(c. 85–c. 160

Catalyst for a New Testament

The reason Christians have 27 books in their New Testament, some scholars say, is partly because early church leaders didn’t like the 12 that Marcion had compiled. They didn’t care much for Marcion, either.

Famous bishop Polycarp called Marcion “the firstborn of Satan.” Justin Martyr said this wealthy shipbuilder “taught men to deny that God is the maker of all things.” Tertullian said he was “more savage than the beasts of that barbarous region” where he grew up, in what is now northern Turkey.

The lowest blow, which many scholars discount, came from Hippolytus. He said Marcion was excommunicated by his father for seducing a virgin. Then again, the sect Marcion later established would baptize only believers who vowed to remain celibate.

Marcion insisted on this because he said there were two Gods: the harsh. Creator God of the Old Testament and the loving God revealed in Jesus. Procreation, Marcion explained, was the idea of the Creator God, and Marcion wanted nothing to do with him.

To further distance themselves from this God, Marcionites fasted and shunned worldly goods. A fifth-century writer told of meeting a 90-year-old Marcionite who washed every morning in his own spit so he could avoid using the water provided by the Creator.

Marcion wrote Antithesis to convince people there were two Gods. He pointed out that Jesus said, “No good tree bears bad fruit” (Luke 6:43). Meanwhile, though, the Old Testament God openly admitted, “I bring prosperity and create disaster” (Isaiah 45:7).

Some scholars estimate that by the time Marcion died, when his church was at its peak of popularity, more than half of Christianity was under the sway of Marcionite teaching.

Their Bible—the first “New Testament”—was the one Marcion compiled after he was excommunicated in a.d. 144, at the age of about 60.

Marcion’s Bible rejected the Old Testament with its heroes and prophets; they had been deceived by the Creator, he believed. He also rejected all New Testament references that suggested the Creator and the loving God were the same. In the end, his Bible included only the Gospel of Luke and some letters of Paul.

Two hundred years later, the sect was nearly extinct. But it had prodded the church to begin defining what Christians should believe and what books should be called the Word of God.

(c. 185–c. 254)

Respected Bible scholar—yet unorthodox teacher

When Origen’s father was beheaded during an intense persecution of Christians, 17-year-old Origen was ready to die as a martyr, too. But his mother hid his clothes so he couldn’t leave the house. Thus, she saved the life of a teenager who would become the most respected Bible scholar of his day. His interpretation of Scripture has influenced Christians throughout the ages, in spite of his being condemned by the church about 300 years following his death.

After the Romans confiscated his family’s estate in Alexandria, Egypt, it was up to Origen to support his mother and eight younger brothers and sisters. Well educated, he was able to earn money teaching religion to converts. His classes became so popular, he had to hire an assistant.

Sometime during the 30 years he taught there, he reportedly had himself castrated—to curb suspicion about his teaching of women. Some historians say this shows how literally he took Matthew 19:12, which speaks of men becoming eunuchs who “renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven.” Roman records tell of other Christian men who embraced celibacy with such zeal.

Ironically, Origen is remembered as the early church theologian who preferred to focus not on the literal meaning of the Bible but on its allegorical messages. Of Christ’s cleansing of the temple, for example, Origen argued it never took place; he said it was not the kind of thing Jesus would do. Instead, the story symbolized Christ in the ongoing ministry of purging the church of corruption.

With the help of a team of trained word processors, Origen is said to have produced a massive 6,000 works, few of which have survived. Stenographers copied his sermons and lectures in shorthand, secretaries transcribed the notes, and calligraphers produced elegant copies.

Though Origen wrote commentaries and the first known systematic theology, his most famous work was Hexapla, a kind of study Bible of the Old Testament. It had six parallel columns, one of the Scripture in Hebrew, and the other five of various Greek translations.

Origen died soon after being released from prison, where he had been tortured for his faith. Three hundred years later, the second Council of Constantinople (553) attacked his followers and took issue with his unorthodox teachings: Jesus was not as divine as the Father; people existed before being born into this life; Satan will one day be saved; because of free will, creation may endure other falls from grace. Yet in spite of the flaws in his understanding, Origen is remembered as a father of Bible study.

(c. 296–373)

Exiled defender of orthodoxy

“Black Dwarf” is what his enemies called him. And this short, dark-skinned Egyptian bishop had plenty of enemies—enough to get him exiled five times by four Roman emperors. And enough to keep him exiled, off and on, for 17 of the 45 years he served as bishop of Alexandria.

These enemies were followers of Arius, who taught that Jesus was a created being, not of the same substance of God nor equal with him. The church council at Nicea in 325 condemned Arius as a heretic, exiled him, and made it a capital offense to possess his writings.

Three years later, the bishop of Alexandria, who had led the council, died, and Athanasius was elected to replace him. He was so young that some resisted his election, arguing he was not yet 30, the minimum age for the bishop who would lead the churches of Egypt and Libya. But the majority recognized a maturity in the man who, while still in his early 20s, had written a theological masterpiece about the Incarnation.

Within a few months of Athanasius’s election, supporters of Arius talked Emperor Constantine into recalling Arius from exile and ordering Athanasius to readmit him to the church.

Athanasius refused. “The Christ-opposing heresy has no fellowship with the catholic church,” he said.

Constantine chose not to force the issue, so the Arians launched a barrage of personal attacks against Athanasius. Over the next several years, Athanasius suffered through false charges that included murder, illegal taxation, and sorcery. But it was the charge of treason that led Constantine to exile him in 335. Athanasius was accused of preventing Egyptian grain ships from sailing to the empire’s capital.

Constantine may have realized this charge was as false as the others, and he may have simply decided to end the church’s squabbling and to get Athanasius out of the line of fire. He banished the bishop to what is now Germany but was then the kingdom of the emperor’s oldest son. In addition, Constantine refused to allow the church to elect a new bishop.

Two years later, when the emperor died, Athanasius returned. But the Arian movement had grown, and in 339, a majority of church leaders voted to depose him again, and Athanasius fled to Rome. This time he was replaced.

Though he would return in 346, he would face three more exiles in his life. He was about 70 when he came home for the last time.

In his first year back, in 367, he wrote perhaps the most important document of his 77-year life. This was his annual letter to the church. In it was a list of Christian books he said were inspired of God. Christians had long debated which books should make up the New Testament, but Athanasius’s list of 27 writings marks the first time a church leader identified the very books Christians today call the New Testament.

(c. 1469–1536)

Anti-Protestant who helped start the Reformation

Desiderius Erasmus was the illegitimate son of a Dutch priest. He grew to become a reluctant cleric who, after the death of his parents, was forced into a monastery. He stayed long enough to be ordained a priest by about age 23, in the same year Columbus sailed for the New World. Erasmus, though, would explore biblical and theological worlds that would change history.

Erasmus soon grew to hate monastery life—the rigid rules and the closed-minded, intolerant theologians. He wanted to travel, to gain some academic elbow room. But he also wanted to remain an Augustinian.

A French bishop offered him a way out, taking him on as his Latin secretary, then helping fund his theological studies in Paris. From there Erasmus began a career of writing and traveling that took him to most of the countries of Europe. Though he often complained of poor health, he seemed driven by a desire to seek out the best theological minds of the day.

It was this that drew him to England six times, in spite of what he described as the island’s bad beer, barbarism, and inhospitable weather. There John Colet and others inspired him to learn the Greek language, in which the New Testament was written.

The result was his most memorable work: the Greek New Testament, published in the year 1516. Accompanying it were study notes as well as his own Latin translation—a more accurate version than Jerome’s earlier Latin Vulgate.

In the preface, Erasmus said he undertook the project so everyone might read the Bible. “Would that these were translated into each and every language. … Would that the farmer might sing snatches of Scripture at his plough, that the weaver might hum phrases of Scripture to the tune of his shuttle.”

In fact, Erasmus’s translation became a primary source for Martin Luther’s German translation six years later, and William Tyndale’s English translation three years after that.

Erasmus also wrote The Praise of Folly, a book that criticized the church and encouraged Luther and others to do the same. Erasmus initially supported Luther but backed away when he saw the church begin to split. “I am not so mad,” he wrote to Pope Leo X, “as to fly in the face of the Vicar of Christ.”

Of the bickering and intolerance on both sides, Erasmus wrote to Luther, “Had I not seen it, nay, felt it myself, I should never have believed anyone who said theologians could become so insane.”

His decision not to join the Protestants, coupled with his unwillingness to voraciously attack them, produced enemies on both sides. Five years before his death, he wrote, “Men of learning who were once warmly attached to me, and old friends, are the most dangerous of foes.”

In those final years, he found comfort in solitude and study. The evening of his death, at about age 67, he repeated the plea, “Mercy, O Jesus, Lord deliver me. Lord make an end, Lord have mercy on me.” He had arranged for his goods to be distributed to the poor and to students who showed promise.

(c. 342–420)

Greatest translator ever?

Jerome was a brilliant, temperamental, determined, irascible scholar. He was also probably the most learned man of his age.

His parents, wealthy Christians, sent him to Rome to be educated. There Jerome became an accomplished classical scholar with an insatiable passion for learning. He traveled throughout the Roman empire, eventually becoming a member of an ascetic community in Italy.

Then Jerome, desiring to become a hermit, moved to the desert of Syria, where he had a startling dream. In it, Christ scourged him and accused him, “You are a Ciceronian, and not a Christian!” Jerome vowed to put away pagan authors like Cicero and to focus on Christian truth. For the next three years, he lived as a hermit in the desert, fasting, studying, and learning Hebrew.

Jerome returned to Rome when he was in his forties, becoming the theological adviser and secretary to Pope Damasus. However, as one historian put it, “He detested most of the Romans and did not apologize for detesting them.” He lashed out against the immorality and corruption of the imperial city in general and of clerics in particular: “The only thought of such men is their clothes—are they pleasantly perfumed, do their shoes fits smoothly?”

As for taking great pride in their beards, he wrote, “If there is any holiness in a beard, nobody is holier than a goat!”

Yet in Rome he also began his greatest service to the church of Christ—translating the Bible into everyday Latin (later to be called the Vulgate, meaning “common”). Though there were Latin versions available, they varied widely in accuracy and readability, so Pope Damasus instructed Jerome to revise current translations of the Gospels and the Psalms.

When Damasus died in 386, Jerome moved to Bethlehem, where he and a wealthy woman named Paulina established two monastic communities, one for men and another for women. Away from the politics and turmoil of Roman life, Jerome lived the monastic life he so relished and devoted himself to study and translation work, which by now had gone beyond his original commission.

Jerome believed that ignorance of the Scripture was ignorance of Christ. He exhorted, “Make knowledge of the Scripture your love and you will not love the views of the flesh.”

Stephen Miller is a free-lance writer, formerly editor of Illustrated Bible Life. He is a consulting editor of CHRISTIAN HISTORY.