The New Testament is a collection of 27 books that was not called the New Testament until about AD 208. Early versions of the canon had some books that are not now included and lacked some books that are now included.
What may be more surprising to a modern reader is that they were not collected together in their present number and order until the late 4th century AD, almost 250 years after some of them were written. Only six of the 27 books were likely written with the intent that they would become a book of scripture. The rest were occasional letters written to churches and people to respond to questions or to correct particular problems members of the Church were having in the 1st century AD, almost 2000 years ago.
It is no small matter to try to place ourselves in the mindset of people living two thousand years ago, with all of the cultural assumptions and linguistic differences that separate us. Imagine for a moment that you were walking through Greece in about AD 150. You pass a home on a Sunday. A lot of people seem to be meeting there, and a rather earnest young person is speaking to the group. You overhear him say the following:
Ἰδού, ἐγὼ ἀποστέλλω ὑμᾶς ὡς πρόβατα ἐν μέσῳ λύκων· γίνεσθε οὖν φρόνιμοι ὡς οἱ ὄφεις καὶ ἀκέραιοι ὡς αἱ περιστεραί (Matthew 10:16).
What would you think?
You would probably think—That’s Greek to me!—and you’d be right. Then in our time-travel fantasy a man comes along who understands koine Greek and can also speak English. He explains that the young man was quoting the founder of his church who said:
“Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”
That sounds like someone was advocating that some people, who were being sent out to act like sheep, should take on some of the attributes of snakes and birds to protect themselves from wolves. Right? Sort of.
We needed a translation, there’s no doubt about that, but that’s not enough. We also need to know what those people thought about wolves, sheep, snakes, and doves in their culture. There’s obviously a metaphor going on in the quotation, but it isn’t immediately evident what it might mean. Who was being sent and who were the wolves and why were they wolves? The statement is intertwined with history and there is a whole social context behind the translation. It’s not enough to know only the words.
The Church of the apostles used the Hebrew Bible—the Old Testament—as their scripture. They did not have the Gospels or any other books that we would recognize as the New Testament. Their teachings about Jesus and what He taught were memorized and passed on orally. Some churches had copies of Paul’s letters, and perhaps letters from other apostles that they regarded as authoritative and were therefore shared.
The scripture the early Christian Church used was called the Septuagint (LXX). It was a translation of the Hebrew Bible in Greek. It had been translated and compiled in Egypt by Jews living there about three hundred years before. Eastern Christian churches, such as the Greek Orthodox Church, still use the Septuagint as their official Bible.
Ptolemy II, one of the early ethnic Greek Pharaohs of Egypt, asked the Jewish scholars of Alexandria to produce a Greek translation of the five books of Moses (the Torah) for the great library at Alexandria. According to tradition seventy scholars went to work on it, and it is thus called the Septuagint (a Greek word meaning Seventy often written LXX as an abbreviation).
The story was that each of the seventy worked independently and when they compared their efforts when they were finished, all seventy translations were identical. This was likely a story created to calm the worries of pious Jews that any translation would have altered God’s words to Moses which had been originally written in Hebrew. The miracle story instilled general confidence in the work. Other books of the Old Testament were translated into Greek at about the same time.
The Jews had the texts on separate scrolls that made up the Hebrew Bible. These scrolls were written in Hebrew, but the Greek version (LXX) was the only codex or book that had the Old Testament writings all bound together as a Bible—which is another Greek word for a collection of books. It was fully another two to three hundred years after Jesus’ mortal life that the books found in the New Testament were assembled in a compiled book that was regarded as complete and accepted as binding scripture—an addition to that Bible.
. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, et. al. (Ed.) The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol., Abingdon Press, 2008.
. Brown, Raymond E., Fitzmeyer, Joseph A., Murphy, Roland E. (ed.) New Jerome Biblical Commentary; Prentice Hall; 1990.
. Carson, D.A., et. al. (ed), New International Version: Biblical Theology Study Bible, Zondervan Press, 2011.