The New Testament From a Distance













The New Testament From a Distance





Mike Gantt




















Published by Mike Gantt at Shakespir








Copyright Notice


Self-published 2016.

Self-published with Shakespir 2017.


I claim no copyright for this book. However, English Bibles are copyrighted – hence the notice I am required to give below. You are free to copy anything of mine you want, but you do not have the same liberty where the Bible verses are concerned.


Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the

New American Standard Bible®, (NASB)

Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995

by The Lockman Foundation

Used by permission. (www.Lockman.org)
































Table of Contents



Title Page


Copyright Notice




Chapter 1 – Introduction


Chapter 2 – What Is the New Testament[+?+]


Chapter 3 – Ancient Literature Accessible to Modern People


Chapter 4 – Ancient Writings Versus Modern Writings


Chapter 5 – More on the Accessibility of the New Testament


Chapter 6 – Stages in the History of the New Testament as a Text


Chapter 7 – Final Stage: Acknowledging the One Collection (4th Century Onward)


Chapter 8 – The Distraction of Religion


Chapter 9 – Initial Stage: Writing the 27 Texts (1st century)


Chapter 10 – Interim Stage: The Age of Formation (1st to 4th Century)


Chapter 11 – Drivers of the Formation


Chapter 12 – Factors in the Formation


Chapter 13 – Values Prevailing Through the Formation


Chapter 14 – The Distraction of Canon


Chapter 15 – The Timeline of the Formation


Chapter 16 – The Nature and Result of the Formation


Chapter 17 – The Answers to Our Questions


Chapter 18 – The Ancient Verdict


Chapter 19 – Modern Challenges to an Ancient Verdict


Chapter 20 – What Is the New Testament? – Revisited


Chapter 21 – Conclusion




About the Author

















































Although addressed to unbelievers as an invitation to approach the New Testament as reliable ancient literature rather than as a church textbook, this book will also help believers who struggle with doubts, whether from without or within, about the reliability of the texts or the authors of the New Testament.  The book lays out the case that the only reasonable way to read the New Testament is by accepting that its 27 individual texts are what was originally written and that their authors are the ones claimed in the respective titles – including Hebrews.






























Chapter 1 – Introduction

What can we learn about the New Testament without having to believe anything it says about God?


What is true of the New Testament as literature, apart from any religious claims it makes?

What can be known about the New Testament from a distance – that is, without getting tangled up in its message?


These are the questions that this book will answer.



Our Focus


You do not have to have faith in God in order to read this book. You just have to be able to read.


I intend to stay away from contentious religious subjects. For example, whether or not the New Testament is the word of God can be a contentious issue. However, that the New Testament is ancient literature is a fact beyond dispute. No one thinks that the New Testament was written in modern times. This book is about just such issues – issues upon which unbelievers and believers alike can agree.


I acknowledge that the subject matter of the New Testament is religious, but I insist that this is irrelevant to our focus in this book. That is, the religious content of the New Testament is outside the scope of what we will be studying. The fact that the subject matter of the New Testament is religious cannot change the fact that it is ancient literature and therefore has a history as literature that can be traced. It is that history as literature which concerns us.


After all, it’s not just religious people who have demonstrated an interest in the New Testament over the centuries. Students of Western civilization have always seen it as well within the scope of their interests, as have professors of classical literature. Archaeologists have looked to it for clues that would inform their digging. Historians of the Roman Empire have consulted it as part of their research. And so on. Interest in the New Testament goes way beyond religious circles.


It is for these reasons that I say that my approach is literary and historical, rather than theological or ecclesiastical.



A Literary and Historical Approach


When I say “literary” or “literature,” I don’t mean in a highbrow or elite sense. I just mean the New Testament as “writing.” Again, it should provoke no controversy for me to say that the New Testament consists of writing. Neither when I say “literary” or “literature” do I mean that I’m going to give you some sort of literary analysis. I am not capable of, nor am I interested in, doing such an analysis. I just want to approach the New Testament as a set of writings without getting distracted by theological concerns before the reading has had a chance to start.


In order to keep this point before us, I’ve chosen to italicize New Testament throughout this book, just as we would the title of any other work of literature such as Plutarch’s Lives or The Canterbury Tales or The Federalist Papers. Grammarians normally exempt religious writings from being italicized, but we’ll treat them like all other literature in this book for the sake of our focus. At least I’ll try to – in certain parts of the discussion, the italics become more distracting than helpful. So you may see the italics lapse on occasion.


When I say that the focus is also “historical,” some people will still think I am speaking about the history that is presented within the pages of the New Testament…but I don’t mean that. Rather, my focus is the history of the New Testament as a collection of literature – how it came into being and what has happened to it since.



The Content of a Text Versus Its History as a Text


Like the New Testament, the Quran, the Book of Mormon, and Dianetics all have a writing, publishing, and distribution history which can be distinguished from whatever religious purposes to which those texts have been put. If the followers of Muhammad, Joseph Smith, or Ron Hubbard transport their respective holy books from, say, Syria to Italy, that’s a matter of textual history irrespective of the religious impulse behind the action – because it’s about what happened to their texts, not something their texts said happened. And just as Muslims and Mormons and Scientologists cannot deny the objective history of how their texts have been written, published, and distributed, neither can Christians deny the objective history of how the New Testament was written, published, and distributed.


Similarly, a text about gardening has a history as a text, which does not require an understanding of gardening in order to comprehend. Even a text about history has a history as a text – which is a different from the history that is found in the text itself.


Thus our interest is in the history of the New Testament as a text. Neither at the beginning of this book nor at the end of it will I call you to faith in God. We will be looking at the New Testament from a strictly human – you could almost say “secular” – point of view.


During its time on earth, humanity has produced more writings than any of us can count or measure. Our focus in this book is on just that part of all this writing that is called the New Testament.



The Kinds of Facts We’ll Consider


There are two kinds of facts I’ll be presenting to you. First, there are facts that are so blindingly obvious that you’ll wonder why I’m taking up time to discuss them. My justification is that they are facts that are often left out of discussions about the New Testament – yet shouldn’t be. They’re neither banal nor sensational…but they are very relevant to our purpose. By the time you finish this book, you’ll understand why I say this.


The other kind of facts I’ll present are historical facts that, while easily accessible to academics, aren’t widely known among the general population. Some of these facts may seem obscure when you read them here, but can be easily confirmed by consulting academic sources – and I’ve included a bibliography to help you do that, if you are so inclined. There will not be as many of these facts as you might expect in this book, because it will not take many facts to achieve the purpose of this book.



The Purpose of Our Focus


What is the purpose of this kind of study? To know what we’re reading when we read the New Testament.


Before we read something, we ought to know what it is and where it came from. If we’re going to read a letter, it would be strange if we were to ignore the envelope in which it arrived. If we’re going to study trees, it would be strange to ignore the forest of which they are a part. Similarly, it just makes sense to understand the context of writings such as Romans and 1 Corinthians rather than to approach them as if each had nothing to do with each other or anything else that was written in that time. As has been often said, “A text without a context is a pretext.” Moreover, you can only know if something’s being taken out of context if you know what its context was.


Some people may say that it is enough to know that the context of the New Testament is the Bible of which it is a part. That, however, would only give some of the context. It wouldn’t explain how it got there – that is, it wouldn’t explain how it was that the New Testament came to be a part of the Bible. The New Testament has been in existence for a long time, but there was a time when it didn’t exist at all – and when it did come to exist, why did it come to exist as part of the Bible instead of as an independent collection? And why did it come to exist as 27 writings instead of 26 or 28? This is the kind of history that we need to uncover in order to better understand what we are reading when we read the New Testament.


To put this another way, we want to be able to distinguish the New Testament from its contents. What do I mean by that? I mean that history shows us that the contents of the New Testament existed long before those contents were called the New Testament. We want to understand what history has to say about the formation of this particular collection of literature.


To explain this history, I’ve written this book. I hope that it will be relatively easy for you to read, if not in one sitting, at least in no more than a few. But I’ve also written it to function as a reference book for you – one constructed in such a way that you can easily find your way back to a specific section when a specific question comes to your mind. There’s so much ignorance, and even misinformation, about these matters. I’m hoping to contribute toward a clarifying of what’s become so muddled with time.



The Peril of Semantics


Throughout any study of this subject, participants run the risk of getting tripped up by semantics. There are many examples of this, but perhaps the most prominent one has to do with the very terms “New Testament” and “Old Testament.”


If I use the term “Old Testament,” you probably know what I’m talking about. Yet that term never appears in the Old Testament itself. It never even appears in the New Testament – at least not with the meaning that we’re using here. The same is true for the term “New Testament.” So, although you and I use the terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament” liberally, we need to constantly remind ourselves that the people we’re studying – that is, the people responsible for producing the New Testament – didn’t think in those terms at all. To help avoid confusion, you may see me using the term Hebrew Bible to describe what we today call the Old Testament.


A related peril encountered in a study like this is anachronism – and it is a lot more subtle.



The Peril of Anachronism


The study of the New Testament is fraught with the peril of anachronism. If, for example, we want to know what the New Testament says, we go to our bookshelves, pull the Bible or New Testament off the shelf, and sit down to read it. However, in the first three centuries – which is the time period in which the New Testament came into existence – if someone wanted to know what the New Testament said, he would go to a church, sit down and listen to someone read. There was no book to pull down from the shelf. Moreover, during the early part of that time period, no one even used the term “New Testament” a reference to a collection of writings. Instead, they were more likely to say something like “the apostles’ writings,” or even use the apostles’ individual names as in, “what Paul, John, and the others wrote.” I can’t easily solve the problem of anachronistic thinking with a disciplined vocabulary because there’s no clearly identified date when everyone started using the term the way we understand it today. This is just the most obvious example how anachronism can be a problem. There are many others.


I will try to remind you periodically, and with respect to specific situations, to avoid anachronism. However, there’s a ditch on this side of the road, too. It is that my writing may be made tedious to you by excessive reminders of this kind. Therefore, I’ll try to strike the proper balance. For your part, please make it part of your permanent and general thinking about this subject that anachronistic thinking is one of the biggest obstacles to properly understanding it. And it is an obstacle that cannot be summarily dismissed.



The Distraction of Canon


A term that brings out both semantic and anachronistic confusions in this kind of study is the term “canon” – as in “the New Testament canon.” What’s at issue here is harder to illustrate, and harder to explain; there’s more to the issue than semantics or anachronism. Therefore, I’m going to defer a discussion of this peril until later in the book and devote a chapter to it. In the meantime, I’ll avoid the term as much as possible because, believe it or not, we don’t need it to accomplish our purpose.


No Religious Commitment Required

The title of this book is intended to communicate that we want to learn what we can about the New Testament without having to make any sort of religious commitment to it. I myself have a religious commitment to the New Testament – quite a strong one. However, I did not come to this commitment without first reading and understanding the New Testament as the product of human hands – as a collection of writings and nothing else. In fact, I first thought it worthy to read only because it was considered classical literature. I sought to improve my cultural literacy – not my religious or theological or spiritual literacy – by reading it.


If you read anything I’ve written beyond this book, you probably will find me calling you to faith in Christ. Not so between these two covers. Rather, my focus in this book is to establish the provenance of the writings that are called the New Testament. That is, I want to show you how the New Testament came to be. And that is simply a matter of ascertainable history. If the worth of that exercise is not obvious to you now, it will be by the time we finish.


Therefore let us begin our examination of the New Testament from a distance. And let us start by acknowledging the most obvious aspects of its undeniable existence.



















Chapter 2 – What Is the New Testament[*?*]


What is the New Testament? As practically everyone knows, it is a part of the Bible. It’s the part of the Bible that comes after the Old Testament. In fact, those two parts are what constitutes the Bible: the Old Testament and the New Testament.



That the New Testament Is


In order to begin a proper study of what the New Testament is, let’s first establish that it is. Yes, this is easy to do, but it is also foundational to our study and should not be overlooked. Confusion can reign when we ignore the obvious.


People may question whether or not God exists; no reasonable person questions whether or not the New Testament exists.


It is a literary and historical fact.


It is a present reality. And it is practically ubiquitous.


If we were playing scavenger hunt, and the New Testament were the only item on the list, how long would it take you to find one? Your home, any hotel room, any library, any general bookstore – it would not take you long to find a New Testament. It could be the shortest game of scavenger hunt ever played.


Therefore, that the New Testament is, is undeniable. I’ve heard many arguments from skeptics that God doesn’t exist. I’ve even heard from their fringe that Jesus never existed. Yet I’ve never heard anyone argue that the New Testament doesn’t exist (though maybe I shouldn’t be giving them ideas). People just argue about what it says. We’re not going to do that – we just want to find out what it is. We know it’s part of the Bible, but we want to know more than just that.



What the New Testament Is


When I say “New Testament,” I don’t mean “new covenant” – which is a spiritual term, found in the New Testament. Rather, I mean “New Testament” as the term that everyone uses to refer to that part of the Bible that comes after the Old Testament. As I keep saying, this book is not focused on spiritual matters but rather on the existence and history of the New Testament as a known text.


In terms of pages, the Old Testament takes up roughly the first three-fourths of the Bible’s volume and the New Testament takes up the remaining one-fourth. To give a more precise picture, the Old Testament constitutes 77% of the words in the King James Bible and the New Testament 23%. Because of its more compact size, the New Testament is sometimes sold separately for convenience of carrying, or to focus attention and keep costs low when wanting to introduce the Bible to others. Even in such cases, however, readers understand a stand-alone New Testament to be conceptually, if not physically, tied to the Old Testament…because these are the two essential parts of a larger whole. Again, we’re just talking about the literature aspect, not the theological aspect.


As for the New Testament itself, everyone knows it to be comprised of the following 27 writings. I am listing them by their most simplified and common titles:


p<>{color:#000;}. Matthew

p<>{color:#000;}. Mark

p<>{color:#000;}. Luke

p<>{color:#000;}. John

p<>{color:#000;}. Acts

p<>{color:#000;}. Romans

p<>{color:#000;}. 1 Corinthians

p<>{color:#000;}. 2 Corinthians

p<>{color:#000;}. Galatians

p<>{color:#000;}. Ephesians

p<>{color:#000;}. Philippians

p<>{color:#000;}. Colossians

p<>{color:#000;}. 1 Thessalonians

p<>{color:#000;}. 2 Thessalonians

p<>{color:#000;}. 1 Timothy

p<>{color:#000;}. 2 Timothy

p<>{color:#000;}. Titus

p<>{color:#000;}. Philemon

p<>{color:#000;}. Hebrews

p<>{color:#000;}. James

p<>{color:#000;}. 1 Peter

p<>{color:#000;}. 2 Peter

p<>{color:#000;}. 1 John

p<>{color:#000;}. 2 John

p<>{color:#000;}. 3 John

p<>{color:#000;}. Jude

p<>{color:#000;}. Revelation


Wherever you have these 27 writings, you have the New Testament. These 27 writings, as a group, are the New Testament. These writings can be classified into different genres; and their respective sizes vary as well. In fact, in terms of word count, the longest writing (Luke) is 89 times larger than the smallest (3 John). Nevertheless, each individual writing is often called a “book.” Thus you hear about “the 27 books of the New Testament” far more often than you hear about “the 27 writings of the New Testament.” This is just the way people talk about it.


Therefore, anyone can easily recognize that the New Testament is…part of a collection of writings…and is itself a collection of writings.


A Collection Within a Collection


What then is the New Testament? For one thing, it’s a collection within a collection. At this point, you may feel our study is moving at too slow a pace. Please be patient. It’s because people skim over, or even omit, the more fundamental facts that they struggle to understand the issues that we are ultimately going to address in this book.


Let’s briefly review: There are two parts to the Bible: Old Testament and New Testament. As the Bible is comprised of two parts, so the New Testament is comprised of 27 parts – the names of those 27 writings being listed above. Thus the New Testament is a collection within a collection. These simple facts are important, and we will return to them as our study progresses.































Chapter 3 – Ancient Literature Accessible to Modern People


Beyond saying that the New Testament is a collection of writings within a collection of writings, how else can we begin to describe it? By acknowledging that it is ancient literature – yet ancient literature that is accessible to us. Let’s take these ideas one by one.



The New Testament Is Literature


As we established above, the New Testament is writing. It is thoughts written down…that they might be read…and understood. It is written communication – from humans, to humans.


Yes, the New Testament is cherished by Christians for its spiritual and moral content, but that doesn’t mean it cannot be analyzed like any other collection of writings. And, yes, the New Testament has also been adopted by those who appreciate classical literature, but that doesn’t mean that it must be restricted to that category either. Whether the New Testament is addressed as religious literature or classical literature or some other kind of literature, it’s still literature. That is, regardless of what kind of writing (literature) someone considers it to be, no one can deny that it is writing (literature).


Because the New Testament is a collection of writings, it behaves the way writings behave. It is subject to “the laws of writing.” Its history as a set of texts can be ascertained. It is on this basis that we are seeking to learn about it.



The New Testament Is Ancient


Here’s a slight irony: the New Testament is not new. It’s been around a long time. A long, long time. Even skeptics acknowledge that it is not a product of modernity. It’s older than the Declaration of Independence (18th century), older than The Canterbury Tales (14th century), and older than the Magna Carta. (13th century). The New Testament as a published collection dates all the way back to no later than the 4th century. This makes the collection over 1,500 years old and places it within the period scholars call “Late Antiquity.” Any period of time before the Middle Ages (5th through the 15th centuries) is considered ancient history. Thus the New Testament is decidedly ancient.


When I say that the New Testament dates to the 4th century, I don’t mean “in some form.” I mean in the fixed form of the 27 books in which it exists today. In over a millennium and a half, no writing has been added to it and none has been subtracted from it. Thus the New Testament in the fixed form we know today is what has been in circulation all this time.


The 27 individual writings are, of course, even more ancient than the collection of which they are a part. Those individual writings date to the 1st century – which falls within the period called “Classical Antiquity,” and which is associated with the Greco-Roman world. Therefore, the New Testament is an ancient collection of…even more ancient literature.


In the course of this book, we will show how the history of the New Testament collection is connected to, and interwoven with, the history of its individual writings. For now, we just need to recognize the antiquity of both. Without question, the New Testament is literature that is ancient.


The New Testament Is Accessible


Notwithstanding its ancient origins, the New Testament is very accessible to modern readers. Just recall the mental exercise of our scavenger hunt. The New Testament is – to this day – published widely. Granted, it usually comes as part of the Bible but it is published widely nonetheless. This publishing is largely undertaken not just by religious organizations doing it for free, but by commercial publishers doing it for a profit. Such publishers could not afford to do it for any other reason. There is no doubt that they make a profit…and America is awash in Bibles.


When I say “accessible,” however, I’m not just talking about physical ubiquity. I mean that the text itself can be read and understood – albeit in varying degrees – by modern minds. This takes effort separate from, and prior to, the physical publishing and distribution of the text. For if ancient literature were left entirely in its original form, it would be utterly inaccessible to most of us.


For one thing, none of the ancients spoke or wrote in English. The English language arose in the Middle Ages. Therefore, translation to English is required if ancient writing is to be accessible to us. (I’m writing this book primarily to Americans, or at least to those who speak English; the principles, however, apply to those of any language.) Of course, this need for translation to English applies not just to the New Testament, but to all ancient writing. Therefore, to better understand the accessibility of the ancient literature we call the New Testament, let’s compare ancient writings in general with modern writings in general to see what’s required to make ancient writings accessible to modern minds.















Chapter 4 – Ancient Writings Versus Modern Writings


In order to better understand and measure the accessibility of the New Testament, I want to zoom out in this chapter and talk about the class of writings of which the New Testament is just one example. That class of writings, as we have established, is ancient writings. What makes ancient writings different from modern writings? And what factors enable modern readers to overcome these differences and benefit from reading ancient texts? This chapter will answer these questions.



Seemingly Different


I have mentioned that we need ancient writings translated for us if we want to read them. This need, however, is not unique to ancient writings. Since I am fluent only in English, any book written and published today in any other language – whether it be French, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, or something else – is inaccessible to me. Therefore, we can say that ancient writings require translation more often than modern writings, but we cannot say that modern writings never need to be translated. The issue of translation therefore applies to both.


One of the facts that seems to confuse people who have had little exposure to ancient writings is that we do not have the originals. That is, when translators do their work, they work from copies of the originals – the originals sometimes being called “autographs.” The writing materials used in antiquity – such as papyrus – don’t last indefinitely, and so it should be unsurprising that the originals have passed from the scene. And yet some people seem surprised and concerned when they first learn this. The irony here is that we are rarely, if ever, concerned about the originals when it comes to modern writings. When I go to the bookstore, they have on sale nothing but copies – no originals. Pretty much the same thing at the library. Do modern authors preserve the originals of what they submitted to the publisher once the book is published? I have no way of knowing for sure, but I have never run into a modern reader who seems concerned about the issue. Originals are of interest to collectors, not readers. The very existence of copies indicates that there was an original. And whether it’s an original or a copy, the reader’s greatest interest is in what the author has written. In this way also, ancient and modern writings are similar.


Ancient writings can be hard to understand. I struggle, for example, with Plato’s Republic. As I do with anything written by Aristotle. And then there’s Euclid on geometry and Hippocrates on medicine. I’m way out of my league with all these guys. But wait a minute – when it comes to the subjects on which these people write, I struggle with modern writers, too. It’s not as if ancient philosophical treatises are the only philosophical treatises over which I stumble. And it’s not as though geometry and medicine are a breeze for me as long as I’m reading modern books about those subjects. Therefore, ancient writings are just like modern writings in that one’s interest in, and ability to comprehend, a writing is shaped by one’s prior interest in and grasp of the subject matter. Whether a book is ancient or modern, the value we find in it is a function of the values we have when we come to it. Therefore, not all ancient books are of interest to me…and exactly the same is true when it comes to modern books.


I should add that precisely because some ancient writings are hard for us to understand, we can be frustrated by the fact that the authors, having long since departed from the scene, are unavailable to answer our questions. They are not around to explain themselves. However, from a practical standpoint, how many of us can pick up the phone and call our favorite modern author when we have a question? Theoretically, modern writers are available to us and ancient writers are not – but only theoretically, for the most part. As someone who’s tried to track down modern authors to ask a question or two, I can tell you that most of them might as well be buried in an ancient cemetery somewhere; they’re not easy to reach. Thus the fact that we can’t have face-to-face dialogue or on-demand e-mail exchanges with ancient authors about what they wrote doesn’t change that much when it comes to modern authors.


There would certainly seem to be a very real difference between ancient and modern writings when it comes to cultures and times. Ancient people lived in a different age than we do; their interests and outlooks are not always easy to relate to our own. Would we go to war for the same reasons as they did in The Persian Wars by Herodotus or History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides? On the other hand, are there not people living in our very own age who would go to war for reasons we cannot comprehend? Are there not cultures so different from our own that we cannot easily relate to their concerns? As there are aids to help us understand the writings of modern people with whom we do not immediately relate, so there are aids to help us understand the writings of ancient people. It just takes time and study to better understand people whom we don’t fully understand at our first exposure. Besides, the kind of ancient writing that endures is that which deals with the timeless issues of human existence. Writings that deal merely with transient things usually get discarded along the way. This, too, is true of modern writing.


When a person first approaches ancient writings, these seeming dissimilarities we’ve identified loom larger than they deserve. As we’ve seen, just some time to think about them rationally can reduce them to proper size. In writing this book, I am putting my thoughts in writing. This is because I want my thoughts on this subject to be accessible to readers. Ancient writers share this simple motivation with modern writers. Therefore, we should not be surprised at the similarities between ancient and modern writings. Are there then any actual dissimilarities between ancient and modern writings?



Actually Different

Perhaps the most obvious and striking difference between ancient and modern writings is the way that they physically come to us. I am speaking of the difference between manual and mechanical reproduction of texts. The chronological watershed for this difference is Johannes Gutenberg’s introduction of the movable-type printing press in the 15th century.


Prior to the printing press, writings were produced and reproduced by hand. That is, you wrote the copies just as the original had been written – one letter, one word at a time with some sort of stylus in your hand. Hence, the term “manuscript” – “manu-“ for “hand,” and “script” for “writing.” After the printing press, copies could be produced by machines, and in mass quantities.


We live in the age of photocopiers and so it is hard for us to clearly imagine what a world without mechanical reproduction of writing was like. We copy something on a whim. Given the time and cost of reproducing a text prior to the 15th century, those folks obviously needed more conviction than a whim would supply.


What is the main difference for readers between manual and mechanical reproduction of texts? Mechanically-reproduced copies vary less from the original than do manually-reproduced copies. Stands to reason, right? Picture yourself – even as a professional scribe – hand-copying a single page of text and it’s easy to imagine a slip of the pen that a machine would never make. About the only thing the machine could do to mar the image of the original is to smear the ink or not apply enough of it.


Let’s think a little more about living in a pre-printing-press world – that is, a world of manuscripts. To help you picture yourself as copying a text in ancient times, consider that the original would likely look something like what’s below (except, of course, that it wouldn’t be in English). We would write the sentence like this: “A man walked into the room and sat down,” whereas they would write it like this:




That is, the ancients typically wrote in block letters, with no spaces between the words, and with little, if any, punctuation. This is the text you would have to copy, and it’s no wonder that you’d get some variation from one copyist to the next and from one copy to the next.


Does this increased variation among hand-written copies mean that hand-written copies are unreliable? Hardly. For one thing, having multiple hand-written copies gives us opportunities to compare one copy with another and thus determine where mistakes were made. The chance of two copyists making the exact same mistake on the exact same word is obviously remote. Thus the more manual copies we have of an ancient text, the more sure we can be of what the original actually said.


Consider this hypothetical example of four manuscripts of our ancient text from above, none of which is identical to any of the others. That is, every copy has a copying mistake. Thus we have four “erroneous” copies.









Do these human errors in copying mean that we have no idea what the author was communicating? Of course, not. There is no reason for us to doubt what the writer is telling us that the man did. And if we could obtain more copies with such errors we would only become surer and surer of what the writer originally wrote. Be sure to catch that: more copies – even copies with more errors – increases assurance about what the original text said.


Let me emphasize this. If we had only two copies of this manuscript, we’d have only two variants – “variant” meaning a place where a manuscript diverges. In other words, an “error.” With four manuscripts, we have four variants. Yet in which case can you be more confident that you know what the original text said? Therefore, the more manuscript copies you have, the more variants you have…but also the more confident you can be about the original text. I emphasize this because to the uninitiated mind, a large number of variants sounds bad. The initiated mind knows better.


We modern readers of ancient texts are spared from having to deal with all this tedium of manuscripts and their variants because the translators deal with it for us. They examine the extant copies and determine the correct or best reading from which to translate When they are unsure, they will usually include some sort of footnote or other notation to indicate the possibilities they see. Thus they make ancient writings accessible to modern readers.



Calling in Experts


To be more precise about this process, the translators often have help from specialists called textual critics whose discipline is called textual criticism. These specialists search out and examine ancient manuscripts so that they can render the best possible reading of any given text. To continue with some precision, the word “text” refers to what the words say, regardless of which medium (e.g. papyrus or parchment) carries them. Textual criticism is a sophisticated endeavor and makes it all the more likely that the ancient writings we read accurately represent what ancient authors originally wrote.


Closely aligned with the discipline of textual criticism is the field of paleography, which studies ancient writing practices and seeks to approximate the dating of specific manuscripts. This is important because not all manuscripts are created equal. Yes, the more manuscripts the better when it comes to ascertaining exactly what the original said, but it’s also true that the earlier the manuscripts the better. That is, the less time there is between when the original was written and the copy was made, the more ways in which the copy is likely to be true to the original. There is much more to textual criticism and paleography than we can cover here. These are sophisticated fields to which scholars can give their entire careers. Suffice it to say that trained experts are involved in making sure we have the clearest possible view of what ancient writers wrote. And keep in mind that this chapter is about all ancient literature – not just the New Testament, and not just ancient religious writings.


Textual critics and paleographers are themselves helped by the fact that one ancient author will often quote another – much as modern writers quote each other. Every time an ancient writing is quoted, whether by someone in the same generation or a later one, we are given yet another confirmation of what the original text said. Not only that, but we can also know something about texts that have not survived to our day simply because of the surviving texts that reference and even quote from them.


Therefore, while there is an actual difference between the reproduction of ancient texts and the reproduction of modern texts, it is by no means a crippling or insurmountable difference. And while we don’t need to apply the discipline of textual criticism to modern writings, it’s not as though ancient writing requires too much work on our part to read. On the contrary, translators are working with reliable texts from ancient times refined by textual critics…and we receive texts ready to read. Thus we have ready access to the works of Sophocles, Polybius, Cicero, Julius Caesar, Virgil, Horace, Livy, Ovid, Seneca, and many others – not the least of which includes those who wrote the texts we find in the New Testament. And speaking of ancient authors…



Oh, and the Authors…


Although the question seldom arises when someone brings up the subject of classical authors, except when the subject is the Bible (a point to which we’ll return in the next chapter), how do we know, for example, that Plato was the one who wrote The Republic, that Aristotle wrote Rhetoric, that Julius Caesar wrote The Gallic War, and so on? In other words, how do we know which ancient author wrote which ancient text?


To help us answer this question, we actually have a writer from late antiquity describing how he and his contemporaries answered that question about writers more ancient than themselves. His name is Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and, as you’ll be able to tell, he’s describing common practice – not his own idiosyncratic view.


How do we know the authorship of the works of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Varro, and other similar writers, but by the unbroken chain of evidence?…How is the authorship ascertained in each case, except by the author’s having brought his work into public notice as much as possible in his own lifetime, and, by the transmission of the information from one to another in continuous order, the belief becoming more certain as it becomes more general, up to our own day; so that, when we are questioned as to the authorship of any book, we have no difficulty in answering? (Against Faustus 33.6)


(Source: The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection ed. by Philip Schaff, Kindle location 252706 – titled in Latin as Contra Faustum)


The process Augustine describes is simple. An author writes to be read, so he distributes what he has written and thus becomes associated with the writing among his contemporaries. This awareness is then passed to each succeeding generation.


Taking Augustine’s first example, Plato’s associates in the 5th-4th century BC would have known what he wrote. That knowledge would be passed on from generation to generation until it came to Augustine’s generation some 800 years later. Same with Aristotle for a slightly shorter period. And so on.


Augustine continues in Against Faustus, a treatise on his disagreements with Faustus, applying this rule of thumb to whatever he and Faustus were writing – and how some future generation would decide who wrote what.


But why speak of old books? Take the books now before us: should anyone, after some years, deny that this book was written by me, or that Faustus’ was written by him, where is evidence for the fact to be found but in the information possessed by some at the present time, and transmitted by them through successive generations even to distant times? (Against Faustus 33.6)


(Source: The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection ed. by Philip Schaff, Kindle location 252706-252716 – titled in Latin as Contra Faustum)


Thus Augustine describes the simplicity with which authorship of an ancient work is made known and kept alive.


We can see the same dynamic at work even in our own lives. How do we know that Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay were the authors of The Federalist Papers except that these men revealed this information to those they knew, who then spread it to others, who then passed in down from generation to generation, both in print and by word of mouth.


Someone will say, “But, Mike, if we have the original newspapers in which The Federalist Papers were originally published, we don’t need that process you described.” Actually, you would, because in original publication those writings were all ascribed to “Publius” – obviously a pen name. Therefore, by the method Augustine described we know that these three men used that single pen name. Likewise, we know that Benjamin Franklin was the author of Poor Richard’s Almanack and Samuel Clemens was the author of Mark Twain’s novels. Thus this method of knowing the author – used in all generations, ancient and modern – is more sure than seeing a name under the title on the cover of a book.


What this method tells you to watch out for are 1) an absence of contemporary witnesses to the work’s authorship, or 2) a gap in the generations between the author’s and the present passing on this information. These are the circumstances in which a forgery or counterfeit can arise. This is also where paleography and textual criticism and multiple manuscript copies can help, because any generation in which you can date a manuscript copy in which the author is named is an additional witness to authorship. If you think about it a minute, you’ll see that this extra confirmation works for pre-printing-press authors in way that’s only of limited use for more modern authors – making ancient authorship in such cases easier to confirm that modern authorship. That author hoaxes are still attempted in our day is proof that modernity is not immune to the issue. And ancient folks were just as adept at rooting them out as we are.



The Accessibility of Ancient Writings


As you have seen, ancient writings are, for all practical purposes, just as accessible to us as modern writings. For this reason, people still study Aristotle when they want to be sure that they understand formal logic. And the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) could say, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” No one would study Aristotle and Plato unless their writings had been preserved and properly credited to them. Not only has this been the case for these two, but for all the other ancient writers I have named so far in this book.


In fact, in 1911 a German-born American banker named James Loeb used his prominence and wealth to found what has come to be known as the Loeb Classical Library for the purpose of publishing the important works of the Greco-Roman world to the widest possible audience. With the books of “Greco-“ authors published in green covers (and the English translation on the right-hand page for the Greek text on the left), and the books of “-Roman” authors published in red (with the English on the right and the corresponding Latin on the left), this collection has become as recognizable on sight as it is by name. Loeb’s effort continues to this day through the Harvard University Press, which, in addition to the iconic books, also offers an online subscription for those who want digital access to the texts. Obviously, such an effort wouldn’t have continued for over a hundred years unless it was commercially successful. There is thus continuing significant interest in Plato, Aristotle, and over 150 other ancient authors – including Augustine. (Faustus didn’t make it.)


Apart from Loeb, there are college curricula built around ancient writers that come from these ranks of classical authors. There is no denying their importance and use throughout history, up to and including the present time. Now let me be quick to admit that while I respect it for what it is, I’m no student of – much less expert on – the literature of classical antiquity, except for the New Testament which arises from the same time period and the same geographic context. I don’t want to put on airs, as if I were conversant with a wide array of classical writings. I just want to emphasize that ancient writing has always been, and continues to be, of interest to the modern world. And this public preservation of, and ongoing interest in, ancient writing – and Greco-Roman literature in particular – is highly relevant to the purpose of this book.


Given all the access we have to ancient writing, I’m tempted at this point to say that the only material difference between ancient writing and modern writing is that ancient writing is older. Nevertheless, we do acknowledge that some extra efforts have been made to keep ancient writing before the reading public, while also affirming that these efforts are sufficient to categorize ancient writing as accessible to anyone who has enough interest to find out what the ancients had to say.


Everything we’ve said about the accessibility of ancient writings in this chapter applies to the New Testament because it is an ancient writing collection. In the next chapter, we’ll talk about the accessibility of the New Testament in specific terms.




Chapter 5 – More on the Accessibility of the New Testament


At the conclusion of chapter three, “Ancient Literature Accessible to Modern People,” I declared that the New Testament was accessible. I then spent an entire chapter explaining how this was true in general terms. Now I want to spend just a little time doing so in specific terms. Stated another way, I want to answer the question, “How accessible is the New Testament vis-a-vis other ancient writings?” The answer will be that the New Testament is the most accessible of all ancient writings. Therefore, if the previous chapter was a statement, this chapter will add an exclamation point to that statement.



Translations and Related Aids


As we’ve acknowledged, the New Testament is most often distributed as part of the Bible. It’s hard to imagine any book – much less any ancient book – more widely-published than the Bible. Just consider this assessment from The New Yorker magazine.


The familiar observation that the Bible is the best-selling book of all time obscures a more startling fact: the Bible is the best-selling book of the year, every year. Calculating how many Bibles are sold in the United States is a virtually impossible task, but a conservative estimate is that in 2005 Americans purchased some twenty-five million Bibles—twice as many as the most recent Harry Potter book. (The New Yorker, “The Good Book Business,” December 18, 2006, by Daniel Radosh)


And this doesn’t count the Bibles that are given away. One estimate I saw for this free distribution was 60 million a year in the U.S. alone. Barna research says that 92% of all American households have at least one Bible…and typically own three. These sorts of statistics stagger the imagination. Divide them in half and they still stagger the imagination. America is swimming in Bibles. No book – ancient or otherwise – is more accessible in that sense.


Of course, all these New Testaments that are floating around America are translations to English. And there have come to be many different translations to English. Why? For one thing, languages change over time. You’ll recognize this whenever you read a document like the Declaration of Independence. English in the late 18th century wasn’t spoken exactly like we speak it in the early 21st century. Therefore, new translations need to arise as the language changes. Even the Loeb Classical Library updates its translations of the classics as required.by changing modern language.


The proliferation and variety of English translations, however, far exceeds what is required to keep up with changing language. What else is going on? Bible publishers have realized that they can increase their profit margins by funding their own translations of the Bible instead of paying royalties to the non-profit organizations that have historically done the translating work. The publishers now hire a group of academics, give them a specific focus for the translation, and, a few years later, out comes yet another English translation.


By the way, whenever a new translation of the Bible is produced, it almost always happens in two stages: first comes the new translation of the New Testament, and, maybe a couple of years later, the translation of the entire Bible. Publishers can begin to recoup their upfront costs while sampling the market by issuing the shorter New Testament as soon as it’s ready. Without diminishing at all the New Testament’s organic connection to, and dependency on, the Old Testament, such a practice is yet another reinforcement of the interest in, and integrity of, the New Testament as a discrete literary collection.


Beyond new translations, Bible publishers have learned from marketers that they can segment their market and package the Bible for a specific demographic, complete with added notes, even though the underlying translation may not change. This means Bibles for women, for men, for teenagers, for this denomination or that, for those interested in apologetics, end times, and on and on. There has proven to be no limit.


There are also “study” Bibles with extra notes and essays, all designed to help some particular group of Bible readers better access the text. The aids include maps, charts, illustrations, and much more.


One of the original aids to Bible readers was, of course, the chapter and verse divisions. The chapter divisions we see were first added in the 13th century. The verse divisions were then added in the 16th century. This sort of “mapping system” for a text is not unique to the Bible. Many ancient texts have come to have some sort of numbering system – even if it’s just a matter of numbering the lines in the text. Such schemes help scholars and even laymen more efficiently communicate with each other about ancient texts that are widely studied. You saw an example of it above when I quoted Augustine from Against Faustus 33.6.


No ancient text has the quantity of study aids and notations available to it as the Bible. This explains why the Loeb Classical Library, while serving the purpose of aiding modern readers with aids to studying ancient writers from the 8th century BC to the 8th century AD, omit the writers of the Bible. What could Loeb add to what’s already available? The Loeb library does include the Jewish writers Philo and Josephus, as well as Christian writers Tertullian, Eusebius, Basil, Augustine, Jerome, and Bede. When it comes to the writers of the Bible itself, however, Loeb must have wisely decided that it did not want to be like the guy who decided he should haul a truckload of sand to the beach.


Though the Loeb-like aids to the biblical collections of Old Testament and New Testament keep proliferating far beyond what Loeb can do for other ancient writers, there must be beneath all these aids a fixed collection and a stable text. For without these two underlying realities, accessibility is limited. How could you access a collection of texts if you aren’t sure what’s in the collection or aren’t sure what the text says? The good news for readers is that the New Testament collection is most certainly fixed and has been so for a very long time, and the text is more stable than any other from antiquity.



A Fixed Collection


The contents of the New Testament have proven impervious to change since their widespread publication in the 4th century. Modern Christians have found a way to argue about almost anything – including the contents of the New Testament. Nevertheless, they have never been able to change its contents, even when they have sought to do so. In the 16th century, Martin Luther took a dim view of several New Testament books – especially James. Yet none of these books were removed from the table of contents. In our time, this or that “lost gospel” keeps getting “found” and proposed for inclusion. Yet none of these books have been added to the table of contents.


For over 1,600 years the boundaries of the New Testament have thus remained unaltered. This is a verdict that has met and surpassed any reasonable “statute of limitations” that might be applied to it. At this late date, even if someone were to gain a following for a “New” New Testament, it would only be known as such – that is, everyone would know that it wasn’t the original New Testament. The contents of the New Testament are etched in literary history. It is an ancient collection.



A Stable Text


An ancient text is considered stable if additional manuscripts materially confirm, rather than materially differ from, existing manuscripts. Our hypothetical ancient text (“A man walked into the room and sat down”), and its four manuscripts, would be an example of a stable text. You’ll recall that we could determine from the four differing manuscripts that the original text probably read “A man walked into the room and sat down.” If a fifth manuscript shows up saying, “A woman walked into the room and sat down” or “A man walked into the room but left without sitting down,” then our text is being de-stabilized. In this hypothetical example, we don’t have a context and therefore we have no way of knowing if this de-stabilization is material or immaterial to the overall text. But you get the idea of what makes for a stable text.


The more that additional manuscripts confirm the text, the more stable it is; the less that additional manuscripts confirm the text, the less stable it is. Of course, if you only have one manuscript you could call it stable, but you really couldn’t say that you had confirmation of the original text. The accumulation of manuscripts increases the opportunity for the text to lose stability. What’s striking about the New Testament is that we have more – far more – manuscripts for it than we do for any other ancient writing or set of writings, and yet this mass of manuscripts has served only to confirm the text – that is, to stabilize it rather than de-stabilize it.


Consider this. In 1611, the translators of the King James Bible had access to half a dozen Greek manuscripts for their work on the New Testament. Translators of recent English versions have access to about a thousand times that many Greek manuscripts. Literally. That is, between 5,000 and 6,000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament (whether partial or complete) have now been identified and cataloged. (Usage of partial manuscripts is common practice for all ancient writings – not just the New Testament.) You might expect, with this thousand-fold increase in manuscript count, that modern English translations of the New Testament would say something different than the King James Version – yet the only differences are immaterial ones. Go to your local bookstore or library and compare for yourself. Or even go online and compare them; it’s easy enough to do.


Comparing the King James Bible with more modern English translations tells us that an additional four hundred years of archaeology and paleography have not changed what the New Testament says. These thousands of additional manuscripts have only confirmed the New Testament text that we already knew. No other ancient text has this degree of confirmation. It is without a doubt the most stable of all ancient texts – by far.


Remember that it not just the number of manuscripts that can increase our confidence in the text – it is as well their chronological proximity to the original. In this respect also, the New Testament is distinguished among ancient writings. The gaps between the writing of the original and the copying of the earliest copies of the New Testament are shorter than those of any other ancient writings.


Therefore, when it comes to the New Testament, is what we’re reading today what was originally written then? In all material respects, yes. Absolutely, yes. To doubt the text of the New Testament would be to throw into doubt all ancient writing. Are we prepared to say that we don’t know for sure whether there ever was a Plato, or an Aristotle, or an Alexander the Great, or a Julius Caesar? Are we ready to deny that there ever was a Greco-Roman world? Are we as the human race willing to accept Alzheimer’s where any pre-Gutenberg history is concerned?


The only way to say that the original texts of the New Testament are unknowable is to say that all of ancient history is unknowable. People who routinely accept ancient history while suggesting that the text of the New Testament is suspect are simply employing a double standard – whether they realize it or not. That this double standard exists and has taken root in many modern minds as an unquestioned assumption is why I am spending so much time bringing basic facts to bear on the subject.



Known Authors


The confidence we can have in the text of the New Testament is matched by the confidence we can have in its ascriptions of authorship to the individual texts. While I will need succeeding chapters to demonstrate this fully to you, let me say here that the standard method of determining authorship, provided to us by Augustine and others, will be met – and exceeded – with all 27 books of the New Testament.


Let me also go ahead and say here that if any anonymous writings had been included in the New Testament, the collection’s accessibility would have been reduced to that degree. For anonymous authorship leaves the author’s identity inaccessible to the reader. An author’s identity is highly relevant to the thoughts conveyed in a writing – especially writings like these. The ancients made clear that they did not include anonymous writings when they left us the New Testament. You will see that when I quote them.


In the meantime, I look forward to explaining to you why when you read in the New Testament, for example, “the letter of so-and-so to the church at such-and-such” you can have as much confidence in the identity of the “so-and-so” as you do in the “such-and-such.”



The Most Accessible of All Ancient Writings


In applying a single standard to all writings handed down to us from antiquity – both classical authors and biblical authors – it is only fair to say that there is no ancient writing about which we can be more confident as to what the text actually says and who wrote it than the New Testament. It’s not that we can’t trust what we read of Plato, Aristotle, and other classical authors – we can. It’s just that we can trust the New Testament texts even more.


I ask you to continue keeping in mind that the religious nature of the content in the New Testament is beside the point of our study. Everything we have said, and will say, is about the New Testament as an example of ancient writing. Period. If, for example, we were comparing the textual reliability of the writings of classical authors Archimedes and Euripides, we’d only confuse the issue if we brought in the fact that the former wrote about mathematics and the latter wrote plays. The subject matter of their respective writings is irrelevant to the number and age of the manuscripts we have of each’s writings. The subject matter about which they write is also irrelevant to the number of other witnesses we might have to their writings – like contemporary and later writers who might quote them, thus confirming textual content as well as authorship. Altering the standards by which we judge the historical reliability of ancient texts based on the subject matter – whether it’s mathematics, drama…or religion – just doesn’t make sense. We should judge the textual reliability of any ancient work by a single standard.























Chapter 6 – Stages in the History of the New Testament as a Text


We can frame the history of the New Testament as a text in three stages.


p<>{color:#000;}. Writing the 27 Texts: 1st century

p<>{color:#000;}. The Age of Formation: 1st to 4th century

p<>{color:#000;}. Acknowledging the One Collection: 4th century onward



Initial Stage: Writing the 27 Texts (1^st^ Century)


The 27 individual writings that comprise the New Testament were originally written in the 1st century. These texts were written by various people at various times in various places. Some of the texts can be dated with more precision than others. Yet for our purposes, we do not need a more precise date than the 1st century as a general date for the group as a whole. The important fact to acknowledge is that each of these writings originated and circulated independently well before they all became a part of a single collection known as the New Testament. The specific year, or even decade, that each was originally doesn’t change that.


This is the stage of New Testament textual history on which we will spend the least time. After all, we are looking at the New Testament from a distance, right? We want to understand the New Testament as a literary unit – and how it became a literary unit. Once we understand that, we’ll have a context for studying its individual components. But that’s for another book besides this one.



Interim Stage: The Age of Formation (1^st^ to 4^th^ Century)


This is the stage of history on which we will spend the most time. In fact, most of the remainder of the book will be spent studying what happened during this period. This is the time during which the 27 individual writings, without losing any of their individual characteristics, became a single fixed collection. In other words, this is the period of time during which the New Testament was formed. It was a time of much copying, collecting, comparing, and winnowing. At this point, some of you could not be blamed if you were to say, “I know copying manuscripts by hand takes a long time…but why would it take 300 years to establish a collection like this?” That’s a fair question and our study of this stage of New Testament textual history will reveal the reasons why it took the time that it did.



Final Stage: Acknowledging the One Collection (4^th^ Century Onward)


Once the New Testament was finally and fully formed, this age of the outcome dawned. That is, the New Testament is the outcome of the process that took place during the 300 years of the second stage of the collection’s textual history. The outcome was a fixed collection of 27 books, widely recognized as not needing any editing. This, therefore, is the age of permanence for the New Testament, for no changes have been made to it since that dawning. It is an age in which we still live – 16 centuries and counting since it started. In our look backwards in time, we’ll examine the beginning of this final stage first.












































Chapter 7 – Final Stage: Acknowledging the One Collection (4^th^ Century Onward)


We live in the era in which the New Testament – including the identity of each of the 27 individual texts that comprise it – is known far and wide. But how did that era begin? What was its dawning like? To answer these questions, we first need to describe the Christian landscape at that time, and, specifically, how it changed so dramatically from what it had been in the early 4th century to what it had become by the late 4th century.



The Changing Christian Landscape of the 4^th^ Century


To better understand Christianity in the 4th century, let’s compare it to what it would become over half a millennium later. In the 11th century, central control of Christendom was the defining issue that caused the break between Eastern and Western churches. The Eastern churches wanted it to rest in the bishops as a group and the Western churches wanted a single bishop at the top. That split created what we today know as the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, respectively. It was as if this institutional vestige of the Greco-Roman world was ruptured, with the “Greco-“ churches being divorced from the “-Roman” ones. (The issue of headship would arise again in the 16th century, resulting in Protestant churches breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church.) Long before all this, in the 4th Century, the churches were still quite autonomous – at least on a city by city, or region by region, basis. No one had “command and control” of the Christian church until 1054 – and even then it was only half the church.


In the first millennium of Christianity, from the time after the apostles until the 11th-century split, each city or region typically had a bishop who presided over the churches in that area. Sometimes there was a group of bishops collegially supervising a city or region of congregations, but more often it became a “monarchial bishop” – that is, a single head over a city or region. Generally speaking, these monarchial bishops were on equal footing with each other, but, as you might expect, some bishops, by virtue of the size of their bishoprics or some other factor, carried more weight than others. Nevertheless, whether monarchial or not, any deference shown by the bishop of one city or region to another was voluntary, as there was no central controlling authority capable or commanding, much less enforcing, compliance.


After the apostles all died, Christian congregations continued to experience either obscurity or persecution by the larger culture. Romans and their allies regarded Christians at best as eccentric and at worst as dangerous. This was just as Romans regarded the Jews. This only makes sense, since Christianity was, in fact, a Jewish sect. This reluctant tolerance or outright persecution that Christians alternately experienced throughout the Roman Empire continued until the early 4th century when its emperor Constantine became a Christian himself (312) and then decreed its toleration as the official position of his realm (313).


Constantine’s toleration was more like active support. In 321, he proclaimed Sunday as the universal day of rest. And in 325, he convened the Council of Nicaea to resolve a controversy that was roiling the churches of the Empire at that time – Arianism. There was always some controversy roiling Christian churches, but only with the coming of official tolerance could an empire-wide gathering of church leaders be held. Thus while bishops had been able to manage controversies that arose within their respective dioceses, the early 4th century marked the beginning of a time in which they could all gather to resolve disputes that were more universal than local.


Nicaea, by the way, was the first of seven ecumenical councils of the church held between 325 and 787: Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople (553), Constantinople (680), Nicaea (787). All of these councils were convened with the goal of resolving some issue of orthodoxy and keeping all the churches on the same page. What’s noteworthy about them for our study is that none of them was called to address the question of the existence of the New Testament or its contents. None of them. This is because the New Testament and its contents was never an issue of sustained controversy – any difference of view that arose was resolved in due course at local levels. Thus the one and only ecumenical council to ever deal with this issue was called in the wake of the Protestant Reformation – long after the 11th century and, of course, much longer after the 4th. I’m speaking of the Council of Trent, held from 1545 to 1563, the result of which was that the Roman Catholic Church and all the Protestant churches – who found themselves in vehement disagreement about so many things – found themselves in complete agreement about the 27-book New Testament. Thus, since the 4th century, the New Testament has been as it is.


Some people in our generation think that one of these church councils, perhaps Nicaea, or even Constantine himself, decided which books would be in the New Testament and then imposed that view on the church at large. People who think this way are victims of their own ignorance. Anyone with a proper knowledge of this period of history would know that 1) such a thing did not happen, and that 2) such a thing could not have happened. It could not have happened for two reasons. First, if some ecumenical council, or Constantine himself, had come to such a decision and sought to impose it there would be evidence of this. There is no such evidence. Gullible people believe it without evidence. Second, there was insufficient uncertainty about the New Testament and its contents by this time for any such edict to be able to change the status quo – which was a growing widespread consensus. That is, churches from one end of the empire to the other were already in general agreement on the subject – as I shall demonstrate to you in this and the coming chapters.


As the 4th century progressed, Christian churches flourished under the toleration of the Roman Empire and the active support of its emperor. In 331, Constantine ordered 50 Bibles to be used in congregations that were being established around the capital of Constantinople. The growth in number and size of Christian congregations continued until 380 when the Edict of Thessalonica made Nicene Christianity the state church of the Roman Empire – that is, the Empire’s sole authorized religion. Roman citizens were streaming into churches and it is in this atmosphere that we see the existence of the New Testament and its contents becoming public knowledge. Bishops were no longer just known by their congregations, but by the public at large. The earliest formal written acknowledgement of the New Testament and its contents as we know it came from one of these bishops.



Athanasius (296-373)


One of the notable bishops of the 4th Century was Athanasius. He presided over the churches of Alexandria, an Egyptian city on the shores of the Mediterranean – a leading city of the world and of Christianity in that time. In an otherwise routine encyclical to his churches in 367 (“Festal Letter 39”), he took the opportunity to describe the contents, first of the Old Testament, then of the New Testament. Although the New Testament order he gives slightly differs from what we have, you’ll see that the contents are precisely the same.


Again it is not tedious to speak of the [books] of the New Testament. These are, the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one; of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans ; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next , to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John.


Speaking of both testaments, Athanasius subsequently added:


Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these.


(Source for both quotes: The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection ed. by Philip Schaff, Kindle location 506803.)


And so the New Testament has been from that day to this.


I am not saying that his letter “settled the issue” for I’ve already said that there wasn’t an issue. I’m saying that his writing here is the oldest extant description of a table of contents that looks exactly like ours. It’s therefore worthy of note.


As for the growing consensus among Christian congregations, note that Athanasius did not seem to be making some sort of pronouncement with his list, even for his own jurisdiction. He just seemed to be recognizing the common view of the churches which he oversaw. This view of his letter is borne out by similar lists that popped up from churches and leaders in other cities and regions subsequently in the 4th Century and into the 5th – lists that confirm the growing consensus.



Jerome (347-420)


Among the confirming acknowledgements of the New Testament as we know it comes this one from Jerome. Born in Italy, Jerome lived in Rome for a while, and later in Syria and Palestine. He was a respected theologian and historian of his day, and he translated the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate) – a translation that would dominate Latin scholarship. Living near Bethlehem in 394, Jerome wrote a letter to a bishop named Paulinus in which he expressed the same view of the New Testament that Athanasius had. Note that though his order differs from Athanasius and from ours, the contents are the same. After listing the Old Testament books, Jerome then writes:


The New Testament I will briefly deal with. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the Lord’s team of four, the true cherubim or store of knowledge…The apostle Paul writes to seven churches (for the eighth epistle— that to the Hebrews —is not generally counted in with the others). He instructs Timothy and Titus; he intercedes with Philemon for his runaway slave. Of him I think it better to say nothing than to write inadequately. The Acts of the Apostles seem to relate a mere unvarnished narrative descriptive of the infancy of the newly born church; but when once we realize that their author is Luke the physician whose praise is in the gospel, we shall see that all his words are medicine for the sick soul. The apostles James, Peter, John, and Jude, have published seven epistles at once spiritual and to the point, short and long, short that is in words but lengthy in substance so that there are few indeed who do not find themselves in the dark when they read them. The apocalypse of John has as many mysteries as words. In saying this I have said less than the book deserves. All praise of it is inadequate; manifold meanings lie hid in its every word. (Letter 53:9, To Paulinus)


(Source: The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection ed. by Philip Schaff, Kindle location 528883-528893.)


Like Athanasius, Jerome then adds a coda regarding both testaments:


I beg of you, my dear brother, to live among these books, to meditate upon them, to know nothing else, to seek nothing else. (Letter 53:10, To Paulinus)


(Source: The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection ed. by Philip Schaff, Kindle location 528902.)


Jerome’s list of books matches that of Athanasius, even though he speaks of them in a different way and in a different order. A pedant might complain that Jerome does not explicitly say that there are two letters to Corinth, two to Thessalonica, and two to Timothy, but a review of the body of his work – or even the Vulgate alone – would reveal that these are exactly the numbers he had in mind. Even more relevant to our study is the fact that he could write this way knowing that Paulinus would know his total count of books would amount to 27. That is, Jerome is writing to confirm what was common knowledge at the time – not introduce a controversial new list.



Augustine (354-430)


Our third list comes from the aforementioned Augustine. He was the bishop of Hippo, a city situated in the western part of North Africa on the shores of the Mediterranean. Around 396-397, Augustine wrote the following in his treatise On Christian Doctrine. After cataloging the Old Testament books, Augustine continues his description of Scripture:


That of the New Testament, again, is contained within the following:—Four books of the Gospel, according to Matthew, according to Mark, according to Luke, according to John; fourteen epistles of the Apostle Paul— one to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, one to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, to the Philippians, two to the Thessalonians, one to the Colossians, two to Timothy, one to Titus, to Philemon, to the Hebrews: two of Peter; three of John; one of Jude; and one of James; one book of the Acts of the Apostles; and one of the Revelation of John. (On Christian Doctrine 2.8.13)


(Source: The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection ed. by Philip Schaff, Kindle location 223236.)


Augustine’s list of New Testament books – like the lists of Athanasius and Jerome – conforms to the contents of the New Testament you and I know. These three men are reflecting what they saw from their elevated vantage points- from north to south and east to west in the Roman Empire - in the late 4 th century. That the New Testament doesn’t look any different in 21st-century speaks to the enduring integrity of the New Testament as a discrete body of literature –shaped in ancient times, and holding fast that shape through countless generations.



Specific Matches in the Three Lists


All three men refer to the collection by the same name – “the New Testament.”


All three men list the New Testament books in the context of having first listed the Old Testament books. That is, they are all presenting the New Testament not just as a collection, but as a collection within a collection.


All three men identify the same 27 books – no more, no less – as the proper contents of the New Testament.


All three men make their declarations based in different locations of the Roman Empire – Athanasius in Egypt, Jerome in Palestine, and Augustine in northwestern Africa.


All three men make their statements in the late 4th century (within 30 years of each other).


I have chosen these three lists to cover in detail for several reasons. First, these were distinguished and widely-recognized men; that is, they spoke collectively for many people. Second, we have clear records of what they wrote. Third, their lists are representative of the multiple lists that began appearing at this point in history. The concrete had been mixing for 300 years and these lists clearly mark the time that it began to set.


Other Lists


Scholars have identified roughly 15-20 such lists that appeared concurrent with, and in the wake of, these three that I have shown you – that is, during the 4th through the 6th centuries. What lists appeared before this time – and there weren’t many – were either incomplete or subject to dispute about dating. As for these 15-20 lists, some of them appeared in the writings of individuals (such as we have seen), some in the proceedings of this regional gathering or that, and some as the contents of an actual Bible or New Testament that was in circulation at the time and whose manuscript has been recovered. Thus it is according to the writings of church leaders as well as manuscript evidence that we know what we know.


The 15-20 lists are not identical to each other, but are very, very similar. Some of the lists include information about specific books rejected, or about books that are commended but not achieving the status of the 27 we know, or may address other subjects. Because of these variations, the lists are difficult to compare line by line. However, if you were to peruse them, you would see the four gospels that we know included in them all – and no other gospels alongside them. You would see the bulk of Paul’s letters if not every single one of them. You would see other matches as well. The near-identical contents of these 15-20 lists is striking just as the exact match we saw in the three lists of Athanasius, Jerome, and Augustine was striking.


Moreover, what minor differences existed between these lists practically disappeared in the centuries that followed. It soon became very rare for any group of Christians to say, “We accept only 26” or “We accept 28.” As rare as it is today. Oh, you can find some groups today who eschew the 27-book New Testament, but only if you look very, very hard. Like sanding a board, the rough edges were quickly smoothed out for the overwhelming majority of interested parties in the time period we are studying. Practically everyone was coalescing around the commonality we saw between Athanasius, Jerome, and Augustine.


Keep in mind also what you saw in the three representative lists – that they seemed intent not on creating or changing church behavior, but rather intent on preserving it. Their description of church practice was prescription for future church practice. And if such pronouncements were authoritative at all it was only so for people in a particular orbit – not for the whole of Christendom. Athanasius was speaking to and for the Christians in Alexandria; Augustine for those in Hippo. There was no one in that age who could speak with a universal authority for all churches. Thus the consistency of the lists speaks of a preexisting consistency of practice among geographically-diverse and governmentally-decentralized congregations. In an environment that seemed to breed controversy, the contents of the New Testament proved strangely uncontroversial.


The near-identical nature of all these lists and the near-uniformity of opinion about the subject in the 4th century do, however, raise a host of questions that beg for answers.



Questions About the Dawn of the Final Stage


How did the New Testament come to be, given that there are no explicit instructions in the New Testament that there should ever be a New Testament?


How did the collection come to be so consistently called “the New Testament” when there was no central church authority to give it such a name or enforce its use?


Why were the lists so similar when there was no central church authority to guide the churches in the building of their lists?


Why are the lists presented in a matter-of-fact manner and not polemically?


Why did the flurry of lists come in the 4th century and not before? In other words, why did it take 300 years for people to become interested a table of contents for the New Testament?


Why did discrepancies in the lists – minor as they were – fade in time shortly after the 4th century when there was no central church authority empowered to tidy up such discrepancies?


Why were the authors of the individual texts named in the lists?


Why does the order in which the books are listed sometimes vary…and yet this never seems to cause controversy?


How is it that Christian congregations could come to such widespread agreement about this matter – without a central authority or church council – when they found it so difficult to come to agreement about so many other things?


These are not all the questions we could ask, but they are enough. You may have already begun to see some of the answers, but where will we go for the rest?



Answers in the Preceding Stages


The answers to all these questions can be found by studying the preceding stages in the life of the New Testament – especially the 300-year interim stage in which the unified collection was formed from 27 independently-produced writings.











Chapter 8 – The Distraction of Religion


This brief chapter will be a digression on the subject of history as it relates to religion. I’m inserting it here because I can almost hear some of you saying, “Whoa there, Mike; you’ve been telling us that you’re going to give us history about the New Testament as a text and keep religious issues out of the discussion, but here you’ve just given us a whole chapter about bishops and churches and communications between them – what gives!?” Fair question, and I appreciate the opportunity to answer it.


Let’s assume that you ask me to watch a room for you and tell you if anyone enters, and I agree to do so, reporting back to you that “a man walked into the room and sat down,” does it matter whether the man was religious or not? Not according to the instructions you gave me. You asked me to tell you what I saw…and that’s what I saw. Any religious thoughts he may or may not have carried with him, or, for that matter, any religious thoughts I may or may not have had as I observed him, are outside the scope of the mission you gave me. You just told me to report on anyone entering that room. That the “anyone” might be religious is secondary to your stated interest.


That these people I’ve been talking about – like Athanasius, Jerome, and Augustine – were Christians is secondary to our purpose in this book. We’re studying what these people said and did. That is, we’re studying their part in the history of the New Testament. History is “what happened.” It’s what people “said and did.” Given that the subject matter of the New Testament is religious it should not be surprising that most of the people handling the text – reading it, copying it, passing it on to others – have a religious orientation. That religious orientation, however, does disqualify them from historical study. That is, it does not prevent us from observing what they say and do. The words and actions of religious people are not exempt from the rules of historiography. And I hope we’ve already agreed that a single standard for judgment is infinitely superior to a double standard.


That the congregations with which Athanasius, Jerome, and Augustine were associated thought that God approved of their veneration of these particular writings above all others is a subject for another day. We’re just interested in why these people are focused on these particular writings more than any others. What is it about these 27 texts that brought them together as a collection, leaving out many other Christian writings of the time which might seem to be worthy of similar attention? This is a reasonable question that history ought to be able to answer without having to depend on theology.


So, I am sticking to my promise that this book takes an “almost secular” view of the subject. My discussions of religious people are not prods to get you to accept their theological judgments. Rather, I’m trying to put you in position to make your own. That’s why I’m encouraging you not to let religious issues distract you from the historical facts. (I’ll have a similar exhortation for you with respect to the word “canon,” but, as I told you, I’ve saved that for a later chapter.)


Thanks for letting me get this out of the way. Now let’s get back to our historical study of 27 discrete texts and how they eventually became one cohesive collection.














































Chapter 9 – Initial Stage: Writing the 27 Texts (1st century)

We’ve described the final stage in the textual history of the New Testament, including its dawning in the 4th century, and this study left us with a number of questions. The answers to these questions are going to be found in our study of the preceding two stages – especially in our study of the interim stage. However, to better understand the interim age we need to momentarily jump over it to describe the initial stage. As I said earlier, this initial stage is the one that will require the least of our time in this book. However, we should not overlook its importance, for only when we compare the way the New Testament looked in its initial stage to the way it turned out in its final stage, can we fully appreciate what took place during its interim stage. In fact, even this brief study of the initial stage will make you all the more curious about what exactly happened during the 300-year interim stage.



No Centralized Publishing House


There is a stark contrast between the initial stage of the New Testament as we find it in the 1st century and its final stage as reached in the 4th. You’ll recall the near-uniform view of the collection, its name, and its contents – and the rapid ironing out of small differences – that we found in the 4th century. Contrast that now with the state of affairs as we find it in the 1st century.


In the 1st century the apostles of Jesus are alive and active. Their mission launched in the mid-30’s. Though in constant friction with authorities, they proclaimed the message they said they had been given by their leader and teacher. Though the evidence we have of their respective deaths is scant, it’s clear that they faced danger from the beginning of their service to the end. Nevertheless, the last of them may not have passed the scene until late in the 1st century.


To be a disciple is to be a student, but these men were more than just disciples. They were also apostles – meaning “sent ones.” When you and I hear the term “apostles” today, our minds usually go to these guys in the New Testament. However, the term “apostle” was not restricted to such use in the Greco-Roman world. Rather, it could be used in various contexts, referring to someone who’d been given a message, a mission, and authority by a sender – the sender normally being some person or group with stature. It’s not as though the apostles had to go around explaining to everyone what an apostle was; what they had to explain was who Jesus was – the one doing the sending. That is, when the hearers of the apostles heard “apostle” they just thought “delegate,” “deputy,” “representative,” or something like that. Thus when the apostles preached, those who heard them would not fixate on the word “apostle” but would instead be thinking, “Who is this Jesus that these people are claiming to represent?”


As Plato spread the teachings of Socrates – a man who left no writings of his own – so the apostles spread the message of a teacher who left no writings of his own. Only the apostles’ mission was conducted primarily by speaking – not by writing. It’s not as though, having received their commission, they sequestered themselves in the upper room to put stylus to papyrus while their literary agents sought lucrative book contracts for them. No. They immediately began preaching in Jerusalem, and continued preaching until death overtook them one way or the other.


By most scholarly estimates, the earliest single New Testament text – one of Paul’s letters – was not written until some 15 years after the apostles began their mission. For a decade and a half to pass before committing any of their thoughts to writing demonstrates their focus on preaching and the secondary importance that writing held for them – at least in the beginning. And when they did begin to write, it was usually because they couldn’t be in two places at once.


There are reports that the travels of these apostles took them from one end of the Roman Empire to the other – and beyond. What writings we have from them seem incidental to those travels and the face-to-face preaching and teaching which occupied them at every stop. For example, we have a couple of letters from Paul to believers in Corinth, and a couple more to believers in Thessalonica – two cities about 350 miles apart. Then there’s a letter from Paul to believers in Rome and another to believers in the region of Galatia – these two locations being separated by a distance of over 1,600 miles (though you could cut it to 1,300 if you were willing to hop on a boat part of the time like Paul did). As for the points of origin of these and all the other letters, they’re all over the map, too. And without our modern means of transportation, all these locations were a lot “farther” apart than they might seem to us. In other words, at their origin our 27 documents were widely scattered by both space and time.


There was no central publishing house from which all the New Testament writings emanated – no single location from which copies of the individual writings and the entire collection could be churned out for distribution. Instead, these writings originated from various places throughout the Roman Empire – wherever one of the authors happened to be at the time the need for writing arose. For many of the texts, scholars can only guess where they might have been written. Thus while the 27 texts that comprise the New Testament ended up together, they certainly did not start out together. Not by a long shot.



No Editorial Control


There are generally two ways in which any collection of literature gets published. Either an editor assigns various writers to write its various parts, or else an editor chooses from preexisting writings what should be put into the collection. In either case, there has to be an editor – someone to bring the writings together to produce the collection.


The apostles did not have the editorial control necessary to produce a New Testament collection because, as we have seen, they were busy traveling here and there preaching and teaching. They had no centralized communications system for keeping track of each other, much less what was written, who received it, who copied it, and so on. Nor did they express any desire to create a New Testament or have others do it for them. Each writing had its own reason for being created, and whatever happened to it after that was under no single individual’s control.


Once Paul sent his letter to Rome, for instance, anyone there could copy it and take it to another congregation…down the road or across the continent. People visiting Rome – and, as the big apple of its day, people were visiting it all the time – could copy Paul’s letter while there and take it back to their home congregations. Apostles didn’t grow on trees, so the more thinly stretched their work rendered them, the more valuable became any thoughts they had put in writing. Copies of their writings were thus being made all over the territories of their travels, well outside the bounds of any editorial or publishing control the apostles might have tried to exert. None of them had any way of knowing that there were a total of 27 of these writings circulating, much less the number of copies that existed at any point in time.

Jerusalem, being the place where the apostolic mission began, could have been a location from which to attempt some sort of editorial control. However, any potential for doing that went up in smoke when the Romans destroyed the city in the year 70. Thus even if the apostles had desired to produce, manage, and publish the New Testament collection themselves, or assign the task to someone else, there were no editorial means to do so.



No Apparent Plan for a Collection


When you’re trying to figure out how the New Testament came to be, it can at first be surprising to read it and see that the apostles were far more interested in speaking their message than in writing it. And it can also be a surprise to realize that the apostles – not to mention the greater geographic dispersion of the writings themselves – were far too geographically dispersed to execute the editorial function necessary to create a New Testament. Perhaps most surprising of all, however, is that you can read the New Testament all the way through without getting the idea that there should be or would be a New Testament.


When we speak of the Bible, we speak of it in as having two parts: Old Testament and New Testament. But when the apostles thought of the Bible, they thought just of the Old Testament. Only they never called it the Old Testament; rather, they called it “the Scriptures” or “the Prophets” or something else. You don’t get the idea from reading the New Testament that the apostles considered what we call the Old Testament to be insufficient in any way – that it needed written supplements. The idea that the apostles’ ministry was going to result in the Scriptures being expanded to include a new bundle of writings, making it a two-part set of Scriptures, calling the original set “old” and the added set “new” something, is just not an idea you can find lying anywhere on the surface of the New Testament.


Because of the varying nomenclature, this can be confusing. Therefore, let me re-state the previous paragraph, using different words. The apostles considered the Hebrew Scriptures, written long before Jesus or any of them were born, to be sufficient documentation for the message they were preaching. That is, the apostles did not regard those Hebrew Scriptures as being “half a Bible.” In time, the writings of the apostles would indeed be collected and added to those Hebrew Scriptures – making it a two-part collection. However, this did not come about because the apostles were calling for this to be done.


Thus we see that the apostles lacked not just the opportunity and means to produce the New Testament, but the apparent motive as well. I’m not suggesting that the apostles would have opposed the creation of the New Testament, nor am I suggesting that none of them had any inkling this might happen, nor yet am I saying that we can’t find hints of its future manifestation in the apostles’ writings. What I am saying is that there is nothing overt in the New Testament about the apostles creating, or instructing anyone else to create, a second part to the Hebrew Scriptures titled “the New Testament.”



All the More Puzzling


Once a person understands, as you now do, that in its initial stage of life the New Testament existed as discrete documents independently produced by various persons for various specific reasons from various locations all around the Roman Empire, and that there is no evidence of a widespread awareness in the 1st century that there were 27 of these texts and that they would be gathered and laid alongside the Jewish Scriptures making two parts – labeled “Old” and “New” – of a new set of Scriptures for Jew and Gentile alike…and such a person contrasts all this with the fact that in the final stage of the New Testament’s development, reached in the 4th century, there indeed came to be a widespread awareness and near-uniform agreement that just such a re-shaping of the Scriptures had taken place…then such a person ceases to wonder why it took 300 years for the 27 writings to become the New Testament and instead starts wondering how the New Testament ever came to be at all! For this reason, we now turn to the fascinating interim stage.


























Chapter 10 – Interim Stage: The Age of Formation (1st to 4th Century)


We’ll take multiple chapters to explore the interim stage of the New Testament’s textual life, seeking to understand how it was that 27 scattered texts became one cohesive collection. Though it may be hard to believe at this point, it will be a mundane explanation – not an esoteric or exotic one.


Most people today do not seem to know how the New Testament came together. Or, worse yet, and more commonly, they have erroneous conceptions of how it took place. In either case, we are ignorant about this formative period. That is, we generally understand the before (27 different writings) and the after (the New Testament as we know it), but not the in-between.


To keep “the in-between” in context, recall our framing of the New Testament’s creation as a collection in three stages:


Initial Stage: Writing the 27 Texts: 1st century

Interim Stage: The Age of Formation: 1st to 4th century

Final Stage: Acknowledging the One Collection: 4th century onward


If the 4th century saw the “birth” of the New Testament, this “in-between” stage was its “gestational” period. It’s not uncommon for gestational activities to hidden from superficial view. In this case, we want to bring them to light.


To focus our study further, let me simplify the framing:


Initial Stage: 27 Discrete Texts Exist: 1st century

Interim Stage: ??????????: 1 st to 4th century

Final Stage: One Discrete Collection Exists: 4th century onward


In other words, most of us are really in the dark about how the sausage got made. Because the interim stage is obscure to most people, when someone comes along and confidently asserts that some church hierarchy chose the books that would be in the New Testament, or some other cockamamie notion like that, people fall for it. If you didn’t know it before, you know now that there was no church hierarchy existing at this time even capable of doing such a thing. The purpose of studying the interim period in depth is to understand what actually took place among the churches so that you’ll be less likely to fall for stupid ideas.


The initial stage was a time when the original documents were written; this interim stage is when they were copied, disseminated, compared, and collected – over and over again, by congregation after congregation after congregation. This is a time when texts were moving around. By the 4th century, they had moved around enough that practically all congregations had the same set of texts that would be the New Testament.


We do not see lists of New Testament books before the 4th century because, as you have seen in the last chapter, no one knew that creating a New Testament was a goal they should be seeking. If they had, they would have probably published progress reports – partial lists, as it were – of what New Testament contents had been identified to that point. You and I will be able to see how the New Testament developed, how it took shape during this interim period, because we have the benefit of hindsight. We know the outcome of the process. The participants in the process, however, could not be guided by a vision of what the New Testament was to be because no one had given it to them.


How then did we get from discrete individual writings to a discrete collection of those writings? By what process were the raw materials of 27 writings of the 1st century turned into the final product of the New Testament by the 4th century? To answer these questions we will identify 1) what drove the process of formation, 2) the factors at work in the background, 3) the values prevailing throughout the formation, 4) the timeline of the formation, 5) the nature of the outcome, and 6) the answers to the questions we asked about how all this happened – spending a chapter on each.
































Chapter 11 – Drivers of the Formation


If we wanted to study the history of the United States of America we would have to talk about Europe. Why? Because the United States of America was not founded by Native Americans but rather by the descendants of settlers who had come from Europe. When those settlers left England and elsewhere for North America, they did not say, “We are going to North America in order to establish the United States of America.” Those intentions could not have been formed at that early date. Such intentions would form and become clear only in due time. Nevertheless, any study of the United States would rightly begin with those settlers, for it was their decisions that drove the process that led to the ultimate founding of that country. Similarly, when we seek to understand the drivers of New Testament formation, will not find a clear intention for a literary collection in the beginning. Nevertheless, we are right to start with the apostles and congregations who got the ball rolling.



The Apostles


As we’ve said, the writings of the apostles contain no instructions that sound like “Collect everything we write and call it the ‘New Testament,’ laying it alongside the Scriptures, which you should from that point forward call the ‘Old Testament,’ so that you can call the combined collection the ‘Bible’.” They do, however, contain instructions here and there that sound like “Make sure you read this letter to everyone there,” and “Share this letter with the church down the road,” and “Be sure to read the letter I sent the other church,” and “Pay close attention to my fellow apostle’s letters.” And the book of Revelation is actually written as a circular letter, addressed to seven different churches, with each church getting to see what the other six churches were told. Such were the small seeds from which the New Testament would – in due time – spring forth.


Like settlers leaving the old world for the new, the apostles were the original drivers of the events that would lead ultimately the creation of what came to be called the New Testament. They launched a process that would take some 300 years to conclude. Their focus was not to create a literary collection; the literary collection was a byproduct of their focus. Nevertheless, to acknowledge them as “first movers” in this process is crucial to a proper historical understanding. And we will see in the next chapter, when we discuss the contextual factors involved, that the apostles loomed large in the process of New Testament formation long after they were gone.


If anything, the apostles’ stature increased after they passed from the scene. They were first-generation disciples. Every one of their converts was, by definition, a second generation disciple. There could be only one first generation. Moreover, the apostles’ claim was not just that they were personal disciples of Jesus, but also that they had been selected and chosen for service as personal emissaries – to exercise authority in his name. Therefore, when they urged the congregations to give as much heed to their letters as they would have to an oral presentation, the congregations took this to be as if Jesus himself was requesting this of them. Thus the letters of the apostles carried the authority of Jesus even when the apostles were no longer alive to make the claim orally.



The Congregations


When the apostles went from place to place preaching their message about Jesus, not everyone believed. What the apostles wrote was for those who did.


What good would it have done later generations for the apostles to have written if there had been no one to read and preserve what was written? Without the congregations of believers to preserve what the apostles wrote them, there never could have been a New Testament. Thus it is a matter of history that Christian congregations are to be considered prime movers, right alongside the apostles, of the multi-generational process that led to the birth of the New Testament.


The apostles claimed to have authority given to them by the one who sent them. These gatherings of believers were those who accepted that claim. As they accepted the claim when it was presented to them orally, so they accepted it when it was sent to them in writing. The apostles sent writings; the congregations received them. The apostles drove the early stages of the process that would form the New Testament with the energy of “push,” while the congregations sustained and furthered that process with the energy of “pull.”


Who else would care what the delegate of a discredited Jew would write? Being crucified by the Roman Empire was an indication of just how discredited they could make someone. If the writings of the apostles were ever to find their way to posterity, there would have to be people with a motivation to safeguard and pass on those writings. Remember though, that while the congregations perpetuated the process we are studying, their original purpose was not to build a library, nor to expand the library they already had, but rather to echo the voices of the apostles whom they had heard and trusted. It was for remembrance of those voices that the congregations were “pulling” – thus making the congregations as much driving forces of the New Testament’s formation as the apostles were.


Remember also that these congregations were operating independently. They took directions from the apostles, not from each other. And that independence was heightened when the original congregation in Jerusalem was dispersed in the Roman siege of the city in 70 AD. With no “mother church” to give guidance and comfort, any literary remains of the apostles became all the more precious. Thus the energy of “pull” survived that first generation of believers into those that followed; when the “push” was gone, the “pull” pulled all the harder.


While there was only a single generation of apostles, the congregations, once established in a locale, kept reproducing themselves and growing – generation after generation. That’s why the “pull” energy for the apostles writings only increased with the passing of time.



The Circulation and Custody of Manuscripts


Because of instructions from the apostles about their writings like the ones we read above, the congregations began copying and sharing the manuscripts each had – one congregation with another. Whether Revelation began as seven copies, each sent to one of the seven churches addressed, or as a single copy, sent sequentially to each congregation who would make its own copy, it’s clear that this letter existed in multiple copies from the earliest stages of its existence. Thus did the circulation and custody of New Testament manuscripts begin practically from the moment they were first written.


“But, Mike,” someone will protest, “you have only established that the apostles could have instigated this copying and sharing practice you’re describing; how do you know that the congregations actually followed their instructions?” We know it in several ways.


First, practically all of the churches in existence in the 4th century were regularly reading these texts in their weekly services. That’s the tradition that Athanasius, Jerome, and Augustine were describing. From where else would these churches have obtained copies of those texts if not from the previous generations of these same churches? We’ve already acknowledged in this chapter that it’s only church people who would have had any abiding interest in the apostles’ writings. There was no other source who could have provided the texts besides the ones that received them in the first place.


Second, we know that the apostles’ manuscripts were copied and circulated from the beginning because we have writings from church leaders and writers throughout the thee intervening centuries indicating that the writings were accessible throughout that time. I’ll give you specifics on some of them in the chapter “The Timeline of the Formation.”


Third, we know in the same way that we know when we see a man that he was once a child crawling on all fours. Or if we see a tree, we know there has been a sapling. Likewise, if we see manuscript copies of the constituent writings of the New Testament all over the Greco-Roman world in late antiquity, we know they must have had a beginning and a continued existence in order to reach that stage.


Some glutton for punishment might go on to protest, “But, Mike, these widespread copies could have come from any source!” Really? Which source would that be? You believe that there was some source in the 2nd through 4th centuries who could mass produce individually hand-written documents and distribute them all over the Roman Empire and convince all the churches to lie and say that these manuscripts had been in their possession all along? Take your place with the most wildly-creative of conspiracy theorists!


Remember that we already established in the earlier chapters of this book that there is no alternative version of the New Testament. There exist no “competing” versions of the book of Romans. The only differences there are between New Testament texts are immaterial ones. As you’ve seen, these texts are the most reliable of all that comes from ancient history of any kind.


Do you want to say that I haven’t proven the New Testament texts to be infallible? You’re right. Do you want to say that I haven’t proven them inerrant? You’re right. Do you want to say that I haven’t proven them to be the word of God? You’re right. I haven’t tried to prove any of these things – nor will I in this book. The purpose of this book is not to establish the infallibility, the inerrancy, or the divinity of the New Testament. The purpose is merely to establish their textual reliability – that the words say now what they said when the texts were originally written. And there is yet more that we can say about these texts without getting into infallibility, inerrancy, and divinity. That’s what the remaining chapters of this book are written to show. Keep viewing the New Testament as ancient literature that behaves like all ancient literature.


The circulation and custody of manuscripts – instigated by the apostles and taken up by the first congregations – is a process that came to take on a life of its own. It became part of what it meant to be a congregation – an ingrained habit.


Because the process of copying and sharing manuscripts started modestly and without fanfare, we do not find progress reports towards goal about how the New Testament was coming along, such as “The church in Smyrna has now gathered 14 of the 27 writings.” Neither was there a sense of urgency about the task, because no one knew the goal. Remember that they didn’t know that the goal was 27. They didn’t even know early on that there were 27 – at least all of the churches didn’t know this. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that any single church knew the number and identity of the 27 writings that came to comprise the New Testament – at least not in the 1st century, and maybe not in the 2nd. In due time, they’d all know. But not until then. The spread of manuscript copies among the geographically-dispersed and autonomous churches was slow and gradual – a point we will explain further in the next chapter.


Let’s review the circulation and custody process. First, a text get written and sent. It’s read aloud to the church, and retained. Sometime after that, it gets copied. (Maybe it was even copied in the time before it was sent; there are some scholars who believe, for example, that Paul, or one of his working associates, began making a collection of his letters even before the first copy was received by addressed congregation.) In a metropolis like Corinth, there are, sooner or later, multiple gatherings – whether in houses or other structures. Each of these is a congregation unto itself and probably wants its own copy of the letter to read and re-read. (More about why this would be the case in the next chapter.) Each of these copies is held in custody by some leader within the congregation. As copies make their way to other congregations, that same custodial function manifests. By such a slow, yet generally steady, process, these 27 texts make their way around the empire – one at a time.


Like a software program that runs quietly in background while you use your computer for specific tasks, this circulation and custody process is going on in background during the three centuries that transpired between people like Peter, John, and Paul sending on the one hand and Athanasius, Jerome, and Augustine recognizing the widespread dissemination and acceptance on the other. No fanfare; no progress reports – but always at work behind the scenes.


While this process was quietly underway, there were a variety of factors which had impact on it – speeding it up in some ways and slowing it down in others. I’ve identified about a dozen or so of them. As we go through them, you’ll see what helped to cause this circulation and custody process to ultimately result in almost every church having in its custody the same 27 texts.














































Chapter 12 – Factors in the Formation

It would be off-topic for me to here list for you, assuming I was able, the dozen or so factors that caused the migrations of various groups and individuals from Europe in the early 17th century to result in the founding of the United States of America as 13 states in the late 18th century, but I am eager to list for you the dozen or so factors that caused 27 texts written in the 1st century by the kind of folks the world usually forgets to become a widely-recognized collection of literature that even an emperor revered by the 4th century.


In this chapter I just want to introduce the factors. Some of them will already be known to you, and I only need to emphasize them. Others may seem obscure and irrelevant to our study. If that’s the case, I trust the following chapter’s discussion of timeline will remedy that. Some of these factors were present throughout the formative period (that is, the 2nd and 3rd centuries); others for only part of that time. Some factors had more influence on events than others; I’ve not attempted to rank them in importance. Don’t anticipate that each factor will operate independently on the circulation and custody process, but rather be ready to see that they combine, or even accumulate, in various ways to affect it…and be affected by it. It’s because of these many variables that study of the formative period can be challenging, and therefore why so many people choose to believe a simpler explanation (like ecclesiastical or imperial edict) even if it’s wrong.



The Status of the Scriptures Among Jews


1st-century Jews held their sacred writings to have been handed down to them by their ancestors, those prior generations having collected and preserved the writings of holy men called prophets whom God had chosen to speak His word – most notable among them a man named Moses.


This Moses had written five books, collectively known as the “Torah” which usually comes out in English as “law” – as in “The Law of Moses.” Appended to these first five books were books of history (such as Kings and Chronicles), books of wisdom (such as Psalms and Proverbs), and prophecies (such as Isaiah and Jeremiah). This entire “library” of books was variously referred to as “the Scriptures,” “the Prophets,” “the Law,” or something else (but never as the “Old Testament” until it was juxtaposed with the New Testament).


The Jews thus regarded their Scriptures as being the word of God through men – but the word of God nonetheless. The rest of humanity often disagreed, but we are not talking about who was right. We’re only talking about what drove Jewish thinking and behavior during the 1st century.



The Role of Synagogues for Jews


The word “synagogue” in its most basic sense simply means a gathering of people, an assembly, or congregation. Some people think that synagogues originated in Moses’ time, but they and nearly everyone will agree that it began to flourish after Israel was conquered and exiled by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in the 6th century BC. That exile resulted in Jews being scattered all over the Mediterranean world. Separated from their homeland and the temple which was the focal point of their worship, these dispersed Jews would gather in numbers as small as ten to pray and read the Scriptures which they held so dear.


Like the word “church,” the term “synagogue” could be used to refer to the worshipers or to the structure that was housing them. Thus synagogue was a place a Jew could find encouragement from fellow Jews, sing and pray to God, and hear the Scriptures read and expounded –even though he may find himself living far from the beloved Jerusalem.



Literacy Rates in Antiquity


While varying definitions can cause literacy rates to be difficult to measure or misleading when they are measured, there seems to be no question that literacy rates in antiquity were much lower than we see in modern times. Some scholars will say that literacy rates for ancient Jews or the earliest Christians were higher than average because of these cultures being particularly oriented toward texts, and, as a result, more importance attached to being able to read. Whether that is true or not, it is certainly true that the synagogue acted as an “equalizer” for nonliterate people, at least where the Scriptures were concerned.


An attentive Jewish boy, for example, growing up with faithful attendance at the synagogue, could absorb a great deal of Scriptural content even if he couldn’t read. This is because the Scriptures were read aloud and expounded every Sabbath. For this reason, Jewish adults could be quite knowledgeable about what Moses and the other prophets had written even if they were not themselves literate. An English-only U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations benefits from translators at the U.N. in the same way that an nonliterate Jew benefited from a scribe. If you’re nonliterate, writing is just another language for which you need a “translator.” The synagogue existed, among other reasons, for the purpose of putting literate and nonliterate Jews on an equal footing when it came to what God had spoken through the prophets of old.


Because literacy rates in ancient times were low, most texts – especially the texts written by the prophets, and apostles as well – were written to be read aloud to groups. We would do well to remember this when we read biblical texts. And it is a point to which our study will bring us back…again and again. In the time period we are studying, most Christians learned the content of the New Testament not by reading it from a page as we would, but by sitting with others and hearing it read aloud.



The Thoroughly Jewish Nature of Earliest Christianity


Jesus was a Jew. The original twelve apostles were all Jews. The inaugural apostolic message that Peter preached on the Jewish Day of Pentecost was to Jews. The martyr Stephen was a Jew. The apostle Paul was a Jew. Need I say more?


Throughout New Testament times, even after Gentiles were included in the movement, the leadership of the movement remained Jewish. This is why you see Roman authorities, when confronted with the movement, referring to it as a Jewish sect. Christianity retained this identity as a sect of Judaism right through the 1st century and only became regarded as a Gentile religion – often in opposition to Judaism – in the 2nd century and beyond.


Thus to read the Bible thinking “synagogue” and “church” are two different kinds of gathering is to read it anachronistically. To think that the Old Testament is for Jews and the New Testament is for Gentiles is even worse. Sad to say, but there are people today who, in their minds, define being Christian as being against Jews – when the term “Christian” itself depends entirely for its meaning on the history and prophecy of the Jews. The New Testament is every bit as Jewish as the Old Testament. I recognize that there are theological implications to all this but I am speaking historically.



The Pivotal Role of the Synagogue in Apostolic Work


As depicted in The Acts of the Apostles, Jesus commissioned his apostles to begin their mission in Jerusalem, and from there to ultimately reach the ends of the earth. Further as depicted, the apostles typically began their work in a new locale by looking for the synagogue. They were Jews; they were sent to Jews. The synagogue, therefore, was the logical place to go to find them.


If enough Jews in the synagogue believed in the apostles’ message, it became a believing synagogue (gathering, assembly, church) and the unbelieving Jews left. Otherwise the unbelieving Jews prevailed organizationally over the believing Jews, and it was the latter who had to find somewhere else to meet as a synagogue (gathering, assembly, church).



The Inclusion of Gentiles with the Jews


You have to read almost halfway through The Acts of the Apostles before you see outreach to the Gentiles begin. However, with the conversion of Paul, called to be an apostle specifically to the Gentiles, that outreach, once launched, never lacked for energy. Besides, truly pious Jews – whether in Old Testament times or New Testament times – always knew that the Gentiles were never far from God’s mind. Until Peter and Paul initiated God’s overture to the Gentiles, however, no one suspected just how generous it would be. And at least in part because of that, we see ongoing controversy in the New Testament about how Gentile Christians vis-à-vis how Jewish Christians were to conduct themselves.


Even with the inclusion of the Gentiles, though, the synagogue remained central to apostolic work. Paul – the apostle to the Gentiles himself – still went to the synagogue first when he entered a new city. And there was more reason for this than you might think. Because Jews did not generally engage in the licentious activities of the Gentiles, the more self-controlled Gentiles would often come to synagogue – where they were allowed to observe and listen at a distance – to learn about the God whom the Jews said had created them all. Thus, Paul would often find fruit for his Gentile mission at the synagogue’s door. As I mentioned above, it was then a matter of either teaching the existing synagogue about what Jesus wanted Judaism to be or else establishing a new synagogue down the street for the same purpose.


For these reasons, Paul’s refrain – especially as seen in Romans – continued to be that the good news of Jesus was “to the Jew first, and also to Gentiles.” Even when a Jewish synagogue would reject him, he’d only turn his back until he got to the next town when he’d start all over again at the local synagogue. Nevertheless, there were just so many more Gentiles in the world than there were Jews, that once the door to the synagogue was opened to Gentiles, it was only a matter of time before they outnumbered Jews. As a result, such synagogues would become culturally less Jewish and more Gentile.


With less access to Hebraic modes of thought Gentile Christians would, especially after the 1st century, become less able to see messianic glories in the prophets of Israel and become more dependent on apostolic texts. The irony here is that the apostles centered their textual attention on Moses and the Prophets, using their own writings only to elucidate the former texts.


The Limited Number of Apostles


Jesus alone appointed his apostles. And he was sparing in those appointments. Whatever the number of apostles, it was finite. Their role was unique and unrepeatable. Their claim was not just to be relaying his teaching, but that he himself had appeared to them and commissioned them to bear personal witness to him. They could delegate others to help them with the teaching, and they did, but they could not delegate the role of being a personal witness to his resurrection. These claims have several implications for the formation of the New Testament.


(By the way, please note that I am not claiming to you, either here or anywhere else in this book, that Jesus was raised from the dead; only that his apostles claimed that he was. Consistent with this, I have not in this book capitalized any pronouns that refer to him. As I keep saying, the purpose of this book is to help you see the texts of the New Testament, as much as possible, as they were originally written. Only then can you read them and come to your own independent conclusion about what they say.)


First, because the apostles weren’t able to be everywhere at once, they had to write letters to the congregations with whom they needed to communicate but could not travel to see – at least not at the time that the need for communication was present. This provoked the production of texts, which would become incorporated in the New Testament.


Second, because the number of apostles were limited to the first generation of believers, their writings would be limited to the 1st century.


Third, there was no widely-understood and accepted plan of succession for the apostles, as there had been with the Levitical priesthood among the Israelites. In fact, the three main branches of Christianity (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant) are still arguing about apostolic succession today. I’m not going to settle that argument here, nor is settling it necessary for our purpose. It is only necessary to point out that the controversy about what to do once all the apostles are gone has implications for the formation of the New Testament.


What all these implications have in common is that however valuable the apostles’ writings were to congregations before they all died, those writings became even more valuable afterward. And with growing numbers of Christians – especially Gentile Christians who lacked the Hebrew mindset to easily find Jesus in, say, Isaiah – the demand for apostolic material increased all the more. When supply is fixed and demand is increasing, that means more and more value is going to be ascribed to the supply.


Now let us be candid enough to say that when in post-apostolic Christianity a church or its leaders want as many manuscripts of apostolic texts as can be found, there can be two kinds of motivations behind that desire: noble and ignoble. Those congregations with the former motivations want to fill the apostolic vacuum with apostolic communication to be used for instruction, while those with the latter want “trophies” with which boasts about being “connected” to the apostles can be made. My illustration is crude, but I trust you recognize the reality and range of human motivations. What both motivations have in common is that they increase demand for copies of the finite number of apostolic texts – which, in turn, increases the velocity of the circulation and custody cycle.



The Relative Utility of Memory Versus Writing


When my father died, I did not immediately start rummaging through his papers to find something he’d written so I could remember the things he’d taught me. On the contrary, my mind was still full of the things he’d spoken to me. My point is that memory works…at least for a while.


My larger point is that the apostles’ deaths would not immediately spike demand for access to their writings. There would still be lots of folks around that could remember a lot more of what they said than we can read in what they wrote. For example, Paul spent a year and a half teaching in Corinth. Imagine what you could have learned sitting through that!


Therefore, in the generation or two following the deaths of the apostles it was still possible to find people who had sat under their teaching and could tell you about a great deal of it. The generations after that, however, are going to be more and more dependent on the apostles’ writings because living memories will have died off.


Think about this a little more deeply for a moment. When you know a person, or know people who know him, what you read of his writing is but a subset of what you know about him. But the more generations that stand between you and that person, the more that what you know of him is a subset of his writings. Had I been George Washington’s friend or son or even grandson or even his gardener’s grandson, I could know perhaps a great deal about Washington without having to read anything. This is all the more true when it comes to knowing people who are not publicly prominent, and therefore not likely to have biographers. I’m speaking, of course, about people like the apostles. With each passing generation, the writings become more and more important.


The closer we are the 1st century, the larger the shadow cast by the apostles; the closer we are to the 4th century, the larger the shadow cast by the writings of the apostles. That is, once the apostles were gone, their writings would begin to take on a life of their own – though slowly and quietly at first. The apostles’ writings were authoritative to the congregations from the beginning but only the passing of generation after generation could reveal how distinctly authoritative they were.


To summarize, at the end of the first generation of Christian congregations, it was the apostles who were fading from the scene. At the end of the second and third generations of Christian congregations, it was those with memories of interaction with the apostles who were fading from the scene. This will have implications for how, why, and when the New Testament came to be formed as a literary collection that was permanently yoked with the collection of what Moses and the rest of the prophets had written.



The Differing Starting Places and Uneven Pace of Manuscript Circulation


The life of Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome started where he wrote it and quickly went to Rome. His letter to the Galatia went a different direction. And so on with each letter and each apostle. These writings were not produced at the same time, nor did they begin life in the same place. Therefore, their circulation could not have started at the same time and place. For this reason, some congregations would have greater awareness of the relevant textual history of a given letter than other congregations. Moreover, every congregation would have more relevant textual history about some writings in its possession than it would others in its possession.


By the way, you may have noticed that I talk about the life of a New Testament writing as if they’re all epistles (that is, letters). I do this for a couple of reasons. First, 22 of the 27 writings are epistles, so what I’m saying applies to the vast majority of the writings. Second, it is not as easy to imagine the origin and early existence of the Gospels or Acts of the Apostles. We all know how a letter behaves – especially when we’re given the identity of sender and receiver; we don’t know as much about these other writings. Therefore, it’s simply practical considerations that keep me using an epistle as the typical New Testament document. Now back to different starting places and uneven pace of circulation.


The more substantive texts circulated farther and faster. This only stands to reason. It’s confirmed also by history. For example, when discussing the dawn of the final stage I mentioned that even in the late 4th and early 5th centuries there were some minor inconsistences between some of the lists. These differences were usually having to do with very short books like 2 John, 3 John, and Jude. These short books don’t have as much to teach, and thus wouldn’t have been at the top of someone’s list to copy and circulate. If the only writing I give you is Romans, you can learn a great deal about Christianity as the apostles understood it – but what if the only writing I give you is 3 John?


In due time, however, there was even resolution about smaller books that circulated with slower velocity and less reach. We’ll find out why in the next chapter. The point for now is that it would be unreasonable to expect all the texts to circulate at the same pace. They did not start at the same place or at the same time; neither did each carry the same amount of information. Therefore, each congregation possessed a different degree of information about the provenance of the texts in its custody. Only in a time when inter-congregational communication was maximized could the respective knowledge levels of the congregations be equalized. And therefore only in such a time could a widespread consensus about 27 specific writings – in the midst of scores, if not hundreds, of contending writings – be achieved. More about the “contending writings” in a bit.


The Circulation of Sub-Collections


Related to the issue of variation in the circulation velocity of certain texts is the issue of smaller collections. We can call them sub-collections, but to impose that term on the ancients of this period would be anachronistic because they knew, for example, collections of Paul’s letters and the fourfold Gospel before they knew of the New Testament. Therefore, to think of them as sub-collections would be anachronistic for them.


Because Paul was so prolific, collecting his letters and circulating them as a group was a natural innovation. Because of the uniqueness of the four Gospels’ testimony to the life of Jesus, it was likewise natural to want to bind them together. These two collection units circulated widely long before anyone began talking about the 27-book New Testament. There is also evidence of collections of the general (catholic, they’re sometimes called) letters (James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1 and 2 and 3 John, and Jude) being in circulation before the 4th-century flurry of lists began.


Think about what this means. The New Testament is less a collection of 27 different writings than it is a collection of collections! What began as individual writings became small collections of writings long before they became the “super-collection” we call the New Testament. Put another way, the New Testament is a set of writings comprised of sub-sets that had previously found a natural cohesion – the most obvious examples of which were Paul’s letters and the four Gospels. Thus the New Testament is a collection of collections in a collection.


Consider how this fact refines our framing:


Initial Stage: 27 Texts: 1st century

Interim Stage: Several Collections: 1st to 4th century

Final Stage: One Master Collection: 4th century onward


Thus the actual progression was a build-up from many texts to small collections to one large collection. The New Testament you hold today actually reveals the small collections. Just observe how the texts are ordered. That is, how they’re grouped. The 27 texts are not in some random arrangement. Even though the order of the New Testament books is not of great importance, from time to time and here and there varying slightly since the 4th century, that there is order says something. Every list or New Testament has an order, and this order is a vestige of their prior existence as smaller collections. Gospels and Acts, Paul’s letters, general letters, Revelation (the most unusual letter).


The New Testament in its final stage was and is Gospels followed by Epistles (with The Acts of the Apostles being a bridge between the two). This came about because in the transition from its initial stage to its immediate stage, the fourfold Gospel and the letters of Paul began circulating as independent collections – the former cohered because of their common subject and genre, and the latter because their common author who, as it turned out, was a more prolific writer than his peers. Thus the New Testament began its interim period as twin nuclei – around which the remaining texts fully cohered by the transition from the interim stage to the final stage. Thus the New Testament began life as a smaller core – two independent collections, which upon coming together, gravitationally attracted all the rest in due time.


It still deserves to be repeated that the congregations who had custody of these texts were not mindfully “creating the New Testament.” Rather, they were preserving and sharing the words of those who first started proclaiming this message about a man from Galilee. Over time, the distinctive nature of these writings from all other Christian writings became more and more apparent.



The Changing Technology of Books


I spoke to you earlier in this book about ancient writing and its dependence on manuscripts. There is a related issue which factors into our study and it is the form that those manuscripts took. In the 1st century, the roll, or scroll, was the primary form in which a manuscript would be produced. While the text on a scroll could be written vertically – and that is the way we most often experience scrolling today on our computing devices – it was usually written horizontally during the times we are studying. Therefore, you would read the scroll left to right – or right to left, depending on the language (Hebrew being read right to left and Greek left to right). You would do this by holding one end of the scroll in your left hand and the other end in your right, gradually rolling from one hand to the other, reading the text in the middle that was passing before you. Often, each end of the scroll was secured to a rod or spindle for easier grasp by the hands.


The material of the book roll was generally papyrus in the 1st century. However, by the 4th century parchment was becoming common. Papyrus is derived from the papyrus plant while parchment is produced from animal skins. Papyrus was cheaper than parchment, but not nearly as durable. This is why copies were so important during the period we are studying. Neither papyrus nor parchment was expected to last forever, but parchment was expected to last longer. Therefore, our accumulation of Greek New Testament manuscripts includes many more parchments than papyri, but the parchments are of a later vintage.


The most significant development in book technology during this time, however, was the advent of the codex. The codex looked much more like the physical books produced after the printing press – the kind of books we still use today. Codices (codices is plural for codex) had pages that turned and were bound so that there was a spine. The codex was much easier to handle than a book roll. Even more relevant to our study is that the word capacity of a codex was much greater than that of a scroll. It is the greater word capacity of a codex that allowed the sub-collections described just above. An entire Gospel (say, The Gospel According to Matthew) could be put on one scroll, but not much more than that. However, all four Gospels could be put together in one codex. Similarly, a codex could accommodate a collection of Paul’s letters in a way that a scroll could not.


From the 1st to the 4th centuries in the Greco-Roman world there was a general movement away from scrolls to codices. However, Christians adopted the codex at a much faster rate than broader society. Their interest in collecting and circulating groups of apostolic texts – and the inability of book rolls to do that – would explain the accelerated adoption rate. It also appears that Christians were continually pushing the limits of codex capacity, moving to combine the collections into even larger collections – first to combine the various collections into the New Testament, and then to combine that collection with the Hebrew Bible. The resulting Christian Bible can be seen in the famous 4th century codices that have remained to this day – including Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus – that book technology would not have allowed much before that.


Even if all the other factors would have allowed the New Testament to be produced in the 1st century right after the documents were all written, the book technology of the 1st century would not have supported the New Testament in a single volume – whether scroll or codex. Again we see that many factors were at work in the 300-transition from texts to collection.



The Primacy of Public Reading


This is a subtle point, and needs to be constantly brought to mind: texts were being collected during the formative period for the purpose of public reading to synagogue-church gatherings – not for the purpose of stocking Bibles in bookstores.


You and I are studying the New Testament and we think of it as a part of the Bible that sits on our desk or near our chair – something that we open up and read at will. For the congregations of the first four centuries of Christianity, however, this material was experienced for the most part by hearing it in a public gathering, not by silent private reading. We must resist such anachronistic thinking.


Neither the individual texts, nor the collections, not yet the super collection were the focus for these people. Again, it was not a matter of providing literature for individuals to read. It was a matter of choosing what to read to them. Thus the manuscripts, whether individual or in collections, were the means to an end. And the end was announcing the apostles’ words to congregations. The writings were merely a vehicle for accomplishing that.


Therefore, the flurry of lists that began to appear in the late 4th century was primarily a statement about what congregational (synagogue, church) readers used when the people gathered, not what every member was expected to have on his bedside table at home. Thus the process of circulation and custody had in mind an aural group experience, not settling on a table of contents for a book. If the importance of this distinction still does not seem important to you, I trust it will during the next chapter.



The Proliferation of Christian Writings


We have hardly any Christian literature from the 1st century besides the New Testament. Its contents represent our oldest Christian writings. From the 2nd century onward, however, Christian writings began to appear…and appear in quantity. By the 4th century, there was a sea of literature from which to choose – making the choice of writings to be considered part of the New Testament all the more deserving of an explanation.


When I contrasted the initial stage of the New Testament with its final stage, and showed the kind of questions this raised about the interim stage, I think you probably shared my curiosity (“…ceases to wonder why it took 300 years for the 27 writings to become the New Testament and instead starts wondering how the New Testament ever came to be at all!”). At first, this factor of many other contending writings may increase that curiosity, but the more you understand it, the more your curiosity will be satisfied.


You can do an internet search for early Christian literature and you’ll easily find scores of texts. They’ll include titles like Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of Judas. You can even search a bookstore and find modern books written about some of these ancient texts – though more about that in a later chapter of this book.


This flood of Christian writing was of varying quality – greatly varying. Some of the literature was edifying and considered by some as edifying enough to be read along with New Testament literature, even if not quite of the same stature. For example, Athanasius, after he has acknowledged the books of the New Testament in his 367 letter, commends the Teaching of the Apostles (also called Didache), and the Shepherd (also called Shepherd of Hermas or just Hermas). Similarly, Codex Sinaiticus, a 4th-century manuscript Bible, includes Shepherd of Hermas along with the Letter of Barnabas after the New Testament.


Many of the writings were, however, clearly unworthy of being commended. In fact, they were condemned outright as spurious – that is, a writing that is not what it appears to be. These include fanciful writings with ridiculous embellishments to the story of Jesus, such as a giant talking cross (Gospel of Peter). They also include obviously fabricated dialogues such as this (Gospel of Thomas):


Simon Peter said to him, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.”

Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”


Many of these inferior writings bore the name of an apostle. It is easy to see why. As congregational interest in apostolic writings increased after the deaths of the apostles, con men realized that arriving in a new town with “a newly-discovered apostle’s writing” in one’s hand might gain an audience with the local congregation. Of course, afterward there was to be the expected financial offering for this “hard-working servant of the Lord” who had brought this hidden treasure to them. Even before he died, the apostle Paul suggested in a couple of places that someone might forge letters in his name. As there were true apostles and false apostles, so also there were true apostolic writings and false apostolic writings.


Complicating the matter was that while one church leader might consider a given writing as edifying, another might condemn it, whether considering it edifying or not, for the single reason that its attribution to an apostle was false. Indeed this was the case both with the Didache and Barnabas. Thus there are certain writings that may have enjoyed temporary inclusion with genuine apostolic writings in this region or that, but over time, as congregations had opportunity to compare notes, counterfeit writings were identified and excluded from public reading.


This process was not swift. All forgeries could not be immediately detected. As for the sincere edifying material, there was no reason to deny the nonliterate congregants access to its contents. Therefore, writings other than those of the prophets and apostles were often read in the gatherings. However, because of the limited number of apostles, because of the relative utility of memory and writing, and because of other factors at work, the distinctive authority of apostolic writings – in due time – became more and more obvious to all concerned. A sincere and edifying writing could get a hearing, but it was a derivative work – it did not stem from the founding period of the movement. It might be read for a time, but the congregation was never going to want the reading of apostles to stop for the same reason Americans won’t allow their founding fathers to be forgotten. Meanwhile, a forgery claimed to belong to the apostolic corpus, but no congregation wanted to be found reading a falsified text as sacred.


Even James Loeb and his editors have had to deal with spurious writings, for classical authors also could be subject to forgeries. Therefore, the editors dutifully distinguish the questionable from the authentic for the sake of their readers. Having been presented with many forgeries or otherwise unverifiable authorial claims, Christian congregations distinguished such writings by simply rejecting them outright as they were discovered to be fraudulent. Thus the New Testament consists only of authenticated writings. That is, the only texts that are included in the New Testament are those that the congregations could collectively corroborate. Thus the New Testament is not just a collection – it is a selection. That it took geographically-dispersed, organizationally-decentralized congregations, operating without modern communications and under the dominion of an unfriendly and often hostile government, a long time to fully separate the true from the false should not be surprising.


Corroboration was not quickly obtained. Thus writings like the Didache and Barnabas were not easily dismissed. It writings such as these, whose actual connection with the apostles was dubious even though their content was deemed helpful, along with the genuine but less substantive texts like 3 John, that constituted the minor inconsistences that existed among the 4th- and 5th-century lists of New Testament contents. These minor wrinkles were then quickly ironed out because, by that time, Christianity had become the state religion of the Roman Empire and communication between congregations flowed with a freedom previously unknown.


I have only scratched the surface of the rising tide of Christian literature – in all its variations – produced during the formative period of the New Testament. What I have shown, though, is sufficient for you to now see that the circulation and custody process we have been studying was also – at its heart – a vetting process, a sifting process, a winnowing process.


Ancient people were as turned off by forgeries as we are. No one likes to be fooled. How did the ancients go about detecting forgers and forgeries? Much the same way we do. Listen to Augustine speak for his time. Keep in mind that when he says “canonical” he means, for our purposes here, what is genuine enough to be part of the New Testament – that is, genuinely from the apostles and the founding period. (I’ll say more about “canon” in our next chapter.) When he says “catholic churches” he means, for our purposes here, “all churches.” When he says “he” he means someone deciding what does and doesn’t belong in the New Testament.


Now, in regard to the canonical Scriptures, he must follow the judgment of the greater number of catholic churches; and among these , of course, a high place must be given to such as have been thought worthy to be the seat of an apostle and to receive epistles. Accordingly, among the canonical Scriptures he will judge according to the following standard: to prefer those that are received by all the catholic churches to those which some do not receive. Among those, again, which are not received by all, he will prefer such as have the sanction of the greater number and those of greater authority, to such as are held by the smaller number and those of less authority. If, however, he shall find that some books are held by the greater number of churches, and others by the churches of greater authority (though this is not a very likely thing to happen), I think that in such a case the authority on the two sides is to be looked upon as equal. (On Christian Doctrine 2.8.12)


(Source: The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection ed. by Philip Schaff, Kindle location 223222.)


Do you see how ordinary and commonsensical is this method of determining what texts belong in the New Testament? You can see now why I said earlier that a proper description of the formative stage of the New Testament – that is, its interim stage – was “a mundane explanation – not an esoteric or exotic one.”


Note also how radically different this picture is from what is so often presented. That is, some people today perceive the contents of the New Testament being imposed from above while the reality is that it was determined on the ground – where the texts were found. Thus the contents of the New Testament were determined from the bottom up, not from the top down. That is, it was the multitude of local congregations working with actual manuscripts, not a few guys with funny hats, who were separating the wheat from the chaff.


The contents of the New Testament were thus determined by those in the best position to judge their authenticity – the custodians of the documents. And greater weight was given to those who were witness to the apostles’ activities, those who first received the texts, and to those whose witness could be best corroborated by other witnesses.


The churches had to sift through a great deal of other Christian writing over a 300-year period in order to keep separate those 27 writings that had been read alongside the prophets from the beginning. That a given Christian writing possessed appealing content was not enough reason to include it if it could not be traced back to the beginning like the 27. That a given Christian writing made a false claim about authorship – however well intended that claim might be – that writing was for this reason alone rejected. For example, if someone were to write a letter based on the thoughts of Paul and attribute it to Paul as an homage to him, that writing would nonetheless be rejected because the claim that Paul wrote it was false.


Thus the advent of prodigious Christian writing meant that the circulation and custodial process had to be a vigorous investigatory process as well. And who to better test the claims of authenticity than congregation who had been recipients and custodians of the letters from the beginning?



The Independence of the Congregations


The apostles established Christian congregations by their preaching, and nourished them by their teaching. The apostles would periodically return to congregations they had established, or write to them, as a means of checking on their progress. Beyond this, each congregation pursued its own course. There were reasons for a congregation to have interactions with other congregations, but it would not be governed by some other congregation. When there were disagreements within congregations or among congregations, the apostles could be summoned to resolve it. We see this happen in the New Testament itself, particularly when James, Peter, and the other leaders in Jerusalem sent a letter to the other congregations to resolve a dispute about the respective requirements for Jews and Gentiles in the Christian movement.


After Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD, and particularly after the apostles had all died by the end of the 1st century, there was no longer a means to resolve such differences. This would not change until the 4th century when the Roman emperor became a Christian and, by guaranteeing an unprecedented freedom of movement and communication, enabled the various city and regional bishops to call an ecumenical council to travel and communicate freely in order to resolve disputes.


Throughout the formative period of the New Testament, each congregation – or at least each city or region of congregations – operated autonomously. When they came to agreement with each other, it was because they chose to – there was no overarching authority to lead the congregations to agreement, much less coerce them. Even after the Roman Empire adopted the Christian religion as its own, the congregations operated independently, requiring an ecumenical council whenever there was a need to resolve major disputes or at least tamp down disagreements – but possessing no day-to-day mechanism for controlling congregational behavior or decisions.


This independence would allow the congregations to eventually – in their own time – come freely to agreement about the provenance of the apostolic texts. This is because agreement would be reached by each congregation sharing with the others the facts it had with respect to the textual history of the apostolic writings which each held in custody. Doctrinal issues were subject to interpretations and opinions, while provenance of texts was about mundane facts. How long have you had this text? From where did you receive it? How many other congregations do you know that have a history with it so that we can speak with them and ask them the same questions? And so it would go.


Had there been a central authority to decide and impose an “official” table of contents for the New Testament, it is unlikely that the widespread agreement we see by the late 4th century, and the near-unanimity achieved shortly after that, would ever have come about. Disagreements about provenance of a given text were resolved by the congregations with more historical facts about the text sharing them with the congregations who had fewer such facts.



The Roman Empire’s Changing Stance Toward Christianity


The inclusion of the Gentiles was launched when Peter preached to a Roman centurion and his household. That the convert was an official of the Roman Empire foreshadowed the eventual conversion of the Empire itself some three centuries later.


The Roman Empire’s stance toward Christianity went from ignorance of it, to disinterest in it, to disapproval of it, to persecution of it, to tolerance of it, to acceptance of it, to adoption of it. And even that 180-degree turn was not all in the same direction or at the same pace. Persecution, for example, ebbed and flowed – appeared here and not there.


The stance of the Roman government toward Christianity is relevant to our study because when, for example, persecution was the order of the day, the circulation and custody process could be interrupted and even threatened. An extreme instance of this was when Roman Emperor ordered the destruction of Christian scriptures in 303. Conversely, when Christians could move about and practice their faith freely, inter-congregational note-comparing about the gospels and epistles in their respective custody could more easily take place.


The greatest liberty of communication between churches came, as we have seen, in the 4th century with Constantine and his successors. Every congregation could speak up about the sacred writings that they read every Lord’s day, and that’s why minor differences were so easily resolved in that age. Augustine could write the way he did about checking with all the churches because he lived in a time when it was possible and practical to do just that. The Christian generations prior to that were inhibited, in varying degrees and at varying times, in so freely exchanging manuscripts and custodial knowledge.



A Process That Is Slow in the Beginning Can Be Swift in the End


The circulation and custodial process, launched by the “push-pull” nature of the apostles communicating with the congregations, had an energy that was self-replenishing, operating continuously in background over a 300-year period. That replenishing was a function of the ongoing growth both in the size of congregations and the number of congregations – generation after generation. This would go on until, in the 4th century, they learned from each other that they had pulled all that there was to pull.


This process was slow in the beginning, gradual in the middle, and swift at the end. It built up steam over time, increasing speed until its climax. The “gradual in the middle” could be halting and uncertain at times, as when persecution dominated the environment. Remember that none of the congregations beginning this process knew that the climax would be a “Part Two” of Hebrew Scripture with 27 writings. Otherwise, they would have striven for that goal in the beginning. Instead, they were just receiving, retaining, and sharing apostolic writings to be read whenever the congregation gathered – meanwhile contending with all the other writings that someone or another was wanting read.


The apostolic writings took time to thorough permeate the growing Christian movement. As it takes time for leaven to fully permeate a lump of dough, so these writings took time to fully leaven the churches.


The goal became apparent in the 4th century. And once a goal comes within sight, people can move more easily toward it. People like to collect things. Once you know there are 27 of something, you quickly find out how many more you need to complete your set. And if you have 28, you sift through your collection to find out whether you’ve got a bad one or everyone else is one short. Once Christianity became the state religion, this mop-up exercise could be completed without much hindrance or delay.


Yes, this process took on an energy of its own, but once all the genuine texts have been identified and cataloged, the process loses its energy because it no longer needs to be sustained. Until all the docs are found and identified, the process continues on its own, but, once it’s found them all, the search comes to an end. The climax has been achieved.














Chapter 13 – Values Prevailing Through the Formation


From the initial stage of the New Testament in the 1st century, through its interim (formative) stage, and well into the dawn of its final stage in the 4th century, Christian congregations had an abiding interest in texts authored by the apostles and for this reason became avid collectors and determined custodians of those texts. This interest was present from the beginning to the end, and did not waver – even though it was at times complicated and compromised by the influx of contending writings. Whether it was an individual writing, one of the smaller collections that first appeared, or the final 27-book New Testament that we know, it commanded the interest of congregations, and was kept in custody, if it was deemed to have come from an apostle of Jesus. Certain values prevailed that enabled and resulted in the eventual separation of the authentic from the inauthentic.



Origin (Authorship)


Authorship of a writing was absolutely critical if it was going to be read along with the prophets in the public gatherings. An anonymous writing would have no standing. To be authoritative for the congregation, a writing needed an authoritative person to take responsibility for having created it. Everyone expected to know who was standing behind the document being read. The idea that a congregation’s leaders would read in the congregational setting a writing whose origin they did not know is inconsistent with what history tells us about these people. They might be fooled, at least for a while, about the identity of an author, but even that demonstrates that authorship was always an issue with them.





It was the apostles who represented the Jewish messiah in whom the congregation had come to believe. Therefore, it was the voice of those apostles, connecting the words of the prophets with the life of this messiah, that deserved to be heard. If an apostle was present, he would speak after the prophets were read. But if absent, a writing from one of them was the next best thing. In this regard, the question of Mark and Luke comes up because they were not known to be apostles. However, Mark’s working relationship with Peter and Luke’s with Paul qualified them as “apostolic men” in the eyes of the early church. (More on this in a later chapter.) Similarly, though to a lesser degree, some might dispute whether James and Jude were technically apostles, yet as brothers of Jesus and leaders of the movement in its foundational stage, resistance to their inclusion could not stand. For these reasons, the term “apostolic” is considered to cast a slightly wider net than the term “apostles” – including Mark, Luke, James, and Jude in its reach. Thus saying that the New Testament consists of apostolic writings would be more quickly digested by more people than saying it consists of the apostles’ writings, because it bypasses the dispute about which persons technically qualified for the title “apostle” – even though the two statements are not saying anything materially different. This is because in the time that the New Testament took to develop there was no question that there had been an apostolic cohort of contemporaries whose ranks were known – and which included the co-workers of Peter and Paul as well as the brothers of Jesus – and that this cohort never expanded beyond that first generation.


To ancient ears, “authoritative” and “apostolic” would sound, to some degree, redundant. Therefore, being modern people, let us fully sensitize our ears to what being an apostle meant. To be an apostle was to have been given authority – in this case by Jesus. He put the apostles in charge of the movement he started. Therefore, their writings had authority because they had authority. In the final stage of the New Testament’s development, continuing to today, some people might believe that the writings possess authority because they were part of Scripture and one could afford to be agnostic about a given writing’s authorship (“We don’t care where it came from; it’s the word of God!”). However, when it came to the people of the first three centuries who preserved, copied, circulated, collected, and continually read these writings in their public worship, it was the apostle’s authority that gave the writing authority – and the two could not be conceptually separated if authority was to be maintained. The congregations believed that this messiah gave his personally chosen representatives authority, and that authority carried through to their writings.





As you learned when we explained the proliferation of Christian writings, a claim to apostolic authorship had to be verified, for there were many pretenders. When a letter came to a congregation, it was usually delivered by a co-worker of the apostle. That was the initial confirmation to the congregation. Other congregations who obtained copies could confirm their legitimacy with the congregation that first received the letter. Augustine’s description of the means of corroboration above fills out this picture. The importance of authentication may not have been immediately apparent to all the congregations, but the experience of actual forgeries forged in them a determination to always be on guard against inauthentic writings – especially given the immediate interest that any claim of apostolic authorship was likely to provoke.





The Muratorian Fragment, a partial list of New Testament writings which scholars date alternately to the 2nd century or the 4th century, does not allow a certain popular writing to be included among the apostolic writings because it was written “very recently, in our times.” The fragment goes on to say:


it cannot be read publicly to the people in church either among the prophets, whose number is complete, or among the apostles, for it is after [their] time.


(Source: The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance, by Bruce Metzger, page 307.)


This value, of course, relates to apostolicity. The author of the list is saying that in order to be included with the apostolic writings, it must have been written during apostolic times. This value also relates to authenticity, because if a document were to be presented as apostolic while it was written after they all died then it would obviously be inauthentic.



Handed Down


An element of a writing’s importance was that it was said to be “handed down” from one generation to the next. This follows the pattern of the Jews who, as you read above, “held their sacred writings to have been handed down to them by their ancestors” (emphasis added). If you lived in the time when a document was written, you could receive it from the author. After that, it would be “handed down” from the generation before you. You would not accept a writing presented to you anonymously. Demonstrating consistency with Jewish heritage, Athanasius talked about the books “handed down” in the preface to his list of the 27 books that we read from his festal letter of 367. This manner of reception emphasizes the value of knowing from where a book had come. This can be contrasted with a document that is, say, found in a cave – and therefore would have no one to vouch for its provenance. The value of being “handed down” is consistent with the idea of a “chain of custody” which will come up later.




These then are the values that were actual attributes of the 27 writings and that attracted and held the abiding interest of those who first received the 27 writings in the 1st century, and all those who handled them from one generation to the next, until the New Testament took final form in the 4th century…and thus it has been ever since. This abiding interest of the custodians accounts for the preservation of these documents in antiquity and our possession of them in modernity. You will see that interest abide as we walk through the timeline of the New Testament’s formation.



















Chapter 14 – The Distraction of Canon


Before we get to the chronology, let me take another pause in the discussion. This will be my second, and final, digressive chapter. The earlier such chapter was a brief exhortation for you to stay focused on the history of the New Testament as a text and not be distracted by the religious issues, concerns, opinions, or people around it. This chapter will deal with a slightly more complex, but somewhat related, distraction: the issue of canon – as in “the canon of the New Testament.”


Typically, books on the subject of this book address the subject in terms of “canon.” That’s why you see the word “canon” in many of the titles listed in the bibliography. I have found, however, that “canon” is usually a red herring in terms of history, because it can divert attention from the history. Plus, the subject of canon is particularly prone to anachronism. By now you can see why. When I read and study these books I look behind the fact that someone thinks, or thought, that a certain writing was canonical to understand why they consider it canonical. It’s in studying why that we can find nuggets of history among the dust of other reasons someone might consider a writing “canonical.” If a bishop, or group of bishops, thinks a book is canonical, that carries no weight in our study. If, however, they believe it’s canonical because they have evidence of its authorship then we are very much interested in that evidence and the identity of the author. That a writing is “canonical” is a theological or ecclesiastical judgment; however, that there is “evidence of its authorship” points to a historical fact.


Athanasius could speak in terms of canon because he was writing in the late 4th century when Christianity was becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire. An official religion needs official books, and “canon” is just another way of saying “official.” Being “official” was hardly the focus in the 1st century, or even the 2nd or 3rd. The government of the Roman Empire was, at its most benign, disinterested in Christianity in those days, and the congregations had other things on their minds besides “establishing a canon.” Such language would have been foreign to them, and, when it did become important to them, it did so gradually toward the end of those 300 years. What was a consistent focus throughout that period was authenticity – which was at the heart of the vetting system that was the circulation and custody process. That was why I was happy to quote you in the last chapter Augustine’s reference to “canonical books” – because he made it clear that to him and his contemporaries canonicity was a function of authenticity. That takes all the mystery out of it. And, by the way, takes the religion out of it, too.


When you study what we are studying and define it as the “canonical process,” as so many do, you are looking at the issue anachronistically and guaranteeing that you will misunderstand and misrepresent the motives of those engaged in the process – especially those engaged in the beginning of it. Referring back to our analogy with American history, it would be as if you inferred that the original European immigrants to North America came here with the clear-cut intention of instituting a constitutional republic with a bicameral legislature. Early participants in the process that resulted in the New Testament did not set out with that intention any more than passengers on the Mayflower were picturing the swearing in of George Washington as they sailed across the Atlantic.


Anachronistic thinking bedevils practically all conversations about canon. For example, modern conservative scholars and modern liberal scholars – who are, of course, at odds about many things – are at odds about dating the finalization of the New Testament canon. The conservatives see it as generally set by the 2nd century and the liberals generally push that to the 4th century or even the 5th century. To make their case, conservative scholars strain to find references to the 27 writings as “Scripture” in 1st or 2nd century literature while such literature has references aplenty to the apostles and their writings. Conversely, modern liberal scholars, in their quest to peg the 4th and 5th centuries as the period of canonization, overlook the perennial authority of the apostolic writings that led to their canonization.


The cloud of anachronism hangs over this conservative-liberal debate, and it shows no signs of dissipation. Moreover, the respective religious convictions of these scholars tilts them in opposite directions on any uncertain point. Since our study has to do with history – and not religion or theology or ecclesiology – we don’t have to be burdened with deciding when the canon was finalized. We only want to know the provenance of the writings and the collection so that we can have a proper historical view of what it is we’re reading – that the text we’re reading is what was originally and that the author named is the actual author.


Another argument we can avoid is the one that Protestants and Roman Catholics have about canon. The Protestants say “sola scriptura” (scripture alone), meaning the Scripture, not a pope or anyone else should rule. The Roman Catholic retort is “If our guys hadn’t given you the canon, you would have no way of determining what Scripture was.” Meanwhile, the Eastern Orthodox guys are hollering from the corner “Who’s guys did you say they were?”


Regardless of “who’s guys” it was, all three major branches of Christianity – Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant – consider the same 27 books of the New Testament canonical and have ever since they were first declared canonical. That fact does not, in and of itself, hold any meaning for us. However, we have been studying the drivers and factors that led to this surprising agreement. Since these denominations disagree about so many other things, why in the world have they found it so easy to agree about this? As we’ve seen, it’s because the contents of the New Testament are not the result of a theological decision. They’re not even the result of an ecclesiastical decision. They’re the result of a mundane process that involved the hand-copying of texts, sharing them from one congregation to another, and weeding out counterfeits.


Beyond any reference to the Bible, the term “canon” finds modern secular usage, too. Whether it’s regarding a television show, a recording group, a comic book series, or something else, people will ask if something particular is “in or out of the canon.” As with the biblical usage, the question is about “what’s official” or “what really counts.” Someone has to make that decision and it has to be whoever has the right to make that decision. That someone is the original creator of the television show, comic book series, or whatever – the person or organization with authority over it. That’s why discussions of a biblical canon inherently involve assumptions about the church’s (ecclesiastical) or God’s (theological) authority. This puts the cart before the horse in terms of our purpose.


We want to be able to read the New Testament in order to make an informed decision about God. If we have to make that decision before we read it, won’t it be an uninformed decision – at least uninformed by the New Testament? Moreover, wouldn’t we be engaging in circular reasoning – assuming the conclusion in the premise? That would be like requiring a juror to give his verdict before you’ll let him see the evidence.


The reason I don’t want to be distracted by the subject of canon, is that I just want to know what it is that I am reading when I read the New Testament. That’s all. I just want to know what I’m reading.


I want to take you to the New Testament text like I came to it, reading for the same reason I might read any other great book. To put a finer point on it, I read it because it belonged to the canon of great literature and in spite of the fact that it belonged to the canon of the church. I came to believe it was the word of God, but only after I had engaged with it as the word of men. The purpose of this book is to enable you to engage with the New Testament as the word of men. I don’t see how 1 Thessalonians, for example, could ever be the word of God if it is not first the word of Paul.


Once you are confident that the New Testament is what it appears to be – writings from some 1st-century Jews named Paul, Peter, John, and so on who claimed to be speaking on behalf of a contemporary of theirs, Jesus of Nazareth – then you can decide for yourself if these men knew what they were talking about. Until then, someone else’s opinion about the value of their writings should stand in abeyance.


Therefore, I hope that you can keep from being distracted by the subject of canon. All you want to know is if you can read the New Testament the same way you’d read something from James Loeb’s classical library – that is, as if the text before you is what the author wrote.


From this point forward in this book, I’ll have to use the word canon – even if sparingly – because some of the people whose views we need to examine use that language. I trust that, given everything you’ve learned in this book so far, you can look past their use of that term and just cling to what their comments mean for New Testament textual history.














Chapter 15 – The Timeline of the Formation


Some of what I write in this chapter will be a review and summarization of what we’ve learned so far; the rest will be additional fact – both general and detail – to fill out your knowledge of the formative period of New Testament development – the period between 27 writings and one collection. In short, I’m going to be telling the story we’ve been learning, but in a stricter chronological order.


As a reminder, the formation of the New Testament was a silent process, undirected by any individual or group, taking place without oversight and without progress reports. Therefore, until the 4th century, the New Testament per se is not going to be “sticking its head up.” What we will be able to see are signs that there was a “chain of custody” for the texts that became the New Testament. This is what Augustine called “the unbroken chain of evidence.” We will listen to those who from one generation to the next made clear their awareness of these texts and their authors. The evidence is clear and abundant that Christian congregations respected, retained, and reproduced the writings of the apostles long before they knew those writings were to be collected and bound alongside the writings of the prophets.



The Early 1^st^ Century


During the first half of the 1st century, Jesus of Nazareth made his mark. According to his apostles, he commissioned them to tell his story and pass on his teaching. They began that process in roughly the mid-30’s. By the year 50, they had also begun to include the Gentiles. And by this time also, Paul was preaching the message he had previously tried to silence, and was doing as much to bring Gentiles into the movement as Peter had done in the beginning to bring in Jews. Even so, it continued to be perceived as a Jewish movement – and not the Gentile alternative to Judaism as it would come to be seen by many as time went on.


Throughout this time, what we call the Old Testament constituted “the Scriptures of record” insofar as the apostles were concerned. They did not frame their letters as their way to expand Scripture, but rather their way to explain Scripture – just as they had been explaining it orally.



The Late 1^st^ Century


According to modern scholars, this is when most of the New Testament’s texts were first written. Throughout this time as well, however, what we call the Old Testament remained “the Scriptures of record” for the Christian movement. The writings that would later become the New Testament called attention to Jesus of Nazareth and how he was the fulfillment of what “the Scriptures of record” had long promised. Believing congregations received these apostolic writings with reverence not because they believed that Jesus had commissioned his apostles for the purpose of increasing the page count of Scripture, but because he had given them authority to speak and act on his behalf. It was the authority of the apostle that made the writing special; it was not at all that the writing was sacred and the author a side issue.


I make this last point because so many readers of the New Testament today have been led to believe that the authorship of any given book in the New Testament is not important. This is not at all how ancient Christian congregations viewed the matter. Perhaps you have already fully realized this from what I have written to this point, but I take the opportunity now to make it more clearly and emphatically. It is just plain ahistorical to suggest that the ancient Christians who compiled the New Testament were concerned only with the text and not the author of it. I’ll have more to say about this in the chapter “Modern Challenges to an Ancient Verdict.”


By 70 AD, Jerusalem was destroyed, leaving the growing Christian movement completely decentralized. There were thriving congregations in a number of geographically-disparate places, but Jewish authorities still resisted them and Roman authorities were beginning to resist Christianity for their own reasons. The churches were on their own, though the thinning ranks of apostles would still visit and write as much as they could. When, that is, they weren’t in prison for the purpose of shutting them up and restricting their movement.


By roughly the century’s end, the last of the New Testament documents has been written, the last of the apostles has died, and there is no known and publicized plan for creating a New Testament. Not only was there not a plan for this, it was not even known to be goal for which it was the church’s responsibility to produce a plan. It wasn’t on anyone’s radar; the minds of the congregations and their leaders were focused elsewhere.


The abiding interest of the congregations which I’ve emphasized – in authentic writings whose authors were apostles – did experience a shift from the 1st century to the 4th. In the beginning the emphasis was on the writings as apostolic, but by the end the emphasis was on the writings’ status as Scripture. The apostolic authorship was still important, but “the Scriptures of record” for the Christian movement had by this time expanded beyond the Hebrew Bible. They now included the New Testament as well. This gave 4th-century congregations a way to speak about the apostles’ writings that had not occurred to 1st-century congregations. You will see this emphasis shift in the abiding interest as we walk through the centuries.


While the circulation and custody status of apostolic manuscripts may have started slowly in one sense, it was quite swift in another. In fact, it’s obvious that before the end of the 1st century, Paul’s letters were already circulating well beyond the congregations to whom he originally addressed them. Clement (? – c.100) was the bishop of Rome. His letter, 1 Clement, was one of those that was for a brief time and in select locales, was regarded as being of the same class as the apostles’ writings. However, in that very letter Clement makes clear that the apostles’ status was unique, referring to them as


the greatest and most righteous pillars of the church (1 Clement 5.2).


(Source: The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection ed. by Philip Schaff, Kindle location 175139.)


Clement also wrote in his letter (“Cephas” being another name for Peter):


Take up the epistle of the blessed Apostle Paul. What did he write to you at the time when the gospel first began to be preached? Truly, under the inspiration of the Spirit, he wrote to you concerning himself, and Cephas… (1 Clement 47:1-3)


(Source: The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection ed. by Philip Schaff, Kindle location 175530.)


Speaking on behalf of the second-generation of disciples of which he was a part, Clement also declared in memorable fashion,


The apostles have preached the gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. (1 Clement 42:1-2)


(Source: The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection ed. by Philip Schaff, Kindle location 175474.)


Thus we see that reverence for the authority of the apostles was a characteristic of first-generation congregations that continued unabated, if not heightened, into the second.



The 2^nd^ Century


Ignatius (c.35 – c.109) was bishop of the city of Antioch (northern Syria). Like his contemporary Clement, Ignatius demonstrates in his own writings an awareness of, and reverence for, the letters of Paul. Ignatius even writes a letter to the Ephesians, alluding to Paul’s letter to the same. Ignatius makes references to other apostolic writings as well – including at least some of the four Gospels. Most of all, Ignatius speaks of his reverence for the authority of the apostles, making clear that he was not claiming to be in their ranks. Given the dates we have for Ignatius, his writings bear witness to broad awareness of the letters of Paul and the Gospels in the late 1st century as well as at the beginning of the 2nd. That is, Ignatius is a bridge between the two centuries, giving us a look at both.


Polycarp (69-155) was bishop of the city of Smyrna (western Asia Minor). Like Clement and Ignatius, Polycarp demonstrates his awareness of and reverence for the letters of Paul. Also like Clement and Ignatius, Polycarp writes a letter to one of the very same congregations Paul had written: Philippi. All three church leaders, therefore, mimicked the apostles’ pattern of writing to congregations, while nonetheless making sure readers understood that they were not claiming to be apostles themselves. Thus as Christian leaders in each succeeding generation confessed, “I am not an apostle” the writings of the apostles became more and more distinguished from all other writings.


Papias (c. 70-163) was bishop of the city of Hierapolis (western Asia Minor). He passes on what he has received, that “Mark became Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered.” For this reason, many considered “the Gospel according to Mark” to be the Gospel according to Peter” even though it was always credited to Mark. Thus the earliest evidence we have of circulating collections are of the letters of Paul, but evidence of the Gospels is not far behind. Moreover, Papias shows signs of familiarity with other writings that would become part of the New Testament, including 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation.


As for the relative utility of memory versus writing, Papias wrote this:


For I did not imagine that things out of books would help me as much as the utterances of a living and abiding voice.


(Source: Eusebius. The History of the Church 3.39.4. Translated by G. A. Williamson. Penguin, 1965, page 150)


In the time of Papias, there were still people who were present when the apostles spoke. As adults today have listened to firsthand testimonies of those who experienced World War II and the Holocaust, so Papias was able to listen to those who had experienced apostolic ministry. Once those eyewitnesses and participants have passed from the scene, apostolic writings become all the more important.


Men like Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Papias were second-generation disciples, having been catechized by other disciples rather than by Jesus himself, as the apostles had been. Second-generation disciples were of the first generation of congregations and comprised the chronological generation that provided a bridge between the generation of the apostles and all the other generations that followed. We find in their writings far more references to the writings of the apostles than to those of the prophets. This speaks clearly to the unbroken chain of testimony we find in history to the writings of the apostles. Beyond this, it also speaks to the increasingly Gentile orientation of the congregations.


With the passage of time, congregations retained the synagogue practices of public reading, but, because of the rising tide of Gentiles within the congregations, would find it easier to understand what they were hearing from the apostles than what they were hearing from the prophets. Catch the subtle shift. In the first generation of Christianity, when it was still a thoroughly Jewish movement, or, at the very least, a movement led by Jews, the apostles’ words were used to elucidate the Scriptures of record (the writings of the prophets). In the subsequent generations, however, increasingly Gentile in their cast, and with living memories of the apostles fading from the scene, the apostles’ writings themselves became the subject of elucidation. By such small subtle steps, and over an extended period of time, the congregations would ultimately find their way to a bipartite set of Scriptures.


In this shift, we can also see that it was not just Paul’s prodigious literary output as compared to any of the other apostles that led to his letters circulating sooner and faster than those of the others, but it was also because he was an “apostles to the Gentiles.” Therefore, his letters more directly concerned Gentiles, and, as a result, would be more easily understood by Gentiles. As the percentage of the congregations that was Gentile rose, so also did demand for Paul’s writings over and above any other writings being read in the congregations.


This demand for, and particular interest in, the writings of Paul reached its apex – you could even say exceeded its appropriate apex – in a Gentile named Marcion (85-160). Marcion was from Pontus (a region in northern Asia Minor). His father was a bishop, while he himself earned a living in nautical trade. Marcion’s writings have not survived, but that he made quite a stir is confirmed by the extant writings of his critics, who were many and who were prominent among the churches (some of whose names appear in this chapter).


Marcion took an idiosyncratic view of Paul’s teaching. In support of that view, Marcion held to the common view that apostolic writings were authoritative but insisted that this applied to only to certain apostolic writings. Specifically, he held that Luke was the only authoritative Gospel (trimming its contents in the process) and that only Paul’s epistles were authoritative (reducing their number to ten in the process). Thus Marcion was producing a “New Testament in the 2nd century. Studies of the New Testament canon feature Marcion prominently, identifying him usually as a heretic but also as pivotal in the ultimate formation of the New Testament that we know in the 4th century because he seemed to be the first person to insist on a canon per se.


For the purposes of our historical study, it matters not whether Marcion was heretical or orthodox. What matters is that everyone involved – both he and his opponents – held to the view that apostolic writings had authority in the congregations. To me, the most obvious question this episode in church history raises is “Why did Marcion’s critics not respond with New Testament canon lists of their own; that is, why didn’t the flurry of lists we see start in the 4th century start in the 2nd?” Yet I have not been able to find a church historian who shares this curiosity. For a variety of reasons, generally reflected in the long catalog of formation factors I have given you, the time was not yet ripe for lists. Marcion had a theological purpose, but the blossoming of lists that began in the 4th century was born of practical considerations – not theological ones. Marcion found followers but his cause ultimately did not prevail among Christian congregations because, among other reasons, he was asking them to deny the authority of some apostolic writings – something their prevailing values would not allow them to do.


One of Marcion’s many opponents was Justin Martyr (100-165), who was born in Palestine and martyred in Rome (hence his name). Justin was a prolific writer and vigorous defender of Christianity. However, only a few of his works have made their way down to us, though more than enough to demonstrate the continuing “unbroken chain” of testimony to the importance of the apostolic writings. Justin is known for his frequent reference to the Gospels as the “memoirs of the apostles.” He is also known for this description of a typical congregational gathering. (Note the consistency with the Jewish synagogue practice as it had existed in the days of the apostles.)


And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. (1 Apology 67.3)


(Source: The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection ed. by Philip Schaff, Kindle location 6150.)


Justin also demonstrates familiarity with, and reliance upon, other New Testament writings beyond the Gospels. He thus reflected the majority view of the congregations against Marcion – that no authentic apostolic writing could be rejected or downgraded.


Tatian (c. 120 – c. 180) was a theologian, originally from Assyria (roughly modern-day Iraq and Iran). He met Justin in Rome and became one of his students. He produced a work called the Diatessaron. It was a re-writing of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John into a single narrative – thus a harmonizing of the four Gospels. It enjoyed use, especially in Syria, but only for a couple of centuries. This demonstrates that the congregations’ abiding interest was in apostolic writing in its original form. As the Jews had regarded the writings of the prophets – that is, neither to be added to nor taken away from – so the Christians were regarding the apostles.


Marcion had tried to subtract from the apostles’ writings while Tatian tried to add to them. The congregations, having been given a taste of both approaches, ultimately rejected both approaches. The process of circulating and keeping in custody authentic apostolic writings in their original form would continue.


Irenaeus (130-202) was the bishop of Lugdunum (modern-day Lyons, France), whose writings date to just after Justin Martyr. Irenaeus quotes from, or alludes to, passages from almost all of the 27 writings. Further, he distinguished authentic from inauthentic writings when he alluded to the counterfeit gospels, which were increasingly being spread by enterprising deceivers, in this oft-quoted statement of his:


It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. (Irenaeus Against Heresies. 3.11.8).


(Source: The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection ed. by Philip Schaff, Kindle location 14498-14507.)


I don’t take Irenaeus’ to be using the logic of “four winds” and such to make an argument that there should only be four gospels, but rather he seems to be evoking the widespread and longstanding acceptance among the congregations of only four, and doing so in poetic language.


We see from our study of these 2nd-century writers that no awareness of the apostles’ writings was lost among the congregation. On the contrary, the writings that had reached many congregations by the end of the 1st century, reached many more throughout the 2nd. Based on the popularity of writings bearing the apostles names, a tide of Christian writings is rising – some false, some sincere.



The 3^rd^ Century


Clement of Alexandria (150-215), who is called such to distinguish him from the earlier Clement of Rome, was a Christian teacher in Alexandria, Egypt. His extant writings reference all the books of the final New Testament except for 2 Peter and 2 John. As to the importance of the apostles, Clement writes:


For we have, as the source of teaching, the Lord, both by the prophets, the Gospel, and the blessed apostles, “in divers manners and at sundry times ,” leading from the beginning of knowledge to the end. But if one should suppose that another origin was required , then no longer truly could an origin be preserved.

(Stromata Book 7 Chapter 16)


(Source: The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection ed. by Philip Schaff, Kindle location 38765.)


Serapion (?-211) was the bishop of Antioch (northern Syria), a prominent city in ancient Christendom. When confronted with a spurious gospel (Gospel of Peter), he wrote this as the standard by which any such work should be judged:


We, my brothers, receive Peter and all the apostles as we receive Christ, but the writings falsely attributed to them we are experienced enough to reject, knowing that nothing of the sort has been handed down to us. (Eusebius, The History of the Church 6.12.2)


(Source: Eusebius. The History of the Church. Translated by G. A. Williamson. Penguin, 1965, page 252)


Note the criteria stated by Serapion for writings to be accepted: 1) authentic apostolic authorship which, by this fact, carry Christ’s authority, and 2) that have been “handed down.”


Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240) was based in the city of Carthage (central northern coast of Africa; modern-day Tunisia). He wrote extensively, especially against heresies, which had become quite a concern for the congregations throughout the period we are studying. While we don’t want to get caught up in what was or wasn’t a heresy, we do want to notice what the congregations viewed as the essential way to ward off heresy: fidelity to the apostles’ writings.


Listen to Tertullian describe how the cities to whom Paul sent letters have become famous among the congregations.


Come now, you who would indulge a better curiosity, if you would apply it to the business of your salvation, run over the apostolic churches, in which the very thrones of the apostles are still pre-eminent in their places, in which their own authentic writings are read, uttering the voice and representing the face of each of them severally. Achaia is very near you, (in which) you find Corinth. Since you are not far from Macedonia, you have Philippi; (and there too) you have the Thessalonians. Since you are able to cross to Asia, you get Ephesus . Since, moreover, you are close upon Italy, you have Rome… (The Prescription Against Heretics, chapter 36)


(Source: The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection ed. by Philip Schaff, Kindle location 49333.)


This passage demonstrates that the ancients had a very concrete way of following the “paper trail” of apostolic writings – a way that is not available to us.


A central aspect of the message that the apostles preached, as revealed in their writings, is that the Jesus that they represented had come in fulfillment of God’s promise through the prophet Jeremiah that there would one day be a “new covenant.” That is, according to the Jews, God was in covenant with His people but that covenant would be rendered “old” by virtue of the “new” one He would establish. Christian congregations accepted the apostles’ claim that Jesus was indeed the fulfillment of that promise for a new covenant; Jewish congregations did not.


In the minds of Christian congregations, the prophets thus became associated with the covenant that was “old” and the apostles became associated with the covenant that was “new.” In the Greek language, “testament” and “covenant” can mean the same thing so it’s not hard to see how “old covenant” and “new covenant” could be rendered “old testament” and “new testament.” Over time, the terms “old testament” and “new testament” came to be specifically associated with the respective writings of the prophets and the apostles.


Tertullian was not the first person to use the phrase “New Testament” to describe the apostles’ writings. We find it in the writings of Clement of Alexandria, and Irenaeus before him. However, in Tertullian’s writings we find more clear-cut references to the “New Testament” as a class of writings. Nevertheless, he made such references without an accompanying attempt to precisely define which writings belonged to that class and which did not. This may disappoint our modern minds, but we must keep reminding ourselves that we have the benefit of hindsight. That is, we know where all the ancients’ drivers, factors, and values are going to take them. They haven’t gotten there yet.


In an earlier chapter I reported how the ancient church thought about apostolic writings more broadly than we might assume (thus including Mark and Luke along with the brothers of Jesus), and promised further comment. Here it is. Congregations in the formative period included Mark and Luke with Matthew and John because the authors of the former two, while not technically regarded as apostles, were regarded as “apostolic men” in view of their close working relationships with Peter and Paul, respectively. Evidence for this view is clearly reflected in this quote from Tertullian (which occurs, by the way, in a polemic against Marcion):


Of the apostles, therefore, John and Matthew first instil [sic] faith into us; whilst of apostolic men, Luke and Mark renew it afterwards. (Against Marcion, Book 4, Chapter 2)


(Source: The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection ed. by Philip Schaff, Kindle location 51746-51756.)


On this basis, the ancient church clearly regarded the writings of Mark, Luke, James, and Jude as belonging to the apostolic corpus without having to say that Mark and Luke, or even James and Jude, were apostles per se. Whether viewed as apostles or “apostolic men,” their writings belonged because they lived and labored in the apostolic age under the direct supervision of the apostles themselves.


To deepen your appreciate of the importance of apostolicity and the writings deemed to qualify for that description to the congregations of this period, I want to quote a full chapter from Tertullian’s instruction manual for how to deal with what they deemed heretical teaching. Because it’s long, I added emphasis to words and phrases that speak to the abiding interest and prevailing values of the ancient church from the time there were 27 independent writings to the time there was one cohesive collection.


But if there be any (heresies) which are bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the apostles, because they existed in the time of the apostles, we can say: Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops , running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [that first bishop of theirs ] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men,— a man, moreover, who continued stedfast [sic] with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter. In exactly the same way the other churches likewise exhibit (their several worthies), whom, as having been appointed to their episcopal places by apostles, they regard as transmitters of the apostolic seed. Let the heretics contrive something of the same kind. For after their blasphemy, what is there that is unlawful for them (to attempt )? But should they even effect the contrivance , they will not advance a step. For their very doctrine, after comparison with that of the apostles, will declare, by its own diversity and contrariety, that it had for its author neither an apostle nor an apostolic man; because , as the apostles would never have taught things which were self-contradictory, so the apostolic men would not have inculcated teaching different from the apostles, unless they who received their instruction from the apostles went and preached in a contrary manner. To this test, therefore will they be submitted for proof by those churches, who, although they derive not their founder from apostles or apostolic men (as being of much later date, for they are in fact being founded daily), yet, since they agree in the same faith, they are accounted as not less apostolic because they are akin in doctrine . Then let all the heresies, when challenged to these two tests by our apostolic church, offer their proof of how they deem themselves to be apostolic. But in truth they neither are so, nor are they able to prove themselves to be what they are not. Nor are they admitted to peaceful relations and communion by such churches as are in any way connected with apostles, inasmuch as they are in no sense themselves apostolic because of their diversity as to the mysteries of the faith. (The Prescription Against Heretics, chapter 32)


(Source: The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection ed. by Philip Schaff, Kindle location 49259-49277.)


Thus, long before there was a settled New Testament with a table of contents widely-known and widely-affirmed, there was this clear-eyed allegiance to that which was apostolic and thus tied to the apostolic age. This theme was present when the documents were first written all the way through until the Hebrew Bible gave full birth to the twin-testament Christian Bible.


Origen (?-254) was yet another prolific writer of the 3rd century. He was a theologian who was considered orthodox for a while, but ultimately heterodox – if not heretical. As I’ve said, our historical study does not require us to judge who was heretical and who was not; it only requires us to recognize what people said and did that contributed toward 27 books becoming a unified collection. Origen is yet another 3rd century writer who demonstrates familiarity with the vast majority of apostolic writings that ended up in the New Testament. I mention him, however, for another reason: his connection with the question of who wrote the New Testament book of Hebrews.


The authorship of Hebrews was a point of contention at certain times and in certain places during the first three centuries of the church. And the ancient most often quoted on the subject is Origen, who famously said, “Who wrote the epistle is known to God alone” (Eusebius, History of the Church 6.25.14). Anyone who has studied the authorship of Hebrews has encountered this quote. It is presumed by many people to be the final word on the subject. But this only reveals how shallow is our knowledge of these ancient times. For here are Origen’s words in their context:


If I were asked my personal opinion, I would say that the matter is the Apostle’s but the phraseology and construction are those of someone who remembered the Apostle’s teaching and wrote his own interpretation of what his master had said. So if any church regards this epistle as Paul’s, it should be commended for so doing, for the primitive church had every justification for handing it down as his. Who wrote the epistle is known to God alone: the accounts that have reached us suggest that it was either Clement, who became Bishop of Rome, or Luke, who wrote the gospel and the Acts. (Eusebius, History of the Church 6.25)


(Source: Eusebius. The History of the Church. Translated by G. A. Williamson. Penguin, 1965, page 266)


Thus Origen was not at all saying that no one could name the author of Hebrews – far from it. His claim was that the congregations from the beginning had handed it down as Paul’s. What had become uncertain was who might have transcribed what he had said.


My purpose in this chapter is not to get you to accept the verdict of the ancient church about the authorship of Hebrews. We’ll address that in a later chapter. Neither is my purpose to get you to take Origen’s side against his opponents. I simply want you to acknowledge yet one more example of how much people in the formative period cared about authorship of texts – especially if that claim asserted apostolicity.


Let me re-cap the progress of New Testament formation in the 3rd century. The sampling of writers we have surveyed demonstrate familiarity with even more of our 27 texts than their counterparts in the previous century – so much so that Eusebius, about whom you’ll soon hear more, could put together putative lists of what Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen would each consider to be comprising the New Testament. This is evidence that the circulation and custody process has continued in background all this time, inexorably distributing the apostles’ various texts to an ever-growing number of geographically-dispersed and organizationally-decentralized congregations all over the Greco-Roman world. We have also seen the term “New Testament” come into fluent usage as a descriptor for certain writing, though without specifics about every one of the 27 that would, in the next century, be named one-by-one.



The Early 4^th^ Century


Lactantius (c. 250 – c. 325) was a Christian author who eventually became an advisor to Constantine I, the first Christian Roman emperor. He demonstrates, by the early part of the 4th century, just how fluent Christian writers had become in discussing the New Testament as a collection of writings.


But all Scripture is divided into two Testaments. That which preceded the advent and passion of Christ – that is, the law and the prophets – is called the Old; but those thing which were written after His resurrection are named the New Testament. (The Divine Institutes, Book IV, Chapter 20)


(Source: The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection ed. by Philip Schaff, Kindle location 129282.)


Still, Lactantius does not discuss the contents of this New Testament about which he speaks. Fortunately, we have Eusebius.


Eusebius (263-339) was the bishop of Caesaria and was, among other things, a historian – the first to chronicle Christianity’s earliest centuries. We could wish that we had had someone like him in every century, but let us not be greedy. His survey of the state of play in New Testament development alone is immeasurably helpful. As you’ve noticed, he’s already helped us by providing some of the material I’ve presented to you earlier in this chapter.


As a historian, Eusebius covers many subjects. He’s reporting on the first 300 years of Christianity and has to cover it all by himself. We don’t know how many other histories might have been attempted or written, but his is the oldest to survive. It is his work on New Testament contents that most interests us. And it attracts us because no one else from this era or before has written about it with the focus that he has. He seems to care about the New Testament in the same way we do – that is, he wants to know what writings do and don’t belong within it.


In his History of the Church (sometimes called Ecclesiastical History or even Historia Ecclesiae in some references), he references the writings that concern us in various places and contexts. As mentioned above, he inferred a list of acceptable books from the works of Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. Thus, even though none of them put forth their own table of contents, he sought to fill in what they had left blank. He also makes comments here and there about the authenticity of specific writings. However, there is one section of his work that concentrates on our immediate question. It is the 25th chapter of the third book of his work, which I shall give you in its entirety. I think it’s important for you to hear this in his words, because it conveys the spirit of the times – the way they thought about these things. It also demonstrates continuity with what I’ve reported to you about other observers from previous centuries.


Chapter 25. The Divine Scriptures that are accepted and those that are not. 1. Since we are dealing with this subject it is proper to sum up the writings of the New Testament which have been already mentioned. First then must be put the holy quaternion of the Gospels; following them the Acts of the Apostles. 2. After this must be reckoned the epistles of Paul; next in order the extant former epistle of John, and likewise the epistle of Peter, must be maintained. After them is to be placed, if it really seem proper, the Apocalypse of John, concerning which we shall give the different opinions at the proper time. These then belong among the accepted writings. 3. Among the disputed writings, which are nevertheless recognized by many, are extant the so-called epistle of James and that of Jude, also the second epistle of Peter, and those that are called the second and third of John , whether they belong to the evangelist or to another person of the same name. 4. Among the rejected writings must be reckoned also the Acts of Paul, and the so-called Shepherd, and the Apocalypse of Peter, and in addition to these the extant epistle of Barnabas, and the so-called Teachings of the Apostles; and besides, as I said, the Apocalypse of John, if it seem proper, which some, as I said, reject, but which others class with the accepted books. 5. And among these some have placed also the Gospel according to the Hebrews, with which those of the Hebrews that have accepted Christ are especially delighted. And all these may be reckoned among the disputed books. 6. But we have nevertheless felt compelled to give a catalogue of these also, distinguishing those works which according to ecclesiastical tradition are true and genuine and commonly accepted, from those others which, although not canonical but disputed, are yet at the same time known to most ecclesiastical writers— we have felt compelled to give this catalogue in order that we might be able to know both these works and those that are cited by the heretics under the name of the apostles, including, for instance, such books as the Gospels of Peter, of Thomas, of Matthias, or of any others besides them, and the Acts of Andrew and John and the other apostles , which no one belonging to the succession of ecclesiastical writers has deemed worthy of mention in his writings. 7. And further, the character of the style is at variance with apostolic usage, and both the thoughts and the purpose of the things that are related in them are so completely out of accord with true orthodoxy that they clearly show themselves to be the fictions of heretics. Wherefore they are not to be placed even among the rejected writings, but are all of them to be cast aside as absurd and impious. Let us now proceed with our history. (


(Source: Eusebius. The History of the Church. Translated by Arthur Cushman McGiffert. Archeron Press, 2012, Kindle location 2077-2102)


Eusebius is not giving us his opinion – at least not his opinion alone. From his base in Caesaria, he has surveyed his fellow bishops in the various geographic regions to which the congregations have now extended themselves. As a seaport on eastern shores of the Mediterranean, Caesaria is well positioned for the task. Eusebius is telling us that there are quite a number of apostolic works whose authenticity is accepted without dispute. These amount to 21 of the 27 books. I’m going to repeat the list I gave you at the beginning of the book, and put in bold the books Eusebius reports as accepted without dispute.



p<>{color:#000;}. Matthew

p<>{color:#000;}. Mark

p<>{color:#000;}. Luke

p<>{color:#000;}. John

p<>{color:#000;}. Acts

p<>{color:#000;}. Romans

p<>{color:#000;}. 1 Corinthians

p<>{color:#000;}. 2 Corinthians

p<>{color:#000;}. Galatians

p<>{color:#000;}. Ephesians

p<>{color:#000;}. Philippians

p<>{color:#000;}. Colossians

p<>{color:#000;}. 1 Thessalonians

p<>{color:#000;}. 2 Thessalonians

p<>{color:#000;}. 1 Timothy

p<>{color:#000;}. 2 Timothy

p<>{color:#000;}. Titus

p<>{color:#000;}. Philemon

p<>{color:#000;}. Hebrews

p<>{color:#000;}. James

p<>{color:#000;}. 1 Peter

p<>{color:#000;}. 2 Peter

p<>{color:#000;}. 1 John

p<>{color:#000;}. 2 John

p<>{color:#000;}. 3 John

p<>{color:#000;}. Jude

p<>{color:#000;}. Revelation


At first, it sounds like Eusebius is saying that Revelation is accepted, but it becomes apparent that there is some dispute of which he is aware. It’s not apparent in this passage, but it’s clear from other parts of Eusebius’ book that when he says letters of Paul he means all 14 (which would include Hebrews). Thus by the time of Eusebius in the early 4th century there is widespread attestation among the congregations that 21 of the 27 books are authentic – that is, their authors are who we think they are, and they are apostolic (that is, written by either apostles or apostolic men).


Note that there is no dispute about which books should be excluded – even regarding the edifying ones. Spurious books were to be rejected from the class of “New Testament writings” on their face. Edifying books were to likewise be rejected from “New Testament status” but could be read privately for whatever value they provided. Public reading in the congregations was by this time reserved for the writings of the prophets and the apostles – the former by now regularly being called the Old Testament and the latter regularly being called the New Testament.


At this time, Christian congregations are autonomous, separated, and still living in the shadow of Roman opposition. In fact, the Diocletian persecution – the last and most severe of the Roman period – was underway during some of this time. Eusebius himself had been imprisoned, and had seen martyrs die. Without the ability to communicate freely and frequently, they were inhibited from sharing the portion of textual histories that each possessed for all the writings in question. Therefore, we should not be surprised that they weren’t in complete agreement about six of these texts; instead, we should be scratching our heads at why 21 of them are unquestioned.



The Late 4^th^ Century


We have now come full circle. I do not need to tell you the state of things in the late 4th century because I already described it to you in the chapter titled “Final Stage: Acknowledging the One Collection (4th Century Onward).” At the end of that chapter, we jumped to the initial stage, and then walked our way step-by-step through previously-opaque but now more-visible formative period, arriving now back at our jumping-off point – the dawn of the New Testament’s final stage of development.


You could ask how the congregations were able to resolve their differences about the six books that Eusebius identified as disputed, but if you’ll recall the factors impacting the formative period, the answer becomes apparent. With the conversion of Constantine, communication among the congregations was opened up like never before. They were able to fully exchange their respective histories with the disputed texts.


When it comes to the textual history of any writing, it is much easier to make a positive case than a negative one. Of course, it’s only easier if the facts support your positive case. However, I’m assuming that the facts do support your positive case, or at least you think they do – otherwise you wouldn’t try to make it. Thus congregations in doubt about a text may express that doubt, but they’re not likely to press other congregations for agreement – unless they have a positive case that the text in question is a counterfeit. Thus the congregations that have positive evidence for a disputed text are the ones likely to be making a case for it – assuming they can get a hearing with the doubting congregations.


Let’s walk this through. If my congregation has never seen 3 John, for example, we might dispute its authenticity. However, if we have opportunity to engage with congregations that have had a history with it, we can gradually become comfortable with its authenticity – if we are convinced by the facts submitted to us. Conversely, it would be foolish for us to continue to argue that there’s no way 3 John could be authentic in the face of facts that a reasonable person would accept. If I’ve never met your son, I might assume that you don’t have one. However, once you tell me you have a son, and mutual friends tell me that they know him, I’d be foolish to insist that you don’t.


Beyond the freedom of inter-congregational communication brought on by the conversion of Constantine, the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire later in the century further encouraged the congregations to come to agreement about texts. The official status of churches would make any dispute about a text more obvious, and thus require some justification for its continuance. If I as a good Roman now decide to become a Christian in Rome and then move to Constantinople and encounter different texts being read in the gatherings, I’m going to question why the difference. There’s no one to make the congregations in the two cities agree about this, but there would be pressure on each to justify the difference to its constituents. And, as I’ve said, it is easier to make the positive case if you have the facts on your side. No congregation wanted the embarrassment of publicly reading a discredited text. Thus the only way a dispute about a text could be resolved one way or the other is with persuasive facts. Every text was either a forgery or genuine – and the relevant facts, once accessible to all, would lead the “jury” of congregations to a common verdict.


Throughout the period of time in which the New Testament was taking shape, we have seen a process of circulation and custody at work. The very nature of this process created a “chain of custody” for the apostles’ writings. Each of the many, many congregations was, throughout this time, accumulating texts to read in its gatherings. Eventually, they were able to share 300 years of history with these texts with each other. Not every congregation had been in existence for the whole 300 years. Even for the congregations that old, all did not have access to all the texts for the entirety of that time. Thus the complete leavening of texts through all the custodians of those texts would take the entire 300 years to complete. Remember the changing stance of the Roman Empire. Remember the different starting points and uneven pace of circulation. Remember how book technology affected the collecting and distribution of groups of texts. Remember the relative utility of memories versus writings. Remember all the factors that affected this 300-year period. When you do recall these things, you will see how it was that so many different people who disagreed about so many different things could – in the end – agree that these 27 writings were legitimate and unique among all writings of that period.


I am unaware of any historical record of the specific interactions among congregations between the time that Eusebius recorded the unresolved disputes over the six writings identified above and the flurry of lists in the 4th through 6th centuries that revealed them to have been resolved. As disappointing as this might be, it’s utterly unsurprising given that we have no historical records of how any of the disputes over books were resolved in the 300 years prior this. Oh, yes, the history shows us that there were disputes, but any record of “this is how those who disagreed met and resolved the issue” is hard to find. As I’ve been saying, the process of custodians comparing notes on provenance is rather mundane and not the sort of thing that prompts sensational headlines or extensive written reports.


Not that we need more proof, but there’s icing for this cake. That the custodians of these texts were custodians of copies and not the originals offers us even greater assurance of their provenance. How? With an original, whoever has custody of it has the opportunity to alter it. However, with copies widely distributed to autonomous custodians, none of them can alter the text without all the other custodians discovering the alteration. As we observed earlier in this book, there are no material differences in all the copies of New Testament texts we have, whether in print or manuscript. Similarly, with multiple custodians of copies we have greater assurance of the provenance of texts – and, specifically, the identity of the author.


Is the timeline we have covered in this chapter long? Yes, the 300-year vetting process for the writings that came to be called the New Testament was unusually long…but it was likewise unusually thorough.


























Chapter 16 – The Nature and Result of the Formation

Looking back on the drivers, factors, and values at work during the 1st through the 4th centuries, and the chronological process that flowed from them, what might we say about how the New Testament came to be?



An Unguided Process


In the 1st century, the participants in the process we’ve studied were not looking to form the New Testament – they were looking to survive the apocalypse! Little did they know that their actions would lead – ultimately – to an expansion and transformation the Hebrew Bible. It was an expansion by virtue of the writings added; it was a transformation by virtue of establishing two parts to the revised collection, with names that simultaneously distinguished the two parts from each other and connected them to each other. One is “old” and the other is “new,” yet they are both “testament.”


I am speaking here entirely from a literary – not a theological – point of view. Theology remains outside the interest of this book. The creation of the New-Testament-Old-Testament conceptual paradigm was a consequence of various factors interacting, the byproduct of other concerns – not an intentional creation for literary purposes. If it had been, the collection could have been formed much sooner.


If no one was holding a new bipartite Bible up as a goal, and indeed no one was, then no one could write a plan to achieve this goal. And if no one could write a plan to achieve it, then no one could follow a plan to accomplish this expansion and transformation. Surely you have arrived at certain states in life without having planned to get there. This is like that.


Once we got to the early 4th century, Eusebius could see the finish line. Therefore, he sought to help the process along. He is the one who told us about Constantine ordering 50 Bibles in 331 (which was probably after Eusebius had completed the part of his History of the Church that we read). If you’re going to produce a Bible for the emperor, you probably don’t want your colleagues taking pot shots at you for what you did or didn’t put in it. Thus what Eusebius wrote had very practical implications for him very soon thereafter. These sorts of sensitivities were at work in the last stages of the process, provoking a sense of urgency that wasn’t present, necessary, or appropriate in earlier centuries.


If a process is natural and undirected then no one is controlling its pace because, by definition, no one knows there’s a pace to control. Only when seeking a goal can we be aware of a pace. Only when we know the end from the beginning can we leave the beginning consciously headed in the direction of the end.



A Very Gradual Process


Watching the New Testament form is like watching paint dry or grass grow. We who study it through a historical lens have the benefit of hindsight, but, because the participants in the process are not following a road map, they don’t know to give us updates every so often on progress to date. So it’s still a difficult process for us to observe.


This extreme gradualness makes it hard to discern turning points or pivotal moments. There are many of those, not one or two. And most of them are occurring among thousands and thousands of conversations and activities to which we are not privy.



A Process of a Million Little Decisions


If the New Testament is a literary collection, then each congregation was an editor pulling it together. They selected the books, assigned the titles, and put them in order. They didn’t know that’s what they were doing until near the very end of the three-century process. They just thought they were making sure the congregational reader had something to read from an apostle after he finished reading something from a prophet.


Therefore the process of forming the New Testament is not a matter of one or two big decisions. It’s not even a matter of 27 big decisions. It’s a matter of the millions of little decisions that were made in the circulation and custody process. It was deciding whether to copy this or that writing. Deciding whether you trust the source from whom you received it. Deciding if the authorial ascription is true. Deciding with whom to share the copy once you’ve painstakingly produced it. Deciding whether and when to read it in a congregational gathering.


The process by which the New Testament was formed was therefore quotidian, mundane, and even monotonous at times. In most important ways, it was the very same sort of workaday process that a conscientious editor undertakes when producing an anthology of prose. What distinguished this process was that it involved so many different editors working in so many different locations over such a long period of time.


The logical question is “How did so many different groups come up with the same 27 books?” Not theologically. There could never have been such a collection – arrived at without sustained controversy – unless it was determined by non-theological selection criteria. The ordinary way was the only way. Let me explain why this was so, but you may already have seen it for yourself.



The Result of the Process Was a Report About Tradition


We think of the New Testament as literature – and it is. But what created it was oral tradition. It is merely a reflection of that oral tradition. In other words, the New Testament is a report of what churches were reading in their congregations. Well…half of what they were reading. The other half was coming to be called the Old Testament.


Go back to the very first synagogue that the very first apostle entered. He would listen to the prophets being read… for that’s what they do in Jewish synagogues. The apostle would then step forward and say, in essence, “What that prophet said, I saw.” In other words, the apostle had come to tell that congregation that the words of the prophets were being fulfilled through a man he knew. That scene was repeated over and over again…until it was manifested in the form of a reading from the prophets followed by a reading from the apostles.


Remember that, depending on which way that synagogue responded to the apostles’ message, it would from that time forward be a synagogue that believed in the messiah that the apostle had preached or a synagogue that didn’t. The believing synagogues have since come to be known as churches, but in the beginning they were simply Jewish synagogues that believed the apostles. Over time, apostolic writings began to take the place of the apostle being there to speak for himself. At first, and in some congregations, it was because he was absent and sent a letter to them. After the apostles died, the writings they left were the only thing that could take their place in the gatherings. And, over time, those writings found their way to the vast array, and increasing number, of congregations. Also, over time, those writings came to be seen as in a class by themselves.


Even when the synagogue did not embrace the apostle’s message, he would take the individuals who did, go down the street, and start another synagogue. As I explained earlier in the book, the terms “church” and “synagogue” are, in essence, synonyms. Because they carry such different connotations, I used other synonyms – such as, congregation – that don’t carry the baggage. But go back now and see clearly that in the beginning of the Christian movement – when it was still primarily a Jewish movement and not a Gentile movement – there were two kinds of synagogues from the apostles’ point of view: believing and unbelieving. And, over time, you would be able to tell the difference by what they read and when they read it. One kind read from the prophets on Saturday and the other read from the prophets and the apostles on Sunday.


The flurry of lists that began appearing in the 4th century weren’t the table of contents pages ripped for Bibles stored in a warehouse. It was only in the 4th century that codex technology was reaching a point where a whole New Testament, a whole Old Testament, a whole Bible could be stored within one codex. Thus those lists were primarily a report of what was regularly read in the churches of that day.


The reason that the lists looked so similar is that just as the Jewish synagogues were in the habit of reading the prophets, so the Jewish synagogues that accepted the apostles’ message got into the habit of including the apostles in the mix. We have evidence from Justin Martyr that this was already the case by the middle of the 2nd century. One of the things that made it take so long to get to the lists of the 4th century is the time-consuming nature of copying and checking out the authenticity of everything that kept coming to the synagogue for reading to the people. We’ve seen that. What I want you to see here is there is only one way these 4th century lists could be so similar. Why is it that, when asked what they read each week, so many of them gave the same answer?


How can innumerable geographically-dispersed, organizationally-decentralized groups come up with the same answer to a problem? By giving them a problem like “What’s two plus two?” By that, I don’t mean a problem that is incredibly simple. Rather, I mean a problem that can be solved by ascertainable facts. The authorship of a New Testament book was an ascertainable fact – especially for the congregations that lived back then. They were just reading what they had ascertained to be genuine. And, by the 4th century, this was something they had been doing for 300 years.










































Chapter 17 – The Answers to Our Questions


When we first examined the state of play in the 4th century, we asked some questions about how and why such a state was reached. Let’s go back to those questions and fill in the answers our research has given us.


Questions and Answers


How did the New Testament come to be, given that there are no explicit instructions in the New Testament that there should ever be a New Testament? The apostles did write the congregations and exhort them to heed their writings. The initial congregations complied, and publicly reading from these writings at each gathering was simply an embellishment to the synagogue tradition of reading Moses and the prophets. Over a long period of time and the effects of multiple factors, this tradition eventually resulted in the accumulation of the same writings in every congregation. The lists that began proliferating in the late 4^th^ century were simply regional reports of the then current stage of that developed tradition.


How did the collection come to be so consistently called “the New Testament” when there was no central church authority to give it such a name or enforce its use? Both the prophets and apostles had used the terms old and new testament (or covenant) in discussing God’s dealings with people. The congregations began to associate the prophets with the former and the apostles with the latter. Over time, this association extended to their respective writings.


Why were the lists so similar when there was no central church authority to guide the churches in the building of their lists? The congregations thought similarly about the uniqueness of the apostles and the scourge of forgeries. Americans today would think similarly about the uniqueness of their county’s founding documents and the undesirability of forgeries. In other words, there’s something very human and very commonplace about the way these congregations thought about the genuineness of writings.


Why are the lists presented in a matter-of-fact manner and not polemically? There was nothing theological about which they could argue. Theological arguments would arise based on different interpretations of what the apostles had written, but whether or not the apostle had written a given text was a matter determined by investigation, not interpretation.


Why did the flurry of lists come in the 4th century and not before? In other words, why did it take 300 years for people to become interested in a table of contents for the New Testament? Lots of reasons: 1) Book technology wouldn’t have allowed a collection that big in the 1^st^ century. 2) Congregations were reading lots of writings – not just those of apostles. 3) Only with the passage of multiple generations would it become clear just how unique the apostles role had been. 4) In the 1^st^ century, congregations were anticipating apocalyptic events – not planning additions to their sacred writing collection. 5) It’s not clear how many, or if anyone, in the 1^st^ century knew of all 27 writings. 6) It took a while for all 27 of those texts to make their way to all congregations, especially when some of them moved at a faster rate than others. 7) And more.


Why did discrepancies in the lists – minor as they were – fade in time shortly after the 4th century when there was no central church authority empowered to tidy up such discrepancies? With Christianity becoming the official state religion, attention was now publicly drawn to any discrepancies, supplying congregations the adequate motivation to resolve any discrepancies. And the freedom of travel and communication that allowed the sharing of information supplied the adequate means necessary to resolve those discrepancies.


Why were the authors of the individual texts named in the lists? Because authorship was critically important to these people. Especially, as time went on, apostolic authorship.


Why does the order in which the books are listed sometimes vary…and yet this never seems to cause controversy? Because the congregations were used to hearing the texts, not looking at them. And they were used to hearing the texts in segments – not read all at once.


How is it that Christian congregations could come to such widespread agreement about this matter – without a central authority or church council – when they found it so difficult to come to agreement about so many other things? It was what was in the 27 texts that they were arguing about – not about the text themselves. Marcion tried to make a theological argument about the texts themselves, but the congregations prevailed with the view that writings known to be authentically apostolic could not be rejected on theological grounds. Americans today might disagree about this or that thing that Thomas Jefferson wrote, but that he wrote something is a matter of evidence, not opinion.
























Chapter 18 – The Ancient Verdict


We have seen that the only way that the New Testament ever could have come to be the way it did – that is, by near-unanimous declaration of hundreds of loosely affiliated congregations of people – is if the stated authors were the actual authors.


For the bishops, congregations, and others in the 4th and 5th century to declare what constituted the New Testament was simply to declare what they read along with the prophets on Sunday mornings. And what they read with the prophets was the apostles. Thus if they were all able to figure out which writings did and didn’t come from the apostles, they’d be able to come up with the same lists. If they had been unable to make that determination, there’s no way their lists would have matched.


Think of all the ways they had to authenticate a text that are inaccessible to us. To help you think of this, consider recipes. My mother kept recipes. Sometimes she wrote them down, sometimes she cut them out of a magazine. One of her most prized recipes was for sweet potato biscuits. After she died, her recipe was passed around. Everyone knew it was hers…even though she didn’t sign it or even put her name on it. I don’t even remember if it was written in her own hand or if she’d cut it out from a magazine. But I sure remember how the sweet potato biscuits tasted.


If you want to know if Aunt Millie’s recipe for German chocolate cake is really Aunt Millie’s and Aunt Millie is gone, who do you ask? That’s right; Aunt Millie’s family. You don’t go to a handwriting expert, and you don’t go to recipe scholars living two thousand years after Aunt Millie died. You go to the people who have eaten the cake and who knew Aunt Millie.


Therefore, if we want to know the provenance of each of the New Testament books, and, specifically, if they are genuinely apostolic – that is, if they are what they appear to be – then we go to the people who first received them…and who passed them down to their children…and their children.


If I was a believer and lived in Thessalonica in the late 1st century, I would no doubt be familiar with Paul’s two letters to the congregation of which I was a part. If I heard someone say that he had a copy of another letter of Paul’s, this one to the believers in Philippi, I would probably be intrigued. If I had any doubts about the authenticity of the letter, I had means of checking it out. I could ask others who knew him about his honesty. I could ask him how he came into possession of the letter and follow that information wherever it leads. I could ask my brother-in-law in Philippi if his congregation has such a letter – or if I don’t have a brother-in-law, I can go there myself (because it’s only about a hundred miles up the road). And there are other steps I – or someone I trust who has more time than I do – could take to find out if this letter actually came from Paul – steps that are simply not available to scholars today. I have shown you that Tertullian gave this very sort of advice in the 3rd century – two centuries removed from the birth of the writings. You and I are now 20 centuries removed! The best time to determine authorship of the New Testament texts was then – not now.


The ancients have rendered their verdict. They have rendered it with widespread agreement among themselves. They rendered it quietly, for there was no theological controversy associated with verdict. In fact, they rendered it so quietly that many modern people have forgotten that it was verdict at all. Yet the ancients could not have been more clear.


They are telling us that there are eight authors behind the 27 texts: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, Peter, and Jude. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each wrote the Gospel that bears his name. In addition, Luke wrote Acts and John wrote the three letters that bear his name and Revelation. Paul wrote 14 letters, all but Hebrews bearing his name in the text of the letter itself. Peter wrote the two letters that bear his name, and James and Jude each wrote the letter that bears his name.


Interestingly, all the authors are referenced in at least one book they did not write. Matthew (author of the Gospel bearing his name) is one of the twelve and is mentioned in the Gospels of Mark and Luke and the book of Acts. Mark (author of the Gospel bearing his name) is the co-worker of Paul and Peter and is mentioned in Acts, Colossians, 2 Timothy, Philemon, and 1 Peter. Luke (author of the Gospel bearing his name and the Acts of the Apostles) is co-worker of Paul and is mentioned in Colossians, 2 Timothy, and Philemon. John (author of the Gospel bearing his name, three letters bearing his name, and Revelation) and is mentioned in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the book of Acts, and Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul (author of 14 letters) is mentioned in the book of Acts and 2 Peter. James (author of James) is mentioned in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Acts, Galatians, and Jude. Peter (author of the two letters bearing his name) is mentioned in all four Gospels, Acts, 1 Corinthians, and Galatians. Jude (author of Jude) is mentioned in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. That the New Testament texts are so intertwined should not surprise since all these men were working in the same cause at the same time. We would expect them to be aware of each other.


Only because these documents were deemed to be the authentic writings of the men presented as their authors were they ever included in this collection. Only because of the apostolic status of the authors were these writings ever included in this collection. One could ask, “Are there any apostolic writings which were not included in this collection?” The answer is “no.” There would have been no basis for excluding a genuinely apostolic writing because genuine apostolicity was the sole basis for inclusion. Remember: the congregations read what was from the apostles in conjunction with what was from the prophets. Just as they would consider themselves to have no basis for silencing a prophet, they would consider themselves to have no basis for silencing an apostle.


Therefore the New Testament as presented to us from antiquity was the extant apostolic corpus. Only apostolic writings are in it; no apostolic writings were left out of it.


Someone could ask, “If tomorrow we discover a writing bearing the name of Paul should we include it in the New Testament?” The answer is “no.” The reason is that it would be impossible to submit any writing found in modern times to the scrupulous and exceedingly extensive vetting process that the 27 texts underwent in ancient times. We could never be as sure about the authenticity of a such a writing found in modern times as we can those that came out of ancient times.


I made known to you earlier that readers can have more confidence that they are reading the original text of the New Testament than they can have regarding any writing from ancient times. Now you see that readers likewise can have more confidence in the authorship of the New Testament books than they can have regarding the authorship of any other book from ancient times. What other book’s authorship claims have had as much scrutiny as hundreds, if not thousands, of congregational leaders and scholars with means to examine the claims, pouring over the evidence, and sharing findings until all those investigating the claims became satisfied with their veracity?





































Chapter 19 – Modern Challenges to an Ancient Verdict



It is not hard to find modern challenges to this ancient verdict. On the contrary, it’s hard to avoid them. Bookstores that stock religious books never run short of new titles that 1) denigrate the authenticity and reliability of the texts in the New Testament, or 2) extol the virtues of this or that “Lost Gospel.” You don’t even have to go to bookstores to find rejection of this ancient verdict by modern minds.


The King James Version, first published in 1611, carries this title for the letter that comes at the end of Paul’s letters: “The Epistle of Paul, the Apostle, to the Hebrews.” Yet modern English translations usually say no more than “The Epistle to the Hebrews.” This is the subtle impact of modern biblical scholarship which has come to doubt the judgment of the ancients. So pervasive has become this particular doubt, that it has almost become career suicide for a biblical professor to say that he believes Paul wrote Hebrews. Indeed, there were even challenges to Paul’s authorship in ancient times, as you’ll recall from our discussion about Origen. Yet recall also that Origen wisely chose to rely upon the more ancient view. It may seem strange to us, but he had every right to consider himself modern in the 3rd century when comparing himself to folks living in the 1st and 2nd. And doubts, by definition, always arise after the fact, not before.


Should we embrace the doubts and reject the assurance of provenance given by those who first handed down the texts? I am speaking now of all 27 – not just Hebrews. Should we deem the modern challenges to be more credible than the ancient verdict? It seems to me that we should only “retry the case” if we have new evidence or if we think there was some flaw in the original proceedings. I do not hear any modern scholars explaining how the methods used by the ancients to determine authenticity of authorship were flawed. There just seems to be the assumption that ancient people were stupid, superstitious, or gullible enough to be fooled. Do the ancients I’ve quoted to you sound like those kind of people? As for the new evidence, this is where modern scholars really demonstrate their folly.


Perhaps the most common argument I’ve heard from modern scholars as to why Paul didn’t write Hebrews, or some other letter that the New Testament attributes to him, is that style of writing or vocabulary is different. Do you write everything in the same style and vocabulary? Does a lawyer write letters to his wife in the same style and vocabulary as his legal briefs. If so, I pity his wife. Moreover, do these modern scholars think they know more about ancient Greek writing styles than ancient Greeks did? Do these modern scholars who have Greek for a second language think they understand it better than ancient Greeks for whom it was a first language?


Further to this point, the apostles often worked in two’s and three’s. This kind of collaboration could extend to their writings as well. A number of Paul’s letters, for example, indicate that they come not from Paul but, for instance, from “Paul and Sosthenes,” or “Paul and Timothy,” or “Paul and all the brethren who are with me.” Some scholars think that even when a single sender is mentioned, that co-workers could have partaken in the effort. A secretary or scribe, for example, could easily have been involved in many of these writings. So to expect every writing attributed to the same person to match in vocabulary and style is an expectation without sufficient warrant. It’s unnecessarily restrictive to think that the only way these texts could have been written is by a solitary author sitting in a chair bent over a table with pen in hand.


Modern scholars know far less about ancient letter-writing habits than ancient scholars did. Ancient scholars were as repulsed by forgeries as modern scholars. If they were as motivated as we are, and had more opportunity and means to ferret out forgeries, why then should we act as if we know better?


We have a choice: we can either read the New Testament left to us by antiquity, or read the New Testament that modernity wants to give us. And who knows where to start with that modern “New Testament,” for scholars are abounding in conflicting and confounding recommendations. There is no consensus among them – as there came to be among the ancient congregations. Ancient scholars converged on both the contents of the New Testament (that is, the texts to be included) and the authors; modern scholars diverge on both. Should we disregard the ancient scholarly consensus for the modern scholarly cacophony?


How can we believe that the people who produced the New Testament knew less about it than those who only came into its possession much, much later? The authorship of the New Testament books is contentious in our day because we do not have access to enough facts to settle the contention. This was not true in the 4th-5th century when the New Testament’s contents were settled. That’s why we have contention and they didn’t.


Besides all this, it’s too late for antiquity to change its verdict. We can say they were wrong but we cannot get them to reverse their decision. People can create a New New Testament if they want, but the New Testament that antiquity gave us will always be the New Testament that antiquity gave us. The ancients cannot revise their position; they’re dead.


The problem with modern scholars – both conservative and liberal – is that they approach the New Testament in its final state with insufficient curiosity about how it came to that state. The conservatives see the Christian Bible as sacrosanct and having a life of its own, independent of its origins. The liberals see it as a petrified vestige of ancient people who, by definition, were not as smart as us. In both cases, they are dealing with the Bible as if it were created ex nihilo – either by God (in the case of conservatives) or by idiots (in the case of the liberals).


Modern skeptical scholars do the most harm. They will use academically sterile terms saying, for example, that the Gospels are “formally anonymous” – meaning that in the text of the writing itself you do not find the author identifying himself as Paul does in his letters. I suppose a thousand years from now some historian will find my mother’s recipe for sweet potato biscuits and declare it to be “formally anonymous” because she did not put her name on it. Such skeptical scholars are always majoring on minors. It’s not helpful to people who might want to read the New Testament and make up their own minds about what it says.


These skeptics also use sensational language. For example, they’ll say things like “There are many errors in the New Testament as there are words.” This is one of those statements that might be true in a narrow, technical sense, but is grossly misleading in the broader sense and thus misrepresentative of the actual facts. In short, it’s a fancy way to lie. You’re going to have more errors with every manuscript you find. Therefore, the more manuscripts, the more errors. But remember from the exercise about AMANWALKEDINTOTHEROOMANDSATDOWN – every additional manuscript makes you more sure of the original. Modern skeptics who mislead in this way are preying on the ignorance modern people have about ancient times. I don’t say that all of them deceive intentionally; they are themselves deceived by their own hubris. I remember one excusing the “mistakes” of the ancients by saying that they “lacked the benefit” of modern scholarship. Will there be scholars two millennia from now who will be so arrogant as to excuse Aunt Millie’s family for being wrong about her German chocolate cake?


Modern challenges to the ancient verdict do not bring new evidence. Neither do they reveal a flaw in the original decision-making process. There is no reasonable basis for a reader of the New Testament to entertain modern challenges to the integrity of the text or of the ascribed author.


































Chapter 20 – What Is the New Testament? – Revisited


In this chapter, we return to a question that headed one of the first chapters: What is the New Testament? After all this study, you are now able to answer this question much more thoroughly. And what we have learned enables us to ask the question in more precise terms: What is this collection beyond the various texts that comprise it?


To answer this question, picture the 27 texts in a pile on the left hand side of your desk. Picture them in their original form as written by each of the authors. (Picture them in English just to keep the exercise simple.) John’s second letter, for example, would not have “2 John” at the top. Likewise, Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica would not begin with the title “The First Epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians.” Neither would there be a title page atop the stack saying “New Testament.” Now picture on the right side of your desk an assembled New Testament as it has been handed down to us. Let’s now compare the two stacks and make a list of what the stack on the right (that is, the completed New Testament) tells us that we wouldn’t know from the stack on the left. The result of the comparison will answer the question “What is the New Testament beyond the texts that comprise it?


The stack on the right tells us the authors of nine of the texts that we wouldn’t know from the texts alone. That is, in only 18 of the texts does the author identify himself within the text. The other nine are like Aunt Millie’s recipe which require her family to affirm that the recipe was hers.


The stack on the right affirms to us that the authors that are named in the texts are the actual authors.

Thus, the stack on the right both declares and affirms the names of the eight authors of the 27 texts (six if you consider Mark to be writing on behalf of Peter and Luke on behalf of Paul). Further, the stack on the right makes clear which author name should be associated with each text.


The stack on the right not only gives us the names of the authors and associates the appropriate name with each text, but it also gives us the specific identity of each author named. Yet it does so implicitly. Let me explain.


In telling us about the texts in the stack on the left, the stack on the right tells us some things explicitly and other things implicitly. For example, by the title “The Epistle of James” the stack on the right is telling us that the author of the letter is “James.” However, if that’s all we had, we wouldn’t know which “James” to which the title was referring. Within the 27 texts there is a “James the son of Zebedee” and “brother of John” who was one of the twelve, “James the son of Alphaeus” who was also among the twelve, and the James who was the brother of Jesus and leader of the church in Jerusalem. Which James wrote the letter? By consulting the writings of those who first gave us the lists that produced the stack on the right we know that it was the third James – the brother of Jesus and leader of the church in Jerusalem to which the title “The Epistle of James” applies. Those who first produced the stack on the right did not think to be more specific in the title because they all knew to which James they were referring – just as we didn’t feel the need to add Aunt Millie’s last name when we ascribed the cake recipe to her.


On authorship, here’s another point about these implicit declarations. Each title of each text in the stack on the right names the author in the title – except for The Acts of the Apostles. Even though Luke is named neither in the title nor in the text, there are nameless references to him in the text which tie him to Paul and which tie him to the Gospel according to Luke. Moreover, the writings of those involved in the production of the New Testament leave no room for doubt that they consider the author of Acts to be Luke. One further point on Luke. He was the only one of the eight authors who may have been a Gentile. Nevertheless, the content he conveys in his two writings is largely what he received from Jews and about Jews. Therefore, though he would technically be an exception to the ascription of New Testament authorship to Jews, it’s an exception not always material enough to mention.


Here’s one last point on authorship. I’ve been assuming that your stack on the right is a New Testament as least as old as the 1611 King James Version. For while modern English versions may omit Paul’s name in the title, the writings of the ancients makes clear that while some had reservations, this text avoided exclusion from the stack only by its association with him.


Therefore, let’s briefly review what the stack on the right tells us so far that the stack on the left doesn’t. By both explicit and implicit means, the stack on the right fills out the limited knowledge about authors that the stack on the left provides us. The stack on the right makes clear who authored each text. Knowing this, we can now recognize that each author is mentioned, however briefly, in at least one text that he did not write. This affirms to us that all eight authors were known to each other. Further reading of the texts makes clear to us that the authors were working for the same cause. Because we are assured that the authors were contemporaries and working together, the texts in the stack on the right are intertwined to a degree that the texts in the stack on the left are not. This interwoven nature of the texts means that the whole (the stack on the right) is greater than the sum of the parts (the stack on the left). That is, each text in the stack on the right contributes context to the others in the stack. So much for the titles assigned to each of the books in the stack on the right.


As for the title given to the texts as a whole in the stack on the right – New Testament – what does it tell us that the stack on the left – without a title – cannot? It tells us that the people who gave us the stack on the right were pairing these 27 texts with those of the Hebrew Bible. This is reflective of the fact that for 300 years, one of the things that distinguished Christian churches from Jewish synagogues was that while Jewish synagogues met first and foremost to publicly read the writings of the prophets so Christian churches met first and foremost to read the writings of Jesus’ apostles along with the writings of those prophets. In other words, the ancients are telling us “This is the context in which we have been reading these 27 texts for the last 300 years.”


By the way, does anyone at this point want to say (modern biblical scholars, liberal or otherwise, take heed) that these are not the 27 apostolic texts that churches throughout the Greco-Roman world read for 300 years? If so, present your evidence. And be sure to include your explanation of how and why hundreds of autonomous 4th-century congregations could have and would have coordinated the scheme to perpetrate and gain acceptance for this hoax.


In producing the flurry of lists we see in the 4th and 5th centuries, the congregations were not announcing publication of an anthology of literature. Rather, they were reporting on what had been their practice of public reading for three centuries – what was their tradition. They were saying “This is what we read, and it is what we have been reading since the beginning.” They were also saying, “This is how we read the texts; we read them in conjunction with what the Jews read.” This last statement communicates much more than we might realize at first glance.


The Jews regarded the prophets as spokesmen for God. The Christians embraced this view, but supplemented it with an equivalent regard for the apostles as spokesmen for the messiah. This pairing of the apostles with the prophets is what resulted in the titles “New Testament” and “Old Testament” for their respective writings. The nomenclature implied a parity of authority – neither set of writings more authoritative than the other.


Therefore, just as the Jews handed down the writings of their ancestral prophets so the Christians were handing down the writings of their ancestral apostles. Yes, both these sets of writings have many implications for theology, but their handing down is simply a matter of history.


As the Jews had many writings beyond those of the prophets, so the Christians had many writings beyond those of the apostles. As the Jews distinguished the writings of their prophets from all their other writings, so the Christians distinguished the writings of their apostles from all their other writings. As the Jews did not exclude any prophet’s writing from the collection, so the Christians did not exclude any apostle’s writing from the collection. As the Jews read their prophets as a group, not ranking the individual writings so that some would be considered more important than another, so the Christians read their apostles as a group, not ranking the individual writings so that some would be considered more important than another. As the Jews did not tamper with the texts of their prophets, so the Christians did not tamper with the texts of their apostles.


Therefore, the stack on the right is telling us that:


p<>{color:#000;}. All 27 texts are genuine.

p<>{color:#000;}. The 27 texts have something in common with each other, not shared with any other texts: apostolic origin.

p<>{color:#000;}. The 27 texts should be considered as whole and not elevated one above another.

p<>{color:#000;}. The 27 texts should be read as they were originally written.

p<>{color:#000;}. The 27 texts should be read in conjunction with what the Jews handed down from their prophets.


The stack on the right gives us the texts in an order. However, nothing else would change if the order of the texts were changed. Jude would be saying the same thing if his letter were placed before Paul’s instead of after Peter’s. Therefore, there’s nothing to read into the order except that it speaks to the interim stage of collection units – that is, the stage in which they existed on their way from 27 discrete texts to one united collection.


There is more that we could say, but surely you see the difference between what the stack on the left tells us and what the stack on the right tells us. What then is the New Testament…beyond the texts that comprise it? The implicit declaration of thousands of witnesses to the provenance of the individual texts as they are presented in the collection. In other words, the ascription of authors is as valid as the text itself.


You know that I have been seeking throughout this book to present to you the New Testament shorn of its ecclesiastical trappings. Yet these trappings do not include either the titles of the writings or the title of the collection itself, for these are indicators of historically-ascertainable facts. The churches of late antiquity are simply reporting the tradition they have practiced since the beginning of their movement – a tradition that they adapted from the Jews. This adaptation of Jewish tradition was completely natural and appropriate to them because the Christian movement at its founding was a movement of Jews.


This tradition of reading the apostles’ writings was born of receiving the apostles’ writings, then copying and circulating them among the various congregations founded by the apostles. As the congregations continued to grow in size and number after the apostles all died, the writings continued to be copied and circulated. Maintaining this tradition generation after generation in congregation after congregation bears unceasing and widespread attestation to the origin and authorship of the 27 writings.


Are we to believe these ancient people because they represent “the official position of the ancient church?” For the umpteenth time, “No!” We do not believe these people because they are religious…but neither do we disbelieve them because they are religious. We believe or disbelieve them for the same reasons we believe or disbelieve whoever told us that Plato wrote the Republic or that Aristotle wrote Art of Rhetoric or that Julius Caesar wrote The Gallic War. That is, we look to the people who had greatest access to the facts, and about whom we can find no evidence of deception in the matter. The standard for deciding these things should be the same whether a work is religious or whether it is not. A double standard is no standard at all.


In the case of the New Testament, we believe the ancient people who gave us these texts along with the identity of their authors because these people had the greatest access to the facts, and there is no evidence of their deceiving us. Far from there being any evidence of deception, they had neither the motive nor the opportunity nor the means to deceive us about this matter. They couldn’t have lied to us if they had wanted to because there were far too many of them, and they were far too separated from each other, to ever keep their stories straight.


Are there better authorities we could consult about the provenance of ancient Jewish writings than ancient Jews? Neither are there better authorities we can consult about the provenance of ancient Christian writings than ancient Christians. With ancient Jewish writings we have the entire ancient nation of Israel giving testimony to the existence and preservation of those writings – how much more assurance could you want? Yet when it comes to the New Testament, we actually do have more – for the assurance comes from peoples sprinkled throughout many nations, giving the same assurance to us independent of one another.


Do you have this much assurance that Plato wrote the Republic or that Aristotle wrote Art of Rhetoric or that Julius Caesar wrote The Gallic War? Do you have this much assurance that any author listed in James Loeb’s library wrote what is attributed to that author? If you insist on saying that you cannot be sure of the identity of the New Testament authors, then, to be consistent, you must say that you cannot be sure of the identity of any ancient author. And it’s not just all ancient authorship claims you’ll have to set aside, it’s modern ones, too. You have been walking into bookstores and libraries all your life blithely accepting the authorial ascriptions on the book covers put there by someone who claims to have connections to the author…all without any significant investigative work on your part. Tsk, tsk.



































Chapter 21 – Conclusion


Everything I have said to this point has been for the purpose of putting you in a position to read the New Testament. Will you?


If you do read the New Testament, you now know that you will be reading the writings of 1st-century Jews who claimed to be representing a fellow Jew who left no writings at all. You will be reading their writings as they were originally written. Nothing material has been added to them or taken away from them.


You will have the benefit of translation when you read – unless you happen to know ancient Greek. But even then, you will still have the benefit of book titles, punctuation, chapter numbers, verse numbers, and so on. But these are no different than the helps you’d receive when attempting to read any other ancient writing. You just have to keep in mind, in both cases, that the helps are there to aid you in understanding the text as originally written – not obscure the text as originally written.


Don’t let your reading of the texts be obscured by anything else either. It is so easy to read something into the Bible. We bring to our reading preconceived notions, attitudes, awareness of interpretations held by others. Setting such baggage aside is not easy. This is something about which you’ll have to remind yourself periodically, if not frequently.


Whether or not the New Testament is the word of God, it is – without question – ancient literature. Because it is ancient literature, it can be read as any other ancient literature can be read. And it can be read by anyone who can read – including you and me.


If you don’t think there is a God, it’s still okay for you to read the New Testament. Now that you know you can read the texts at face value, just read them and see what you think. See if you think these men knew what they were talking about. I read the New Testament that way and it changed my life for the better in ways I could never have imagined. But you see what you think.


Since you now know the New Testament from a distance, you’ll be better able to deal with it up close.














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__________. The Origin of the Bible: A Guide for the Perplexed. T & T Clark, 2011.


McDowell, Sean. The Fate of the Apostles: Examining the Martyrdom Accounts of the Closest Followers of Jesus. Ashgate, 2015.


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__________. The Bible in Translation: Ancient and English Versions. Baker Academic, 2001.


__________, and Bart D. Ehrman. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 4th edition. Oxford University Press, 2005.


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Patzia, Arthur G. The Making of the New Testament: Origin, Collection, Text & Canon. IVP Academic, 1995, 2011.


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Porter, Stanley E. How We Got the New Testament: Text, Transmission, Translation. Baker Academic, 2013.


Porter, Stanley E. and Andrew W. Pitts. Fundamentals of New Testament Textual Criticism. Eerdmans, 2015.


Poster, Carol. “Ethos, Authority, and the Development of the New Testament Canon” in Rhetoric, Ethic, and Moral Persuasion in Biblical Discourse Ed. Thomas H. Olbricht and Anders Eriksson. T&T Clark, 2005.


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__________. “The Oldest Extant Editions of the Letters of Paul” (online article from religion-online.org, 1999).


__________. The First Edition of the New Testament. Oxford University Press, 2000.


__________. “Canon: III. Formation of the New Testament” in Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception Vol. 4, ed. by Hans-Josef Klauck et al. De Gruyter, 2012.


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Warfield, B. B. “The Formation of the Canon of the New Testament.” American Sunday School Union, 1892.


Wenzig, Tim L. New Testament Canon and the Creeds: Why Was the Authority of Scripture Left Out of the Christian Creeds? Amazon, 2012.


Werner, Martin. The Formation of Christian Dogma: An Historical Study of Its Problem. Translated by S. G. F. Brandon. Beacon, 1957.


Westcott, Brooke Foss. A General Survey of the History of the Canon of the New Testament, 4th edition. Macmillan, 1875.


Wrede, William. The Origin of the New Testament. Translated by James S. Hill. Harper, 1909.


Young, Stephen L. “Review of David Dungan, Constantine’s Bible: Politics and the Making of the New Testament” in Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 5 (2008): 156–68.

































About the Author


See http://www.mikegantt.com.

The New Testament From a Distance

Although addressed to unbelievers as an invitation to approach the New Testament as reliable ancient literature rather than as a church textbook, this book will also help believers who struggle with doubts, whether from without or within, about the reliability of the texts or the authors of the New Testament. The book lays out the case that the only reasonable way to read the New Testament is by accepting that its 27 individual texts are what was originally written and that their authors are the ones claimed in the respective titles – including Hebrews.

  • Author: Mike Gantt
  • Published: 2017-05-14 21:35:22
  • Words: 50300
The New Testament From a Distance The New Testament From a Distance