Who Decided Which Books Belong in My Bible?
by Timothy Jones
Suppose that you became a Christian in the second century A.D. You’ve heard the story of a divine being who died on a cross and rose from the dead. Through baptism, you’ve openly identified yourself with his followers. Now, you want to learn more about this deity. Yet you quickly realize that some people who call themselves “Christians” understand Jesus very differently from the Christians in your congregation. In fact, one nearby group that claims the name “Christian” also says that Jesus wasn’t actually a human being—he was a spirit that only seemed human!
How would you decide who was right?
As a twenty-first century Christian, the most reasonable reply seems to be, “Read your New Testament!” The problem is, most Christians in the second century couldn’t read. Even if you were one of the privileged few that possessed the capacity to read and write, you wouldn’t personally own a Bible. Your only “Bible” would have been found in an armarion—a specially-constructed cabinet with niched shelves for scrolls and codices—that stayed in the house where your congregation most often gathered. The armarion would likely have sheltered a copy of the Greek Old Testament and perhaps a couple dozen other sacred scrolls or codices.
But it’s possible that not all of these texts would have been identical to the twenty-seven books that you find in New Testaments today.
To be sure, the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, Paul’s letters, and probably John’s first letter would have had a place in the armarion. But the cabinet could lack a few writings that your New Testament includes—the letter to the Hebrews and maybe the second epistle that’s ascribed to Peter, for example, or a couple of John’s letters. A quirky allegory entitled The Shepherd might have made an appearance in your armarion. You might even find a letter or two from a Roman pastor named Clement.
Do you sense the dilemma that faced first- and second-century Christians? How did they maintain a clear and consistent faith in the shadow of so many competing claims? And who decided on the texts that we call the New Testament today?
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