The Christian Bible is made up of two volumes, The New Testament and Old Testament. The New Testament is the collection of 1st century books and letters collected about Jesus and the early church. The Christian Old Testament is the Hebrew Bible.
The New Testament is a collection of :
- Four gospels which outline the life, and teachings of Jesus the Messiah,
- The Acts of the Apostles, a history of the 1st century church,
- Twenty-one letters, known as epistles, written by the 1st century leaders,
- and Revelation, a 1st century Apocalypse.
These books are nearly unanimously believed to have been written in the 1st century.
In its infancy, Christianity existed without authoritative texts. Jesus didn’t write anything down. He didn’t dictate his sayings to an author. Following his death and resurrection, the movement spread through the work of itinerant preachers who traveled from city to city, teaching his message, starting churches and establishing leaders. They carried with them collections of sayings, sermons, and stories about his life, death and resurrection.
Writing of the gospels
Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you. Luke 1:1-3
Eventually, authors collected these traditions into the four books we know today as gospels. These gospels contain a tapestry of sayings, parables, and narratives. The titles of these books come from the names of the authors that Christian tradition attributed to them, though the authors wrote anonymously. Three of them, Matthew, Mark and Luke are called synoptic gospels because they are collections of stories and sayings that appear to have relied on common sources.
The majority of NT scholars believe Mark was the primary source for Matthew and Luke. Where stories and sayings overlap in Matthew and Luke that have parallels to Mark, it is understood that those gospels used Mark as a source. [See Daniel B. Wallace: The Synoptic Problem.]
But Matthew and Luke also overlap in ways that are independent from Mark. Modern scholars believe these sayings existed in a written collection lost to history. They call this collection “Q,” short for “source” in German.
The choices each gospel author made of what to include and exclude, and how to organize their writing allowed each author to tailor his message to the specific needs of their audience.
Christianity also spread through the exchange of letters from the first Christian leaders, most notably the apostle Paul. These letters were addressed to specific city churches throughout the Roman empire and subsequently circulated amongst other churches.
Collecting the books
In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, different Christian groups began to identify specific gospels and letters as legitimate and held them as collections.
The process of collecting these books was motivated by the necessity to nail down the authoritative voice of Christianity. Christianity’s native religion Judaism had survived for years through a collection of holy books and leaders. But without creeds, books or doctrinal statements, Christianity was vulnerable to distortions and misappropriation. Competing religions such as gnosticism attempted to hijack Christianity. They wrote spurious gospels attributed to the apostles Thomas, Judas and Peter that used fanciful tales about Jesus to lend credence to their philosophy.
Other books written at the time of the early church
As the church developed towards orthodoxy, her leaders tried to determine which of these writings to include in the canon, by ascertaining which they believed came from the authentic oral tradition of Jesus’ sayings, and which were legitimate letters of the apostles. They based their decisions on the claim that they had been written by an apostle or close associate of an apostle. On whether the message of the book reflected the character of Jesus, and if it agreed with other writings. And finally, the degree to which the book was being read and practiced by a wide spectrum of churches.
The writings of the early church fathers and historians identified many different lists of what different Christians believed should be included in the Christian Bible. But by the 4th century, there was near unanimous agreement about which gospels and letters should be included in the Bible we have today. In a letter from 367 AD Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria listed the 27 books that we now consider the New Testament canon, using the word “canonized.”
And acknowledging Christianity’s Jewish origins, the early church also adopted the Septuagint, the latin translation of the Hebrew Bible. The early church believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Hebrew Bible’s prophecies of a Messiah. The Hebrew Bible eventually came to be known to Christians as the Old Testament in contrast to the Christian Bible’s New Testament.
As these books made the journey from their original author to their inclusion in the canon, a change occurred in how their were understood. They became more than mere books. Leaders claimed these authors were inspired by God and their words were His revelations, though neither the texts nor authors claimed to be oracles. They also began to view the collection as a corpus. A unified book. The church adopted the word “scripture” to describe them, and elevated these books to the same level the Jews held the Old Testament.