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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

Christian Churches and Their Scriptures in the Fourth Century ce

Within the texts of our New Testament there are references to ‘the writings or scriptures’ or to ‘the law and the prophets’ and quotations from them which treat them as authoritative and interpret them, but these are references to the Jewish scriptures. In other words, New Testament writers knew at least some of the Jewish scriptures and ways of interpreting them, and assumed that readers would share their recognition of scriptural authority, whether they were Jews or not. Jude 14–15 's quotation from Enoch, which finally formed no part of the Christian Bible, suggests that the contents of the Jewish scriptures were not yet fixed. Neither Jewish nor New Testament writings, however, call these Jewish scriptures ‘the Old Testament’. Only after the books which now comprise our New Testament were gathered together and formally recognized were the Jewish scriptures described with this title by Christians, and placed before the New Testament writings. Let us begin, then, by considering the writings of fourth-century Christian bishops and other church leaders which use these and other terms.

Deutsches Archaologisches Institut, Rome.

After a century which included the most extensive persecutions of Christians by Roman officials within the empire, the new Roman warrior ruler of the western empire, Constantine, in 313 CE, issued an edict from Milan which accepted that Christians posed no threat to Roman hegemony, and Constantine became the patron of Christianity. In 324 he defeated his rival in the east and became emperor of the whole empire, moving his capital to Byzantium on the Bosphorus, rebuilding and renaming the city Constantinople. It is easier for us to discern his political than his religious motives for promoting Christianity, and he may even have recognized a tension between his activities as emperor and Christian practice by putting off his own baptism till just before his death. Widespead adherence to Christianity, in the countryside as well as the cities, administered hierarchically by well-educated male bishops, open to universal admissions and favourably inclined towards Roman power, meant that the Christian churches could become a unifying institution which bolstered Constantine's authority. Whether the emperor ruled the church, or the bishops, as representatives of the churches, were supreme in religious and social matters were disputed issues during the following centuries. New Testament writings' emphasis on renewal at God's eschatological judgement, which does not exclude renewal in present anticipation of this future, nevertheless allowed some church leaders to accept Roman rule as a necessary interim organization of political life.

By the fourth century most Christian communities existed within the Roman world, and earlier Roman victorious wars against Jewish freedom fighters in Judaea and Galilee, during 66–74 CE, including Roman destruction of the Jerusalem temple, and 132–35 CE, led to the development of Christian centres away from Jerusalem, in Alexandria, Caesarea, Antioch, Rome, Carthage, and, with Constantine's patronage, Constantinople. Constantine himself promoted the building of Christian basilicas, the name itself indicating his royal patronage, at sites in Palestine traditionally associated with Jesus' birth, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection, and these too developed as places of Christian pilgrimage, organization, and learning. Hence, the vast majority of Christians were united in their experience as communities of believers under Roman rule, their leaders in correspondence and meeting with one another.

As patron of Christianity, Constantine promoted the resolution of religious issues through ecumenical, that is empire-wide, and local councils of bishops to ensure unity. The ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325, for example, sought to settle disputes between so-called Arian and orthodox church leaders. Since these leaders appealed to Christian writings as well as to the Jewish scriptures in support of their views, bishops considered which Christian writings should be accorded most authority. Moreover, as patron, Constantine ordered fifty copies of the Christian scriptures to be prepared for churches in Constantinople, according to Eusebius' Life of Constantine (IV. 36–7). In other words, royal patrons helped to promote and preserve Christian scriptures. But which Christian writings should be accorded greatest authority? We have already noticed that codices like Sinaiticus from the fourth century contain writings which no longer form part of our New Testament. How many other Christian writings might have been valued by some Christians we cannot be sure, because those which were rejected by church councils were less likely to be reproduced than those which were promoted. Nevertheless, some seem to have been sufficiently popular for copies of them to be circulated in following centuries, some of which have survived. For example, the pseudonymous epistle of Paul to the Laodiceans (see Col. 4: 16 ), which seems to include quotations from Philippians and Galatians, remained popular for many centuries, as did the pseudonymous correspondence between Paul and Seneca, the leading Roman Stoic philosopher contemporary with Paul; the Acts of Paul and Thecla, a remarkable woman preacher and ascetic; and 3 Corinthians (see 1 Cor. 5: 9 ). Equally popular were the Protevangelium of James, which is an account of Mary's miraculous birth, her upbringing, and her unconsummated marriage to the widower Joseph, and the Infancy Story of Thomas, which depicts Jesus as an infant prodigy, both these texts serving to enhance reputations through stories of miracles. In the middle of the twentieth century, a whole Christian library of ancient texts was discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. The Coptic manuscripts date from about 400 CE, but seem to be Coptic translations of earlier Greek texts which may go back to the third century CE. Many of these texts express a Gnostic form of Christianity, previously known from refutations by Christian opponents. The Gospel of Thomas is closest to our New Testament gospels' sayings of Jesus. Other texts include the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Truth. These and other ancient Christian writings which form no part of our New Testament can be read in English translations in Hennecke's The New Testament Apocrypha.

Some texts of Christian council decisions in the fourth century about which Christian writings were to be treated in what ways have survived. These decisions, however, contain lists of titles and do not provide us with the actual contents of each book. For the contents themselves, we have to rely on the manuscripts that have survived. The council of Laodicea in Phrygia (363 CE), for example, forbade the reading of private psalms and ‘uncanonical books’ in church, and encouraged the public reading of only ‘canonical books’ of the New Testament and Old Testament (canon 59). This is one of the first uses of the word ‘canon’ in the sense of books accepted for public readings, books considered as sufficiently authoritative to be included in the New Testament, along with the Jewish scriptures. In later manuscripts of this council's decisions, a list of the books comprising the New Testament is appended, which corresponds to those included in our New Testament except that Revelation is not mentioned, in this agreeing with the lectures of Cyril (c.315–386 CE), bishop of Alexandria, to catechumens (Catecheses, iv. 33–6), and with the decision of the later synod of Trullan (692 CE). The earliest listing of all 27 books of our New Testament occurs in Athanasius' Festal Epistle 39 (c.367 CE). This list of what is called ‘canonical scriptures’ was approved by the synod of Carthage (397 CE), the surviving written account of which refers back to its earlier acceptance at a synod in Hippo Regius (393 CE).

The Latin Muratorian Canon, which forms part of a damaged collection of Christian writings, is difficult to date, and I include it here for convenience, but it is just possible that it is a translation of a Greek synopsis about Christian texts, going back as far as the second century CE. There are no references to the Gospel according to Matthew or Mark, but they seem to be presupposed by its reference to that of Luke as the third gospel and that of John as the fourth. Next is mentioned the Acts of the Apostles, thirteen epistles of Paul, one epistle of Jude and two of John, the Wisdom of Solomon, and the Apocalypses of John and Peter, although it is noted that ‘some’ are not willing to read the Apocalypses of Peter in church. The Shepherd of Hermas is said to be valuable private reading but not to be read at public services. Other Christian writings by named individuals like Valentinus and Basilides, known from other writings as Christian Gnostic teachers in the second half of the second century, are described as unacceptable for either private or public reading. Scholars disagree, not only about the possible dating of any original of this list, but also about its significance. Why, for example, is 1 Peter not mentioned, and why is the Wisdom of Solomon included? The style suggests that this Latin manuscript was written by a careless scribe, so its list can hardly be taken as evidence for anything more than the honour accorded to the books named in a manner known from other early Christian writings.

A sense of some of the difficulties facing fourth-century church leaders in their attempts to control what Christians would read or hear read can be gained from Eusebius' Church History, III. 25.1–7. This refers to the New Testament as consisting of ‘the holy quaternion of the Gospels’, the Acts of the Apostles, the epistles of Paul (the number not given, but in III. 3.4 and III. 38.2 the Epistle to the Hebrews is said to be ‘disputed’), ‘the extant former Epistle of John’, and ‘the Epistle of Peter’. The Apocalypse of John is recognized as a possible but uncertain candidate for inclusion. A second group of books is called ‘disputed’ but ‘familiar to the majority’: ‘the Epistle of James as it is called’, the Epistle of Jude, the second Epistle of Peter, and ‘those that are called second and third John, whether they belong to the evangelist or to another of the same name’. A third group, called ‘spurious’, apparently in the sense that they are not generally accepted for public reading in churches, is said to comprise the Acts of Paul, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the teachings of the apostles. Again the Apocalypse of John is mentioned. Also in this group ‘some’ are said to have ‘counted the Gospel of the Hebrews, with which those of the Hebrews who have accepted Christ take special pleasure’. This work is apparently mentioned and quoted in other Christian literature, for example, by Clement in Alexandria at the end of the second century, and by Origen (185–253 CE), but no copy has survived. A final group of writings is described as ‘those which the heretics put forward under the name of apostles’, mentioning the gospels of Peter, Thomas, and Matthias, and ‘the Acts of Andrew and John and the other apostles’.

Is it possible for us to discern the criteria used in this discussion to decide whether a particular Christian writing should be included in or excluded from the New Testament? Since three centuries of Christian writing preceded the fourth century, one criterion for acceptance is general and long use of a work in public assemblies among Christian communities throughout large parts of the Roman empire. In the case of the Epistle to the Hebrews, for example, although its authorship by Paul was disputed, its time-honoured public reading in churches of the eastern empire ensured it a place in the New Testament, just as the long practised public reading of the Apocalypse of John in churches of the western empire eventually led to its inclusion. A second criterion seems to have been the widely and long accepted belief that a book was written by one of the twelve apostles of Jesus or by the apostle Paul. Nevertheless, whether such attribution was accepted or not depended on other criteria, since many books existed that were attributed to apostles.

Moreover, in the case of the four gospels that were accepted into the New Testament, during the first half of the second century references in Christian literature which appear to come from one or other of these gospels were not distinguished by the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Only in the second half of the second century does this happen. Should we suppose that each of them originally served as the only gospel for a particular area? If this were so, since the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke exhibit literary interdependence, one or more of them must have been known more widely; but whether the newer version was intended to replace or to supplement the older version is not known. We should notice especially that the Gospel according to Mark survived as a separate book, in spite of 90 per cent of Mark appearing in Matthew and 50 per cent in Luke. Also, whether the Gospel according to John is to be understood as dependent on one or more of the others is disputed among contemporary scholars. Moreover, many critical scholars now doubt that the gospels according to Matthew and John could have been written by those apostles. Most remarkable, however, is that the gospels according to Mark and Luke are not attributed to apostles. Does this mean that they became known by those authors' names and were widely read in Christian churches before apostolic attribution became important as a criterion of acceptability and authority? When such attribution did become important, the Gospel according to Mark was said to take up the preaching of Peter. For example, that Mark was the interpreter of Peter is attributed by Eusebius' Church History, III. 39.15 to Papias, bishop of Hieropolis in Phrygia, who may have lived between 70 and 140 CE, and whose Expositions of the Sayings of the Lord is mentioned by Eusebius, but no copies have survived. In the case of the Gospel according to Luke, Against Marcion, iv. 2 by Tertullian (c. 160–220 CE) identifies this Luke as the companion of the apostle Paul (see Col. 4: 14; 2 Tim. 4: 11; Philemon 24 ; and Lucius of Cyrene is mentioned in Acts 13: 1, cf. Rom. 16: 21 ).

Another criterion for deciding which Christian books should be included in the New Testament is implied by Eusebius' discussion. Of those books which should be repudiated, we read: ‘The thought and purpose of their contents are completely out of harmony with true orthodoxy and clearly show themselves that they are forgeries of heretics’ (Church History, III. 25.7). In other words, those who were deciding what constitutes the New Testament were also discussing what expressions of Christian belief were acceptable or not. In matters of doctrinal disagreement, appeal was made to Christian texts that were considered ancient, so questions about which text was ancient and authoritative, how it was to be interpreted, and which expressions of belief were ‘in harmony’ with particular apostolic writings were intimately bound together, and, inevitably, were entangled with power politics among Christian bishops and their royal patrons.

Eusebius' Church History, III. 25.7 also suggests another criterion for discovering which texts are ‘forgeries’: ‘The character of the style also is far removed from apostolic usage.’ This criterion is widely used by critical scholars today in distinguishing, for example, which of the New Testament epistles attributed to Paul are authentic and which are pseudonymous, and it was the early recognition that the style of the Epistle to the Hebrews is different from that of other Pauline epistles that made its inclusion in the New Testament a matter for debate. The epistles 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, attributed to Paul, are now considered pseudonymous by many scholars, as they were in some early Christian writings. For example, in the second half of the second century, Tatian rejected 1 and 2 Timothy as pseudonymous and accepted only Titus as Pauline. But all three were considered ‘orthodox’ and Pauline by those bishops whose decisions about the contents of the New Testament prevailed. The teachings of 1 Timothy and Titus, with their references to an exclusively male church leadership of elders, bishops, and, probably, deacons, their acceptance of Roman rule and Roman social organization, their attempts to exclude false teachers, and their insistence on women's subordination to men would have been congenial to male bishops from the second century onwards.

Another criterion which modern readers might have expected to be used in decisions about which texts should comprise the New Testament, however, was not used: the criterion of ‘inspiration’. The reason for this is that both verbal and written expressions of belief by many Christians were understood to be ‘inspired’ (see Eusebius, Orations of Constantine, 2; Augustine, Epistle, 82.2; Gregory of Nyssa Hexaemeron, proem.). Moreover, the criteria discussed above are discerned from Eusebius' discussion and other fourth-century writings which have come down to us. Nowhere are such criteria formally listed and the relative importance of one against another weighed.

These fourth-century discussions and decisions about the contents of the New Testament were made by literate élite male leaders of the churches under the auspices of the emperor Constantine and his successors. Actual manuscripts of the New Testament were also commissioned and preserved by these leaders, who themselves read, and in some cases also wrote, other Christian books that they considered useful for the developing life of the churches: epistles, homilies, refutations, apologies, histories, commentaries, and theologies. These men's interests, especially in excluding ‘unorthodox’ theologians, affected the ways in which they read the ancient Christian texts which came to form the New Testament just as our interests affect our ways of reading the New Testament. Our interest in history as we understand it, for example, means that most of us now find early Christian ‘orthodox’ readings as alien as we find Arian readings, especially in their practice of allegorical interpretations. Most of the non-canonical Christian texts that were preserved and have survived from the second century CE onwards can be read to express ‘orthodoxy’ as that was defined in the centuries that followed, but some texts which were considered ‘unorthodox’ have survived by accident, as in the case of some writings in the library at Nag Hammadi. We have to assume, however, that most texts that proved uncongenial to later church leaders have been lost. For example, some Greek writings by Origen (c.185–253 CE), who was condemned for ‘heresy’ during his lifetime and after his death, have come down to us only in damaged copies or in Latin translation, or not at all.

I have referred to Christian bishops and other church leaders as members of a male literate élite minority within the churches and within society at large. The majority of Christians in the fourth century would have come to know Christian texts by hearing extracts from them read in church assemblies, and what was read to them would have depended on availability and on the particular preferences of the literate leaders of their own communities. The effects on future developments in Christianity of the emperors' patronage and of decisions by bishops should therefore be recognized. The spread to local churches of codices containing and defining Christian scriptures, the development and use of lectionaries listing which parts of scripture were to be read over cycles of years, and the integration of these readings into developing liturgies, including expositions of scripture, potentially gave power to the literate over the illiterate. This is to assume, however, that all illiterate Christians were schooled as catechumens, that they often attended church assemblies, and that they understood Greek in the eastern empire and Latin in the western empire, or that they heard the New Testament read in translations into languages (Coptic or Syriac, for example) which they could understand. Even so, those who heard what was read to them could interpret what they heard in their own ways; and ‘inspiration’ could be claimed and recognized by people who were not bishops, and not even members of the clergy. Occasionally, we gain glimpses of this happening in the writings of their opponents. For example, the movement named after one of its leaders, Montanus, which originated in Phrygia during the second half of the second century but spread among Christians in both the east and the west of the Roman empire, claimed that not only Montanus but also two women, Prisca and Maximilla, were inspired by God's spirit prophetically to announce the imminent arrival of the heavenly Jerusalem on earth (see, for example, Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis in Cyprus, who died in 403 CE, Heresies, 48.2–11). The movement was opposed by synods of bishops but attracted not only large numbers of ordinary Christians but also the support of the Christian theologian Tertullian from about 212 CE onwards.

Before leaving the fourth century, we need briefly to consider two other features of the New Testament to which we are accustomed: the titles of our New Testament books and the order in which they now appear. Other features, like divisions of books into chapters and verses, and footnotes which indicate some important variant readings or cross-references, have been added since the fourth century for convenience in personal reading and study. Authors of ancient narratives often refer to their own work with different rather than a single, formal descriptive title (e.g. the first-century CE Jewish historian Josephus refers to his early work about the Jewish war against the Romans in a variety of ways: Jewish Antiquities, I.xi.4; XIII.iii.3; v. 9; Life, 74). Moreover, when texts were written on scrolls, a description of the contents would appear on a strip attached at the end that could be seen for purposes of identification when the scroll was rolled up. Within the scroll, the author and description of the contents would appear at the end. That each of our New Testament ‘gospels’ is called by the singular ‘gospel’ or good news, which suggests how they should be read, and then distinguished from the others by the expression ‘according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John’, intimates that they provide four different versions of a single good news. This shows that the titles were added only after all four were formally recognized as authoritative. The titles of the epistles and of Revelation which appear in our New Testament take up the information of their introductions. In other words, the titles familiar to us were given to New Testament books by later collectors.

There is also some variety in the order in which New Testament books appear in ancient manuscripts and lists. We have already noted the ways in which our New Testament contents are grouped: four gospels, Acts, the epistles of Paul, the general epistles, and Revelation. Some of these groups were sometimes ordered differently. For example, in Codex Sinaiticus, the Pauline epistles follow the gospels, and Acts follows the Paulines. Most other ancient Greek manuscripts which have survived, however, place the general epistles immediately after Acts and before the Paulines. There is also some variety of order within the groups. Our order of the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, was popularized by Eusebius and by Jerome (c.346–420 CE), whose Latin translation became the official version of western churches. But the fifth-century Codex Bezae gives the order: Matthew, John, Luke, Mark, placing the two narratives attributed to apostles first. Other sequences, however, are occasionally found in manuscripts that have survived.

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Our present arrangement of the Paulines places those to communities first and those to individuals second, and within those sections, the epistles are arranged in order of decreasing length, except that Galatians precedes the slightly longer Ephesians, and Hebrews is placed last. This position of Hebrews is found in most surviving Greek manuscripts, suggesting that it was recognized as non-Pauline, but in a Chester Beatty papyrus it follows Romans, and in the fourth-century Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus it follows 2 Thessalonians, these two arrangements grouping it with Pauline letters to communities. In a minority of later manuscripts other arrangements are found. The sequence of the general epistles in our New Testament is: James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, Jude; and this is the order most common in the oldest surviving Greek codices, Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, and the fifth-century Alexandrinus. Again it seems to be based on decreasing length, except that epistles attributed to the same author appear together. But the list of the council of Carthage (397 CE) gives the order: 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2 and 3 John, James, Jude, an order of decreasing length in which length is calculated by combining all the epistles attributed to a single author.

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