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How the Bible Came to Be: Part 4, The Canon Becomes an Unread Relic

TitleHow the Bible Came to Be: Part 4, The Canon Becomes an Unread Relic
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1982
AuthorsRead, Lenet Hadley
Issue Number4
Date PublishedApril 1982
KeywordsBible Translation; Early Christianity; Jerome; Latin Vulgate Translation

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How the Bible Came to Be: Part 4, The Canon Becomes an Unread Relic

By Lenet H. Read

Early Christian Usage of the Scriptures

It should be obvious that all the writings which now make up the New Testament did not jump from men’s pens into leather-bound books. As with the Old Testament, the process was slow and piecemeal. Each part was written separately, and those who were fortunate enough to privately possess any scriptures probably, like Paul, would have had separate parchments or scrolls.

Precisely what was accepted as authoritative scriptures by the early Christians A.D. is uncertain. Just as the early Christians A.D. accepted as authoritative far more Hebrew records than appear in our current Old Testament, so these church members drew upon a body of Christian literature far more extensive than that contained in our current New Testament.1 The processes by which these manuscripts were sifted, with only some receiving recognition as “canon,” occurred at a much later date.2

Furthermore, the scriptures they did have were made good use of. Just as the Christians inherited their scriptures from the Jews, so also did they inherit their methods of study and learning from the Jews. As in the synagogue, so in the early Christian meetings was the reading of scriptures a primary part of learning and of worship. In both places, the scriptures held a chief place of honor. To hear them read was a major purpose for attending services.3 The fact that many members were not literate and could not read them for themselves, and the fact that copies of the scriptures were not readily available to all the members, contributed to this need for central reading.4

By the end of the second century A.D., most Christians accepted a list of certain books as authoritative, called them the New Testament, and read them in services along with the Septuagint (the Old Testament translated into Greek). Furthermore, they began to appear in codex form (book-like collections of manuscript sheets) rather than on papyrus rolls.5

But study and reading also went on in private, where possible. In fact, scripture reading was a central part of a devoted Christian’s life. The literate read to the illiterate in the privacy of their homes. Sometimes slaves read to illiterate masters. And some members attributed their conversions to the gospel to such scripture readings.6

There is also little doubt that as time passed, the scriptures themselves produced incentive for illiterate Christians to become literate. Indeed, as in Jewish families, scripture study was the basis of a family’s education, with study begun when children were yet small. From the earliest time, scripture study had been encouraged by church leaders. Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 120 to 220) wrote, “Let a man take refuge in the Church. Let him be educated in her bosom and be nourished from the Holy Scriptures. … Eat ye from every Scripture of the Lord.”7

The scriptures were memorized as well. Eusebius spoke of a blind man who “possessed whole books of the Holy Scriptures not on tables of stone, … nor on skins of beasts or on papyrus … but … in his heart, so that, as from a rich literary treasure, he could, ever as he wished, repeat now passages from the Law and the Prophets, now from the historical books, now from the Gospels and the Apostolic epistles.”8

Just as Christians from the outset had recognized that the scriptures were germane to the spiritual well-being of the Church, so also did their enemies. As opponents saw the rapid-fire spread of this new religion, they realized that its books were a key to its destruction. Therefore, as they persecuted and slew the leaders, they also sought to destroy their scriptures.9

Thus, intermittent waves of persecution, with their accompanying destruction of books, continued through the third century after Christ.10

During this time, many scriptures were sought out for destruction, particularly the community caches in the churches. For protection, the churches appointed certain individuals as custodians of their scriptural treasures. Betrayal of this responsibility was regarded as a serious transgression, with excommunication its result. While there were those who were unfaithful to their charge and under pressure betrayed their trust, so were there the faithful. Some caches of the scriptures were even buried during periods of danger, so that they might be preserved.11

But those eternal forces which seek to thwart the Lord’s work, when hedged up in one way, always seek other avenues of destruction. Thus, while at least some of the scriptures survived the onslaughts of persecution and burning, they suffered at the hands of another threat—a change in interpretation.

It is generally conceded that Christ, his Apostles, and the earliest Christian fathers interpreted the Old Testament as continual prophecy of the coming and mission of the Messiah.12 One scholar admits, begrudgingly, that “the writings of early church fathers … differ little from that of New Testament authors, in that the Old Testament was regarded as a prediction of the New Testament and Christ as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.”13 This writer goes on to explain that the early church fathers saw the Old Testament as “Christian literature,” as “parabolic throughout,” truly understood only by Christians because “everything in the Old Testament was a prototype of Christ.”14 Among the writers who used this method of interpretation were Clement of Rome (A.D. 100), Justin Martyr (ca. A.D. 155), and Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 200).15

Nevertheless, as time passed there were changes in the methods of interpretation. One individual who exerted a great influence in changing the interpretation of scripture was the Christian scholar Origen (A.D. 185–254). While Christ and his Apostles had opened the eyes of the Christians to the concept that Old Testament events were “types” or foreshadowings of Him, they never placed in question the basic realities of these events. But Origen, heavily influenced by Greek thought, came to feel that many Old Testament events were totally figurative, that there was no reality behind them. Moreover, he vastly broadened the scope of symbolic interpretation. Rather than seeing Old Testament events as types which taught specifically of Christ, he falsely saw them as more generalized “allegories” with a wide-ranging potential for interpretation. Tragically, this made it easy to read almost anything one wished into the scriptures.16

Furthermore, he, like many during his time, rejected the anthropomorphisms in the Bible, asserting that any belief that Moses really saw God must “fall into the absurdity of asserting that God is corporeal.”17 He interpreted scriptural references to immortality as meaning a “spiritual continuity” rather than a “resurrection of the physical body.”18

However, in addition to these strong and misdirected changes in methods of interpretation, Origen exerted some sound influences upon scriptural studies. He saw a necessity to seek for truly accurate original texts. Beginning a work which took him more than twenty years, called the Hexapla because of its six parts, he made comparisons of the Hebrew, Septuagint, and other Old Testament translations. However, after his death, careless scribes did not include many symbols which kept his procedure clear, and the undertaking, mammoth as it was, in the long run caused as much confusion as clarification.19

It is fundamental to know that Origen’s broadened method of interpretation and his research are generally praised by most scholars of today. They see his new interpretations as having a “lasting, liberating influence” upon biblical studies.20 Sadly, these scholars have often tended to ignore the basic realities of the events. Thus, Origen’s attempt to locate original sources was a step forward in scriptural studies, but in general his work produced a great step backward. The change of interpretation had the unfortunate result of encouraging a wide-ranging allegorical interpretation that eventually was used to discourage lay Bible reading. Consequently, in Origen’s time grew the erroneous idea that only the learned could understand the scriptures. And eventually, because “allegory” came to be the major way to interpret the scriptures, church leaders felt that only they could understand them.21 We will discover later how tragic was the movement in this direction.

By the fourth century A.D., many changes had occurred. On the one hand, outward appearances might indicate that the scriptures had triumphed. Under the influence of Constantine, the religious traditions of so-called Christianity and its holy scriptures seemed to prosper. In A.D. 332, the emperor Constantine ordered fifty sets of scripture made on vellum (animal skin), asking that they be “easy to read and conveniently portable” and stated as their purpose: “for the instruction of the church.”22

But there are also clues that these open displays of success were deceiving, and that many things were amiss. For one thing, education in general had declined in the third century, and Bible study had dwindled because church members found it boring. It wasn’t that collections of scriptural writings weren’t being made or sold; in fact, merchandising of scripture increased, and they even became popular sellers. But the purposes of possession had changed. The wealthy sought very fine and elegant copies—not to be read, but for display. In fact, some church leaders found it necessary to reprove the rich for not reading their expensive copies and to remind them that in comparison many of the poor showed more faithfulness by sharing and reading the few scriptures they’d been able to copy for themselves by hand.23

But in addition, for growing numbers of Christians the biblical records began to take on an aura of abnormal sanctity, becoming an object of superstition and even being used as a magic charm. The “lazy-minded found it easier to revere its pages than to try to understand them.”24

The political upheavals of the fifth century, such as the invasions by the Goths and Vandals, also apparently contributed to declining scriptural usage. One fifth-century theologian in Antioch commented on the situation in his time: “Of other scriptures, most men know nothing. But the Psalms are repeated … by those who know them by heart, and feel the soothing power of their divine melodies.”25

For most persons, the Psalms alone became the scriptures.

It was by the fourth century that what precisely was “official scripture” was finally decided. Athanasius (A.D. 293–373), the bishop of Alexandria, publicly listed as authoritative scripture the same twenty-seven books we have in our present New Testament. Some books whose authority scholars like Origen had questioned were included on this list—among them the books of James, Hebrews, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John. Other books that had been held dear by some early Christians were not on the list, including the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache, 1 Clement, the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Shepherd of Hermas.26

The list which Athanasius drew up was also accepted as canonical (though not without debate), by the majority of those church leaders present at the councils of Laodicea (A.D. 363), Hippo (A.D. 393), and Carthage (A.D. 397). The latter council, after much disagreement on certain books, did ratify as New Testament canon these same twenty-seven books and decreed that none besides these should be read in the churches as divine scripture.27

It should be pointed out that the questions of canonicity taken up in these councils (in particular the councils at Hippo and Carthage) pertained to Old Testament scriptures as well as New. Some scriptures of the Old Testament period which were not in the Hebrew Bible but were in the Greek Septuagint were accepted as canon by these councils, although there had also been prior disagreements about their respective worth. These became the Apocrypha, which were reaffirmed by Catholicism at the Council of Trent in 1546 and are still today a part of the Catholic scriptural body.28

But in addition to these writings which were passed on as the Apocrypha, there were others that were not passed on. In particular, apocalyptic or prophetic writings were those most often cast aside—such works as the book of Enoch, for example. Dr. Hugh Nibley points out the irony that these writings, which had been rejected as canon by Pharisaic Judaism but accepted as precious by the first Christians, were in time also rejected by later Christians.29

Jerome and the Vulgate

Obviously, any message that is to be taken to the whole world must go forth in the languages of the world. As we recall, the first set of scriptures taken abroad was the Greek Septuagint, and when the New Testament scriptures began to multiply, for the most part they were also in the Greek language. But at length the need arose to take the scriptures into Latin-speaking areas, such as northern Africa; therefore, Latin translations were made. However, these translations were not closely controlled, and before long, church leaders became concerned about the many corruptions and variances in the separate texts.

To meet this problem, Pope Damasus in A.D. 384 commissioned his secretary, Jerome, a very able scholar in Greek and Latin, to produce an acceptable version.

Jerome was extremely reluctant to undertake such a task, correctly anticipating that such a work would stir up bitter opposition. But because it was the pope who asked, he also hesitated to say no. In a response to this request, he expressed his inner turmoil:

“You have urged me to make a new work out of an old, and to sit in judgment, as it were, on the copies of the scriptures which are now scattered throughout the whole world; and, inasmuch as they differ from one another, you would have me decide which of them agree with the Greek original. This is a labor of piety, but at the same time one of dangerous presumption; for in judging others, I will myself be judged by all; and how dare I change the language of the world’s old age and carry it back to the days of its childhood? Who is there, whether learned or unlearned, who, when he takes up the volume in his hands and discovers that what he reads therein does not agree with what he is accustomed to, will not break out at once in a loud voice and call me a sacrilegious forger, for daring to add something to the ancient books, to make changes and corrections in them?

“On the other hand, there are two considerations which console me: in the first place, the order comes from you, who are the supreme pontiff; secondly, even those who speak against us have to admit that divergent readings cannot [all] be right. For if we are to pin our faith to the Latin copies, our opponents must tell us which; for there are almost as many forms of texts as there are copies. If, on the other hand, we are to search out the truth by a comparison of many, why not go back to the original Greek and correct the mistakes introduced either by inaccurate translators or by the blundering emendations of self-confident but ignorant critics, or the additions and changes made by copyists who were only half-awake?”30

And so Jerome accepted the challenge. His initial work was on the Psalms and the New Testament. As he himself said in his work, he “restrained his pen,” correcting only passages that seemed to change the meaning from their original intent and leaving the rest as they were.

The opposition that Jerome expected did arise, and indeed pursued him most of his life. Unfortunately his protector, the pope, died the year the project began, but Jerome continued the work anyway.

After his work on the New Testament was completed (a labor of five years), Jerome journeyed to Bethlehem with the intent of revising the Old Testament as well. He settled and lived there the rest of his life. One of his purposes in going to Bethlehem was to learn as much about Hebrew as he possibly could to aid him in his translation. Because of the great antipathy between Jew and Christian at that time, there was resentment from both sides toward this purpose. There were elements among the Jews who felt that any assistance toward a Christian (and gentile) Bible was traitorous, and there were already some restrictions against Jews teaching Christians. Consequently, one of those who taught him Hebrew dared not be seen with him by day and visited him only in the dark of night.31

With the help of such Jews, Jerome continued to perfect his Hebrew and to learn Aramaic and study Jewish traditions and scriptural interpretations—all those things which he felt might be helpful in producing the most correct Latin versions of the Old Testament. His work on the Old Testament was completed by A.D. 405. It was a forceful translation which relied upon his understanding of the meaning or sense of the original rather than upon the literal word-by-word translation.

From the Christian side, he was attacked very fiercely by those who felt he betrayed Christianity by seeking knowledge from the Jews and by going to the Hebrew Old Testament text for help rather than relying solely on the Greek Septuagint, which they considered of higher spiritual value. But Jerome argued (by letter and book) that Christianity’s ignorance of Hebrew was an impediment to their understanding, bred prejudice, and was even dangerous as far as establishing correct theology. His advocacy of Hebrew studies to other Christians, however, was very unsuccessful. He wrote of the fierceness of the attacks against himself, “I beg you to confront with the shields of your prayers the mad dogs who bark and rage against me and go about the city and in this think themselves learned if they disparage others.”32

Jerome saw the value of his work in these terms, making reference to the ancient Israelite wilderness tabernacle which was made both with fine and expensive materials as well as with common ones:

“I beg you, my reader, not to suppose that my labors are in any sense intended to disparage the ancient translators. For in the service of the tabernacle of God each one offers what he can: some gold and silver and precious stones, others linen and blue and scarlet; we shall do well if we offer skins and goat’s hair. And yet the Apostle [Paul] pronounces our more contemptible parts the more necessary. Accordingly, the beauty of the whole tabernacle and of its various parts … was covered with skins and goats’ hair cloths, and so the heat of the sun and the injurious rain were warded off by those things which were of less account.”33

So Jerome felt that although his contribution to scriptural accuracy was inferior to the contributions of others, yet it was a necessary and helpful step as well.

By the end of his life, the opposition toward Jerome’s work had abated somewhat. But it was a century or more before his Latin Old and New Testaments really replaced the Old Latin versions, and for many centuries thereafter there were those strong minority voices who continually raised opposition to its origins.

Nevertheless, Jerome’s Bible in time supplanted all others, though there are those who contend that in its final victorious form his translation had become substantially corrupted by others. But pronounced authentic at the Council of Trent, the Vulgate, as Jerome’s Latin Bible was known, became the Bible of the Western world for a thousand years. One writer believes that it was the pillar which preserved Europe’s spiritual and intellectual heritage against attacking waves of northern barbarism. He further points to it as the “source from which the Church has drawn the largest part of its ecclesiastical vocabulary. Terms now so familiar as to arouse no curiosity as to their origin, [such as] scripture, spirit, penance, sacrament, communion, salvation, propitiation, elements, grace, glory, conversion, discipline, sanctification, congregation, election, eternity, justification, all come from Jerome’s Bible. It is an imperishable record of that commanding genius that could so manipulate and mould the majestic but inflexible language of Rome as to make it a fit and pliant instrument for the expression … of thought, of sentiments and images.”34

But while the influence of Jerome’s work would become longlasting, during the time of its supposed glory its influence was actually quite weak—because, for the most part, it was not read.

Through the centuries that followed the translation of the Vulgate, many different forces contributed to a waning influence of the scriptures in the average Christian’s life. While the reading of the scriptures had originally been a very central part of the earliest Christian services, scripture reading was replaced with ceremony. While private scripture study was energetically encouraged by the earliest Christian priesthood, in time it was actually discouraged. “The Bible was subordinated to the church itself as custodian of the truth.”35 Substituted for the scriptures were legends about saints, and the church began to argue that since the true meaning of the scriptures was to be found in allegory, the scriptures were really too obscure for common members to comprehend. So the masses were to be kept from the “deep and obscure: and fed instead the simple and open, defined as the lives and deeds of the saints, the passions and triumphs of the martyrs, and other teaching concerning vices and virtues, … and the miseries of the damned.”36 Obviously, there was little scriptural content in such teachings.

Furthermore, the language of the Bible—Latin—and the ever-changing languages of the people became divergent; nor was there much effort to make copies of the Bible available to the people themselves. In a sense, the uniting of the Old and the New Testaments contributed to the Bible’s lack of availability. Before, certain portions might be obtained as separate parchments or scrolls. But the full latin Bible, copied by hand by monks in monasteries, could not be contained even in one volume. In spite of using a writing style that ran all the letters together and included some shorthand (for example: “THBEGINNINGOTH GOSPEL OJESUSXTHESONOGOD”), the space required for handwriting and the greater thickness of vellum increased the bulk of these copies of the Bible to two and sometimes four volumes. Such copies were rare, expensive, and very cumbersome. Because there was little motivation to produce Bibles for the masses, those made were elaborate, with covers and cover pages beautifully ornamented and gilded, and with painstaking embellishments in the copy. The effect of such labor was to make the scriptures “treasures of art” but not of knowledge.

In a sense, then, the Bible became a holy relic. It was not meant to be read or studied, for even monks came to regard its contents as “sacrosanct but ill-understood lore, a venerable mystery.”37 Its contents were no longer penetrated by eager minds, nor memorized, nor treasured by softened hearts. In general, it became an unopened enigma, only to be kissed and shallowly, superstitiously revered.

End of Part 4. To be continued.

Lenet Hadley Read, mother of five, is a Sunday School teacher in her Gainesville, Florida, ward.


  1. Hugh W. Nibley, Since Cumorah (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1967), pp. 33, 103.
  2. Fred Gladstone Bratton, A History of the Bible (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), pp. 190–95.
  3. Frederick C. Grant, Translating the Bible (Greenwich, Conn: The Seabury Press, 1961), pp. 16, 31.
  4. Geddes MacGregor, The Bible in the Making (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1959), pp. 69–70.
  5. MacGregor, pp. 61–63.
  6. MacGregor, pp. 87–88.
  7. As quoted by H. G. G. Herklots, How Our Bible Came to Us (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), p. 96.
  8. Herklots, p. 96.
  9. Harry Thomas Frank, The Bible through the Ages (New York: The World Publishing Co., 1967), p. 131; Herklots, p. 81.
  10. MacGregor, pp. 90–92.
  11. Herklots, p. 81; MacGregor, pp. 90–92.
  12. Bratton, pp. 285–89; Enid B. Mellor, The Making of the Old Testament (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1972), pp. 185–89.
  13. Bratton, p. 287.
  14. Bratton, pp. 287–88.
  15. Bratton, pp. 287–89.
  16. Mellor, pp. 188–90; Bratton, pp. 290–93.
  17. Bratton, p. 292.
  18. Bratton, pp. 292–93.
  19. Herklots, pp. 120–21.
  20. Mellor, p. 190.
  21. Margaret Deanesly, The Lollard Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1920), p. 27.
  22. Herklots, p. 82.
  23. MacGregor, pp. 90–93.
  24. MacGregor, pp. 93–94.
  25. MacGregor, p. 95.
  26. Bratton, p. 195.
  27. Bratton, p. 195.
  28. See D&C 91 for the word of the Lord to Joseph Smith concerning the Apocrypha.
  29. Nibley, p. 103.
  30. Grant, pp. 36–37.
  31. David Daiches, The King James Version of the English Bible (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1941), p. 89.
  32. Grant, p. 42.
  33. Grant, pp. 41–42.
  34. H. W. Hoare, The Evolution of the English Bible (London: John Murray, 1902), p. 236.
  35. Bratton, p. 296.
  36. Herklots, p. 46.
  37. MacGregor, p. 103.