Final Cut: How Were the Books of the New Testament Chosen?
- Thursday, July 12, 2012
Editor's Note: Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople, or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A New Testament author says that "All scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, reproof, etc. ..." The New Testament is good for all those things and although we view it as inspired and regard it as Scripture, I don't think the author was referring to his own words when he wrote that. What tests do Bible scholars use to determine whether or not a particular writing should be accepted as Scripture? I've wanted to know that for a long time.
You have asked two questions. I am glad to help you with both. First, the passage you are referring to was written by the Apostle Paul: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Of course, Paul probably never considered that he was writing what would one day be collected and bound up in a book we call the Bible!
When Paul wrote, the only Bible he had was the Old Testament, known today as the Jewish Bible (with several variations), which includes the Torah (the first five books), the books of prophecy, and most of the historical narrative passages. So, when Paul referred to the “Scriptures,” he would have been referring to what we know as the Old Testament.
In regard to your second question, the list of books included in our Bible is often referred to as the “Canon” of Scriptures. The word “canon” means straight line or ruler.
During the first three centuries after the resurrection of Christ, many gospels, acts, epistles (letters), and revelations flooded the landscape. Some were included in the Bible; but most were not. For example, there were the four Biblical Gospels; five separate works known as gospels among the Gnostics (The Gospels of Truth, Thomas, Philip, Egyptians and Mary); and two more gospels found in the Pseudapigrapha (which means “false writings”). Recently, another gospel, the Gospel of Judas, dated 225-250 a.d. was found in Egypt and hailed by many as giving new insights into the “real” Jesus.
There are numerous Acts, like the Acts of Paul and Thecla and multiple “Revelations” in existence. Numerous epistles exist, like the Shepherd of Hermes.
With so many writings to choose from, you wanted to know the criteria (the “canon”) for selecting which books were included in the Bible and which were omitted. Four forces drove the effort to define which documents bore unique authority for Christians.
1. The books considered authoritative were either written by an apostle or by one close to an apostle. For example, the four New Testament gospels are the only historical documents that can be shown, with certainty, to be first-century documents. All the other supposed “gospels” were composed well into the second and third centuries. The New Testament gospels were basically eye-witness accounts.
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