Ever and anon various small groups of (Protestant) Christian believers will gather together, Bibles in hand, and endeavor to "start up a New Testament Church" just like Jesus and the Apostles. The desire to do this is more than understandable. In any genuine love of the Savior and desire to get as close to Him as possible there must come with it the desire to get as close to the original Church He founded as possible.
This particular desire is also borne of a prevailing sense that the churches one finds around them have somehow wandered far from the truth and the idealism of that First Congregation. How many of us are prepared to be martyrs? How many of us go down the street working miracles as we go, as it seems (from Scriptural accounts) that it must have been for the First Congregation? How many of us have attached to us that "atmosphere" of venerability that had to have been attached to the New Testament Bible characters in their own day? Somehow, things just don't seem the same today.
I believe the desire itself is a valid one, and one meant to be met if one can successfully find, or recreate, the original First Congregation. To recreate this Congregation is what those who do as I described above are attempting. To find such a Congregation requires that some existing congregation, or Church, must somehow really be a direct continuation, in full material and doctrinal continuity with that First Congregation. But whether one finds it or recreates it, the seeking itself is what I am concerned with here. Now the question arises, in the case of those attempting to start it up afresh with Bible in hand, just how authentic can any such attempt actually be?
For starters, there simply has to be something inauthentic about trying to "reconstruct" or "restore" some previous pattern. First Century Christians spent no effort trying to "reconstruct" or "restore" anything, they simply were themselves. So the very attempt itself rings false. But let us focus on some more direct differences, germane to this discussion, between the originals and those coming along later. Notice that those gathering together to "start up a First Century Church" entered the scene with Bibles in hand. Nice, clean, printed Bibles, cheap enough for everyone to be able to take home with them. And for some reason, these Bibles all seem to have the same 66 Bible Books in them, twenty-seven of them New Testament (originally written in Greek) and thirty-nine of them Old Testament (originally written in Hebrew, with a few small portions written in Aramaic, another Jewish language spoken most commonly among Jews in the next several centuries following the Babylonian captivity). Aramaic can be (and typically is in Bible manuscripts) written in the same letters as the Hebrew, and like Hebrew is also written right to left, unlike Greek (and English) which are written left to right.
Contrast that with the actual status of the First Century congregation, who went for decades before even the first New Testament document was ever written, and decades longer (actually several centuries) before knowing yea verily which books comprised the New Testament. As it happens, the first distinctively New Testament line to be committed to writing actually came just before the death of Christ, when the Romans had written "Jesus Christ, King of the Jews" in Hebrew (or was it actually in Aramaic?), Greek, and Latin for the sign to put over His head on the Cross. It would be more than ten years before the next line of any portion of the New Testament was ever committed to writing.
Even more interesting is the fact that the Old Testament was still in a state of flux at the same time. Books had been written since at least the time of Moses, and were still being written for it even during and after the time of Christ. Where, really, was it meant to stop? No one really knew then. At one point in the New Testament, the Scriptures are described as being "the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms," (St. Luke 24:44). That mirrors the three great divisions of the Jewish Tanakh, the תורה (Torah, "Law"), the נביאים (Nevi'im, "Prophets"), and the כתובים (Ketuvim, "Writings").
And this brings in one other interesting fact about how Sacred Scripture was viewed in the First Century. With today's Bible-reading Christians, there is often seen merely two categories, one of which is that which is inspired (and therefore faultless in every way), and Everything Else which is not inspired (and is therefore "nothing" which can be disregarded at will, and is in fact virtually always tossed on the ash heap as if it all just never existed). But in those days, Scripture had several "tiers" within itself, of which the first tier, the Law, was absolute, the second tier, the prophets, in some way subject to the first (though obviously accepted, but everything of this second tier had been "tried" by the standards of the first), and the third which was not regarded as accurate in physical or historical detail, though still of flawless edificational value.
A particularly striking example of the differences between these tiers can be seen in comparing the book of Judges (from the Prophets, a second tier book) to the book of Ruth (from the Writings, a third tier book). Both books are set in the same time period, hence their inclusion next to each other in the usual historical and chronological sequence. But one book (Judges) was actually written in the time period it portrays, a time coming just at the cusp between the Bronze age and the Iron age, a time when some tribes knew how to work iron and others did not, and when having the technology to work iron and make "chariots of iron" (Judges 1:19) comprised a significant military advantage for those who had it over those who didn't. It was a harsh time, a barbarous time, of constant strife and no consideration for basic human rights, bloody, and raw. The Book of Ruth however was written millennia later, indeed only a couple centuries before the coming of Christ, and portrays the same times as peaceful and halcyon.
From this, one can see why Judges belongs to the Prophets (second tier) while Ruth belongs to the Writings (third tier), and not merely on account of when they were written, though that is also a factor and accounts for the differences between the two books. Now let us look at each of the three tiers of Scripture, as seen by Jews up until the spread of Christianity.
The Torah (Law) consists simply of the "five books of Moses." Obviously, his connection to these books, or role in writing them, had to have differed, one to the next. The first book, Genesis, appears to be a collection of other earlier works (or perhaps even "oral traditions" in some cases). Scholars might speak of the "Jahwist" and "Elohist" sources, ascribing particular verses in some cases to one and in other cases to the other, or of various other multi-text origin theories. But these simply represent the various sources that Moses (or someone acting in his name) was gathering together and assembling into a single cohesive account such as we have today. Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers could have been originally drafted by him, or again drafted by others acting on his behalf and (very possibly) at his express direction. Deuteronomy, which includes an account of the death of Moses, was obviously written about him and not by him, perhaps originally drafted shortly after his death.
So primary and high is the value of the first tier of Sacred Scripture that from pre-exilic times until now the Samaritans accept only the Torah as Scripture. By the way, the Samaritan Pentateuch (Torah, Law, five books of Moses) is valuable as an early text of the Torah, for though certain small portions differ in that they point to their Mount Gerizim as being the intended location for the Temple, many most ancient readings of various texts are preserved therein, as with the Dead Sea scrolls, the Jewish Masoretic text, and the various translations (Aramaic, Syriac, Greek, Ethiopian). One of the differences the Samaritan Pentateuch has from the others is that the Tenth Commandment says that a Temple is to be built upon Mount Gerizim and offerings made there. This peculiar difference with regards to Mount Gerizim is even noted in the New Testament in St. John chapter 4:20-23. Apart from such minor textual variations, everyone has the same Torah, the same five books of Moses, as are used by Jews, Samaritans, and Christians of every sort.
The second tier is also pretty much settled. Four books, though belonging to this category of "prophets," are actually more historical accounts of the nation of Israel than of any prophet in particular. Joshua, which chronologically succeeds the Pentateuch, heads up this new pack of Biblical books, and is the only other book of the Bible for which the Samaritans have some respect, and even a version of for themselves (with differences that in this case are significant from the Jewish/Christian version), though not regarded as Scripture by them. After that comes the book of Judges, the first book of the Kings of Israel (appears as 1 and 2 Kings in Catholic Bibles, 1 and 2 Samuel in Protestant Bibles, since this book is subdivided into two books), and finally the second book of the Kings of Israel (appears as 3 and 4 Kings in Catholic Bibles, 1 and 2 Kings in Protestant Bibles, since this book is subdivided into two books). Following that comes the three major prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and finally one "book" which actually consists of the writings by (or concerning) the "12 minor prophets," namely Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zachariah, and Malachi.
Of this second tier, only the book of Ezekiel seems to have been challenged, when it came to formulating early Jewish canons of Scripture. It may sound odd to speak of certain Biblical books as being challenged, in that some books only just barely made it into the Bible. The fact is however, that at every attempt at canonization or the preparation of any list of valid books of Scripture, there are always a few books on the hairy edge between being accepted and not. Some books in this category end up as Scripture, and others end up as Biblical "also-rans." That the "also-ran" books failed to make it into Scripture does not imply that any of them are forgeries or heretical, for anything of that sort would never be considered as an "also-ran" candidate for Scripture. Rather, all of these "also-ran" books should best be considered as equivalent in value for a source of documentation of Divine Revelation as the Church Fathers.
This distinction between being Scripture and mere "also-rans" or on par with the Ancient Fathers is also distinct from the three tiers of Scripture as known to the Jews. The first tier has no such "also-rans" known, but for the second tier there was some hesitancy over the book of Ezekiel, though perhaps some other "also-rans" for the second tier ended up as Scripture for the third tier, over which there is a considerable number of challenged books (that made it) and correspondingly all the more "also-rans" that missed the final cut for Sacred Scripture.
The three-tiered arrangement of Old Testament Scripture appears to have no equivalent for New Testament Scripture. Furthermore, I have no information as to which of the three tiers, if any, the New Testament Scriptures would belong to if it had to be so categorized. But the same sort of challenged books (that finally made it) and "also-rans" apply to the New Testament as with the Old. And as with the Old Testament, the "also-rans" nevertheless qualify as being on par with the writings of the ancient Church Fathers as a source of documentation as to the beliefs of the early Church. But more will be said about that when I get to the New Testament. In the first part of the New Testament period, "the Scriptures," as consulted daily by the Bereans (Acts 17:10-11) and taught to St. Timothy from the time of his own childhood (2 Timothy 3:15) consisted of the Old Testament, including not only established Scripture per se, but even much of the "also-ran" books.
There are in fact four basic levels of ancient literature with regards to understanding the Bible, the first being inspired Scripture itself (of whatever tier), and the second being those sources of Faith and Tradition as documented by the Church Fathers, along with the "also-ran" books that almost got into the Bible. A third category would be books that are of historic significance but with clearly no claim to Divine inspiration, such as the works of historians such as Josephus or Tacitus, or else secular works such as those of the Greek poets who were quoted in Sacred Scripture. An example of that last would be Epimenides whom the Apostle St. Paul quoted while preaching upon Mars Hill (Acts 17:28). The final category would have to be called "artifacts." These are basically forgeries or fictions, whether meant to be accepted as original or obviously meant to be taken as fictionalized accounts. The third and forth categories of book are often relevant to understanding specific Scriptural references, historical events, or else are quoted in Scripture in a non-authoritative manner. This table shows the four levels of books and how they are taken by the Church: