Our Scriptures were publicly read and expounded in the religious assemblies of the early Christians. Justin MARTYR, who wrote in the year 140, which was seventy or eighty years after some, and less, probably, after others of the Gospels were published, giving, in his first apology an account, to the Emperor, of the Christian worship has this remarkable passage:
|The Memoirs of the Apostles, or the Writings of the Prophets, are read according as the time allows: and, when the reader has ended, the president makes a discourse, exhorting to the imitation of so excellent things.| (Lardner, Cred. vol. i. p.273.)
A few short observations will show the value of this testimony.
1. The |Memoirs of the Apostles,| Justin in another place expressly tells us, are what are called |Gospels:| and that they were the Gospels which we now use, is made certain by Justin's numerous quotations of them, and his silence about any others.
2. Justin describes the general usage of the Christian church.
3. Justin does not speak of it as recent or newly instituted, but in the terms in which men speak of established customs.
II. Tertullian, who followed Justin at the distance of about fifty years, in his account of the religious assemblies of Christians as they were conducted in his time, says, |We come together to recollect the Divine Scriptures; we nourish our faith, raise our hope, confirm our trust, by the Sacred Word.| (Lardner, Cred. vol. ii. p.628.)
III. Eusebius records of Origen, and cites for his authority the letters of bishops contemporary with Origen, that when he went into Palestine about the year 216, which was only sixteen years after the date of Tertullian's testimony, he was desired by the bishops of that country to discourse and expound the Scriptures publicly in the church, though he was not yet ordained a presbyter. (Lardner, Cred. vol. iii. p.68.) This anecdote recognises the usage, not only of reading, but of expounding the Scriptures; and both as subsisting in full force. Origen also himself bears witness to the same practice: |This,| says he, |we do, when the Scriptures are read in the church, and when the discourse for explication is delivered to the people.| (Lardner, Cred. vol. iii. p.302.) And what is a still more ample testimony, many homilies of his upon the Scriptures of the New Testament, delivered by him in the assemblies Of the church, are still extant.
IV. Cyprian, whose age was not twenty years lower than that of Origen, gives his people an account of having ordained two persons, who were before confessors, to be readers; and what they were to read appears by the reason which he gives for his choice; |Nothing,| says Cyprian, |can be more fit than that he who has made a glorious confession of the Lord should read publicly in the church; that he who has shown himself willing to die a martyr should read the Gospel of Christ by which martyrs are made.| (Lardner, Cred. vol. iv. p.842.)
V. Intimations of the same custom may be traced in a great number of writers in the beginning and throughout the whole of the fourth century. Of these testimonies I will only use one, as being, of itself, express and full. Augustine, who appeared near the conclusion of the century, displays the benefit of the Christian religion on this very account, the public reading of the Scriptures in the churches, |where,| says he, |is a consequence of all sorts of people of both sexes; and where they hear how they ought to live well in this world, that they may deserve to live happily and eternally in another.| And this custom he declares to be universal: |The canonical books of Scripture being read every where, the miracles therein recorded are well known to all people.| (Lardner, Cred. vol. x. p.276, et seq.)
It does not appear that any books, other than our present Scriptures were thus publicly read, except that the epistle of Clement was read in the church of Corinth, to which it had been addressed, and in some others; and that the Shepherd of Hennas was read in many churches. Nor does it subtract much from the value of the argument, that these two writings partly come within it, because we allow them to be the genuine writings of apostolical men. There is not the least evidence, that any other Gospel than the four which we receive was ever admitted to this distinction.