The Origin of the Bible, Part IV: The New Testament Canon
by Ed Vasicek
In previous articles, I wrote that the Bible is an interlocking book. If you believe in the New Testament, you logically must accept the Old Testament because Jesus and the Apostles did so. On the other hand, if you embrace the Old Testament, the OT prophecies lead you to Jesus Christ. According to Daniel 9:26, for example, the Messiah would be "cut off," and then later Jerusalem would be destroyed. The destruction of Jerusalem took place in 70 A.D., so the Messiah had to be cut off before then. The Old Testament describes where the Messiah would be born, His genealogy, deity, atoning death on the cross, burial, and resurrection. If you believe in Jesus, you must therefore trust the writings of those He personally trained and authorized to initiate the church.
It is generally accepted that the four Gospels, Paul's epistles, Hebrews, 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation were completed by 95 A.D. They were written in the common (koine) Greek, the common language of the Roman Empire at that time. (Remember, the Romans had conquered the Greek Empire, and Greek remained the trade language for at least two centuries before Latin prevailed). We have all sorts of evidence, including "hard copy" manuscripts, although no originals have survived. We have fragments from a copy of John's Gospel (the John Rylands papyrus) that dates to somewhere between 100 and 125 A.D., just a few years after the original was written (about 90 A.D.). The Apostle John was only a teen when Jesus appointed him as one of the twelve Apostles, and he wrote his Gospel, epistles, and Revelation as an elderly man, so they represent the final books of the New Testament. We may have papyrus fragments of Matthew from perhaps 70 A.D. (the Magdalen Papyrus), although most scholars date this later. We have complete copies of the entire New Testament from the fourth century.
Despite the attempts by the Roman government to burn copies of New Testament Scriptures, and despite persecution, the New Testament was copied and translated so aggressively that we have literally thousands of ancient manuscripts from which to evaluate the original text of the New Testament. There is no book in ancient times more documented than the New Testament, nor are there any ancient books with surviving copies so near to the time of writing.
We have so many quotations from the New Testament in the writings of the "church fathers" that we could reconstruct the entire New Testament (except for 11 verses) from their writings alone! In the latter second century, Christians began translating the New Testament into the Latin ("old Italian") and Syrian languages. We have ancient copies in those languages as well. All in all, we have 10,000 ancient copies of parts or all of the New Testament. The New Testament is the best-documented book of antiquity.
The preservation of the New Testament books is one thing, but we need to ask several questions: 1) How did church leaders recognize which books were inspired Scripture? 2) Were there any books that were questioned or rejected in this process? and 3) How serious are the differences between the ancient manuscripts?
How did church leaders recognize which books were inspired Scripture? For most of the New Testament, this was a no-brainer. Unlike most ancient literature, which first circulated as oral tradition (sometimes for centuries) and then was finally written down, the New Testament was written by believers who were contemporaries with Jesus Christ. So by the middle of the second century, most of the New Testament Scriptures were firmly established because Christians were convinced that those who founded the church authored them in the first century. This was the key criterion: were the books authored while at least some apostles were still alive, and were the authors themselves either apostles or close associates of the apostles? If so, then their teachings and writings were authoritative. And that "authoritative" issue is the heart of canonicity, the measuring stick of truth.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, and all of Paul's epistles were immediately received. Their authorship, integrity, and "apostolic era" antiquity were well established. So were 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation. Later on some church leaders doubted Revelation because it is so unusual, but the fact it was received early implies no original question of its authorship.
Jude and Enoch
Because of Jude's quotation of a rejected book, many ancient church leaders were uneasy about including Jude in the canon. Neither Protestants nor Catholics accept the Book of Enoch as authoritative and trustworthy. It was a third century B.C. Jewish fabrication (though quite an interesting read in places).
When Jude quotes from Enoch, he does not use the formula typically associated with the New Testament standard for quoting Scripture ("it is written"), but proceeds right into the quotation (Jude 14). Scholars have offered a number of suggestions to account for Jude referring to this book. Here is my view.
Jude was writing out against early Gnostic heretics, and he is above board about it. He is out to defend the faith handed down by Jesus and the Apostles (Jude 1:3). These Gnostics accepted the Book of Enoch as part of their canon. Surprisingly, the Book of Enoch is very much in line with mainstream Judaism and Christianity. So Jude quotes one of his adversaries' books to use against his adversary. He is basically saying, "you heretics do not even believe the books you say are inspired. Look at what Enoch says…"
You need to understand that the early church was made up of many individual congregations with strong local leaders. As a result, there were a number of "local canons." Some New Testament books were accepted by some leaders but not by others; we call these "The Disputed Books." These include: Hebrews (because we are uncertain who the author is, though no one questioned it as have originated among the first generation of believers), James (because it apparently contradicted Paul), 2 Peter (some doubted whether Peter really wrote this and whether it was a first or second century work), 2 and 3 John (perhaps debating how useful they were), and Jude (because of its quotation from the Book of Enoch). Later, some doubted Revelation because of its unique content and style.
There also were a couple of books that some argued should be included in the New Testament: The Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Clement. These were finally rejected, not because there was a question of authorship but because they were written after the apostles had died. The Muratorian fragment (ca. 170 A.D.) lists most of our books of the Bible, including Jude, Revelation and 1 and 2 John, rejects the Shepherd of Hermas, but is silent about Hebrews, James, and 2 Peter. Origen (225 A.D.) accepts Hebrews, rejects James, 1 and 2 John, 2 Peter, Jude, but accepts Revelation. Eusebius (324 A.D.) only accepts Hebrews (of the disputed books), even rejecting Revelation. Cyril (348) accepts all the disputed books that found their way into our New Testament except for Revelation. In Syria, the Apostolic Canons (380) accept all the New Testament books except for Revelation, but includes the Epistle of Clement.
The Gnostic Gospels, mentioned in The Da Vinci Code, were all written after the apostolic era by groups of religious cults with their special agendas that mixed eastern religion with smatterings of Christianity. The oldest of these is really not a gospel, but a collection of supposed sayings of Jesus, titled "The Gospel of Thomas" and is early second century. Most of the Gnostic Gospels are 3rd and 4th century fabrications.
It is interesting to note that during the Reformation, Luther and Calvin reexamined the issue. They both eventually concluded that the early church leaders had done well, although, for a while Luther rejected James. He finally accepted it, though he never liked it, and labeled it "an epistle of straw."
So, in a nutshell, here is an honest assessment of the canon of the New Testament. These books were accepted as authoritative very early on, either immediately or by the mid-second century (as soon as they circulated): Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation.
So when people claim that the New Testament canon was not firmly established until the fourth century, there is some truth in that claim. But the heart of the New Testament – the books mentioned above, were no-brainers and were accepted. The heart of the canon was established almost immediately.
So do the rest of the books belong in the New Testament? I believe so. Hebrews and James, for example, clearly date from the apostolic era, and the authors were close associates of the apostles. The case for 2 Peter is not quite as clear, though obviously strong enough to satisfy evangelical (and other forms of Christianity) scholars worldwide. Readers can find information about why these books are authentic and belong in our Bibles by reading the introductory section of solid Bible commentaries by publishers like Moody, Zondervan, Baker, Eerdmans, IVP, etc. We will address manuscript differences and a few other odds and ends in our next installment.
Reprinted from the October 2006 Body Builder, a publication of Highland Park Church.
Highland Park Church