How do we trust the Bible? Especially for which books were included— which not— why?
I believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God that is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). I study these words each week, trusting God to use them to guide, strengthen and nurture me and this congregation. At times I’ll read a passage and become convicted of the ways I fail to live up to its ideals. Other times I’ll meditate on a verse and feel uplifted and encouraged for the rest of the day.
The Bible is truly a living Word. God uses it today to influence those who read it and take it seriously.
The questions above indicate a curiosity about how the Bible was developed. Warning— I really enjoy this topic so you will be receiving a lot of information in this discussion.
Let’s begin with a rough dating of the New Testament.
Dating of the New Testament
The crucifixion of Christ took place about A.D. 33.
The majority of the New Testament was written in-between A.D. 50 – A.D. 70.
Galatians- A.D. 48
1 and 2 Thessalonians- A.D. 50
1 and 2 Corinthians- A.D. 54 and 56
Romans- A.D. 57
Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians- A.D. 60
Mark- around A.D. 55
Luke- around A.D. 60
Matthew- around A.D. 65
John- around A.D. 80
You might wonder, why did it take so long for Paul and the other disciples to write down what we now call the New Testament?
Directly after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples traveled extensively to preach and share the Word of God. Nobody thought to write anything down right away- they were focused on proclaiming.
Paul was the first to write and he did so in the form of letters. These were not theological treatises, they were practical letters of help, support, encouragement, and instruction for newly formed churches.
The gospel writers decided to write down a full account of Jesus’ life some 25 to 50 years after Jesus’ death. As the first generation of disciples started to pass away, the authors understood their need to write down their experience with Jesus.
Even so, there was no set list of books that were called the New Testament. Not until A.D. 140…
How Were The Books Of The New Testament Chosen?
A man named Marcion had major problems with the Old Testament. He could not reconcile the Old Testament God with the God he saw in the gospels and Paul’s letters. He decided that they must be different gods.
He created his own list of authoritative writings that he believed were inspired by God. He cut out the entire Old Testament and kept only a heavily edited version of the Gospel of Luke (what he considered the least Jewish of the gospels), and ten of Paul’s letters. That’s it. He rejected everything else.
He presented this as the authoritative New Testament. The vast majority of Christians rejected his version of the New Testament. For the first time, church leaders realized that they must formalize the writings that they believed to be inspired by God. What they had assumed was a common shared belief had to now become official. The first steps of completing the New Testament canon began early in the 2nd century.
At a very early date, the four gospels were united into one collection that was known as “The Gospel” (singular, not plural). The early church celebrated the differences among the gospels as giving a more full account of Jesus’ life.
Originally, Luke wrote the Gospel of Luke and Acts as one continuous document. The Gospel of Luke was divided from Acts once the four gospels began circulating together. The early church saw Acts as a link between the gospels and Paul’s letters.
The collection of Paul’s letters was brought together at about the same time as the four Gospels. Multiple authors refer to this collection as early as A.D. 115.
The only books of which there were any doubt by the middle of the second century are the ones found at the end of our New Testament. After all, they were put at the end for a reason!
Origen (185-254), an early church pastor, created a list that he deemed divinely inspired—the four Gospels, Acts, the 13 letters of Paul, 1 Peter, 1 John and Revelation. He also records a list that he believed was disputed by some—Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, James, Jude, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, and the Gospel according to the Hebrews.
Other lists have also been found- some including Revelation among the disputed texts.
What were the reasons for the dispute?
A book was considered authoritative if it could trace its authorship back to one of the original disciples. This became an issue for a book like Hebrews.
Who wrote Hebrews?
We do not know…and that was a point of contention among the early church. They liked the content of Hebrews but did not know the author. There was some hesitancy whether 2 Peter was written by Peter and 2 and 3 John were written by John. Eventually, all of these books were accepted based on their content.
Are the books an accurate reflection of what the early church knew about Jesus? There was some dispute about James because James says “faith without works is dead”, whereas Paul speaks about being saved by grace alone. Are these statements in conflict? Eventually, they were found not to be in conflict, only emphasizing different things.
And what are we to do with some of the more challenging statements in Jude and Revelation? For these reasons, these books gained a slower acceptance.
By the year 367, the 27 books we have in our New Testament were universally accepted as inspired by God and an accurate description of Jesus’ life.
The first church councils to officially classify these 27 books as a closed canon occurred in years 393 and 397. It is important to note that these councils did not create the list of 27 books. They simply formalized what was already widely accepted among the Christian community.
On Sunday we will explore another question from the congregation: Why do bad things happen to good people? (Eg. Cancer, school shootings etc.) This is a question all Christians must grapple with.
See you on Sunday (and tonight for the Cook Out!)