We’re continuing our series in how the Bible came about. Yesterday, we saw that the New Testament books are simply the writing down of the church’s existing authoritative teaching: the words, deeds, death, and resurrection of Jesus – and their theological interpretation – compiled in the Gospels and applied to God’s people in the epistles. (You really need to read yesterday’s post first for this one to make sense.)
The reason I stress this is because many people have a misunderstanding of the process of how the New Testament came to be. Like the Torah, it wasn’t a case of the church sitting down a few centuries after Jesus and saying, “OK, let’s sit down and make this Bible thingy we’ve been meaning to get around to. Let’s take a vote: what’s in and what’s out?” They ended up having four gospels because the committee couldn’t agree on which one.
No, the formation of the New Testament was simply a recognition that, from the very beginning, there was a body of teaching. Teaching about what Jesus said & did, and how he rose from the dead. Teaching about how to interpret this historical event theologically. And how to apply it; how to live in light of it. The formation of the New Testament canon was a recognition that certain documents bore witness to this authoritative teaching. And so, naturally, they were recognised as being canonical.
Here’s how this process was explained at a special seminar on the canon, given by three leading New Testament scholars: Darrel Bock, Ben Witherington, and Daniel Wallace. (To watch the video, use password “coffee” when prompted.)
New Testament Canon – Clip 1 from Tim MacBride on Vimeo.
Did you get that? Truth came first. Then canon. A document is canonical because it teaches that truth; it somehow bears witness to it. And then, for future generations – for us, it enables us to determine truth.
And the apostles were also aware that their spoken proclamation about Jesus was authoritative. They were speaking the inspired words of God. Words to which the New Testament documents testify. Let’s listen to a bit more (same password).
New Testament Canon – Clip 2 from Tim MacBride on Vimeo.
So given all this, what moved the church to start drawing up a list of canonical Scriptures in the second and subsequent centuries? What made them get all formal about it?
Actually, a whole bunch of different heresies, but the main one was a belief called Gnosticism. And Gnostics believed that the God of the Jews was not the Father of Jesus at all. He was an evil God, because he created matter. And matter is baaad. But Jesus came to give us a special, secret knowledge. Knowledge that enables us to get beyond this evil God, to escape this inferior, material existence, to ascend through the spheres, and become a purely spiritual being, at one with the universe. (Just your garden-variety nutter, basically.)
And one of the key Gnostics was a guy called Marcion. Who decided, like any good cult leader, to create his own Bible. Of course, it didn’t contain the Old Testament; because it’s all about that evil God of the Jews. Instead, it had only the gospel of Luke and ten letters of Paul. And like Mel Gibson’s publicist, he heavily edited them all to remove any Jewish references. Then he published them all in a single book.
This caused the church to respond by publishing their own set of Scriptures, in a single book. These, of course, did include the Jewish Scriptures, and a lot of what we now call the New Testament. And not even divided into Old and New. But simply all together, as the sacred writings of the New Israel. In 200 AD, the church Father, Tertullian, wrote this about the church:
The law and the prophets she unites in one volume with the writings of evangelists and apostles [that is, the gospels & epistles], from which she drinks in her faith.
By the time we get to 367 AD, the bishop Athanasius writes a now famous letter which details which books are the canon of the church. And at the Council of Carthage 397 AD, this is ratified. But let’s stress again: this was simply a recognition of what already was the common practice. The canon wasn’t created at this point. The church simply recognised that it existed – and had for quite some time.
Tomorrow, we look at some of the rationale for what’s in the canon.
Disclaimer: this one-week series is a brief overview for the curious Bible reader that tries to tell the story of how the Bible was put together. It’s not intended to be anywhere near a scholarly presentation showing all of the different theories of how each book was authored/compiled, or the many competing theories of the canonisation process. Further, it’s not attempting to “prove” the divine nature or authority of Scripture to the sceptical.