So in our last post we looked at how the Old Testament came together. We realized it was a slow and organic process, contrary to the conspiracy theories we’ve encountered in the media. Today in Justify your Inclusion Pt 2 we are going to look at the formation and canonization of the 27 books of the New Testament.
The New Testament like the Old Testament is composed of books spanning different genres of literature. To understand how these books developed and made it into the canon of scripture, we need to start with one of the last words of Jesus to his disciples.
DISCIPLING THE NATIONS
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
But what exactly was this task of discipling the nations going to look like? The disciples started by passing the stories of Jesus and the lessons he taught down to their new converts and the community of believers they were forming as they journeyed. They told the Good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection on behalf of all humanity, a feat they were eyewitnesses to. So just like the Old Testament, the New Testament began with oral traditions. As time went on however, the new Jesus movement grew into other communities and people groups. As such, it was necessary that the teachings of Jesus be recorded in writing. In A.D 65, just thirty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the first gospel, the book of Mark was written. Mark addresses his Gospel to non Jewish Christians, most probably in Rome. He does this under the supervision of Peter. In fact, the gospel of Mark is believed to be Peter’s version of the gospel. That Mark writes to a non Jewish audience seems clear from his translation of Aramaic expressions, his explanation of Jewish customs such as the washing of hands before eating (7:3–4), and in the few texts he includes on the subject, his interest in the cessation of the ritual elements in the Mosaic law (see 7:1–23, esp. v. 19; 12:32–34). Then came Matthew whose recounting of the teachings and stories of Jesus was addressed primarily to a Jewish audience. He makes the most allusions to the Old Testament texts. This he does in a bid to show the Jews that Jesus is not only savior of the world but the long awaited Jewish messiah.
Luke, a physician, self-styled historian and close travel companion of the apostle Paul penned down two historical volumes. One about Jesus Christ (gospel of Luke) and the other about the exploits of the early church and his journeys with Paul. ( The Acts of the Apostles). In Luke’s introduction we read;
Dedication to Theophilus
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
Luke here is informing Theophilus, the recipient of his gospel, of the purpose of his writing. It was an orderly account of what Theophilus had been taught by the oral traditions. Luke points to the availability of sources in this introduction. A close examination of the content of Luke shows that he relied on these sources while having his own unique sources as well. For instance, the Greek rendering of Mark contains 661 verses, Matthew 1068 and Luke 1,149. 606 of Mark’s 661 verses appear in Matthew while Luke uses 320 of them. This points to the fact that Matthew and Luke relied on Mark for material. Also there are about 250 verses in Matthew that do not occur in Mark but are found in Luke as well. This could either mean both Matthew and Luke relied on a common source outside of Mark or that Luke relied on Matthew as well. Luke finally has some verses unique to him alone such as the infant story of Jesus. The entire point of this geeky exercise is to show that the gospel writers were not making up the stories as they went along, but were relying on established oral traditions and documented narratives of Jesus that were regarded as facts. The last Gospel to be written was the book of John. He states his mission clearly towards the end of the book. Although he uses a different format and style, some of his stories overlap and corroborate the stories of the other gospels.
The Purpose of This Book
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
John carefully selected the events and discourses of Jesus and put them together to prove to the reader that Jesus was the Son of God. These varied purposes, points of view and audiences is why we have four Gospels instead of one. They are the result of the obedience to the great commission.
THE EPISTLES: APOSTLES IN ABSENTIA
As the churches grew, persecutions of various kinds also hit the church. As the believers fled into various cities, they took the good news with them either orally or their written copies. Also the travel itinerary of the apostles meant they had to find ways to keep close tabs on the church communities. This they did through letters commonly referred to as epistles. Apart from the gospels and the books of Acts, almost all the books of the New Testament fall into this category. 13 of them were authored by Paul, 3 by John, 1 by James, another by Jude, and two by Peter. The books of Hebrews reads like a letter whose introduction was shorn off and the book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ above all else is a circular letter from John to seven churches.
These letters served various purposes. With these letters the apostles were able to situate the teachings of Jesus within the context of their new non Jewish disciples. They also made their audience aware of travel plans, encouraged the churches being persecuted for their new found faith and corrected errors going on in the churches. The epistles were essentially the apostles in absentia. They were as authoritative as the apostles themselves. Peter for instance in writing to the Jews in the dispersion, refers to the letters of Paul as scripture.
2 Peter 3:15-16
And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.
These letters, although addressed to specific churches, were circulated amongst the churches sometimes at the request of the apostles or by the faithful believers who wanted to hear the words of their beloved apostles. In the conclusion of his letter to the church in Colossae, we see the Apostle Paul instruct that this letter be sent to another church and that they should read the letter of that church as well.
And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.
As such the letters and the gospels gain widespread usage in the early church communities. They were copied and recopied by the faithful believers and thanks to them we have the extant manuscripts we have today.
As with all things, the rise of Christianity and the considerable power and influence of the apostles enticed some who wanted such power and influence. The apostles warned the churches of such false teachers who would come in person or with some “letters” of recommendation. We see these warnings in the writings of Paul, Peter, and John. As such, early in the life of the church, they had established ways of spotting fake letters and spurious gospels. Also the widespread nature of these letters and gospel records, coupled with the oral traditions received directly from the apostles, made it easy to spot the fakes as they arose.
How exactly did gospels and letters come together as one complete document? There was a major incident that happened in the course of church history that I believe moved the church to form what we have as the New Testament. I must however qualify my statement by saying it wasn’t the case of the church selecting books for us, but rather recognizing the authority the books had in and off themselves.
This incident was the emergence of a heresy in AD 140 known as Marcionism named after its leader and founder Marcion. Marcion was a rich and influential businessman and the son of a bishop as well. He was introduced to a popular philosophy and way of thinking known as Gnosticism. His Gnosticism influenced his Christian beliefs and soon Marcion began to distinguish between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. He viewed the God of the Old Testament as a lesser vindictive being who favored the Jewish people in contrast to the God of the New Testament who was a loving father and greater than the God of the Old Testament. As such Marcion rejected the Old Testament as a whole unit and rejected the books and letters that he felt favored the Jews; such as Matthew, Mark, Acts, and Hebrews. He also rejected other Christian writings that appeared to compromise his own views, including the Pastoral Letters (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus). So he was left with only a mutilated version of Luke’s gospel (we suppose he omitted the nativity stories) and ten letters of Paul. The Apostle to the Gentiles, it seems, was the only apostle who did not corrupt the gospel of Jesus. It is interesting to note that at this point the first collection of New Testament documents into one collective whole was done by a heretic.
The popularity of Marcion’s version of Christianity and the spread of “his Bible” meant the church had to act. How could the church watch and stand aloof at the rejection of the Old Testament that Jesus Christ himself believed and quoted from? What were they to do with the rejection of the teachings of Jesus handed down to them in gospels and letters that Marcion had rejected?
The church set out to put it’s official document together. The church asserted that Marcion had not only misread the Old Testament, but was breaking the unity of the Christian faith. The Jews were not God’s favored nation, but his chosen means of bringing salvation to the rest of the world. As such the first course of action was the acceptance of the complete Old Testament. Secondly, they had to determine which documents of the New Testament would make it into the complete canon. In doing this the church let the books speak for themselves. The four major criteria that emerged for accepting a book as authoritative were apostolicity, orthodoxy, widespread usage and inspiration. By apostolicity, what we mean is that the church accepted the books as authoritative if they were written directly by an apostle or a close associate of an apostle. Under orthodoxy, the church accepted as authoritative the books that were in line with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. Any book that contradicted the teaching of Jesus and his apostles in any way or form was rejected. The widespread usage of the books in churches was also considered. Last was the idea of inspiration. Did the books have the inherent quality of a document inspired by God? Was the author a known spokesperson of God? Based on this particular criterion, any book written under false identity (pseudepigraphal) was rejected.
Based on these four criteria, the 27 books of the New Testament were found to be authoritative and useful for Christian life and teaching.
The first complete list of books as we have them today, came in an Easter letter written in AD 367 by Bishop Athanasius from Alexandria. Below is a chart showing the development of the New Testament in the first 400 years.
In a sense the early church created the canon (unified body of scripture) because it was the logical thing to do in the rise of various heresies. On the other hand, they were only recognizing those writings that had made their authority felt in the churches. The shape and structure of the New Testament as we have it today shows that the early disciples of Jesus had one primary aim; to submit to the teachings of Jesus and his apostles. For that purpose, they were successful and shaped the character of Christianity for all time.
There you have it. In our two part episode we have explored how the various books made it into the Bible. In our next episode we will explore why we have so many translations of the Bible. Until then see you and stay blessed.
For Further Reading
- CHURCH HISTORY IN PLAIN LANGUAGE – 4TH EDITION – Bruce Shelley
- AN INTRODUCTION TO THE NEW TESTAMENT – D. A. Carson & Douglas J. Moo