Who gave us the New Testament?
by Fr. A. James Bernstein
"The history of early Christianity clearly reveals that God used His Church, composed of flesh-and-blood Christians, as active participants in the process of selecting and establishing the New Testament canon, just as He used real people —with feelings, emotions, unique backgrounds and perspectives—to write the twenty-seven separate books."
Sometimes it is easy to overlook the obvious. Take, for instance, the New Testament. Even though every Christian really knows better, it is easy to forget that the New Testament was not written as one continuous book. Rather, it is a collection of twenty-seven shorter writings which were penned by a variety of authors at differing times and geographical locations and compiled much later. Nowhere in the New Testament do we find a list of what books belong in the New Testament. The “canon” of Scripture is, of course, not “scriptural.”
This brings up anther important question which may not be so obvious. Who, then, decided which books should be included in the New Testament canon and which ones left out?
As a Jewish convert to Christianity via evangelical Protestantism, I once refused to acknowledge that the Church had anything to do with compiling the New Testament. I wanted to believe God chose and collected these books without human involvement. The books, I assumed, somehow validated themselves beyond all reasonable doubt, and early Christians merely recognized their obvious scriptural status.
Though there is some degree of truth in this position, it is by itself naive and unbalanced. The history of early Christianity clearly reveals that God used His Church, composed of flesh-and-blood Christians, as active participants in the process of selecting and establishing the New Testament canon, just as He used real people—with feelings, emotions, unique backgrounds and perspectives—to write the twenty-seven separate books.
WHAT BIBLE DID THE APOSTLES USE?
“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (II Timothy 3:16). I had always assumed that the “Scripture” spoken of in this passage included both the Old and New Testament. In reality, there was no official “New” Testament when this statement was made. Even the Old Testament was still in the process of formulation, for the Jews did not decide upon a definitive list or canon of Old Testament books until after the rise of Christianity.
As I studied further I discovered that early Christians used a Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. * This translation, which was begun in Alexandria, Egypt, in the third century B.C., contained an expanded canon which included a number of the so-called “deutero-canonical” books. Although there was some initial debate over these books, they were eventually received by Christians into the Old Testament canon.
In reaction to the rise of Christianity the Jews narrowed their canons and eventually excluded the deutero-canonical books—although they still regarded them as sacred. The modern Jewish canon was not rigidly fixed until the third century A.D. Interestingly, it is this later version of the Jewish canon of the Old Testament, rather than the canon of early Christianity, which is followed by most of the Protestant Church today.
HISTORY IN THE MAKING
The history of the New Testament canon and its development is a fascinating subject — and crucial to the understanding of both the Bible and the Church. For over two hundred years a number of books we now take for granted as being part of the New Testament were disputed by the Church before being included. Many other books were considered for inclusion, but eventually excluded. I was shocked when I first discovered that the earliest complete listing of all twenty-seven books of the New Testament was not given until A.D. 367, by Athanasius, a bishop in Egypt.
This means that the first complete listing of New Testament books as we have them today didn’t appear until over 300 years after the death and Resurrection of Christ. Imagine it! If the New Testament were begun at the same time as the U.S. Constitution, we wouldn’t see a final product until the year 2087!
During the first four centuries there was substantial disagreement over which books should be included in the canon of Scripture. The first person we know of who tried to establish a New Testament canon was the second-century heretic, Marcion. He wanted the Church to reject its Jewish heritage, and in so doing dispense with the Old Testament entirely. Marcion’s canon included only one Gospel, which he himself edited, and ten of Paul’s epistles. That’s it!
Many believe that it was partly in reaction to this distorted canon of Marcion that the early Church determined to have a clearly defined canon of its own. The destruction of Jerusalem in A.D.70, the breakup of the Jewish-Christian community of Jerusalem, and the threatened loss of continuity in the oral tradition probably also contributed to the sense of urgency to standardize the list of books Christians could rely on.
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO WHOM?
The four Gospels were written from thirty to seventy years after Jesus’ death and Resurrection. In the interim, the Church relied on oral tradition—the accounts of eye-witnesses—as well as scattered documents and written tradition. I was very surprised to discover as I first studied the early Church that many “Gospels” besides those of the New Testament canon were circulating in the first and second centuries.
These include the Gospel according to the Hebrews, the Gospel according to the Egyptians, and the Gospel according to Peter, just to name a few.
The New Testament itself speaks of the existence of such accounts. Saint Luke’s Gospel begins by saying, “Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which are most surely believed among us. . . it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account. . .“ In time, all but four Gospels were excluded from the New Testament canon.
In the early years of Christianity there was even a controversy over which of the four Gospels to use. The Christians of Asia Minor used the Gospel of John rather than the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Based upon the Passion account contained in John, Christians in Asia Minor celebrated Easter on a different day than those in Rome, which resisted the Gospel of John and instead used the other Gospels. The Western Church for a time hesitated to use the Gospel of John because the Gnostic heretics also made use of it in addition to their own “secret Gospels.”
Another controversy arose over the issue of whether there should be separate Gospels or one single composite Gospel account. In the second century, Tatian, who was Justin Martyr’s student, published a single composite “harmonized” Gospel called the Diatessaron. The Syrian Church used this composite Gospel in the second, third, and fourth centuries. This is the very Church to which “the Nazares” (Jewish Christians of Jerusalem) eventually migrated after the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in A.D. 70. The Syrian Church did not accept all four Gospels until the fifth century. They also ignored for a time the three epistles of John, and Second Peter.
OTHER CONTROVERSIAL BOOKS
My favorite New Testament book, the Epistle to the Hebrews, was clearly excluded in the Western Church in a number of listings of the second, third, and fourth centuries. Prominent among reasons for excluding this book were concerns over its authorship. Primarily due to Augustine and his influence upon certain North African councils, the Epistle to the Hebrews was finally accepted in the West by the end of the fourth century.
On the other hand, the book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse, written by the Apostle John, was not accepted in the Eastern Church for several centuries. Once again, questions concerning authorship of the book were at the source of the controversy. Among Eastern authorities who rejected this book were Dionysius of Alexandria (third century), Eusebius (third century), Cyril of Jerusalem (fourth century), the Council of Laodicea (fourth century), John Chrysostom (fourth century), Theodore of Mopsuesta (fourth century), and Theodoret (fifth century). In addition, the original Syriac and Armenian versions of the New Testament omitted this book. Many Greek New Testament manuscripts written before the ninth century do not contain the Apocalypse, and it is not used in the liturgical cycle of the Eastern Church to this day.
Athanasius supported the inclusion of the Apocalypse, and it is due primarily to his influence that it was eventually received into the New Testament canon in the East. The early Church actually seems to have made an internal compromise on the Apocalypse and Hebrews. The East would have excluded the Apocalypse from the canon, while the West would have done without Hebrews. Simply put, each side agreed to accept the disputed books of the other.
With the passage of time the Church discerned which writings were truly Apostolic and which were not. It was a prolonged struggle taking place over several centuries in which the Church decided what books were her own. As part of the process of discerning, the Church met together in council. These various Church councils met to deal with many varied issues, among which was the canon of Scripture.
These councils met to discern and formally confirm what was already generally accepted within the Church at large. They did not legislate Scripture as much as they set forth what had become self-evident truth and practice within the Churches of God. The councils sought to proclaim the common mind of the Church and reflect the unanimity of faith, practice, and tradition of the local Churches represented.
The Church Councils provide us with specific records in which the Church spoke clearly and in unison as to what constitutes Scripture. Among the many councils that met during the first four centuries, two particularly stand out:
- The Council of Laodicea, which met in Asia Minor, around A.D. 363. This council stated that only canonical books of the Old and New Testaments should be used in the Church. It forbade reading other books in Church. It enumerated the canonical books of our present Old and New Testaments, with the exception of the Apocalypse of Saint John. This is the first council which clearly listed the canonical books. Its decisions were widely accepted in the Eastern Church.
- The Third Council of Carthage, which met in North Africa, around A.D. 397.This Council, attended by Augustine, provided a full list of the canonical books of both Old and New Testaments. The 27 books of the present day New Testament were accepted as canonical. It also held that these books should be read in the Church as Divine Scripture to the exclusion of all others. This Council was widely accepted as authoritative in the West.
A QUESTION OF AUTHORITY
As I said at the beginning of this article, the history of the New Testament canon and its development is crucial to a proper understanding of both the Bible and the Church. The implications are indeed profound, and they call for some serious heart-searching on the part of all Christians. I would like to conclude on a personal note by showing you exactly how profound these implications can be. For they brought about some radical changes in my life—not only in how I came to approach Scripture and its interpretation, but in how I now relate to Christ’s holy Church in its historical expression.
Soon after my own conversion to Christianity I found myself getting swept up in the tide of Christian sectarianism which is so pervasive in the Protestant world. In fact, I eventually became so sectarian that I came to believe that all Churches were non-biblical. To become a member of any Church was to compromise the Faith. A close friend of mine even wrote a book called The Bible Versus the Churches, in which he argued that the Bible was true, and in conflict with Churches, all of which were false.
For me, Church became “the Bible, God, and me.” My attitude towards others was, “Tell me what you believe and I’ll tell you where you’re wrong!” Even my Christian friends became suspect. And my friend who wrote The Bible Versus the Churches came to believe that the Bible was in conflict with me as well! We parted ways.
This hostility towards Churches fit in well with my being a Jew. I naturally distrusted Churches because I felt they had betrayed the teachings of Christ in having persecuted or passively ignored the persecution of the Jews throughout history. As I became increasingly sectarian, indeed even obnoxious and anti-social, I slowly began to realize that something was seriously wrong with my approach to Christianity. I also realized that many of my Jewish-Christian brethren had also fallen into an elitist and sectarian “super-Christian” mold, believing that they were on a mission to clean up “Gentile Christianity.”
This realization led me to a sincere study of the history of the early Church, where I discovered four centuries of discussion and debate over which books should be included and excluded from the New Testament canon. It soon became clear to me that I was dealing with a larger issue— the issue of Church authority.
Biblical scholarship had given me four criteria to determine if a book was to be included as canonical.
- It must be written by Apostles or disciples of the Apostles.
- It must be considered inspired of God.
- It must be accepted by the Church.
- It must conform to the oral tradition and rule of faith taught by the Church.
I had no difficulty accepting the first two criteria. I wrestled mightily, however, with the thought that the Church had been given the authority to judge what books composed Scripture. Ultimately, it came down to a single issue. I already believed that God spoke authoritatively through His written Word. Could I now accept the fact that He spoke authoritatively through His Church as well—the very Church which had protected, preserved, and actively produced the Scriptures I held so dear?
THE CHURCH OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
For the earliest Christians, God spoke His Word not only to but through His Body, the Church, and it was within His Body, the Church, that the Word was confirmed and established. Without question the Scriptures were looked upon by early Christians as God’s active revelation of Himself to the world. At the same time, the Church was looked upon as the household of God, “having been built on the foundation of the Apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:20-21).
There was no organic separation between Bible and Church as we find so often today. The Body without the Word is without message, but the Word without the Body is without foundation. As Paul says in I Timothy 3:15, “The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” The Church is the living body of the incarnate Lord. She is an integral part of the Gospel message and it is within the context of the Church that the New Testament was conceived and preserved.
This study was instrumental in my eventual conversion to the Orthodox Faith. If the Church was not just a tangent or a sidelight to the Scripture, but rather an active participant in its development and preservation, then it was time to reconcile my differences and abandon my prejudices. Rather than try to judge the Church by my modern understanding of what the Bible was saying, I needed to come into union with the Church that produced the New Testament, and let her guide me into a proper understanding.
To make a long story short, I am now an Orthodox priest serving in Seattle, Washington, and am striving to witness to the power of God’s Holy Church. To those who, like I once did, stand dogmatically on “Sola Scriptura,” in the process rejecting the Church of God which not only produced the New Testament, but also selected through the guidance of the Holy Spirit those books which compose the New Testament, I would say only this:
Study the history of the early Church and the development of the New Testament canon. Use source documents where possible. (It is amazing how some of the most “conservative” Bible scholars of the evangelical community turn into cynical and rationalistic liberals when discussing Church history.) Examine for yourself what happened to God’s people after the 28th chapter of the book of Acts.
If you examine the data and look with objectivity at what occurred in those early days, I think you will discover what I discovered. The history of God’s Church didn’t stop with the first century. If it had, we would not possess the New Testament books which are so dear to every Christian believer. The phenomena of separating Church and Bible which we see so prevalent in much of today’s Christian world is a modern phenomena. Early Christians made no such artificial distinctions.
Once you have examined this data, I would encourage you to find out more about the historic Church which produced the New Testament, preserved it, and selected those books which would be part of its canon. Every Christian owes it to himself or herself to find out more about this Church and to understand its vital role in proclaiming God’s Word to our own generation.