's reference to St. Paul's writing in his own epistle that St. Paul's letters were first officially recognized as Scripture (2 Peter 3:16).

    One point that emerges rather quickly and obviously from this fact is the relationship between the Church and Scripture. If ever there were one detail to make the attempts to create a new "First Century Church" intrinsically inauthentic, it would be the way that those who do this must invariably draw their Church from the Bible, whereas in the actual First Congregation it was the Bible (notably the New Testament books thereof) which came from the Church.

    The New Testament was never given any of the three "tiers" of the Old Testament, and yet there does at least exist one small distinction in that the Gospels possess a special pride of place in the Mass greater than other portions of Scripture, somewhat akin to how the Jews liturgically treat the Torah. The most sacred reading is drawn from the Torah, with other reading(s) being from anywhere in Scripture. Likewise, in the most significant reading of the Mass, it is always from one of the four Gospels, and any other reading(s) drawn from anywhere in Scripture. That is the nearest equivalent to the Old Testament tier structure as can be found ever applied to the New Testament.

    However, like the Old Testament, the New Testament again had some books that only barely made it into the Bible, and other books that only barely failed to survive the final cut, and which are again to be regarded as the Scriptural "also-rans." In the case of the New Testament, the four Gospels were established fairly early on, though the Gospel of St. John, written at least a decade later than the other three and being different from them in a number of regards, not only came later but came to be accepted a little bit later as well. But by the first time anyone began drawing up lists of the books to be considered canonical, all four Gospels were fully accepted without condition, as was the one book of the Acts of the Apostles, most Pauline epistles, and one letter from St. Peter. But a number of books were disputed, namely:

      1 Hebrew Gospel (Matthew in Hebrew?)
      2 Acts of Paul
      3 III Corinthians
      4 Laodiceans
      5 Barnabas
      6 Hebrews
      7 James
      8 II Peter
      9 I Clement
      10 II Clement
      11 II John
      12 III John
      13 Polycarp (various epistles, of which only his to the Philippians remains)
      14 Ignatius (various epistles, of which seven authentic ones remain)
      15 Jude
      16 Apocalypse of John
      17 Apocalypse of Peter
      18 Shepherd of Hermas
      19 Didache

    The most interesting of this lot is the Hebrew Gospel, believed to have been written by St. Matthew who also penned the Greek Gospel of St. Matthew known today. Regrettably, only a few small fragments of this Hebrew text survive, but it was (with only a few small exceptions) believed to be similar to the regular Gospel of St. Matthew. The usual scholarly conjecture is that St. Matthew first penned his Gospel in Hebrew and then translated it himself into Greek. For myself, I consider at least as likely that St. Matthew originally wrote it in Greek (though still very much as a Jew, hence his citing many Jewish sources and genealogies), and then prepared a Hebrew text specifically for the Jews, which being a later version might well have incorporated some few small details the original Greek version lacks. Unfortunately, a particular semi-Jewish semi-Christian sect known as the Ebionites got a hold of it, and with a few slight mutilations created a text that they used to refute St. Paul and much of the Gospel. Finally, as the Church elected not to preserve this book in its original language, now only a few fragments from it are known, as quoted in some early Fathers.

    The first part of the Acts of Paul, namely a section titled the Acts of Paul and Thecla, were rather widely quoted by the early Fathers as being authentic, so some must have thought the Acts of Paul might be a candidate for the Bible, but in the end it was not accepted. St. Paul's third letter to the Corinthians (actually written before Canonical I and II Corinthians) seems to have simply fallen through the cracks, but whatever the case it is not accepted among the canonical books. The original Epistle of St. Paul to the Laodiceans may have been long lost, since the text known from the time of the Post-Nicene Fathers onwards appears to have been provided merely to fill a gap suggested by Paul's letter to the Colossians which makes mention of there having been such a letter. The text we have today seems to be little more than a random stringing together of various Pauline phrases, virtually none of which is unique, nor the least bit necessary.

    St. Barnabas (one of St. Paul's traveling companions as mentioned in the Book of Acts) wrote one Epistle to the Church. It and the book of Hebrews seem to cover roughly the same sort of material, but the latter with far more theological finesse and precision. Barnabas seems in comparison rather simplistic, uncouth, and written by someone as unlettered as many of the original disciples indeed were, but it is nevertheless a sincere reflection of what was believed in the early Church. Meanwhile however, Hebrews had some trouble too in that no one could be certain who wrote it, and furthermore it appears to have been written well after the original New Testament era. While some few attribute it to St. Paul, there is much in the way of evidences, both internal as well as external, to the effect that it could not have been written by him. So this book too also required some time before finally being accepted into the category of Sacred Scripture.

    As can be seen, the same doubt hovered over the second letter of St. Peter, St. James, II and III St. John (very short letters that may simply have not circulated very widely for some time), and St. Jude, though in the end they were finally accepted as Sacred Scripture. The Apocalypses of John and Peter were running neck and neck for quite some time, and who back in the First Century could have possibly suspected that the first would make it and the second would get removed in the final cut. In one of the earliest listings of New Testament books, known as the Muratorian fragment (called a "fragment" because the first part which mentions Sts. Matthew and Mark is mostly missing), the Apocalypses of Sts. John and Peter are both described as being received as inspired, but that there were some who did not like the latter to be read in the churches. Given its detailed and graphic depictions of the End of the World, Heaven, and Hell (Dante's Divine Comedy would later on serve in a similar niche), one can see why there would be those who didn't want it read in the churches. So it was out, but St. John's Apocalypse made it.

    The Shepherd of Hermas was written by the brother of Pope Pius I, and while it had its staunch advocates, it did have some theological imprecisions that could have provided a basis for heresy down the road, and so it was finally rejected. The Didache is also another book, which along with the Epistle of St. Barnabas, and the Epistles of Sts. Clement, Polycarp, and Ignatius, formed the beginning of the Ancient Church Fathers, and these works (along with the Shepherd of Hermas) form the initial and foundational documents of that class. For in the beginning, there was little way to denote that St. Paul's letters had any more authority than St. Polycarp's and St. Ignatius's, or that Pope St. Peter's letters had any more authority than Pope St. Clement's letters.

    This shows yet another characteristic about the relationship between the Bible and the Church, namely that in the beginning it was the Church that created the Bible and not the other way around. The Bible was not written as an attempt at being a comprehensive guide to Christianity, but rather composed of various books addressing the history of the Coming of the Messiah (Christ), and then various letters to address various problems that had arisen in the various congregations, problems (and solutions) that would set the tone for many more to arise in the centuries and millennia since then. For this reason one finds only the most sketchy references to such central doctrines as the Holy Trinity, or to how the Church was organized, or details regarding the Liturgy. It was most certainly not that these things didn't matter, but rather that they were so well-known as for there to be little to no need to document them in detail. Anyway, one thing they clearly believed was that there was an eternal Church which would know these things and which would be the teacher of these basic doctrines and practices to all who either convert into the Faith or else who are born into it and being raised in it.

    There is a name for these particular books that almost didn't make it into the New Testament, and that is the Antilegomena. As for those which didn't make it, sadly many lump all such into one big category of "New Testament Apocrypha" which would include not only the near-Biblical "also-rans," but also a wide variety of many other works, some heretical, others fanciful or even outrageous, still others that are harmless but obviously meant to be taken as fiction. These included such books as the Gospel of St. James (and a similar one of St. Thomas), both of which contained stories of Jesus working childish miracles right and left when He was a small child, the Acts of various individual Apostles (often based loosely on their actual Apostolic careers), such as the Acts of St. Andrew or the Acts of St. Thomas, and finally a number of apocalypses, such as that of St. Paul, usually modeled after that of St. Peter. Again, as with the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, much of it is worth being acquainted with, though of course it most certainly cannot be regarded as Scripture in any sense of the word, and some works were even soon lost to the ancient scholarship of the early Fathers, but then subsequently found by more recent scholars. Many more were lost then or more recently, but in either case known to modern scholarship only by title, or perhaps by the occasional brief quote from one or another within the Ancient Fathers.

    But getting back to these questioned books, though some books were clearly accepted from very early on, the fact that it took some time to nail down exactly which further books would be counted as Scripture, and the doubt that hovered over the Antilegomena (along with the similar doubt that justifiably hovered over the "also-rans" of the New Testament) shows that the difference between that which is inspired and that which is not can often be a rather fine line, and nowhere near as obvious as some (mostly Protestant writers) have claimed.

    For there are those in Protestantism who have no wish to credit the Church (in the person of Pope and Councils and a leading and teaching hierarchy) with anything, and who prefer to claim that the final 27 books accepted just so obviously stood out to all concerned that "of course" they alone would end up in the New Testament Canon, as if it were automatic. Such a view is utterly without merit, for the nineteen above-listed doubted books (some ultimately proving to be canonical, others not) each had both their partisan supporters and their partisan opponents. How easy it might well have been, for example, to rule all of them out as "doubtful," or even to accept all of them, or even to reintroduce the Jewish structure of a multi-tiered weight structure to accepting them. Alternatively, any number of differing Christian congregations might have each settled upon their own particular selection from among these books, with each coming to have their own peculiar beliefs, until one ends up with a cluster of different "Christianities" either competing openly or agreeing to disagree. There is really only one way that a single New Testament Canon could have ever been settled upon by all Christians alike, and especially given the presence of those books that were significantly doubted in certain quarters, namely that a central authority ruled on the question, after quite some years of permitting various opinions to be expressed over the several preceding centuries. At the end of the Fourth Century, the Council of Carthage did precisely that, and in this case the answer was clear enough never to be challenged (successfully) again:

    CANON (Council of Carthage, 397 A. D.):
      1 4 books of Gospels (Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)
      2 1 book of Acts of the Apostles
      3 13 letters of the Apostle St. Paul (not enumerated, but universally accepted to have been Romans, I Corinthians, II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, I Thessalonians, II Thessalonians, I Timothy, II Timothy, Titus, and Philemon)
      4 1 letter of his to the Hebrews ("Of his" who? Though it seems from the context of this list to be St. Paul, why was it not listed with the 13 known letters of St. Paul?)
      5 2 of St. Peter (I Peter and II Peter)
      6 3 of St. John (I John, II John, and III John)
      7 1 of St. James
      8 1 of St. Jude
      9 1 of the Apocalypse of St. John

    In short, one has here the exact list of New Testament Sacred Scripture as we have today. But as can be seen from the above, at first there were no such books, then these and others were written, and both kinds circulated widely, gradually being accepted, but at the same time gradually being sifted and sorted into those which were Scripture and those which were not. Though the Ancient Fathers were respected in their own day by their own congregations, it was only later that the category of Ancient Fathers as a documentary source of universal Tradition (also Divine revelation) came to be recognized for what it was, not as Scripture per se, but neither to be disregarded, and certainly not to be lumped with the same category as the fanciful, novel, and heretical books that were also being produced in the names of various New Testament figures. And of course it was the Church, in the persons of the individual Apostles (or rarely, others) who wrote them, and the Church which approved them finally, and the Church which demarked between those to be accepted as Canon and those not.

    With the New Testament positively nailed down, and the Old Testament practically nailed down (apart from the slight ambiguities as noted in the above list), the Christian Church proceeded forward with a clear understanding of what it considered Sacred Scripture. Even the (slightly) different canon held in the Eastern (schismatic) churches could trace itself from these in that I and II Ezra could refer to two volumes of "Ezra" contained in the Septuagint, Psalm 151 (and perhaps even the Prayer of Manasseh?) counted among the Psalms or else just another thing that fell through the cracks, as the rest of the "Odes" (as collected for Liturgical purposes) for the Eastern churches indeed all draw from legitimate Scriptures.

    That is how things stood until the Protestant revolution, when even several New Testament books would be again challenged, especially St. James, though in the end ultimately accepted by Protestants as well as they long had been by Catholics and East Orthodox. St. James was challenged because of its stress on works, which flies in the face of certain Protestant doctrines. Once again, the ambiguity regarding the Old Testament was exploited (thus necessitating the Council of Trent's final and definitive ruling on the question in all detail), but then the Protestants discovered the Jewish canon, which again provided the means of eliminating (most notably) II Machabees which mentions prayers for the dead, again something that contradicts Protestant doctrine. The Jews didn't (and don't) need II Machabees to know they must say their Kaddish prayers for their dead. This is well enough known among them as the Holy Trinity and the Liturgy and structure of the Church was similarly known to the First Century Christians, and as such in no need of being written down in Scripture to be known and accepted by them. It is one of their Traditions. So the Jews omit it for different reasons than the Protestants, who avoid any mention of Jewish Kaddish prayers, or when (very rarely) confronted with them take refuge in dismissing them as mere "traditions of men."

    So once again, the Jewish canon finds use, though for reasons the Jews have no interest in, to those who oppose Catholic authority. They claim the "apocryphal" books are in some way inferior, and cite St. Jerome's opinion, or various internal inconsistencies, a scrutiny which even some canonical books such as Ruth or Esther would not stand up to. And regarding St. Jerome, they conceal both the fact that his was very much a minority opinion, and also the fact that in the end St. Jerome did submit to the authority of the Church in accepting these books on the basis of what Catholic authority taught. The Jewish Canon was adopted by Protestants because the smaller canon reduced the number of specifically Catholic teachings (prayers for the dead merely being the most conspicuous) and made Scripture for them more flexible and accommodating to their own various doctrines.

    From all the above, and in the previous two installments, it must be clear that the most authentic contemporary continuation from the First Century Christian congregation would be the Catholic Church, which uses the same Bible as was used by Jesus Christ and the Apostles back then, though we also have the benefit of knowing with absolute certainty what they could not have known back then, namely which books are the most truly relevant to understanding the Gospel, versus which are merely of helpful interest but not essential knowledge for our salvation. Knowing all of this also gets us into a right relationship with the Bible, for we see it as an agent of the Church, capturing and freezing in time forever the state of the original Church, but never intended to be itself some sort of sole source of our Church, as so many "Bible-only" sects promote. The Bible belongs to the Church, who is responsible for its contents in every sense of the word, along with God of course, Who inspired it, and not the other way around.

    Those who would fault the Church for a policy of leaving it to imperfect human creatures to interpret the Bible forget that God also willed that the Bible itself would also be written by such imperfect human creatures. Surely, if we can trust God to have prevented these weak and fallen men who wrote the Bible from introducing errors, then likewise we ought to be able to trust God to prevent the often weak and fallen men of the Church from introducing errors in the course of their job which is not only to write the Bible and select its books, but also to interpret it for all and to provide the overall understanding of the Christian religion.

Griff L. Ruby

For part one of this short series, see Transition from the Old to Ascertaining the New

For part two of this short series, see From Tier to Eternity

        Griff's book is available from Books for $26.95 or can be read on-line at We at The Daily Catholic strongly urge you to share it with all you can for that could be the gentle shove that moves your friends back to where the True Faith resides forever, rooted in the Truths and Traditions of Holy Mother Church as Christ intended and promised.

Griff Ruby's STRAIGHT STUFF Advent Edition 2009, Volume 20, nos. 333-358