The sacred texts for Jesus, John the Baptist, Paul, the disciples, and all Jews and early Christians were the Jewish Scriptures. Jesus interpreted these scriptures in ways that pushed them beyond their commonly understood meaning. Early Christians used the Old Testament largely to prove that Jesus was the Messiah, searching texts for parallels to his life, teachings, death and resurrection. The texts were not valued for much more than this, which gave rise to major debates among early Christians about whether the Jewish Scriptures were important to the Christian message, and how.
Meanwhile, Jews were experiencing internal divisions and the upsurge of new writings claiming to be sacred. With the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, Jewish focus shifted from the sacrificial practices of the priestly tradition to the rabbinic teaching and interpretation of scriptures. A decades-long process called the Council of Jamnia convened Jewish teachers who debated which texts were holy enough to be authoritative. All the rabbis' interpretations were considered valuable and therefore were written down, building extensive commentaries without selecting any one right opinion. Halakic teaching provided Jews with guidance on how to live the law and what to do when two laws seemed to be in conflict. The Haggadah was a collection of stories, details, characters and elaborations to interpret scriptural accounts. The Mishnah originated as oral laws that were put into writing in the first century. The Talmud developed as a commentary on the Mishnah. These writings became second only to the Torah in the life of Jews.
Christian texts developed after the death and resurrection of Jesus, following a generation of oral accounts. The earliest written were Paul's letters of advice and exhortation. The Gospels were written after the destruction of the Temple, and along with later epistles like James and Timothy, marked a shift from belief in the imminent return of Jesus to not knowing when he would come back. This uncertainty strengthened the need to write down the stories and teachings of Jesus. Scholars speculate that Mark's Gospel was written first, and that there may have been a collection of Jesus's sayings that served as another source for Matthew and Luke. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke share a similar outlook and are called the Synoptic Gospels. John's Gospel differs from them in outlook, style, and theology.
As the stories were written down, the theological diversity in the early church came into focus. Debates about the nature of Jesus and the gospel message surfaced powerfully. More documents were written to express diverse theological opinions. Some writers rejected the Hebrew Scriptures; others rejected the humanness of Jesus; still others rejected his identity as God. As the church became more structured and institutional, its leaders sought to resolve the early diversity of opinions into an organized, official body of teaching, which became known as orthodoxy, or "right opinion." Other teachings were rejected as false, labeled "heresy," and vigorously attacked by orthodox leaders. The debates against heretical teachings led church leaders to hold councils of theologians to decide what beliefs were true, and which writings expressed those beliefs and could therefore be considered authoritative as Scripture. These councils decided the canon of Scripture and official church doctrine.
One prominent early heresy was Gnosticism, which believed that truth was held as secret knowledge. Gnostic Christians believed that Jesus imparted secret knowledge to his disciples, who shared it with their initiates. Gnostic writings were suppressed by the developing institutional church, but a collection of them turned up in Egypt in the 1940s, the Nag Hammadi library.
Besides the struggles against false teachings, the early church also met with political problems, chiefly persecutions. These occurred off and on from about A.D. 100 until the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion, around 313. After that, persecution was directed toward non-Christians and heretical Christians, although sometimes "orthodoxy" and "heresy" were decided by the Emperor, not theologians. By the year 400, the canon of Scripture that we know today was established within the contexts of an established, orthodox church and a powerful imperial government.
An excerpt from The Bible the Book the Bridges the Millennia by Maxine Clarke Beach Copyright © 1998 Maxine Clarke Beach.