The average Christian in the pews is apt to think that Bibles dropped out of the sky, some in zippered leatherette covers, in 17th century English full of “thou” and “thee.”
In fact, as we have seen, the Hebrew Bible took centuries to get written and edited, but after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 of our era, the Talmud overtook it as the go-to reference in Judaism.
The translation that came to form the Christian Old Testament is called the Septuagint (from the Greek for 70) from a legendary origin having to do with the number of scholars involved, cited in the Babylonian Talmud as follows:
King Ptolemy once gathered 72 Elders. He placed them in 72 chambers, each of them in a separate one, without revealing to them why they were summoned. He entered each one's room and said: “Write for me the Torah of Moshe, your teacher.” God put it in the heart of each one to translate identically as all the others did. (Tractate Megillah, pages 9a-9b)Ptolemy, Greek king of Egypt, lived from 287 to 246 BCE. The translation was completed by 132 BCE and a copy deposited in the famous Library of Alexandria. This is attested by numerous references and quotes of the era and by its Greek literary style.
The 27 Christian biblical books were written between about 50 and 110 CE, probably not by the reputed authors but by scribes. The earliest works are the Pauline letters, which are unquestionably by Paul of Tarsus (50-63), then the gospels Mark, Matthew and Luke with Acts (55-75), deutero-Pauline letters written by his followers (65-85), the gospel of John (85-95) and then the remaining works.
The New or Christian Testament also took some time to get established, mostly by custom. St. Irenaeus of Lyons referred to the four gospels around 160. Origen of Alexandria listed most of the 27 books in the modern NT, but there were still disputes over Hebrews, James, II Peter, II and III John and Revelation (also known as the Apocalypse).
At the time, there were about 200 Christian writings similar to those in the current NT. Those that some did not accept as fitting “the measure” (Gr., kanon, a measuring stick) were known as antilegomena; the major writings in what is now the NT were homologoumena, or universally regarded since the immediate postapostolic era.
In 331, Emperor Constantine commissioned 50 copies of the Bible in Greek. They were completed during 337-339 by Eusebius of Caesarea, probably under his supervision since they had to be copied by hand. These manuscripts were lost until 1844, when a copy, known as the Codex Sinaiticus, was rediscovered in a monastery.
Although lost to antiquity, Constantine’s Bibles set in motion the matter of deciding which books should be in the Bible.
Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, who apparently was asked for another set of Bibles, gave in his Easter letter of 367 the earliest preserved list of the exact books in the NT canon. The African Synod of Hippo, in 393, approved Athanasius’ list and the Greek Septuagint Bible, a decision endorsed by the Councils of Carthage in 397 and 419. These councils were held under the authority of St. Augustine, who regarded the biblical canon as already closed.
Similarly, in 382 Pope Damasus commissioned the Latin Vulgate (from vulgus, “people”) edition of the Bible, most of which was completed by St. Jerome by 405. The Vulgate was used in the West along with the Vetus Vulgata, an older Latin translation, until about the 13th century, when the Vulgate became the dominant version and was declared official in the 16th century.
Just as the postapostolic era saw the rise of hermit monks who lived in solitude following the example of St. Anthony of Egypt, in this new era St. Pachomius (292-348), also an Egyptian, established the first monastic community in 318 on the Nile island of Tabennisi. The monks called Pachomius “Abba” (father), from which the word “Abbot” derives, and within a generation, similar monasteries sprang up in Egypt, Palestine and the Judean Desert, Syria, North Africa and eventually western Europe. The number of monasteries and their locations are not very well established, but estimates hold that at the time there may have been as many as 7,000 monks.
The post-Nicene Church was also graced by the presence of teaching “fathers,” also deemed saints in the major Christian traditions, in particular
- Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386), bishop and theologian, famous for his Catechetical Lectures, which expound on the principal beliefs and the nature of salvation and the eucharist;
- Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390), Cappadocian (Turkey) bishop and theologian who specialized in the relations between the three persons of the trinity;
- Ambrose of Milan (340-397), bishop, famous for his opposition to Arianism and his influence on Augustine of Hippo; and
- Augustine of Hippo (354-430), convert, bishop and philosopher, whose influence in the West was paramount and whose intellectual influence spreads far and wide—to his life and work we turn next.