Published by Eerdmans on March 8, 2022
Genres: Non-Fiction, Theology
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A concise history of the Bible: its creation, use, and interpretation.
What is the Bible? To answer this question we must understand the Bible’s origins in the early church. In this book, celebrated church historian Justo González introduces the reader to some important features of the earliest Bibles—for instance, the Bible’s original languages, its division into chapters and verses, and even its physical appearance in its first forms. González also explores the use of the Bible in the early church (such as in worship or in private reading) and the interpretation of the Bible throughout the ensuing centuries, giving readers a holistic sense of the Bible’s emergence as the keystone of Christian life, from its beginnings to present times.
Justo Gonzalez is a one of the most influential Hispanic theologians in Church history. He’s a prolific author and church historian, and his contributions to the development of Latin American theology is unparalleled. I had mainly known of him through The Story of Christianity, a two-volume church history that was the textbook for pretty much any undergraduate church history class worth anything. Now in his 80s, I didn’t realize that Gonzalez would still be producing new work. But here’s The Bible in the Early Church, an introductory primer to the history of Scripture.
Gonzalez divides the book into three parts: The Shape, The Use, and The Interpretation. A lot of discussion of the Bible in history focuses on interpretation, so I appreciate that Gonzalez steps back to give readers insight on some of the practicalities of how Scripture was kept, transmitted, read, and experienced throughout history. Understanding how the early church experienced Scripture helps us understand Scripture better today. For example, The Bible in the Early Church talks about how the New Testament letters would have been read aloud in their entirety to a congregation. Sure, ok, that makes sense and I knew that. He goes on to talk about the important role that Scripture reading had in the Early Church. Today, Scripture reading is individual and personal. But to the Early Church, where there would not have been much literacy, the work of the reader is public and necessary. The reader literally becomes the mouthpiece of God as the only way the people experience Scripture. That’s a paradigmatic shift from how we think about Scripture reading today.
The Bible in the Early Church also has an entire chapter on the evolution of chapter and verse headings in the Bible, along with when and how they became standardized. Gonzalez notes that while these notations made finding a particular passage easier, it also created divisions in the text that made it more difficult to intuitively read Scripture in its literary context. Neither of these examples are necessarily big things, but they are very interesting and helps us see how people throughout the centuries approached the Bible.
Gonzalez makes extensive use of primary sources, relying on the early church for his information. He navigates resources with an ease that can only come with over a half-century of expertise. The Bible in the Early Church is accessible, readable, and compelling. It’s perfect for undergraduate studies. I’d even use it in youth groups and adult small groups in churches. It presents academic information, but in a way that the average person will want to stay tuned in. A perfect introductory primer to the history of Scripture.