The Bible in the Early Church
By Justo L. González
Eerdmans, pp. 204, $19.99
Review by Frank Logue
The woman sitting two seats over on the subway sits transfixed, clearly intent on whatever she is listening to with her earbuds. Author Justo Gonazález observes that she may be “listening to the prophet Isaiah — the same prophet whom the Ethiopian traveler was reading” when Philip encountered him in the Acts of the Apostles.
In The Bible in the Early Church, the professor of historical theology takes us through the many changes in how Christians have encountered our sacred texts. He takes us on the journey from the largely oral culture of the first followers of Jesus through the letters of the early Church to the scrolls, then codices, and finally mass-printed editions with 66 books divided into agreed chapters and verses across myriad translations and editions.
But at the heart of this history of Scripture is the United Methodist minister in the making who marched into church with his family through his childhood. He carried with him each week his own Bible, a book that was nearly as big as he was when he first hefted it.
That image of the younger Justo with his beloved Bible fits well with the story of Scripture he tells. This book is about the Christians who valued these stories as their story and passed them on to later generations.
The Bible was first a book designed for worship. Deciding what books would comprise Scripture for the Christian community was determined based on what should be read in the liturgy. These were not academic texts to use in debating theology, but witnesses to the faith intended for reading and commentary in the context of worship. This reading was communal rather than familial, as Christianity was first a fringe sect and believers could be disowned by their families after conversion.
Encountering the texts of the Bible happened almost exclusively within Christian community, rather than individual reading, for centuries. Most Christians would only ever hear Scripture read, as they were either not able to read for themselves or not wealthy enough to procure a copy of the Bible.
Some Scripture would be repeated in worship frequently enough for the faithful to memorize those passages, so that the Lord’s Prayer, the Magnificat, and the Nunc Dimittis might be the Scripture written on one’s heart. Other stories would be kept fresh in mind, first through mosaics and frescoes, and later in stained glass as churches became storybooks.
After showing us how the Bible we have emerged into its present shape, together with its use by the Christian community in worship, education, and shaping social order, he turns to interpretation. Here he makes general observations about the history of interpretation, including examples of prophetic, typological, and allegorical interpretations. Then he moves to three specific texts and their interpretation over time: Creation, the Exodus, and the Word (Logos) in the Gospel of John.
González gently demonstrates how we should shrink back from overconfident interpretations that do not leave us open to further transformation. He observes that history makes it painfully clear that “having the word of God at hand does not make us infallible.”
Writing in the ninth decade of his life, the author sees Scripture as his lifelong companion and tells of his one certainty that “generations pass, nations pass, ideologies pass, pandemics pass … but this Bible that has accompanied me from my childhood shall not pass.”
I enjoyed the autobiographical journey of an able scholar who maintains the delight of the boy who proudly carried his big Bible into worship.
The Rt. Rev. Frank Logue is Bishop of Georgia.