The New Testament
The New Testament was written in Greek from approximately AD 50-95. These books were written by Jesus’ disciples and their disciples.
The Gospels form the core of the NT, having been passed on orally until the second half of the first century, when they were written down. Once the apostles began to get martyred more frequently, it is likely that these were written down so that the stories of Jesus wouldn’t get lost.
The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) all appear to have been formed from similar sources, as these have many passages in common with each other. They are named thus because they “see” Jesus’ life and ministry “the same way,” having a similar order of teachings and stories. John was written much later, perhaps in an attempt to fill in the gaps of the other three and emphasize what hadn’t been fully emphasized in the Synoptics.
Acts is a continuation of the Gospel according to St. Luke, and is a history of the early Church, focusing mostly on Sts. Peter and Paul.
The epistles (“letters”) of St. Paul form the bulk of the rest of the NT, being written to different churches with a number of purposes: theological teachings, Christianity’s relationship to the Old Covenant, disciplinary issues, moral exhortation, etc.
The other writings deal largely with theological and practical issues in churches.
Revelation is an apocalyptical book, i.e., focusing on the end times, following the tradition of such books in the OT as Ezekiel and Daniel, among others.
The Canonization of the New Testament
Already in 2 Peter 3:15, Paul’s writings were given the same authoritative weight as the rest of the Scriptures, that is, the Old Testament. The Early Church had no “Bible,” but a collection of individual writings that circulated throughout the churches. Some of St. Paul’s letters were meant to be circulated to a particular area.
Bear in mind that printing wasn’t the same as it is now: everything had to be copied by hand, and this was quite a laborious process. Also, the paper they usually used, known as vellum (flattened sheep guts), was very expensive: it would take several hundred sheep to produce one Bible.
Books of the Bible originally circulated individually. Only churches would have complete sections of the Bible.
There were also many books that disagreed with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, known as Gnostic works. The Gnostics were a pseudo-Christian sect that denied the Incarnation (flesh=bad; spirit=good). These books were never lost (contrary to popular imagination and many TV specials), but Christians were dissuaded from reading them because they are spiritually harmful.
The books that were chosen as canonical agreed with that which the Church had been taught by Christ and had been passed down by the Apostles. These teachings, sometimes written and sometimes oral, are referred to as Holy Tradition. Holy Tradition is sometimes defined as “the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.”
If a book disagreed with Holy Tradition, it was viewed as being alien to the Church’s teachings and their experience of God.
The Early Church was content to use the books in the OT and NT that it found authoritative, rejecting some books, yet not drawing up a list of accepted, canonical books. That would all change: in the second century (mid-100s), a man named Marcion claimed that the God of the NT was NOT the God of the Old Testament. His reasoning is that the God of the OT is wrathful, angry, destructive, while the God of the NT is loving and peaceful. Therefore, he taught that the OT should not be read at all. He also restricted his NT list of books to just a small handful that weren’t “Jewish.” His influence would continue through at least the 4th century, and many Fathers wrote against his teachings.
The Church reacted by drawing up its own lists of authoritative books. This process would continue for over 200 years after Marcion’s death, with the first full list of books of the NT we would recognize as our canon being written by St. Athanasius the Great in an encyclical in 367. This list would be finally approved by the Church at the Council of Carthage in 397.
The Bible: The Church’s Book
Remember that the Bible is the record of the experience of God, not the experience itself. The Bible was written by the Church as a record of the interactions between God and the People of God (formerly just Israel, now the Church, the True Israel). Every word in the Scripture presupposes faith in God. It is not an isolated manuscript, the fruit of scientific or historical research, but the faith document of a specific community defined in terms of its relationship with God. The Bible never belonged to isolated individuals, but to the community of faith.
Yet, the Bible is not the sole receptacle of the Church’s teachings, for the Bible was written and its books chosen by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Church, therefore, has maintained its own interpretive perspective(s) toward the Scriptures, found in the Divine Services, the writings of the Fathers, and the teachings of the bishops.
The Bible is the Church’s book, not our highest spiritual authority—our highest spiritual authority is God Himself. God did not become a book, He became a man, and revealed the Father to us in His own divine-human person. Though we sometimes refer to the Bible as the Word of God, it is perhaps more accurate to say that the Bible is the word about the Word of God, Jesus Christ. And as the Church is His Body, so does revelation not solely come from a book, but from the Body of Christ gathered around His mystical Body and Blood.
The Orthodox Church holds to Scripture in Tradition—the life of the Church in the Holy Spirit—which preceded the Bible and which wrote, canonized, and interprets the Bible.
A Note on Translations
The Orthodox Study Bible is the best resource for Orthodox Christians who want to read and understand the Bible. There are many notes that interpret Scripture according to Orthodox teaching and show the connections between the sacramental/ascetic/liturgical life of the Church and the Scriptures. In this version, the Old Testament is from the Septuagint, while the New Testament is in the New King James Version.
Not all Bible translations are created equal. See http://dce.oca.org/resource/272/ for the OCA’s Department of Religious Education’s assessment of many modern translations.
Jumping into the Bible
An excellent introduction to the Bible is Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s article, “How to Read the Bible,” found on pp. 1757-1766 in the Orthodox Study Bible.
A good approach to reading the Bible for the first time would be to start with the Gospels. These are the core of the Bible. Acts would be a good next read, being the story of Jesus’ Ascension and then the work of the Holy Spirit in the apostles and the Early Church.
Romans is tough, so it might be wise to skip to 1 Corinthians. The rest of the New Testament would be a good next choice, stopping at Revelation. This book has been misunderstood since the Early Church and is quite difficult to follow sometimes. It might be best left alone until the reader has more familiarity with the Old and New Testaments.
For the Old Testament, it’s a good idea to form a reading plan with one’s parish priest. The Psalms have been part of the Church’s prayer since the Early Church, so praying the Psalms in one’s morning and/or evening prayers is a great thing to do.
St. Seraphim said that we should “swim in the Lord’s law.” So jump in! This is what he writes:
“One should nourish the soul with the word of God: for the word of God, as St. Gregory the Theologian says, is angelic bread, by which are nourished souls that hunger for God. Most of all one should occupy oneself with reading the New Testament and the Psalter, which one should do standing up. From this there occurs an enlightenment in the mind, which is changed by a Divine change.
One should habituate oneself in this way so that the mind might as it were swim in the Lord’s law; it is under the guidance of this law that one should direct one’s life.
It is very profitable to occupy oneself with reading the word of God in solitude, and to read the whole Bible intelligently. For one such occupation alone, apart from good deeds, the Lord will not leave a person without His mercy, but will fill him with the gift of understanding.
And when a man nourishes his soul with the word of God, there is realized [in him] an understanding of what is good and evil.
The reading of the word of God should be performed in solitude, in order that the whole mind of the reader might be plunged into the truths of the Holy Scripture, and that from this he might receive warmth, which in solitude produces tears; from these a man is wholly warmed and is filled with spiritual gifts, which rejoice the mind and heart more than any word.
One should likewise nourish the soul also with knowledge of the Church: how she has been preserved from the beginning up to the present, what she has endured in one or another time; but one should know this not so as to desire to direct people, but in case one should encounter powerful opposition.
Most of all one should do this strictly for himself, so as to acquire peace of soul, according to the teaching of the Psalmist: Great peace have those who love Thy law, O Lord (Ps. 118:165 LXX).”
From Little Russian Philokalia. Volume 1: St. Seraphim of Sarov. Saint Herman of Alaska Brotherhood. Platina, California. 1980. Pp. 43-44.