Have you ever wondered how the Bible came to be separated into two testaments? What in the world is a testament anyway? Many people question this, and that is an excellent thing to do! People who don’t ask questions usually aren’t learning anything!
Testament- Latin- testamentum- Greek- diatheke, refers to a covenant, like the Old Testament Covenants God made with the Israelites. Testament refers to a last will and testament. So what is a covenant? It’s a contract. Some are conditional and some aren’t. God’s covenant with Noah to never flood the earth again was unconditional. Salvation is the new covenant. It is conditional on our choosing to believe in Jesus. Old and New Testament refers to the old and new covenant of God with His people (God’s people are not just the Israelites). The New Covenant is previewed in Jeremiah 31.
First, let’s talk about the division of the Old and New Testament. It isn’t really a division. The Old Testament, known as the Hebrew Bible, was and still is the Jewish Scriptures. That is where the Jews stop, except for extra books such as the Talmud and Mishnah. The New Testament came after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is purely a Christian text. The Jews do not give it any authority.
Next, let’s discuss the divisions in the Old Testament. I will not be discussing each book’s content, but I may provide a brief summary of each book later on in this series. The Old Testament is divided into three major categories. The Torah, which is the Hebrew word for Law, is the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. The 600 plus laws in the Torah are the basis for being a good Jew. The Nevi’im, prophets, is historical and prophetical books. The Ketuvim, writings, is the poetry and wisdom literature.
The New Testament is divided into Gospels, Epistles, History, and Apocalyptic Literature. The Gospels are the account of Jesus life, death, and resurrection. The Epistles are letters written by the apostles to churches or leaders of the churches. The only historical book is Acts, the record of the early church and the apostles. The only apocalyptic book is Revelation. It can be interpreted in a variety of ways, which I may discuss at a later date.
Now, what is the relationship between the Old and New Testaments? St. Augustine says it quite beautifully, “The New Testament is hidden in the Old Testament, and the Old Testament is revealed in the New Testament.” The Old covenant is the Mosaic Covenant, which has two parts. If the Israelites will follow God’s commandments, He will give them the land of Canaan and drive out their enemies. It is conditional upon the Israelites obeying God. The New Covenant, first mentioned in Jeremiah 31, is salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus says, “this is my blood of the covenant, which is shed for many.” Unlike what some people think, Jesus did not abolish the Old Testament. He was the fulfillment of the Old Covenant and the beginning of the new.
The next question is, who decided what was put in the Bible? It didn’t just fall from the sky, and it wasn’t found in the woods as a complete book. The early church took special care to put the Bible together. The Bible was written by various authors over a period of 1400 years and in several different countries, from Italy and Greece to Mesopotamia and Persia. The authors include kings, herdsmen, soldiers, legislators, fishermen, statesmen, courtiers, priests, prophets, tentmakers, Rabbis, and Greek physicians. The Bible contains a variety of different literature: history, law, religious poetry, didactic treatises, lyric poetry, parable and allegory, biography, personal correspondence, personal memoirs, and prophetic and apocalyptic literature. The Bible is an anthology, but an anthologist did not compile it. Through all of these different authors and styles, there is a continuous theme, Jesus Christ.
When we speak of the Bible, we are only talking about a certain few books. Who decided which books made the list? Well, the “list” is the Canon. Canon means rule or standard, and when applied to the Bible it refers to the list of books that are considered to be inspired by God and authoritative. In AD 70, the Council of Jamnia discussed and decided on the current books of the Hebrew Bible as the authoritative Word of God. This was already the public opinion, but they made it permanent. Jesus also mentions, “The Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms” in one of the Gospels, which would have taken place between AD 26-33. In AD 367, St. Athanasius wrote his Festal Letter to the churches. This was the first time that the 27 books of the New Testament were listed together. Notice that this was over 300 years after the death of Jesus. That means that the Church was without a “Bible” for that period of time. They didn’t have a complete book, but they did have all of the parts, which they shared amongst the churches. They had a collection called, “The Gospel,” which was divided into different authors, and they had “The Apostle,” which was divided into the different letters of Paul to the Churches. Acts was given the same prestige as Luke’s gospel, and the churches read them all and gave them authority in their lives. The books were not carelessly selected to be put in the Bible. They followed the Vincention Canon. The books had to be read everywhere always by all. If only one church read a certain book, that wasn’t good enough. Or if a new book popped up in the 2nd century, they didn’t accept it as Scripture. Some deuterocanonical books were read in the church, but they were not given any authority. This was kind of like reading a devotional book or a commentary. They could have a lot of truth and instruction for daily living, but they are not Scripture.
It is important to realize that “the Bible” did not precede the Church. The Church was crucial in the formation of the Canon of Scripture. Dr. Foakes-Jackson says it right, “The Church assuredly did not make the New Testament; the two grew up together.” This is a beautiful image. The apostles who wrote scripture formed the church after the command of Jesus to do so. I will talk more about the Early Church later.
I hope you are enjoying this as much as I am! Next week we will discuss the Old Testament, both Hebrew and Greek, in more detail.
My main source is The Books and the Parchments by F. F. Bruce