The Scriptures were in very early times collected into a distinct volume.
Ignatius, who was bishop of Antioch within forty years after the Ascension, and who had lived and conversed with the apostles, speaks of the Gospel and of the apostles in terms which render it very probable that he meant by the Gospel the book or volume of the Gospels, and by the apostles the book or volume of their Epistles. His words in one place are, (Lardner, Cred. part ii. vol. i. p.180.) |Fleeing to the Gospel as the flesh of Jesus, and to the apostles as the presbytery of the church;| that is, as Le Clere interprets them, |in order to understand the will of God, he fled to the Gospels, which he believed no less than if Christ in the flesh had been speaking to him; and to the writings of the apostles, whom he esteemed as the presbytery of the whole Christian church.| It must be observed, that about eighty years after this we have direct proof, in the writings of Clement of Alexandria, (Lardner, Cred. part ii. vol. ii. p.516.) that these two names, |Gospel,| and |Apostles,| were the names by which the writings of the New Testament, and the division of these writings, were usually expressed.
Another passage from Ignatius is the following: -- |But the Gospel has somewhat in it more excellent, the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ, his passion and resurrection.| (Lardner, Cred. part ii. vol. ii. p.182.)
And a third: |Ye ought to hearken to the Prophets, but especially to the gospel, in which the passion has been manifested to us, and the resurrection perfected.| In this last passage, the Prophets and the Gospel are put in conjunction; and as Ignatius undoubtedly meant by the prophets a collection of writings, it is probable that he meant the same by the Gospel, the two terms standing in evident parallelism with each other.
This interpretation of the word |Gospel,| in the passages above quoted from Ignatius, is confirmed by a piece of nearly equal antiquity, the relation of the martyrdom of Polycarp by the church of Smyrna. |All things,| say they, |that went before, were done, that the Lord might show us a martyrdom according to the Gospel, for he expected to be delivered up as the Lord also did.| (Ignat. Ep. c. i.) And in another place, |We do not commend those who offer themselves, forasmuch as the Gospel, teaches us no such thing.| (Ignat. Ep. c. iv.) In both these places, what is called the Gospel seems to be the history of Jesus Christ, and of his doctrine.
If this be the true sense of the passages, they are not only evidences of our proposition, by strong and very ancient proofs of the high esteem in which the books of the New Testament were holden.
II. Eusebius relates, that Quadratus and some others, who were the immediate successors of the apostles, travelling abroad to preach Christ, carried the Gospels with them, and delivered them to their converts. The words of Eusebius are: |Then travelling abroad, they performed the work of evangelists, being ambitious to preach Christ, and deliver the Scripture of the divine Gospels.| (Lardner, Cred. part ii. vol. i. p.236.) Eusebius had before him the writings both of Quadratus himself, and of many others of that age, which are now lost. It is reasonable, therefore to believe that he had good grounds for his assertion. What is thus recorded of the Gospels took place within sixty, or at the most seventy, years after they were published: and it is evident that they must, before this time (and, it is probable, long before this time), have been in general use and in high esteem in the churches planted by the apostles, inasmuch as they were now, we find, collected into a volume: and the immediate successors of the apostles, they who preached the religion of Christ to those who had not already heard it, carried the volume with them, and delivered it to their converts.
III. Irenaeus, in the year 178, (Lardner, Cred. part ii. vol. i. p.383.) puts the evangelic and apostolic writings in connexion with the Law and the Prophets, manifestly intending by the one a code or collection of Christian sacred writings, as the other expressed the code or collection of Jewish sacred writings. And,
IV. Melito, at this time bishop of Sardis, writing to one Onesimus, tells his correspondent, (Lardner, Cred. vol. i. p.331.) that he had procured an accurate account of the books of the Old Testament. The occurrence in this message of the term Old Testament has been brought to prove, and it certainly does prove, that there was then a volume or collection of writings called the New Testament.
V. In the time of Clement of Alexandria, about fifteen years after the last quoted testimony, it is apparent that the Christian Scriptures were divided into two parts, under the general titles of the Gospels and Apostles; and that both these were regarded as of the highest authority. One out of many expressions of Clement, alluding to this distribution, is the following: |There is a consent and harmony between the Law and the Prophets, the Apostles and the Gospel.| (Lardner, Cred. vol. ii. p.516.)
VI. The same division, |Prophets, Gospels, and Apostles,| appears in Tertullian, the contemporary of Clement. The collection of the Gospels is likewise called by this writer the |Evangelic Instrument;| the whole volume the |New Testament;| and the two parts, the |Gospels and Apostles.| (Lardner, Cred. vol. ii. pp.631, 574 & 632.)
VII. From many writers also of the third century, and especially from Cyprian, who lived in the middle of it, it is collected that the Christian Scriptures were divided into two cedes or volumes, one called the |Gospels or Scriptures of the Lord,| the other the |Apostles, or Epistles of the Apostles| (Lardner, Cred. vol. iv. p.846.)
VIII. Eusebius, as we have already seen, takes some pains to show that the Gospel of Saint John had been justly placed by the ancients, |the fourth in order, and after the other three.| (Lardner, Cred. vol. viii. p.90.) These are the terms of his proposition: and the very introduction of such an argument proves incontestably, that the four Gospels had been collected into a volume, to the exclusion of every other: that their order in the volume had been adjusted with much consideration; and that this had been done by those who were called ancients in the time of Eusebius.
In the Diocletian persecution, in the year 303, the Scriptures were sought out and burnt: (Lardner, Cred. vol. vii. pp.214 et seq.) many suffered death rather than deliver them up; and those who betrayed them to the persecutors were accounted as lapsed and apostate. On the other hand, Constantine, after his conversion, gave directions for multiplying copies of the Divine Oracles, and for magnificently adorning them at the expense of the imperial treasury. (Lardner, Cred. vol. vii. p.432.) What the Christians of that age so richly embellished in their prosperity, and, which is more, so tenaciously preserved under persecution, was the very volume of the New Testament which we now read.