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.
2. The books considered as Holy Scripture were consistent with both the Old Testament and with the teachings of the Apostles. Even a cursory reading of the books not included in the canon reveals that most were written with a Gnostic bias. Gnosticism was an early Christian heresy that took root in the second century. The word Gnosticism comes from the Greek term “gnosis”, meaning “knowledge.” Gnosticism sought salvation through secret knowledge. However, the Bible declares that the gospel is given openly and for all to see. According to Gnosticism not all people have a divine spark, only the intellectuals who had the real “gnosis.” Everyone else was doomed. Under Gnosticism, there was no hope of salvation for most of the human race. This theology stands in stark contrast to Jesus declaration in John 3:16: “…and whoever believes in Him shall not perish…”
3. The books included in the Bible were the ones which experienced widespread use in the churches. Some books just stood head and shoulders above the rest. To put it another way, the cream rose to the top. These particular books stood out as “God-breathed” while others did not.
4. Persecution quickly determined which books were more likely God-breathed than others. Some books were more easily surrendered to persecuting soldiers—others were worth dying for.
By the way, E, no group ever officially voted on which should be considered as Holy Scripture. However, by the early fourth century the 27 books now included in the New Testament were first mentioned in a list by the Council of Nicaea as being God-breathed. Those 27 New Testament books along with the 39 books of the Old Testament make up the 66 books in the Holy Bible of today.
The divine nature of the Old Testament Books was set in place by the Jews beginning about 1200 B.C. As far as the canon was concerned, the Old Testament was finalized by 400 B.C. with the Book of Malachi.
Numerous books were written during the intertestamental period from 400 B.C. to the time of Christ. These are called the Apocrypha (from the words meaning “false” or “spurious”). Both Protestant Christians and Jews reject the Apocryphal Books. The Roman Catholics include them as Biblical truth.
I hope you find this helpful.
P.S. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable, by F.F. Bruce is one of the most finely detailed books on why the New Testament Books are divinely inspired—and why others are not.
Dr. Roger Barrier recently retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his thirty-five-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.
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