Our Credible Bible (Lesson 2)
Why These 66 Books?
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls we know we have a reliable record of the books Jesus and the early believers deemed Scripture. At this point, we would be well served to consider why we accept the 39 Old Testament books, but not the Apocrypha, as Scripture. We reject the Apocrypha because Jesus said the prophets, a common way for referring to Holy Writ in His day, went from Abel to Zechariah (Luke 11:50-51). Abel was killed in Genesis; Zechariah was killed near the end of the book of Chronicles, which is the last book in the Hebrew Old Testament.
Once convinced of the makeup of the Old Testament, our next issue to face is; why have a New Testament at all? Why did we not stop with the 39 Old Testament books? Why did early believers, who obviously believed the Old Testament books were Scripture, feel a need to add any more books?
Two answers are very plausible. One, Jesus had promised to send His disciples the Holy Spirit, who would make them remember Jesus’ teaching (JN 14:26), testify about Christ (15:26), and lead them into all truth (16:13).
Two, the Old Testament was a collection of open-ended books. Many of them ended looking ahead to a time when God would restore His people, and send Messiah. For instance, Jeremiah and Ezekiel predicted a coming new covenant. Other Old Testament books could also be cited as examples here (see Blomberg, pp. 61-62). They leave the strong impression the story of Israel was not yet complete. More was yet to come.
Early believers felt they had experienced in Jesus the completion and fulfillment of Old Testament expectation and hopes. All four Gospel writers for sure wrote as if they were continuing the Old Testament story line.
Another question is, why stop at 27? Some think certain works by the early church fathers belonged in the canon. Only 14 books other than our 27 New Testament books were ever given any consideration by early believers. None were serious contenders, except for the Shepherd of Hermas.
This brings us to the three guidelines that were used for inclusion in the canon. One, apostolicity; written during the Apostolic Age, in the first century, before the last of the 12 Apostles had died. This criterion was, first and foremost, the dominant requirement. Almost all scholarship now agrees the 27 books of the New Testament were written within the first century. Paul wrote first, in the early 50s to mid 60s. Matthew, Mark (the first Gospel writer), and Luke-Acts were written in the 60s. John was written in the 90s. (For an excellent handling of dating the four Gospels, see Bird, pp.125ff.)
Some church fathers began writing soon after John died, even very close to 100 A.D., but this was considered too late to make the final cut. This requirement precludes adding the Koran or Book of Mormon to the canon.
Two, orthodoxy. A book had to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus and the disciples. This became more valued as time passed, especially as heresies began to pop up. No book was allowed to be more than one person removed from an Apostle. Matthew and John were numbered among the original 12 disciples. Mark was believed to have written for Peter, who counted Mark as his son in the faith (1 P 5:13). Luke was a student of Paul.
Three, widespread use. To gain acceptance, a book could not be popular in only a small sect or in only one section of the Empire. Leaders everywhere were expected to be using them. They had to be valued widely.
The early believers interacted a lot. Roman roads helped make this the case. Paul’s trips were also a unifying factor. Information and manuscripts flowed freely among early believers. They saw themselves as not only a local, but also a global, community. They felt a need to have worldwide impact. Thus, what happened elsewhere in the Empire mattered to them.Origen (184-253 A.D.), in Alexandria, pondered a few books other than the 27, but when he moved to Caesarea and did not find these books used there, he dropped them because they failed to pass the widespread use test. This test may explain why the Shepherd of Hermas, though written very early, did not make the cut. It remained popular in the west, but not the east.
New Testament books obviously spread far and wide quickly. By the last half of the 100s, the Fathers at various points of the Empire were referring often to many of what are now New Testament books as Scripture.
They were read in churches every Sunday; an honor accorded only the Old Testament Scriptures. One reason so many manuscripts were saved is due to the fact early believers deemed them authoritative from the first, and wanted them for public reading in worship services.
The four Gospels were almost immediately and universally acknowledged everywhere by every one as extraordinary. Early believers also had no controversy with Acts, Paul, 1 Peter, and 1 John. Ones that triggered some discussion were Hebrews (no author mentioned), James (contradicts justification by faith?), 2 Peter (so different from 1 Peter in style; could it be by same author?), 2 and 3 John, and Jude (too short to be of timeless value?), and Revelation (always a puzzle).
The early church fathers quoted what are now New Testament books as authoritative, often showing them the respect they showed Old Testament books. Irenaeus (130-202 A.D.) picked 22 (20 for sure plus Hebrews and 2 John). Tertullian (155-240 A.D.) had 23 (James and Revelation; not 2 John). Origen (184-253 A.D.) had 21 (not Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2,3 John, Jude). In the 300s the Church Councils would confirm ideas and beliefs that had already been generally held in the 100s and 200s.
Determining the canon was not playful activity. Dodging persecution, and wrestling against heresies, can make people serious about what books they are willing to die for. Selecting the right books was serious business.
The canon was not forced on believers. Dan Brown’s fiction, “The Da Vinci Code” notwithstanding, the council called by Constantine at Nicaea in 325 A.D. had nothing to do with determining the New Testament canon. This issue was not debated. This council was about the Person of Jesus.
Constantine did commission Eusebius to copy and send 50 Bibles to key locations in the empire. Eusebius included all our 27 books, but divided them into categories of acknowledged, and acknowledged with some doubt.
Well after Constantine, there still wasn’t absolute unanimity on the final list. The first official list with our 27 books on it, all deemed to be without doubt Scripture, happened in AD 367, when Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, sent an Easter letter to the churches and listed the precise books we acknowledge today. In 397 the Council of Carthage ratified this list.
The four Gospels deserve special mention. Though in the 100s there was no widespread formal movement toward compiling a canon as such, from the first the four Gospels were entrenched among the earliest believers as the authoritative information sources about Jesus. In the mid 100s, Justin called them “Memoirs of the Apostles”. These four books contained stories about Jesus, the essence of our faith, and kept people from fanciful thoughts about Him by setting limits on how far we can go in interpreting who He is.
For early believers, the Gospel of Matthew led the march toward canonicity. It was by far the go-to Gospel, for reasons not fully known. My guess is its having the Sermon on the Mount, and having been written with Jewish believers, who outnumbered Gentiles at first, in mind. Early church fathers thought Matthew wrote his Gospel in Hebrew or Aramaic before he left Judea in order to leave his remembrances behind with the mostly Jewish audience he was leaving. Irenaeus (130-202 A.D. Lyon, France), Justin (100-165 A.D. Rome), Clement (150-215 A.D. Alexandria), and many others preferred it in their quotes and use. There are more manuscripts of Matthew than any of the other three Gospels. John comes in second.
A fascinating thing I have learned is; early believers had a rabid desire to read, and be read to, about Jesus. As Christianity spread across the Roman Empire, the four Gospels began to be translated almost immediately into languages other than Greek. Talking in our parlance, the Gospels went viral.
Demand for the four Gospels was so great that believers helped develop a new literary form; they contributed to the world’s shift from scrolls to books. Scrolls were cumbersome and could be written on only one side. Books allowed documents to be written on both sides, and made it possible for them to be stacked and then bound together.
From the first, believers craved to have copies of the four Gospels. People wanted to know about Jesus. What I liked most about studying this was seeing how desperately early Christ-followers wanted to be in the Word, and to be near Jesus in their learning. Amen. May we be and do likewise.
The fourfold Gospel codex was by far the most popular book among early believers. The fourfold Gospel witness was not due to edicts enforced from above, but due to a grassroots movement among believers to have the Gospel. The people had a portable Jesus library they loved. They enjoyed the richness of having more than one vantage point to look at Jesus’ life.