As we continue to look at how the Bible was made, today I am focusing on how the New Testament was made. Even more than the Old Testament, people argue over whether or not the New Testament has the right books. I want to give you information on how it came about and how the church dealt with it. If you missed the first part of our discussion, you can find it here.
In 1844, Tischendorf made it his mission to find parchments and copies of the Greek New Testament. He knew what to look for as he worked for a university in Leipzig. He went every archaeological ruin hoping to find diamonds in the rough.
He found himself in the St. Catherine’s Monastery and discovered in the monks’ trash used for kindling their oven parchment leaves. A leaf is like a page of a Greek uncial, a parchment used to write on like paper today.
He discovered the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, on them! Forty-three leaves were laying in trash ready to be burned! He promptly rescued them and publish them in 1846. Then he returned in 1859 because of church politics and was able to rescue the rest through copying the remaining manuscripts.
This story highlights the natural and human dangers to God’s Word throughout the ages. I’m in debt to the excellent work of Bruce Metzger for this true story. God’s Word doesn’t need enemies trying to destroy it to be at risk of becoming lost forever.
In fact, it can’t be stressed enough the small amounts of copies of the works of antiquity we still have. There are only seven complete manuscripts of Homer’s Iliad! Wait till you find out how many manuscripts and pieces of manuscripts we have of the New Testament. I’ll let you know, at the end of the blog post. But the stories of God’s protection of His Word are extraordinary compared to other ancient writings.
What about the New Testament? The Canon contains 27 books from the New Testament. The criteria for a genuine book is that it must be written by one of the apostles. In the first century, and apostle was only a person that was an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry and teachings.
Jesus gave his authority to the apostles to write down his teachings (Matthew 28:18-20). She transferred his authority to the 11 disciples (a 12th apostle would be added in Acts 1) to teach other Christians. He explained all of Scripture to them and called them witnesses (Luke 24:44-48).
But there are books that weren’t written by the apostles! Paul’s 13 letters and John’s five letters clear the criterion. But what about Hebrews (no author given), Jude, James, Mark, Luke, and Acts? Those are a lot of books that weren’t written by apostles. However, these were written by
- People close to Jesus and observing his ministry
- People who traveled with the apostles or wrote what the apostles told them
For instance, these “questionable” books have the following circumstances:
- The Gospel of Mark was written by John Mark who traveled with Peter and wrote from his account and perspective..
- Luke and Acts are written by the first century doctor who traveled with Paul and was concerned with an orderly historical account (Luke 1:2-3; Acts 1:1-3). He was more like a reporter gathering first-hand accounts from eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry and the apostles.
- James and Jude are the biological brothers of Jesus. James is the lead pastor of the Jerusalem church. Jude was an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry. It is believed he came to faith after Jesus’ resurrection.
Our largest problem is the book of Hebrews, which names no author. We don’t know if an apostle wrote it. The Church Fathers placed it with Paul’s writings. But we are almost certain today that Paul didn’t write Hebrews. So why is it included in the Canon?
There were other marks of authority besides apostolate authorship. A second criterion is that the book was well used by the churches and was helpful to their growth. In this sense, Hebrews was certainly of great use to the church, and still is. It is rich in affirming Christ’s supremacy, priesthood, sacrificial atonement, to name a few. A third criterion is that it is clearly inspired by God, or as Paul said in 2 Timothy 3:16, it was “God-breathed.” In this sense as well, Hebrews definitely fits into the Canon.
Historically, what are the earliest records we have every complete New Testament Canon of 27 books? We must realize that the church fathers didn’t seek to give a list of the Canon unless they faced heresy. They quoted Scripture in specific situations instead of a systematic approach to preserving the books.
Athanasius first listed the 27-book Canon in 367 AD. Isn’t that awfully late? Church fathers didn’t give a record because the church already knew the books included in the Canon. Only when they were challenged by heretics did the church fathers address the matter.
To demand a list of the 27 books from the church fathers was equivalent to asking a chemist to name every element on the periodic table even though he would only use a small number of them in his current experiment.
Several cannons mentioned before 367 AD come close to the closed Canon we have today. Although the early church fathers didn’t present a list of canonized books, they quoted from the Canon authoritatively by the early 200s AD. Here’s a list of some of the earliest cannons produced:
- & Undo that go to sleep that Surprisingly, a heretic named Marcion (140 AD) produced his own canon including only the Gospel of Luke, all the Pauline epistles except the pastorals (1-2 Timothy, Titus).
- Irenaeus (about 130 AD) either called canonical or quoted from every New Testament book except Philemon, James, 2 Peter and 3 John.
- Polycarp (110-130 AD) quoted from all of the New Testament Canon except 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. He was a second-generation Christian, one of John’s disciples.
- Clement of Alexandria (150 AD) quoted or authoritatively called Canon all but six books.
- Cyril of Jerusalem (around 315 AD) called all canonical except Revelation.
The books that had the most trouble being cannibalized are 2 Peter, James, Hebrews, and Jude. Pseudo-Barnabas (70-130 AD) was first to quote from 2 Peter. Clement of Rome (95-97 AD) quoted James first. They both quoted from Hebrews as well.
Irenaeus (130 AD) first quoted from Jude. Although these were late to be added to the Canon, the earliest fathers were quoting them already. There’s a long history of these books being canonical before the official lists came out through councils.
One of the earliest cannons is called the Muratorion Canon of about 170 AD. The only books missing are Hebrews through Second Peter! That’s 170 AD! Scholars point out that it’s missing part of the fragment, since the missing books are in order.
Some fragments date so early and close to the originals that liberals are surprised. This means the late date of book completion is pushed back closer to Jesus’ death! The church fathers range from the 2nd to 4th generation of Christians.
That’s some strong evidence! The first church councils to list the 27-book Canon were in 393AD (Council of Hippo) and 397 AD (Council of Carthage). Earlier councils like Nicea (325 AD) mention the canon in total that we have today with the exception of five books (James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John and Jude).
I know that’s a lot of information, but it may help you as you witness others who have questions about Bible books. And it may bolster your own faith in God’s Word. In that same vein, I want to talk about internal evidence and the manuscripts for the Greek New Testament.
Internal evidence for the authority of the New Testament comes from the apostles like Paul. He quotes Luke 10:7 in 1 Timothy 5:8, a saying of Jesus never previously recorded anywhere else. Peter calls Paul’s writings “hard to understand” and “Scripture” (2 Peter 3:15-16). Even the apostles were aware that they were writing Scripture.
Let’s talk Greek manuscripts. A manuscript is a copy of the original or other copies. They contain fragments, whole books, or whole collections of New Testament books. I mentioned that we only have 9 manuscripts of Homer’s Iliad, uncontested by scholars and liberals. But we have well over 5,700 manuscripts of the New Testament! And they are much closer to the originals than Homer’s Iliad manuscripts.
Loss of information is minimal because there were about 23 years between Jesus’ ascension and the first book (Galatians, 56 AD) of the New Testament. Homer’s Iliad manuscripts come from hundreds of years later than the writing. Also, the New Testament was translated into Syriac, Coptic (Egyptian), and Old Latin (about 200 AD).
Don’t let people shake your faith about God’s Word. We can trust that God gave us everything we need to know about him and growing him. Don’t so many produce tons of errors? Not really. We use a scientific process called textual criticism. This is where we compare each manuscript to others with the same content.
The most errors are produced by misspelling, which is noticeable if you know the Greek language or see others that properly spell the word. How about theological issues? Not one theological fundamental has been lost in all of these copies!
And the kicker? All but 10 verses of the entire New Testament have been quoted by the Early Church Fathers! Even if we were missing manuscripts, we’d still have all the 10 verses. With the help of comparing copies, scholars declare our New Testament is 99.7% accurate to the original!
God has preserved his! The Canon is closed, and has been since John penned the last letters of Revelation (about 95 AD). He has kept his Word from all of the dangers of history, from corruption and destruction. Let us read the written Word that we might find in its pages the Living Word, Jesus!
Criteria for the Canonicity of New Testament Books
- Written by an apostle who was an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry and teachings.
- Written by someone heavily influenced by an apostle through travel and eyewitness testimony.
- Written by a close relative of Jesus who came to belief and was respected by the church.
- The book was well used and respected by the church for the same purposes as Scripture, that it was useful for edification, discipline, and encouragement in the Christian faith.
- It clearly had the marks of inspiration by God, being “God-priest” (2 Timothy 3:16).
Helpful Books and Resources
Brotzman, Ellis R. Old Testament Textual Criticism: A Practical Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994. Look at chapters 5, 6 and 8.
Geisler, Norman L. and William E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible, Revised and Expanded. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1996.
Metzger, Bruce M. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, Third Enlarged Edition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992. Look at Section 1, chapter 5 for some statistics. A very technical book!
Nunnally, Wave, Central Faithbuilders Podcasts, dated 07/20/08, 07/27/08, 08/03/08 and 09/01/08. You can pick up the podcast here: http://feed.centralfaithbuilders.com/. Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998. Chapter 3 is very helpful.