Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church
Elizabeth A. Clark
The Bible of the Early Christians
Christianity's entry to the world as a Jewish sect had profound consequences for its development. Possessing a distinctive body of texts, the Jewish Bible, was an important source of legitimacy for early Christians. Long after Christianity had acquired an almost exclusively “Gentile” constituency, it retained these Scriptures—yet claimed a monopoly on their interpretation. From the time of Paul onward, “the Law and the Prophets” (and soon, other books of Jewish Scripture) received extensive commentary by Christians. The “Old Testament,” as Christians called it, was indeed the Bible for the earliest followers of Jesus. Even in the early second century, some Christians believed that if you could not find a teaching in the “charters” of the Old Testament, you should not believe it in the Gospel.
The formation of the New Testament took some time. Although Paul's letters, the Gospels, and several other Christian books later included in the New Testament were circulating by the late first century C.E., some Christians claimed that they preferred “the living and abiding voice” (i.e., the oral transmission of Christian teaching) to written documents. These issues were largely resolved in the course of the second century: Justin Martyr's account of a Christian worship service dating from the mid-second century reports that “on the day of the sun,” Christians gather in assemblies where they hear read “the memoirs of the Apostles” (the Gospels, and perhaps Acts and the Pauline letters) as well as “the writings of the prophets.”
Our earliest list of which Christian books were judged “Scripture”—the so-called Muratorian Canon—probably dates to the late second century. It lists the Gospels, Acts, Paul's letters (understood to include 1, 2 Timothy and Titus), Revelation, 1 and 2 John, and Jude, but several books of the modern canon are missing from the list: Hebrews, James, 3 John, and perhaps 1 and 2 Peter. Also surprising, the list of accepted books includes the Wisdom of Solomon and the Apocalypse of Peter. One criterion the anonymous author of the Muratorian Canon gives for whether a book is truly “Scriptural” is its suitability for public reading in church—although he does not tell us what determines such suitability. Nonetheless, here we glimpse the importance of Christian worship in constituting and interpreting Christian Scripture. Since it is probable that many early Christians, like their non-Christian neighbors, were illiterate (at least as far as their ability to read entire books was concerned), worship services might have been their only opportunity to hear the Bible.
It is not until 367 C.E. in Athanasius' Festal Letter that we find a list of Christian books that corresponds in every detail to the 27 now contained in the New Testament. Writing a few decades earlier, the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea reported that among the books disputed at his time were James, Jude, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John. Eusebius also tells what books had been rejected: among these stand several of the apocryphal gospels, Christian apocalypses, and several pieces of early Christian literature not included in our New Testament, such as the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Teachings of the Apostles (The Didache). He reports that there was considerable debate over the status of the Apocalypse of John (Revelation), a debate that we know continued throughout the fourth century. Moreover, a few Christian dissidents even questioned the then-settled canon of the Old Testament, arguing that such works as Job or the Song of Songs should not be included as genuine “Scripture.” By the late fourth century, however, most Christians had accepted the 27 books we call the New Testament as well as the Jewish Scriptures in Greek translation (the Septuagint)—the latter including the books now designated as the Old Testament Apocrypha. Yet even within these accepted boundaries, many Scriptural verses required elaborate “sanitization” to make them useful and edifying for Christian consumption.
Although the church retained the Jewish Scriptures as part of its canon, its members, like most Jews throughout the Roman Empire, heard these Scriptures read to them in Greek (or later, in the West, Latin) translation. Only a handful of early Christian scholars had sufficient proficiency in Hebrew or Aramaic to consult the Old Testament in its languages of composition—and those scholars who did, such as Origen in the third century and Jerome in the fourth, often found themselves under attack for their “Jewish” predilections. What's the matter with the Septuagint?—as Augustine peevishly asked Jerome, whose Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible (“the Vulgate”) was in process. Surely at this late date, Augustine protests, there is not anything to be found in the Hebrew text “which escaped so many translators who were perfectly acquainted with the language.” His implication, of course, is that it would not be in accordance with Christian doctrine to imagine that the Greek translation was any less inspired by God than was the original Hebrew.