Section 2: The Bible
Digging Deeper Topic 1: How Was the Bible Put Together?
How Were the Old Testament Books Chosen?
The formation of the Old Testament occurred over a roughly thousand-year period. A lot of religious material would have been written during that time. Not all of it would have been inspired Scripture, however. So the Jewish people would have needed some process for determining which books were inspired and which were not. We don’t know as much about the “sorting” process for the Old Testament as we do about the New Testament. In large part, that’s because no descriptions of the selection process have survived. One thing is clear, though. Long before the New Testament period, the Jewish people had compiled a “fixed” list of inspired books.
This set of books was divided into three categories: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. The Hebrew Bible had fewer books than we find in the Old Testament of our bibles today. That’s because a number of books were combined. The books of the twelve Minor Prophets, for example, were combined into one book called the Book of the Twelve. The content of the Hebrew Bible, however, was exactly the same as we have in our bibles today[i].
As would happen with the New Testament (see the next two sections), certain Old Testament books raised some concerns among Jewish religious leaders. Esther never mentions God’s name. Proverbs seemed to contain a lot of “earthly” wisdom. Ecclesiastes had a pretty negative outlook. Song of Songs had a lot of erotic imagery. And Ezekiel had some flat out strange visions. For those reasons, questions were raised about those five books from time to time. The questions, however, had more to do with how to correctly interpret them rather whether they belonged in the category of Scripture[ii].
The list of inspired books referred to as the Old Testament canon was fixed by at least 200 BC. Jewish authors, however, continued to write religious works. Some of them were considered particularly helpful. They were not accepted as authoritative in the way the Old Testament books themselves were, but a number of them were highly regarded. So much so that scribes sometimes added one or more of them to various translations of the Old Testament, which were circulating prior to the New Testament period. Over time, 15 such books, referred to as the Apocrypha, were eventually added to the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. The books of the Apocrypha were always separated from the O.T.[iii]
In AD 405, the Old Testament was translated into Latin. This translation, known as the Vulgate, also included the Apocrypha. It also separated the Apocrypha from the Old Testament books just as the Septuagint did. Later editions, however, failed to make this separation clear. As a result, most Christians eventually assumed the books of the Apocrypha were part of the Old Testament[iv].
During the Reformation, translators went back to the original Hebrew Bible and realized it did not contain the Apocrypha. The reformers, therefore, either removed these books from their translations, or in some way made it clear they were not part of the Old Testament Scriptures.
Another group of Jewish writings, known as the Pseudepigrapha, also cropped up between the closing of the Old Testament canon and the writing of the New Testament. These books were different from the books of the Apocrypha in that they claimed to be written by various Old Testament figures. Although the books of Pseudepigrapha were widely read at one point, they were never considered part of the Old Testament[v].
What about the New Testament? Weren’t There Other Gospels?
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the four gospels we find in our bibles today. But in recent years, The Da Vinci Code and various National Geographic and History channel specials have brought a number of other gospels—the so called gnostic gospels—into the public spotlight. These include the gospels of Thomas, Judas, and Mary Magdalene. They each claim to tell the real story about Jesus. What are we to make of them?
Whatever else that might be said, the gnostic gospels are very different from the biblical gospels. The gnostic gospels get their name from a philosophical/religious system called Gnosticism, which was prominent in the early second century AD. According to Gnosticism, our material world was created by an evil deity. We are trapped in this world and need to escape to the heavenly spirit realm where the true good god resides. To escape, though, we need to possess secret knowledge. This knowledge is given to us by divine beings sent from the heavenly realm to rescue us. But it is given only to the few who possess the divine spark.
To varying degrees the gnostic gospels all reflect this view of the world. In the Gospel of Judas, for example, Jesus is a spiritual being from the immortal realm called Barbelo who temporarily inhabits a human body. None of the disciples, other than Judas, know Jesus’ true origin. Judas recognizes who Jesus really is because he has the divine spark. As a result, Jesus reveals secrets to Judas the other disciples aren’t privy to. When Judas hands Jesus over to be crucified, he is actually acting on Jesus’ instructions. Jesus needs to be crucified so his divine spirit can return to the heavenly realm while the human body he temporarily occupied dies on the cross. Judas is, thus, portrayed as a misunderstood hero.
Some scholars, such as Bart Ehrman, believe the gnostic gospels show us there were many different versions of Christianity in the early Church. Eventually, the so-called orthodox version won out. But in the beginning the orthodox story was just one of many. Therefore, in his view the biblical gospels have no special claim to being the definitive interpretation of Jesus’ life[vi].
In reality, however, the gnostic gospels were written much later than the biblical gospels. Even Ehrman acknowledges the biblical gospels are the earliest written accounts we have of Jesus’ life[vii]. The Gospel of Judas, for example, was written in the mid-second century AD.[viii] The Gospel of Mark, in contrast, was written in the mid-60s AD.[ix]
Because of their late date, the gnostic gospels are more likely than the biblical gospels to contain significant distortions. Consider the gnostic view of this world. They believed it was created by an evil inferior deity, not the One True God. As a result, we need to escape this physical world in order to go to a purely spiritual world. This dualism is a Greek view, not a Jewish view. That’s significant because Jesus was Jewish. Although there were different schools within Judaism, they all worked within a biblical framework that taught there was only one God and the world he created was good because he himself was good. The dualistic worldview of Gnosticism, in general, and the gnostic gospels, in particular, are foreign to Judaism. It’s therefore unlikely Jesus himself had such a view.
Given that Christianity started within a Jewish context, it’s also unlikely that any of the earliest disciples had such a view. The gnostic picture of Jesus, therefore, likely represents a much later development; one that took the Church’s existing accounts of Jesus and molded them to fit gnostic teachings about the universe.[x] In short, the Gospel of Judas and the other gnostic gospels may present us with an alternative view of who Jesus was and what his ministry meant, but that view is neither early nor accurate.
How Did the Church Decide Which New Testament Books Made the Cut?
The New Testament consists of twenty-seven separate books. Many other books, in theory, could have been included. In the previous section, for example, we saw that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, weren’t the only gospels in circulation. Others, such as the gospels of Thomas and Judas, claimed to tell the real story. Yet they didn’t make it into the Bible. Many other early Christian works, some purportedly written by apostles, were also left out. That raises the question: How did the early Church decide which books to include and which to exclude?
The Criterion of Apostolic Authority
Initially, there was no set list. The various Christian writings simply circulated separately among the different churches. But as divergent theological views started to emerge, church leaders wanted to delineate which books actually contained authoritative teaching. Various lists were put forth at different times. Then in AD 367, Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, published a list containing the twenty-seven books that currently comprise the New Testament. Those books were also later sanctioned at the Council of Hippo in AD 393 and again in AD 397 by the Council of Carthage[xi].
Some scholars argue those lists were just attempts to stamp out other competing Christian views. As they see it, no book initially was thought to have any more authority than any other. However, certain books were later labeled authoritative because their teachings supported the views of those in power. By selecting those books, church leaders were able to suppress views they didn’t like. If a different group had been in power, different books would have been chosen. That view, however, ignores the basis on which those decisions were actually made.
The most important criterion for the early church was a book’s apostolic pedigree. For Christians, Jesus was the ultimate authority. But Jesus had personally commissioned the apostles to carry on his ministry. In that sense, Jesus had passed his own authority on to the apostles. A book with apostolic origins, therefore, was authoritative in a way other books were not. And it possessed that authority the moment it was written. The goal of the church was, thus, to identify those books that were inherently authoritative, not to invest certain books with authority after the fact.[xii]
What about Books Written by Authors Who Weren’t Apostles?
Some might ask, “How could apostolic origins have been the determining factor when not every New Testament book was actually written by an apostle?” Mark, for example, wasn’t an apostle, and the early church was fully aware of that. Yet Mark’s gospel was included in the New Testament. Why?
For the early church, the issue was about more than just authorship. It was about authority. And a book could have apostolic authority behind it, even if it wasn’t directly written by an apostle. Imagine the manager of your department at work sends the assistant manager to you with directions on how to complete your project. To the extent the assistant manager accurately conveys those directions, they carry the full weight of the department manager’s authority. The department manager is in essence speaking through the assistant manager. In a similar way, the early church viewed the apostles as speaking through certain individuals they had entrusted with their message.
The gospel of Mark was accepted as authoritative from the beginning because, although Mark was not an apostle, he was an associate of Peter—who was an apostle. Peter, therefore, would have been the source of most of Mark’s information. In the eyes of the early church, that meant Mark’s gospel embodied Peter’s teaching and authority. In the same way, Luke’s gospel was viewed as embodying Paul’s teaching and authority.[xiii]
The apostolic requirement explains why other potential books were excluded. On the one hand, many early Christian writings never claim to have apostolic credentials. On the other hand, those that do make such claims, but aren’t in the New Testament, were written too late to have any real apostolic connection. As we saw last time, the gospel of Judas, for example, was written in the mid-second century AD—long after the apostles were gone.
In short, a book’s underlying apostolic authority determined whether it was included in the New Testament or not. Having said that, a handful of books presented the early church with difficult questions. For example, no one was sure who wrote the book of Hebrews. Some were concerned about James because it appeared to contradict Paul on the relationship between faith and works. Questions were also raised about 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and the book of Revelation. We take a look at how the Church settled those questions in the next section.
Weren’t Some New Testament Books Disputed?
In the previous section, we examined the role apostolic origins played in determining which books were ultimately included in the New Testament. Jesus commissioned the apostles to carry on his ministry and spread his message. That meant any book that was connected to an apostle inherently possessed authority other books did not. The vast majority of the New Testament books were recognized as authoritative very early on. As a result, there wasn’t much debate about their inclusion in the New Testament. However, several books did raise questions for the early church. They included Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and the book of Revelation.[xiv]
Ultimately, they were all recognized as part of the New Testament canon. But it took a while for the questions surrounding them to be resolved. We don’t have space to look at each book in detail, but we will take at brief look at 2 Peter, which probably faced more resistance than any of the other disputed books.[xv]
Did Peter Write Both 1st and 2nd Peter?
Although the letter claims to have been written by Peter, the style of 2 Peter is quite different from 1 Peter, which was acknowledged to have been written by the apostle. As a result, some wondered if Peter could actually have written 2 Peter. Many modern scholars ask the same question, and, for a variety of reasons, ultimately conclude he did not.[xvi]
The use of secretaries
The differences in style, though, can be explained in ways that are consistent with Peter being the author of both. As many have noted, secretaries were sometimes used in the writing process. Depending on the amount of freedom given, the secretary could have a significant impact on the final form. In 1 Peter, Peter specifically mentions the help he received from Sylvanus in writing the letter (1 Peter 5:12). The stylistic differences between 1 and 2 Peter, therefore, could easily be explained if Peter used a different secretary for 2 Peter or if he wrote it himself without the help of one.[xvii]
The risk associated with falsely writing under an Apostle’s name
In contrast, there’s a problem that cannot be so easily explained by those who argue Peter isn’t the author. The question is: Why would the “real” author claim to be Peter? The typical answer is he wanted to enhance the book’s credibility. But it’s not clear that would have been necessary in this case.
Although we have examples of pseudonymous Christian writings (i.e. writings where the author claims to be someone he is not, typically an important historic figure), Christian letters, such as 2 Peter, were expected to bear the name of the person the letter was actually from. Letters known by the Church to be pseudonymous were rejected. As a result, writing pseudonymous Christian letters was risky. For that reason they were rare.[xviii]
In fact, the only clear examples we have of pseudonymous Christian letters all promoted unorthodox teaching. In that case, taking the risk of falsely attaching the name of an apostle made sense because the letter’s message would not have received a hearing on its own. It needed something beyond the message to bolster its credibility.[xix] But nothing in 2 Peter would have been perceived as unorthodox. As a result, “it could quite easily have gone out under its author’s real name, or indeed under no name…he was writing orthodoxy, and for that no great name was needed.” [xx]
The consensus of the early Church
In the end, the Church became convinced Peter was the author. As a result, 2 Peter was ultimately viewed as authoritative and incorporated into the New Testament. The questions surrounding the other disputed books were similarly resolved. They all appear in Athanasius’ list of authoritative books in AD 367 and were, thereafter, accepted as legitimate parts of the New Testament canon.
From a historical perspective then, the New Testament is comprised of the twenty-seven books we currently find in our bibles because they were the only books that could lay claim to apostolic authority. As we saw in the previous section, no other books could legitimately make similar claims. “Given that there are very few extant Christian writings outside the New Testament that can reasonably be dated to the first century, there simply aren’t many other potential candidates…” [xxi]
The Role of the Holy Spirit
From a Christian perspective, though, we need to add another vital factor. The Holy Spirit played a role in the formation of the New Testament over and above the Church’s historic apostolic determinations. Not only did the Holy Spirit inspire the New Testament authors, he also worked to ensure that inspiration was recognized by the Church (Cf. John 10:27, 16:13). As a result, the New Testament isn’t simply made up of a bunch of books the Church happened to view as authoritative; the New Testament is made up of precisely those books the Holy Spirit guided the Church to see as authoritative.
[i] Andrew Hill and John Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000), 392.
[iii] Ibid., 395.
[iv] Ibid., 396.
[v] Ibid., 397.
[vi] Bart D. Ehrman, The Lost Gospel of Judas: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 174-175.
[vii] Ibid., 54.
[viii] Ibid., 179.
[ix] D.A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 99.
[x] Darrell L. Bock and Daniel B. Wallace, Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Cultures Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 101.
[xi] Craig L.Blomberg, “The New Testament Canon” in Evidence for God: 50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible, History, Philosophy and Science (Grand Rapids: Baker Books 2010), 235.
[xii] Michael J.Kruger, Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 175-189.
[xiii] Ibid.,110, 181-185.
[xiv] Ibid., 271.
[xvi] Carson, An Introduction to the New Testament, 434.
[xviii] Ibid., 367-371.
[xix] Ibid., 437
[xxi] Kruger, Canon Revisited, 111.