How Were the New Testament Books Chosen?
1st Century – Preference for Direct Testimony.
The official Bible of the early church was in fact the Hebrew Scriptures, now known to us as the Old Testament. The New Testament writers do not appear to have set out with the intention of creating a new set of Scriptures. Their concern was to preserve the record of Jesus’ life and teaching, to show how this fulfilled the Old Testament laws and prophecies, and to ensure that it was faithfully preserved and implemented in the doctrines and practices of the church.
Written documents were very bulky and making copies was a tedious process; so at this time they would not have been particularly numerous, and would have circulated in a fairly ad hoc manner. Throughout the remainder of the first century, preference was generally shown for first-hand rather than written testimony. For example Papias (60-140 AD), whilst providing information on the gospels, exhibits a strong preference for ‘the living and abiding voice’ of those who had direct knowledge of the Apostles and early church leaders.
We know of no serious attempt to define a list of ‘officially’ approved writings during this period. This situation persisted well into the second century.
The Letters of Paul
The nearest thing to a recognised body of writings at this time were in fact the Letters of Paul. Nine of these were originally addressed to churches; one (Philemon) is a personal letter and the other three, known as the Pastoral Epistles, are addressed to his assistants, Timothy and Titus. They were mostly written between 51 and 61 AD, the Pastoral Epistles somewhat later; and it is believed they were gathered together as a collection around 80-85 AD. They were widely used and quoted during the remainder of the first century and the early part of the second; but declined in popularity for a time during the mid second century, following their abuse by Marcion (see below).
2nd Century – First Lists of Approved Writings.
By the second century the situation was becoming more complex, with the circulation of a number of other documents of more doubtful authenticity or doctrine, along with later writings by early church leaders. There was also a greater degree of doctrinal divergence in the church, and various groups began to exhibit a preference towards those writings that favoured their particular viewpoint.
The heretic Marcion, who broke away from the church about 150 AD, interpreted the writings of Paul as meaning that there were actually two Gods, a ‘Just God’ of the Old Testament and the ‘Good God’ of the New. He claimed that the apostles had allowed Jesus’ teaching to be corrupted and Paul was its only true exponent. He completely rejected the Old Testament and published his own list of approved writings, comprising one gospel (probably related to Luke) plus Paul’s letters to the churches and Philemon, though he rejected the Pastoral Epistles.
Marcion’s list acted as a spur to others to begin defining their own approved lists. Irenaeus specifically names most of the books that form the present day NT, including the Gospels, Acts, all of Paul’s letters and Revelation. So, too, does the Muratorian Canon (c. 170-210 AD, and commonly attributed to Hippolytus); although this also recommends two other documents, the ‘Apocalypse of Peter’ and the ‘Wisdom of Solomon’, which were not generally accepted by the church.
3rd Century – Emerging Concensus.
Similar lists and citations, with slight variations, continue to be found in writings extending into the 3rd century. Eusebius, a 4th century Church historian, summarises the position at that time as follows:
- Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Letters of Paul, 1 Peter, 1 John and (according to some) Revelation of John.
- Disputed, nevertheless known to most
- James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John.
- Acts of Paul (170 AD), Shepherd of Hermas (115-140 AD), Apocalypse of Peter (150 AD), Epistle of Barnabus (70-79 AD), Didache (100-120 AD), Gospel according to the Hebrews (65-100 AD) and (according to some) Revelation of John.
- Altogether wicked and impious
- Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Matthias, Acts of Andrew, Acts of John.
4th Century – Official Definitions (the Canon of Scripture)
In the eastern branch of the church, the 39th Paschal Letter of Athanasius (367 AD) provides the definitive statement of those books regarded as authoritative, and in the western church, the Councils of Hippo (393 AD) and Carthage (397 AD). Both list the same books that comprise our New Testament.
The Syriac Canon
The Syriac-speaking churches initially followed a different path. The first gospel used amongst them was the ‘Gospel according to the Hebrews’ (an apocryphal gospel of unknown authorship, dating from between 65 and 100 AD). This was then replaced by a harmony of the Gospels produced by Tatian, known as the Diatessaron, to which were added the letters of Paul and Acts. Eventually, the Syriac churches adopted the same list of approved books as that used by the eastern and western churches, replacing the Diatessaron with the four gospels.
Disputed NT Books
The following sections give the background to some of the main areas of dispute concerning those books which were less readily accepted.
Certain points need to be kept in mind.
- The fact that there was debate as to the authenticity and value of these documents is not in itself cause for concern: we should be more worried if they had been uncritically accepted.
- Natural degradation and loss of source documents was a problem even during the first few centuries. Nevertheless, we know that the early church scholars did have access to documentary and oral sources that are now lost to us.
- Although modern scholarship has the advantage in sheer numbers and the sophistication of its analytical tools, the main arguments now presented both for and against these documents were known and considered by the early scholars.
- The criteria used in accepting or rejecting these documents generally centred on the issue of Apostolic authority. It was not an absolute prerequisite that the author must be an apostle (Jude wasn’t, neither were Mark or Luke); but there was intense concern that nothing should be included that did not have clear apostolic endorsement.
- The Letter to the Hebrews
- Early debate concerning Hebrews centred on its authorship, with opinion mostly divided between Paul (which would have given it more authority) or Barnabus. The letter itself is anonymous – a strong argument against Pauline authorship, as his practice was to sign all his letters personally (c.f. 2 Thess. 3:17) – and the Greek style is not like his other writings. But its theology is consistent with Paul’s and mention of Timothy (one of his best-known disciples) in 13:23 also suggests such connections. By the time of its official inclusion in the Canon, the tradition of Pauline authorship held sway, largely due to the sheer quality of its exposition. It is cited by Clement of Rome in 95 AD, and almost certainly predates the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, since the writer describes the temple sacrfices as if they are still ongoing (cf. 10:1-11). Most modern scholars agree that it is by some author other than Paul. Another strong contender could be Apollos, whose skill in expounding the Hebrew Scriptures was known to rival that of Paul (cf. Acts 18:24-8 and 1 Cor 3:4-6). But no matter who the human author, it is acknowledged as an outstanding example of early church teaching.
Again, early debate centred on the issue of authorship. The writer identifies himself simply as ‘James, a servant of God …’. There are three prominent people of this name in the early church. James the son of Zebedee (and brother of John) and James the son of Alphaeus were both numbered amongst the twelve Apostles. The former was more prominent, being part of Jesus’ inner circle, and some sought to attribute it to him: but he was martyred before he could reasonably have written such a letter. No claim was ever made for authorship by the other James. The general concensus was that it was written by James the Just, one of Jesus’ brothers, who became a believer after the resurrection and eventually led the Jerusalem church before being martyred in 62 AD. He was a defender of Judaeo-Christian interests, which tallies with the textual evidence of a native Aramaic speaker with a strong Jewish background.
Some modern critics have suggested the letter may have been either a Jewish homily adapted for Christian purposes, or a later writing seeking to counter extreme variants of Paul’s teaching on justification by faith. However, no arguments are presented that cannot be adequately explained on the basis of James’ authorship and objections can be raised against the plausibility of both alternatives.
- Jude (or Judas) is identified as ‘the servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James’. The only known James to whom this could apply is James the Just, making Jude another of Jesus’ younger brothers, mentioned in Mt. 13:55 and Mk 6:3. It appears to have been written after 70 AD, as the apostles are spoken of in the past tense (vv. 17-18). However, it was slow in gaining acceptance mainly because Jude was not generally recognised as having apostolic authority.
- 2 Peter
2 Peter claims unambiguously to be by Simon Peter; so must either be genuine or a fake. This was a matter of debate prior to its final acceptance, with Origen and Jerome accepting it, but Eusebius uncertain.
Many modern scholars also question its authenticity. Specific grounds cited are:
- 2 Peter 2:1-3:3 and Jude are plainly related. It is argued that, if 2 Peter borrowed from the shorter Jude, it cannot be genuine. However, there is no particular reason why one writer should not cite another; and it is scarcely a clever ploy for a would-be counterfeiter to pass off an existing letter by Jude as the work of Peter. Moreover, it is equally possible that Jude was actually citing Peter; in fact it seems more probable, as we have just observed that Jude speaks of the apostles in the past tense.
- There are marked differences between 1 and 2 Peter. Firstly, the Greek style differs: but, as pointed out by Jerome, such differences as exist are easily explained by Peter’s use of a different interpreter. The doctrinal emphasis is also quite different: but since one is addressed to Christians facing persecution, and the other tackles the threat of false teaching, this is hardly surprising either.
- It is also argued that there are a number of features that indicate a later date. For example, the idea of the world being destroyed by fire, a distinctively Christian view, did not gain vogue until the second century. But where did the idea come from? This letter, if genuine, provides a very plausible explanation. Another is that mention of Paul’s writings alongside ‘the other scriptures’ in 3:15-16 indicates a later dating. But this assumes Peter is consciously placing Paul’s writings (the literal meaning of ‘scriptures’) on a par with the Old Testament authors, rather than simply pointing out that some people will twist anything to suit themselves. Besides, these verses emphasise the essential unity of Paul and Peter, an approach very much at odds with the practice of schismatic writers of the time who, as with Marcion, used to play off one against the other.
- 2 and 3 John
Although neither letter specifically names John as the author, reservations in the early church primarily concerned their relevance, as they are very brief, and have little doctrinal significance.
From a textual standpoint, nearly all scholars agree that they are the work of the same author as 1 John, and most would accept that 1 John is written by the author of John’s gospel. However, there are major differences in style between these and Revelation (also attributed to John). It has therefore been suggested that the actual writing of the gospel and epistles was performed by one of John’s disciples. This view is supported by John chapter 21, which appears to be an epilogue to the gospel, pointing to ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ as the primary source, but clearly showing that others assisted in its compilation (vv. 20-24).
Revelation claims to have been written by John, whilst exiled on Patmos: so, as with 2 Peter, it must either be genuine or a fake; unless, as some suggest, it is actually by another John. The Greek text is totally unlike that of the gospel or letters in both vocabulary and style (its grammar is very poor). This led to controversy over its authorship, despite its being attested to by Justin Martyr (c. 140 AD), Irenaeus (AD 120-190, a pupil of Polycarp, one of John’s disciples) and others. But by the fourth century John’s authorship was accepted; and Eusebius, whilst recording earlier doubts, himself accepts it, stating that it was written during the reign of the Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD).
Most modern scholars also question the authorship of Revelation for the reasons given above; but these are easily answered. John’s native language was Aramaic and, as noted above, there is evidence he had assistance in writing his gospel. It is highly improbable that, when in exile, he would have had access to the services of the same helpers. Indeed, he may have been obliged to write in Greek himself without help or may have written the original in Aramaic, as some scholars believe. Moreover, prophetic utterances frequently differ radically from conventional speech in both style and language. (You only have to compare the language some people use in church with their everyday speech to see how dramatic such differences can be!) Revelation is one of the most visionary prophecies ever given; it is quite unlike John’s gospels and letters in both content and purpose. Such factors readily account for the observed differences from the letters and Gospel.
In the early days of the church the Old Testament was the official Bible of the church, and there was no conscious effort to create a new body of officially recognised Scriptures. The process of defining which books were recognised as authoritative did not begin until well into the second century; by which time the emergence of a variety of later writings, some spurious and heretical and others merely farther removed from the original apostolic sources, began to necessitate such action.
Although the books of the NT were not officially defined until the fourth century, it is clear that, despite the vastly inferior means of dissemination at that time, there was already a general concensus concerning the majority of these books by the end of the second century. All of those included are generally accepted as originating within the community of first-generation Christians. This contrasts with those documents omitted from the NT, which mostly date from the second-century, or else are of doubtful authenticity.