Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Ancient Christians and their Bibles

A common myth that we hear from time to time from a number of different directions, is that Bibles were in essence Gutenberg's invention: a testimony to Northern European printing ingenuity, but not an ancient practice. Of course it is true that printed Bibles necessarily followed the development of printing, but Bibles were being made long before then. Likewise, others will claim that even if Bibles existed before the Reformation, they were so extraordinarily scarce that ordinary people could not possibly have them.

Indeed, I recently had the pleasure of interacting with a lay apologist for Catholicism who, buying into the myth, apparently believed that people didn't have Bibles before the sixteenth century. He didn't say so, but I think he was somewhat surprised to discover just how many European and non-European languages the Bible had already been translated into before Luther ever nailed his 95 theses to Wittenburg door on October 31, 1517. He seemed to have a mental picture of the Bible surviving from the apostles to the reformers in Latin copy locked away in bishops' chambers.

But this picture of the world is far from the reality that Bibles were the treasured possession of the faithful since the time of the early church. Even in Europe, before Luther, Wycliffe and his followers produced manuscript (hand-written) English Bibles for the laity in an era and religious climate in which such production could get one killed. Others produced Bibles in the common tongue long before that, with Jerome publishing the Bible in Latin not to place out of reach of the common man, but to place it into the common tongue.

But even if someone is well-versed in the fact that Jerome produced a Bible - one may wonder whether his monumental task of producing a Latin Bible from copies of the the Greek and Hebrew originals was the first time that the Bible had been assembled as such. It was not.

Codex Vaticanus and Siniaticus represent essentially complete "codex" forms in which the whole Bible was assembled as a collection. They are normally dated to the 4th century.

Even earlier, the notable papyrus P72 (which is often dated to the 3rd century) contains what appear to be page numbers at the top, which indicate that the books contained in it were at some point bound together into a book form. It's less impressive in the case of P72, because in that case Scripture was bound together with other books that are plainly not Scripture.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to note something even more significant than the page numbers: the heading of the section of the papyrus at which 2 Peter begins reads: "Peter's Epistle 2" using the Greek letter Beta to represent the number two. That single character, Beta, has an important significance for the issue of the canon of Scripture. That single character demonstrates the fact that at least a mental and/or implicit canon of Scripture already existed in which there were (at least) two epistles of Peter.

That is page Kappa Gamma (23). On the facing page, Kappa Beta (22), we have the end of Peter's first epistle, which is similarly indicated at the foot of the epistle by "Peter's Epistle 1" using the Greek letter Alpha to represent the number one. Thus, we can see not only that the books were identified by the designations A and B, but they were even bound in that order.

We may take that kind of designation for granted, because we are used to Bibles today with their handy table of contents (canon). Nevertheless, that kind of designation demonstrates already in the earliest documents that we have, a recognition of the fact that there was more than one epistle of Peter, and that apparently as early as A.D. 200 there was already an established convention as to which epistle was A (1 Peter) and which was B (2 Peter), such that someone would use such an abbreviation in the heading of the book. P72 is interesting because, although it is no longer complete, it contained both epistles of Peter as well as the epistle of Jude, which further serves to demonstrate that the epistles did not simply circulate as individual letters in the early church.

Furthermore, P46 (dated to about 250 A.D.) contains a collection of Paul's epistles, while P45 (of similar date) contains a collection of the gospels and Acts. The only early physical copy of the New Testament is a single fragment (P52) that is from John's gospel, but which is too small to determine whether it was part of a larger codex.

In short, the physical documents we have speak to the fact of the recognition of the canon by the earliest Christians, and attempts by early Christians to bind the canonical books together into Bibles.

With that archaeological background we should not be surprised to hear Augustine testify:
Call this fancy, if it is not actually the case that men all over the world have been led, to believe in Christ by reading these books.
(NPNF1, Vol. IV, Reply to Faustus the Manichaean, Book XVI, Section 20.)

Nor should our ears be shocked to hear Chrysostom telling his congregation:
Wherefore I exhort you both to obtain Bibles, and to retain together with the Bibles the sentiments they set forth, and to write them in your minds.
(NPNF1, Vol. XIV, Chrysostom's Homlies on the Gospel of John, Homily 53.)

Of course, we will gladly acknowledge that Bibles in the ancient world were not as cheap and easy to get as Bibles are today. Praise be to God for the printing press and the Internet! And surely in many places today, the population is literate to a greater degree than ever before. Praise be to God for this advance in education! But recall what the solution was in the days of Caesarius, bishop of Arles (470-543):
Moreover, since what a man procures in this life by reading or good works will be food of his soul forever, let no one try to excuse himself by saying he has not learned letters at all. If those who are illiterate love God in truth, they look for learned people who can read the sacred Scriptures to them.
(Fathers of the Church, Vol. 31, Sermon 8.1 of Caesarius of Arles)

And even before Christ, the Word of God was read to the people of God, even if there was not then a full scroll in every hand, Scriptures says that they read from the Scriptures:

Nehemiah 9:2-3
2And the seed of Israel separated themselves from all strangers, and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers. 3And they stood up in their place, and read in the book of the law of the LORD their God one fourth part of the day; and another fourth part they confessed, and worshipped the LORD their God.

For this is God's command and the way to preserve the faith:

Deuteronomy 11:16-21
16Take heed to yourselves, that your heart be not deceived, and ye turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them; 17And then the LORD'S wrath be kindled against you, and he shut up the heaven, that there be no rain, and that the land yield not her fruit; and lest ye perish quickly from off the good land which the LORD giveth you. 18Therefore shall ye lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand, that they may be as frontlets between your eyes. 19And ye shall teach them your children, speaking of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. 20And thou shalt write them upon the door posts of thine house, and upon thy gates: 21That your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, in the land which the LORD sware unto your fathers to give them, as the days of heaven upon the earth.



Anonymous said...

Great article. The first paragraph is outstandingly written.

Anonymous said...


what a rememberance!

I was wondering what Christie's Auction House in London or Geneva or New York would start the bidding at if ever one found just one piece of those now, thanks to Moses breaking them to pieces, stone tablets "God" wrote the first time, the Ten Commandments on?

Or, those two stone tablets Moses chizeled the Ten Commandments on the second time? :)

I have to agree, I am just as stupid as he, that guy you mention in this article, until someone teaches me out of my own stupidity!

Act 8:30 So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?"
Act 8:31 And he said, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
Act 8:32 Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this: "Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth.
Act 8:33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth."
Act 8:34 And the eunuch said to Philip, "About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?"
Act 8:35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.

Turretinfan said...

The tablets of stone were placed in the ark. Presently, the Ethiopian Orthodox church claims to have the ark (though they do not place it on display). If so, it may be that the tablet is still inside!


Anonymous said...


I saw a television program on that subject and those in "possession" of the ark in Ethiopia indicate as much.

I had a friend who taught me everything I know about buying and selling diamonds, both rough and polished. He opened doors for me in Belgium and Israel and New York. He has expired. When I met him in Geneva, Switzerland in the early 1990's, he was in his early 80's and was an immigrant from Alexandria, Eygpt. He was Jewish. I am Christian. The African diamond trade brought us together and he took a liking to me and brought me under his wing and taught me everything he knew. The time I spent with him was priceless because, knowing I was a Christian, he wanted me to share my thoughts about the Bible almost everytime we got together, especially the Old Testament. He enjoyed it when I read Scriptures to him. I enjoyed it too! :)

Over that several years, until he died, he would open up a little bit of his family history. He learned the diamond and jewelry trade from his father and grand father who also learned it from theirs on back to the days of Levi. We talked about the precious stones of his rich Levitical family history and he felt the records his family had possession of traces his bloodline all the way back to Biblical times when in Scripture we read words like these:

Exo 28:11 As a jeweler engraves signets, so shall you engrave the two stones with the names of the sons of Israel. You shall enclose them in settings of gold filigree.
Exo 28:12 And you shall set the two stones on the shoulder pieces of the ephod, as stones of remembrance for the sons of Israel. And Aaron shall bear their names before the LORD on his two shoulders for remembrance.
Exo 28:13 You shall make settings of gold filigree,
Exo 28:14 and two chains of pure gold, twisted like cords; and you shall attach the corded chains to the settings.
Exo 28:15 "You shall make a breastpiece of judgment, in skilled work. In the style of the ephod you shall make it--of gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen shall you make it.
Exo 28:16 It shall be square and doubled, a span its length and a span its breadth.
Exo 28:17 You shall set in it four rows of stones. A row of sardius, topaz, and carbuncle shall be the first row;
Exo 28:18 and the second row an emerald, a sapphire, and a diamond;
Exo 28:19 and the third row a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst;
Exo 28:20 and the fourth row a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper. They shall be set in gold filigree.

He said his family had antiquities dated records showing the bloodline traces all the way back to the time of Moses and Priesthood of Levi.

Jews kept records and keep records. It was indeed my honor to share with him my love for Jesus Christ. He never uttered any negative words about Christ when I would say things like, "you know, I believe Jesus to be Jewish" and your "Messiah".

Turretinfan said...

That is at the same time a tender story and yet a very sad one.

The man who does not realize he is sick does not sick the Great Physician.


orthodox said...

The ability of Wycliffe's followers to have private copies of the scriptures is due to a different technology - not printing, but paper. The first paper in Europe came via the Islamic world to Spain the 12th century, only becoming widespread in Italy in the 13th century.

Turretinfan said...

As clever a suggestion as that is, "Orthodox," Wycliffe evidently wrote on the more expensive and durable vellum (parchment) made from animal skins (link to evidence).

I guess it is possible, though, that some Wycliffe bibles, particularly the later ones, would have been written on paper as that became available.

I would generally agree that the use of paper was a technological innovation that certainly helped, especially once the printing press and movable type were employed.


orthodox said...

The original from which this was printed, was on vellum with brass clasps on the binding, stamped leather and gold lettering. Are you seriously wishing to argue that this is what the "common man" could be carrying in the 14th century, tucked under their arm on the way to church? This copy was owned by Richard Hunne who was one of the wealthiest merchants of London. (

I often seriously wonder if you are interested in truth or just to score points.

Turretinfan said...

O wrote: "I often seriously wonder if you are interested in truth or just to score points."

Truth. Why I'd want to score points as an pseudonymous author against another pseudonmyous author beats me.

O wrote: "The original from which this was printed, was on vellum with brass clasps on the binding, stamped leather and gold lettering. Are you seriously wishing to argue that this is what the "common man" could be carrying in the 14th century, tucked under their arm on the way to church? This copy was owned by Richard Hunne who was one of the wealthiest merchants of London."

The binding is probably later. Is in this second piece of evidence that the Wycliffe manuscripts were on vellum (link).

Now, I sincerely wonder about your motivation to continue to insist, in the face of one-sided evidence, on your point.