Bible Makes Itself Indispensable For The Church (until 325 A. D.)
( Originally Published 1914 )
THERE is a small book; one can put it in one's pocket, and yet all the libraries of America, numerous as they are, would hardly be large enough to hold all the books which have been inspired by this one little volume. The reader will know what I am speaking of; it is the Bible, as we are used to call it—the Book, the book of mankind, as it has properly been called. It has been commented upon, treated in every way, but, curious to say, hardly any one has attempted to trace its history through the centuries and mark the influence which it exerted upon our civilisation.
In order to do this we follow the traces of the Bible through the different periods of human or, to speak more accurately, of Christian civilisation. In the first period of Christian history, the time of persecutions during the first three centuries of our era, there is not much to say about the Bible as influencing civilisation. Christianity was but starting on its way and fighting for its place in the world. The Bible could not exert a civilising influence upon a hostile world. But by impressing its value upon the Christian mind it made itself indispensable for the church and thereby laid the foundation for the future development.
Christianity was a living religion. The first congregations were dwelling in an atmosphere of enthusiasm. There was a general outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The prophet's words seemed to be fulfilled: "They shall teach no more every man his neighbour and every man his brother, saying: know the Lord; for they shall all know me." Christianity was not a religion of a sacred book, whose dead let-ter was to be artificially kept alive by learned men. It was a religion of living experiences. Nevertheless, Christianity from the beginning had a sacred book. Jesus and his disciples used the Bible of their people, the Old Testament, and Saint Paul carried it to the Christian communities of gentile origin, which had not known of it before.
Christianity could not do without it. If it was necessary to convince Jews that Jesus was the Messiah, how could this be done without arguing from the Scriptures as proof? If the gospel was to be announced to the heathen they would give less heed to the new tidings than to the statement that it was really the most ancient form of religion as attested by this sacred book, which was superior to all the books of poets and philosophers and legislators by reason of its venerable age. Christianity without any hesitation claimed the Old Testament as its own book, its own Bible. Not only was Jesus the content of this book, he was even believed to be its author. It was the spirit of Jesus which dwelt in the prophets and made them seek and search concerning the salvation offered by Christ (I Peter 1 : 10-11). "The prophets having their grace from him, did prophesy unto him," we are told in the so-called letter of Barnabas. So the Old Testament seemed to be a Christian book both in content and in origin, and it was easy enough to add some properly Christian pamphlets, as Saint Paul's letters and some gospels, the Acts and other letters, and some books of revelation. It was as necessary as it was easy, if Christianity was not to lose con-tact with its proper origin.
The New Testament, as we have it now, was not complete at the start. It was a collection of primitive Christian writings, larger in some ways than it is now; on the other hand lacking some of its present elements. Its precise content did not be-come finally established until a very late period, not earlier than the end of the fourth century.
So also the size of the Old Testament was not quite fixed. There were more books in the Greek Bible of the Alexandrian Jews than in the Hebrew Bible of the Palestinian rabbis. The Christian church at first adopted the Greek Bible, but from time to time some scholar pointed out the difference, and many people thought they had better keep to the Hebrew canon. This view, championed by Saint Jerome, led to a partial rejection of the books which nowadays we usually call the Old Testament Apocrypha, until in the sixteenth century the churches accentuated their difference by a different attitude toward these books, the Calvinists rejecting them altogether, the Roman church including them as an integral part of the Bible, and the Lutherans giving them an intermediate position as books to be read with safety but without canonical authority. When, in 1902, King Edward VII was to be crowned, the British and Foreign Bible Society intended to pre-sent to his Majesty the copy of the Bible on which he was to take his oath. Then it was discovered that according to the old regulations the king of England had to take his oath on a complete Bible, that is a Bible containing the Apocrypha. The British and Foreign Bible Society on its part, by its statutes, was prevented from printing Bibles including the Apocrypha; so they presented to the king a most beautiful copy, but the king did not use it for the coronation service. It is the difference between the Alexandrian and the Palestinian canon which reappears in this little struggle and thereby is seen surviving to our own time.
Unsettled as the size of the Old and of the New Testament may have been, nevertheless the principle was established at a very early date that Christianity was to have a holy Scripture in two parts, one taken over from Judaism, the other added from its own stores.
Let us stop here for a moment and try to realise what this meant. Mohammed, when founding his new religion, acknowledged, it is true, the books of the former religions, but for his own believers the unique authority is the Koran, a book which originated within a single generation and therefore is pervaded by one uniform spirit. Christianity adhered to a Bible whose larger part originated in a period much anterior to its own and in a religion inferior to Christianity. The Bible covers a period of over a thousand years. What a difference in civilisation between the nomadic life of the patriarchs and the time of Jesus! What a difference in spirit between the sons of Jacob killing the whole population of Sichem in order to avenge their sister and Jesus' parable of the good Samaritan! or between the prophet Elijah killing four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and Jesus preaching the love of one's enemies! In fact, it was possible to over-come this difference only in an age which did not read the Bible with historical notions. Even so, the juxtaposition caused much difficulty. We shall see the problem of the Law troubling the church through all the centuries. We shall find the notions of sacrifice and priesthood adapted to Christian institutions. Looking at Charlemagne or Calvin, we realise that the Old Testament is ever introducing its views into Christian minds, as authoritative as any word of the gospel.
Now, at the beginning the influence was rather the other way; the Old Testament was to be interpreted in the light of the New. And, in truth, much light came from the life of Jesus to the history of the ancient people and to the prophecies. We do not wonder that Christian minds were excited by all this fresh illumination, and we must not wonder that sometimes they remodelled the tradition of the life of Christ to accord with the Old Testament.
The harmony between the two Testaments soon became a leading idea in Christian doctrine. Some heretics, indeed, would not accept the Old Testa-ment. Marcion maintained that it came from an inferior god, while the supreme God, the father of our Lord Jesus Christ, had revealed himself only through his Son. He found a great many contrasts between the Old and the New Testament, and this criticism was supported by pagan philosophers, as, for example, Porphyry. The church, therefore, was most anxious to establish the harmony of the Testaments by any means at its command. Taste varies from century to century; the minute parallelism constructed by some early Christian writers, and evidently much admired by their contemporaries, seems to us rather ridiculous and fanciful. On the other hand, the church was right in maintaining the harmony. The New Testament needs to be explained from the Old Testament; it is open to much misunderstanding when taken apart. There was almost no sense for historical development at that time; the criticism of Ptolemus, in his famous let-ter to Flora, where he speaks of several strata of revelation running through the Old and the New Testament, is an exceptional one. For most of the faithful the Christian doctrine was directly looked for and found in the Old Testament; the gospel was contained in every one of its books, from Genesis to Malachi. Unity was conceived as uniformity.
This was the system which appealed most to the average Christian mind. And the Bible was open to all Christians, as Harnack has brilliantly demonstrated in a recent publication. The ancient church laid stress upon this publicity and never tried to withdraw the Bible from the people. There was no hidden mystery regarding the Bible. On the contrary, all members of the church were anxiously urged to make themselves as familiar with the Bible as possible. They were supposed to have copies of their own and to read them privately as well as in the congregation. Even when the struggles about the right doctrine began and the heretics sometimes held to the Bible as their champion against the doctrine of the church, the church did not remove the Bible from public discussion. The ecclesiastical party maintained that the Bible was always in favour of the true doctrine; one needs but to know how to read it. Tertullian, it is true, once in the heat of controversy declared that it was no use arguing against heretics from the Bible, but he did it, nevertheless, and so did the other fathers.
The Bible proved its spiritual value to the experience of every reader. A man familiar with the Psalms has a treasure which cannot be lost; in any situation he will find what is suitable for his needs. If one looks for examples of faith, the author of the epistle to the Hebrews in his eleventh chapter gives a splendid model for finding heroes of faith all through the Bible. The book of Genesis, especially its first chapters, was of particular interest for most of the readers on account of the sublime description there given of the beginnings of man-kind. The creation story in Genesis implies much more than even the finest of all Greek myths, namely, the myth in Plato's Timæus, with which it was compared by the emperor Julian. The mighty words, "In the beginning God created heaven and earth," proved to be the one true answer to all the cosmological questions of Greek philosophy, and be-sides there was ample room for introducing what-ever was wanted—such as the creation and the fall of the angels—if only one knew how to read between the lines.
In an old Christian book dealing with church regulations and the rules for individual Christian life we find the following admonition to use no other book at all except the Bible, because, as-the author says, the Bible contains literature of every kind. The passage runs:
Stay at home and read in the Law and in the Book of the Kings and in the Prophets and in the Gospel (which is) the fulness of these things. Keep far away from all the books of the heathen; for what hast thou to do with foreign words or with false laws or prophecies which also easily cause young people to wander from the faith? What then is wanting to thee in the Word of God, that thou throwest thyself upon these myths of the heathen? If thou wishest to read the tales of the fathers, thou hast the Book of the Kings; or of wise men and philosophers, thou hast the Prophets amongst whom thou wilt find more wisdom and science than among the wise men and the philosophers, because they are the words of God, of the one only wise God. If thou desirest song, thou hast the Psalms of David or if the beginning of the world, thou hast the Genesis of great Moses; if law and commandments, thou hast the book of Exodus of the Lord our God. Therefore keep entirely away from all these foreign things, which are contrary to them.
The Bible, in fact, pervaded the whole life of a Christian. It was the Bible, its history, its commandments, that he was taught as a child in his parents' home. When the girls gathered in the women's hall to spin, they would sing and talk about God's revelations more eagerly than even Sappho had praised her luxurious love—according to an expression used by Tatian in his Apology. The prayers, private as well as ecclesiastical, all echoed Biblical phrases, and even at burials the Christians sang joyful psalms.
So the Bible became familiar to the Christians of that time. We are astonished to find how well they knew it. The sermons of this period are full of Biblical allusions, and evidently the preacher could expect them to be understood.
This is the more remarkable as the circulating of the Bible in this time met with the greatest difficulties. There was, of course, a large amount of Bible reading in the congregations. According to Justin's description of early Christian worship about 150 A. D., the service began with continuous reading of the Bible through many chapters, as far as time would allow. Then an officer, bishop or elder, would begin to preach. The office of reading was esteemed so highly that it was regarded as based on a special spiritual gift; the anagnostes, i. e., the reader, in the earliest time had his place among the prophets and spirit-gifted teachers. And, in fact, if we look at the earliest manuscripts of the Bible which have come down to us, we shall almost think that super-natural assistance was necessary for reading them: no punctuation, no accent, no space between the words, no breaking off at the end of a sentence. The reader had to know his text almost entirely by heart to do it well. From the "Shepherd of Hermas," a very interesting book written by a Roman layman about 140 A. D., we learn that some people gathered often, probably daily, for the special purpose of common reading and learning. But even granted that the memory of these men was not spoiled by too much reading, as is ours, so that by hearing they were able to learn by heart—it is said of some rabbis that they did not lose one word of all their master had told them, and, in fact, the Talmudic literature was transmitted orally for centuries —nevertheless, we must assume that these Christians had their private copies of the Bible at home. The evidence from the allusions of preachers to private reading is strong. Cyprian addresses a Christian: "Your life should be one of assiduous prayer or reading (of the Bible) : now you speaking to God, now God to you."
Here begins our difficulty: how did they get so many copies? There was an organised book-trade in the ancient world; publishers had their offices, using (instead of printing-presses) slaves who were trained in copying; they had shorthand writers, as well as calligraphers to do the fine writing. But as long as Christianity was still an oppressed religion it is doubtful if the Bible was among the books which publishers would care to take. The Christians were, most of them, poor people who could not spend much money for procuring Bibles. Be-sides, it was no easy thing to get a complete Bible. At that time the books were still written on papyrus rolls, not in book form. Only one side of the papyrus could be used; the roll would become unwieldy if too long. So, in order to get all the books of the Old and the New Testament, at least two dozen rolls had to be written. Maybe a simple Christian copied for himself one gospel or some letters or even one or more books from the Old Testament. There are preserved on papyrus some unfinished at-tempts which show what hard work it was (Plate I). We can scarcely imagine a man going with this heavy hand through all the books of the Bible.
We are told that wealthy Christians helped their brethren by procuring copies for them. Origen, the greatest Bible scholar of the ancient church, is said to have been supported by a rich admirer, who put at his disposal a number of slave copyists. With their help he succeeded in creating one of the greatest works which Bible criticism ever undertook, his so-called Hexapla, which is a comparison of more than six various Greek translations of the Old Testa-ment. Scholars in the nineteenth century held that scarcely more than one copy of this enormous work had ever been written, but by recent discoveries we know that it was copied several times (Plate II). A later admirer of Origen, Pamphilus, is said always to have carried with him several rolls in order to provide poor brethren. Now that was the third century. Christianity had already begun to spread among the higher classes and to become a feature in the world's life.
Devotional reading of the Bible was accompanied by scholarly interpretation. We mentioned Origen as the greatest Bible scholar of his time, if not of all times. It may be worth while to insert here a few words on his life. A native of Alexandria, he saw as a boy his father dying as a martyr for his Christian faith; he longed to become a martyr him-self, and was only prevented from giving himself up by a trick of his mother's, who concealed all his clothes. He got a good training at the catechetical school of Alexandria, not restricting himself to mere Christian and Biblical studies, but reading the pagan philosophers of his time as well as the Greek classics, A youth of only eighteen years, he became the head of the school, and his fame spread all over the empire. He travelled to Rome, to Greece; he was even asked by the Roman governor to come to Arabia to settle certain questions. So zealous was he to fulfil the commandments of the gospel that, misunderstanding one of the Lord's sayings, he made himself a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven's sake, which brought him into trouble in his later life. When once on a journey through Palestine he, being still a layman, had preached before the bishop of Cæsarea, he was summoned by his own bishop and ordered not to preach. Some years afterward the bishop of Caesarea, who was among his strongest admirers, ordained him a priest, which caused his bishop to banish him from Alexandria. He settled at Caesarea and lived there for twenty years without ever aiming at any ecclesiastical position, pursuing his study of the Bible and gathering around his chair the best men from every part of Christianity. So great was his fame that the empress Julia Mammeea, being still a pagan, asked him to see her when she was travelling in the East. He was the one man to refute the vigorous attack made against the truth of Christian doctrine by the philosopher Celsus. When persecution began again he wrote a tractate of comfort, "On Martyrdom," and another, "On Prayer." He himself suffered imprisonment and torture, and died after his release, as a result of these sufferings, at the age of sixty-nine.
We can scarcely do honour enough to this man, who three centuries after his death was proclaimed to be one of the most dangerous heretics, the church, however, using his learning in the form of extracts. The vast amount of reading, the sagacity, and the perspicuity of the man are alike admirable. He is said to have commented upon nearly all the books of the Bible, and this three times. He wrote short annotations, he compiled large and learned commentaries, and he preached before the congregation. Only a small part of his works has come down to us, but this fills volumes. Origen's great merit is that he brought Christian interpretation to a system which enabled the church to retain the plain historical sense alongside the so-called higher meaning.
For a long time gentile philosophers as well as Jewish preachers had adopted the method of treating their sacred books allegorically. Homer, it was assumed, in telling his stories of battles of gods and heroes, meant quite another thing; otherwise he would be guilty of irreligion. He meant that the powers of nature and the energies of the human soul came into struggle, and therefore virtues and vices were fighting one with another. The same thing was done by Philo for the Old Testament. There was no real history; all was symbolical, allegory. Christianity tried to follow in this path. The gnostics indulged in the wildest form of allegory. But it was not safe to give up the idea of historicity altogether. Jesus and his gospel were historical facts, not mere ideas; they were emptied of all meaning if turned into allegory. And likewise the history of the Old Testament could not simply be reduced to allegorical metaphors. Origen saved the situation by asserting that each of these two views had its proper place.
His theory is that as man consists of body, soul, and spirit, so the holy Scripture has a threefold nature, to which corresponds a threefold interpretation. The body stands for the plain historical meaning: Jesus did cast out of the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves and the changers of money. There are some historical difficulties, Origen admits, if we compare the different gospel narratives and if we take account of the fact that a single man did this; Origen explains that it was a miracle showing the divine power in Jesus. But there are other aspects too. The soul represents the higher moral view: Christ is always casting out of his church, which belongs to the heavenly Jerusalem, the men who are profaning it by their money-making. And, lastly, there is the spirit, that is, the supreme mystical understanding. The spirit of Christ, entering its temple, the man's soul, casts out of it all earthly desires and makes it a house of prayer. Now that is very ingenious. These three strata of interpretation allow for a great variety in explanation and adaptation. Origen succeeds by this method in keeping the essential historical basis and adding what in those days was thought to be most significant. The Bible, being a divine book, seemed to require a higher form of interpretation; the Holy Ghost of God was supposed to be a spirit of mysteries; it was assumed that to interpret the Bible in a plain way was to think of God meanly.
Of course, the Bible contained some allegories which might seem to support this theory of allegorical interpretation; for instance, the beautiful vision of Ezekiel, told in the thirty-seventh chapter of his book: he sees the valley full of dry bones, and at the command of God he prophesies over them and they begin to come together, and flesh came up and skin covered them above and at last breath came into them and they lived. It is a magnificent allegory of the people of Israel, scattered in the exile and brought to life again by the power of God. It is irritating to see the fathers just at this point declining to follow the path of allegorical interpretation. They insist upon the reality of the occurrence; it is to be taken literally as resurrection of the dead —so it has influenced all mediæval pictures of the last judgment! I need only add that the rabbis took Ezekiel's description in the same way, as a real occurrence, arguing for the historicity by showing the phylacteries which the risen persons had worn—and one feels what a pity it is to treat allegory as history. But the opposite fault is still worse: the spiritualising and allegorising of real history is the greatest damage ever done to religion.
Theologians tried to establish the authority of the Bible. This had already been done in some mea-sure by the rabbis of the synagogue. In taking over the Bible the Christians had only to accept their estimate of it, but they were not quite satisfied with it. The rabbinical doctrine was a rather mechanical one: God had used men, just as a man uses a pencil to write with. The pencil does not act consciously: so the Old Testament writers, ac-cording to this theory, did not take any part in what they were writing; it was to them as another man's script. Commenting upon the last chapter of Deuteronomy, where the death of Moses is de-scribed, a rabbinical authority remarks: "Until this passage God dictated and Moses wrote; henceforth God dictated and Moses wrote weeping"—namely, the account of his own death. There was so little interest in the human author that he could be eliminated altogether. We are told by an early Jewish legend that all books of the Old Testament had been destroyed at the time of Nebuchadnezzar, when the temple was burned; so God dictated them all to Ezra. According to this theory Ezra would be the real author of the whole Old Testament. This is the most mechanical way of representing the equal inspiration of all parts of the Old Testament. The Jews of the dispersion had a somewhat similar theory about the inspiration of their Greek Bible; when Ptolemy Philadelphus, king of Egypt, gathered at Alexandria seventy elders of the Jews to make the Greek translation of their law, he put each one of them in a separate cell in order to avoid any communication between them, so the legend runs. Then, after working for seventy days, all at once they shouted "Amen" from their cells, having accomplished their task, and when the seventy copies had been compared they were found to agree even in the smallest detail. Here we have again an attempt to assert inspiration not only for the book itself but also for its translation. It is as mechanical as the former, all human cooperation being excluded.
Christians did not want this. In Jesus they had experienced living revelation; they had prophets among themselves. So, at least at the beginning, they had a much higher view of inspiration. God enters a man's soul and fills it with his spirit; now the man acts and speaks in the power of this spirit, and yet he is not unconscious of his own doing and speaking. There are two ways of inspiration, we are told by Clement of Alexandria: either God snatches up the man's soul and conducts it to the unseen world and shows to it whatever he wishes it to know—this is ecstasy—or God enters the man and fills him and makes him his organ. The latter, less striking though it appears, is nevertheless the higher and more valuable concept. Therefore the fathers do not so much use the metaphor of the pencil as the similitude of a musical instrument, whether a flute through which the Holy Spirit is playing, or a harp which he touches with a plectrum.
Much as they appreciate the holy Scripture, the early fathers usually talk about it in a very unpretentious manner. They have not yet developed those gorgeous formulas of quotation which are used in later times. They quote simply: "Scripture says," or "Paul says," not "the holy and glorious apostle in his most excellent epistle to the Romans says exceedingly well." They talk in simple words, but they are prepared even to die for this Bible.
Eusebius, the first historian of the Christian church, to whom we are indebted for so much in-valuable information, tells us a moving story about Marinus, a young Christian officer in the Roman army, at Cæsarea, in Palestine. He had the confidence of his superiors and was to be promoted to the higher rank of captain. Then out of jealousy one of his comrades denounced him as a Christian. Summoned before his colonel, he was asked if this was true, and when he confessed he was urged to abjure his faith. The colonel gave him three hours' time. So he went to the small Christian church, where he found the venerable old bishop. The bishop, hearing his story, took the Bible in one hand and the soldier's sword in the other. "This is your choice," he said. And the soldier, without hesitating, grasped the Bible, went back, and declared himself to be and to remain a Christian. And instead of receiving military promotion he became a martyr.
It is a significant little story. Indeed, after a hard struggle, lasting through nearly three centuries, when the Roman empire found it necessary to attempt the final destruction of Christianity the attack was mostly directed against the Bible. Diocletian, in 303 A. D., on the 24th of February, issued an edict ordering all Christian churches to be destroyed and all Bibles to be burned. He relied on the Roman law, which forbids not only the exercise of magical arts, but the science of magic, too, and therefore condemns all books of magic to be burned. The Christians were accused of employing magic, and their Bible was treated as a magical book.
We have thrilling accounts of Christians trying to conceal their treasured Bible rolls from the eyes of the inquiring officials. They took them from the church into their private homes, securing the Bible in safety but many a time bringing persecution upon themselves. To the officials they surrendered books of various kinds in order to escape from surrendering the Scriptures. Asked if they had sacred books in their houses, many of them would answer: "Yes, in our hearts." The enthusiasm was so great that they believed the story of any miracle in support of the Bible. They maintained that copies of the Bible which had been thrown into the fire by the heathen were not burned or even touched by the flame.
Naturally there were others who were not strong enough in their faith to resist, but these "surrenderers," as they were called, were cast out of the church and never admitted again. During the fourth century to bring against a clergyman the charge of having surrendered sacred books at that period of persecution was felt to be the most serious accusation possible. Even to be ordained by a bishop who was under suspicion of having surrendered his church's holy Scriptures was held a disgrace by a large party of zealous Christians who demanded that orders of this kind be invalidated. The records of a trial held at Carthage in 329 A. D. dealing with this question have come down to us. Here documents from 303 A. D. were introduced as evidence against the clergy, and the whole forms one of the most illuminating pages of church history.
Even to be found reading the Bible made a man guilty of obstinate resistance to the emperor's law and involved him in penalty. There was a deacon at Catania in Sicily named Euplus. He was reading the holy Scripture when the sheriff laid hold of him. Brought before the judge he takes his copy of the Gospel and reads from it (Matt. 5:10): "Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven," and (Matt. 10 : 38): "And he that doth not take his cross and follow after me, is not worthy of me." The judge asks him: "Why did you not surrender those volumes which the emperors forbade?" "Be-cause," he replies, "I am a Christian and it was not loyal to surrender. It is better to die than to surrender." We do not need the addition made by a late Byzantine hagiographer that the copy of the Gospels was hung on his neck when he was con-ducted to execution. It is clear enough that he was suffering for his devotion toward the Bible and that it was the gospel which inspired his boldness.
Euplus does not stand alone. I could mention a dozen martyrs whose acts all give the same impression. Sometimes a gathering of men and women is apprehended while reading the Bible, and the whole company is forthwith carried away to the most painful tortures.
These Christians knew what the Bible was to them. All declamations of later theologians about the inspiration and the authority of the Bible count for nothing compared with this testimony.
After all, we do not wonder that the Bible became a civilising power as soon as Christianity had won its victory.