What is the Bible of the ancient church?

An Armenian Bible

The following is cut from a talk I’ll be giving here in Cyprus on Saturday. I have arrived without trouble, and am excited to be here!

This bit of the talk has been cut out on the grounds of being a sideline that made me go on too long. I do like it, though. I like problematising things sometimes (although I still go for a 66-book canon of Scripture).

So, when we’re talking about ancient (or early Mediaeval, I suppose), what do we mean by ‘Bible’? What is the ‘Bible’ of the ancient Church?

For Greek-speaking Christians, it was the translation called the Septuagint, produced in Alexandria during the reign of Ptolemaios Philadelphos (309-246 BC), as well as the texts that form the New Testament, with the occasional addition of the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, 1 Clement and several other first- and second-century non-apostolic writings that were very popular amongst ancient Christians — these latter writings, along with the stories of the martyrs, were eventually determined by the whole church (independently of one another) to be worth reading but not Scripture.

The Septuagint contains some books not found in the Hebrew Masoretic Text, as well as longer versions of Daniel and Esther. During the Reformation, Protestants rejected the Septuagint in favour of the Masoretic Text; however, we have ancient manuscripts of the Septuagint that are older than any of the Masoretic Text as a whole, and recent finds, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, have shown that in many places where the Septuagint and the MT diverge, the Septuagint is not in error but translating a different ms variant (as I learned from Edith M. Humphrey’s book Grand Entrance). So, just because the ancients used a slightly different OT from us does not mean we should cast them aside — most Greek-speaking Jews of the early years after Christ were also using this translation, after all.

For your information, in the West, the Latin versions of the Bible that begin emerging in the 100s and 200s are based on the Septuagint for the OT as well, but Jerome, who lived in Bethlehem and produced a revision of the Latin translation in the late 300s, preferred the Hebrew overall. The Gothic Bible of the 300s was from Greek, so we can assume a Septuagint OT there as well.

East of Cyprus, in what is now Syria, southeastern Turkey, Israel/Palestine, Jordan, and Iran, people spoke various dialects of Aramaic or Syriac. Their OT was translated straight from Hebrew either around the turn of BC/AD or in the 100s and 200s, when their NT was. This text is called the Peshitta, and some mss of it contain the apocryphal books of the Septuagint, but very many do not.

In Egypt in the 200s and 300s, the Old and New Testaments were translated into Coptic, which is the direct linguistic descendent of the hieroglyphics of the Pharaohs, written in a Greek-like script; the OT is from the Septuagint.

During the 300s, the Kingdom of Ethiopia accepted Christianity and began their own translations of the OT and NT; however, their OT is idiosyncratic — they have everything from the Septuagint except for 1 and 2 Maccabees, and add the Prayer of Manasseh, 3 Ezra, 4 Ezra, which are known elsewhere, but also add, uniquely to Ethiopian Christianity, the Paralipomena of Jeremiah (4 Baruch), Jubilees, Enoch, and the three books of Meqabyan. They have the largest Bible of all.

Armenia accepted Christianity in the 300s as well, but did not begin the project of translating the Bible until 402; the Armenian version of the OT in the ancient church accorded with the Masoretic Text, and it was not until the 700s that the other books from the Septuagint were added.

And, if you were part of a ‘Gnostic’ sect or a Marcionite, your set of Scriptures would look very different again, with various additions and subtractions based on which one — although it seems that the ‘Gnostics’ liked the protocanonical Gospels, they just added more of them.

So, when an ancient Christian says, ‘the Scriptures’, we must ask ourselves — where is this guy from?? Thankfully, the traditions of Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy all turn to the same ancient sources as formative for how we do theology, so the only real difficulty comes in the disagreement over the Septuagint — one which even ancients such as Origen of Alexandria in the 200s and Jerome in the 300s had with other Christians. Let us be glad that we are not indebted to Ethiopia for the establishment of Trinitarian theology!