By the year 150, the Christian church exhibited many features that would mark it for centuries: Christians baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; they celebrated the Lord's Supper weekly; they were governed by a bishop, presbyters, and deacons. But they still lacked one thing that would become central to Christian identity: a New Testament. Their only Holy Scripture was that collection of sacred writings later called the Old Testament, which they generally read in the "Septuagint" version—a Greek translation pre-dating Jesus by over a century.

Of course, the documents now found in our New Testament had already been written: Paul's letters between 50 and 65, the four Gospels and Acts by 90 or 100, and the other books by that time or a little later. Paul's letters had gradually been collected and circulated; by 96, for example, the church at Rome had a copy of 1 Corinthians.

For the earliest Christians, who were Jews, the Sacred Scriptures were the fixed authority, and they were used to demonstrate that Jesus was Messiah and Lord. About a century later, the situation changed. Converts to Christianity, who now came from among the pagans, readily accepted Jesus as the Christ and the Son of God, but they often found the Scriptures a stumbling block.

These strange writings portrayed God in highly anthropomorphic terms: with hands, feet, arms, and eyes—and passionate emotions. God could be talked out of a decision he had made by Abraham or Moses. The Hebrew preference for the concrete over the abstract led to unsettling expressions like "circumcise your hearts."

These fell with a clang on the ears and minds of educated Greeks who, following their philosophers, held a highly abstract idea of God. God was the supreme ...

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