Here’s some more gleanings from my study of the New Testament Canon.
One idea that floats around about modern Christianity is that it’s too much about “a book.” (One time I read this kind of criticism of “Bible-anity” on a musician’s blog.) Along with this idea usually comes the assertion that the first Christians were all about passing along an oral message; the growing attention to a book was a betrayal of the roots of our faith.
I’m finding all kinds of historical studies that show that this concept of early Christianity just isn’t accurate. for instance, here’s this piece by Michael Kruger, called “Manuscripts, Scribes, and Book Production Within Early Christianity.” He points out that the actual evidence we have from the first few generations after Christ shows a very different story:
At its core, early Christianity was a religion concerned with books. From the very beginning, Christians were committed to the books of the Hebrew Scriptures and saw them as paradigmatic for understanding the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.
The apostle Paul was so immersed in the Old Testament writings that he even conceived of the resurrection of Jesus “according to the Scriptures” (1Cor 15:3–4).1 The Pauline use of books (particularly Old Testament books) in the course of his ministry is borne out in passages like 2 Timothy 4:13 where Timothy is urged to “bring…my scrolls, especially the parchments.” Moreover, gospel accounts like those of Matthew and John, as well as books like James and Hebrews, exhibit similar indebtedness to the Old Testament, often citing from it directly and extensively. Such intimate connections between the earliest Christian movement and the Old Testament writings led Harry Gamble to declare, “Indeed it is almost impossible to imagine an early Christianity that was not constructed upon the foundations of Jewish Scripture.”
Of course, it was not only the Old Testament books that mattered to early Christianity. At a very early point, Christians also began to produce their own writings—gospels, letters, sermons, prophetic literature, and more… Indeed, Christianity was distinguished from the surrounding religions in the Greco-Roman world precisely by its prolific production of literature and its commitment to an authoritative body of Scripture as its foundation. Even by the end of the second century, a core collection of “New Testament” books was functioning as Scripture within early Christianity and was being read in public worship alongside the Old Testament writings (Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 67.3).6 So prominent were these scriptural books for Christians that even their pagan critics—like Lucian of Samosata in the opening quote above—noted the Christian predilection for writing (and using) books and thus were forced to reckon with these books in their anti-Christian attacks. All of these factors indicate that the emerging Christian movement, like its Jewish counterpart, would be defined and shaped for generations to come by the same means: the production and use of books.
He ends with this:
… earliest Christianity was not a religion concerned only with oral tradition or public proclamation, but was also shaped by, and found its identity within, a vivid “textual culture” committed to writing, editing, copying, and distributing Christian books, whether scriptural or otherwise. When the form and structure of these books is considered, and not just the content within, a more vivid picture of the early Christian literary culture begins to emerge. From a very early point, Christians not only had an interest in books, but had a relatively well-developed social and scribal network— as seen in conventions like the codex and nomina sacra—whereby those books could be copied, edited, and disseminated throughout the empire.
Indeed, it is just this rapid transfer of literature that set early Christians apart from their surrounding Greco-Roman world, and set the early church on the path toward eventually establishing a collection of “canonical” books that would form the church’s literary foundation for generations to come.
You can download the whole thing to read here.