The Bible that Never Existed
The common understanding of Christianity and the Bible, including polemics about literal and non-literal interpretation, is based on a deeply rooted misconception in modern thinking that Christianity is supposed to be based on the Bible, in the sense of deriving from it. This is a specifically Protestant idea, and has nothing to do with the history of how the New Testament came into existence, nor to do with the belief and practice of the non-Protestant Apostolic Churches.
Because Christianity emerged out of the Jewish world, it incorporated the Old Testament from the beginning. In the first century, Christians, both Jewish and Gentile, accepted the Jewish Scriptures. But the Christian tradition itself was a purely oral one. The authority behind this tradition lay in the Apostles, people who had or claimed to have a direct connection to Jesus himself. When one of them, Saint Paul, began rolling out a string of letters, they were addressed to “churches” of people he had personally converted. The letters were not revelatory manifestos inviting people into a religion, they were addenda to a religion that was already well established. The only authority they bore was that of the Apostle himself, a perspective not at odds with his personality.
These letters and other writings eventually began to take on a life of their own. The reason for this was pragmatic. Since the apocalypse ended up taking longer than they expected, the Christian communities outlived the Apostolic authorities, leaving them in an epistemological dilemma. In order to adapt, the authority of the Apostles had to be preserved. They strove to preserve it in two fundamental forms. One was the human form, the emergence of the institutionalized Church and the clerical hierarchy. Irrespective of how well it really represented the Apostles, the Church became the basis of the Christian Tradition, the post-apostolic source of religious belief and practice. Then there was the written form, since at least one apostle, Paul, had conveniently left behind a written record of his views. This and other documents touting apostolic authorship provided an especially concrete doctrinal resource, and became regarded as divinely inspired. But practically speaking their authority was subordinate to that of the Priests and Bishops who represented the religion of the Risen Christ on Earth.
Over the next few centuries, this notion of divinely inspired Christian writings evolved into a canon of sacred scripture called the New Testament. It would consist of 27 documents officially registered as the “Word of God”, finally establishing what we call the Christian Bible. To be fair, the reasons for the emergence of the New Testament are not clear cut, but it served one crucial purpose: to distinguish the officially recognized fundamental Christian beliefs from heresy. In the second century, an esoteric wing of Christianity emerged claiming secret knowledge, a sort of antique New Age movement called Gnosticism. These and other alternative Christianities made rather bizarre claims. Jesus was a hologram and the crucifixion was a hoax. The world was created by an evil demigod named Yahweh. etc.. The writings to be included in the New Testament were carefully screened to be free of such evident corruptions, to define the outermost boundaries of authentic Christian belief. These are so basic that even the most diverse of purportedly Christian groups today hold them in common. There is one God, his “son” was a person who died and came back, etc.. It was up to the ecumenical councils to define the more particular essentials of belief. Jesus is God. God is a Trinity. etc..
To summarize, the development of the New Testament and therefore the Christian Bible involved three phases. First, the writing of the documents in the Apostolic era. Second, the documents acquiring divinely inspired status. And third, the distinguishing and grouping together of the documents into a canon. The key point is that none of these phases reflect the “religion of the book” thesis, the idea of “ye accept the teachings of this book and be saved” that we hear from Bible bashers today. The Church of Antiquity did not believe in the Resurrection of Jesus, for example, because it was in the Bible. Rather, the Resurrection was in the Bible because it was believed by the Church of Antiquity. And in the modern world, historically conscious Christians, especially Tradition-centric ones, such as the Orthodox, have no illusions to the contrary. They don’t see their religion as “based on the Bible” and in that respect are simply accurate reflections of the Early Church, the people who created the Christian Bible.
It was in Protestantism, some five centuries ago, that the foundational significance of scripture for Christianity was asserted. From the a priori normativity of this assertion they could define Catholicism as a corruption. Thus is the circular reasoning implied in the maxim “sola scriptura”. But this circular reasoning was not just adopted by future Protestants. It came to dominate the imagination of the entirety of western culture even today. In other words, the Protestants managed to dupe the entire modern western secular world into believing that the normative standard that they asserted was correct.
Thus we hear atheists say that people such as the evangelicals are better Christians than Catholics because they actually “read their bible”. But who says that this standard of judgment is correct? The answer: Martin Luther. Thus we see people on the internet quoting the Bible as if in doing so they’re somehow challenging or faulting Christianity. But in reality the joke is on them. They have accepted the Protestant position without even knowing it, and believed without basis that all Christians are supposed to conform to it. They are oblivious to the radical difference between Catholic and Protestant because their understanding of Christianity is thoroughly Protestant.
But how well do Catholics understand this? Nowhere is modern western society immune to the intellectual effects of the Reformation, and the change in Catholicism at the time was profound. Have Catholics also accepted the Protestant premise at some level? Some of them aren’t Bible-centric merely because they substitute other magic texts such as the Summa Theologica. Many seem not to get the point because they assume the fundamental issue is interpretation. They complain about atheists taking scripture literally. But while insisting on a literal interpretation is certainly not a sign of profound intelligence, it is not the heart of the problem. In fact, I have purposefully kept the issue of literalism out of my argument because it has been trampled to death and does not concern me in this context.
The heart of the problem is a myth about what scripture is interpreted for. People think of the Bible as like a zip file, from which all the essentials of said religion are meant to be unpacked. As far as the historical creators of the Bible are concerned, a better analogy would be the human genome, which is not meaningful in isolation, but must be part of a dynamic living organism. That organism is Tradition, of which scripture is merely a part. A privileged part to be sure, but a part nonetheless. In apostolic Christianity, which before the 16th century simply meant Christianity, the foundation of belief and practice is the whole of Tradition. That is what “the religion is meant to be based on”, the epistemological function that the uninformed modern-world erroneously, and somewhat stupidly, attributes to that little black book we call the Bible.