When we step back and look at the big picture, we can see that the “system” must have worked because we do understand the gospel and we call Jesus our Lord. In spite of all the potential problems with textual selection, transmission, and translation – we got the message. 2,000-years is an awfully long time to keep the message passed along. This has been possible because the core message of the NT is a simple one. When we look at the purpose of the early church, functionally, they simply wanted to ensure that the message would be passed on to future generations and that they might believe. John 20:30-31 explains exactly why he wrote his gospel:-
And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.
From this point of view, if people would read the gospel of John, and believe in Jesus, he would have succeeded, and succeed he did. At that point in time, no one was asking if a particular sentence or word that John used was “inspired” or divinely selected or not. They were focused on the substance of his message, rather than its particular form or expression.
As the apostles grew older or neared their death (Peter died ca. 65AD), it became more important for them to write down what they had learned from Jesus. Peter, for example, felt compelled to write the encyclical that is 2Peter because he knew his time was short. 2Pet 1:13-15 (NKJV) tells us:-
Yes, I think it is right, as long as I am in this tent, to stir you up by reminding you, knowing that shortly I must put off my tent, just as our Lord Jesus Christ showed me. Moreover I will be careful to ensure that you always have a reminder of these things after my decease.
In time to come, these letters and gospels gained wider circulation among the fledgling churches. According to Eusebius (260-339AD), Bishop of Caesarea and church historian, that period saw all kinds of documents in circulation, including letters, sermons, theological treatises, commentaries and histories. There was a lot of writing going on after the initial decades and this was a serious effort. Letter writing was costly and involved – you usually required the services of a writer (sometimes called an “amanuensis”) such as Tertius (Rom 16:22) and Silvanus (a.k.a. Silas) (1Pet 5:12). These writers helped in the crafting of the letters and going over the drafts before the final copies were sent out, so it’s not like Paul or Peter himself sat down to write, except where they wanted to leave a mark of authenticity (2Thess 3:17, Col 4:18, Gal 6:11, 1Cor 16:21),
These and other letters were read aloud in church meetings, and usually copied for further circulation. With the proliferation of letters, however, you can imagine that there would increasingly be the problem of ascertaining which letters were orthodox and which were not. The idea was that these letters were supposed to be, in the words of Paul (2Tim 3:16-17), “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” and the general equipping of the church. As an example, Bishop Dionysius of Corinth (ca.168AD) wrote to Bishop Soter of Rome the following message:-
We read your letter today, the Lord’s Day, and shall continue to read it frequently for our admonition, as we do with the earlier letter Clement wrote on your [i.e. the church at Rome’s] behalf.
The problem was that there also pseudo-epigraphs (letters falsely claiming to be from another author) as well as letters from disputed individuals espousing questionable or heretic teaching. Bishop Serapion of Antioch (ca. 200AD) found out that a certain “Gospel of Peter” was being read among the churches in Antioch and after some investigation, stopped them on the basis that the theology was questionable (it was docetic.) Increasingly the need for some kind of checking became important to ensure that churches were not being misled by unorthodox writings. This was further compounded by the fact that an influential church leader, Marcion (ca. 144AD), was rejecting some letters ascribed to Paul, and all of the OT scriptures, and had come up with his own list of approved books and letters:-
1 & 2 Corinthians
1 & 2 Thessalonians
while rejecting the gospels of Matthew and John.
These developments provided the impetus for the early church to put in some measures to ensure orthodoxy in the midst of a theologically volatile context where heresy was rife. The response was not as organised as we would like to think, with different parties coming up with their own measures and criteria. In 170AD, for example, another list was put up, likely in response to disputed lists such as Marcion’s. This list, known as the Muratorian Canon, contained 22 out of the 27 books of our NT, leaving out:-
1 & 2 Peter
but included the Wisdom of Solomon and the Apocalypse of Peter (which later proved to be a pseudo-epigraph.) The selection of the books of the canon was a process of evolving consensus among the churches as to which books were deemed authentic, orthodox, and widely accepted. It certainly wasn’t a clear cut process, especially for some of the books which were not included until much later. The notion that these books were “inspired”, the way we understand it, probably hadn’t entered their mind as yet but the function of the letters as being standards of teaching in the church would slowly grant them the status of “scripture.” Scripture, in this sense, would be akin to official religious texts employed in churches.
It should be mentioned that there were also other widely accepted texts that were in use in the churches, such as the letters of 1 & 2 Clement, Epistle of Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, Didache, Jubilees, Paul’s letter to the Laodiceans, Apocalypse of Peter, Preaching of Peter, Gospel of the Egyptians, Gospel of the Hebrews. Some of these books bore outlandish teachings and accounts while others were fairly sound. Over time, these were rejected as official standards for a variety of reasons, including questionable content or authorship, late date of writing and unorthodox theology. Some segments of the church (usually different geographic regions) continued to accept these books as standard until much later.
The purpose of the history here is to demonstrate that the process of arriving at a canon (a standard set) for NT books was by no means a clear and simple process. It evolved over time with some books being added or rejected before the church eventually arrived at a greater consensus. It was a process driven by pragmatic need and a desire to ensure orthodoxy. The criteria used were commonsensical criteria but were not necessarily universally understood, agreed upon or applied in the same ways – it wasn’t so much an organised application of criteria as it was the collective discernment of the early church. We should also keep in mind that theology itself was being clarified through this period, over against heresies and gnosticism.
When we read authors like F. F. Bruce (in his book “The Canon of Scripture”) and see the criteria set forth as “Apostolicity, Antiquity, Orthodoxy and Catholicity”, it is tempting to think that these were universally agreed upon and that some group sat down to ascertain the qualifications of the various books. That was not the case. While these were indeed the commonsensical considerations, it was a more diffused and organic application over time. This process took a few centuries and, even then, still contained variations to our bible. The first list that matches our NT comes from Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria (367AD). By then the idea of limiting (or closing) the official canon books was a common idea and these writings had acquired the status of “scripture”. In his 39th Festal Epistle he writes:-
These are the fountains of salvation, that he who thirsts may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone the teaching of godliness is proclaimed. Let no one add to these; let nothing be taken away from them. For concerning these the Lord put to shame the Sadducees, and said, Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures. And he reproved the Jews, saying, Search the Scriptures, for these are they that testify of me.
The 3rd Council of Carthage later in 397AD issued an official notice on the canon of the NT as follows:-
It was also determined that besides the Canonical Scriptures nothing be read in the Church under the title of divine Scriptures. The Canonical Scriptures are these: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua the son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings, two books of Chronicles, Job, the Psalter, five books of Solomon, the books of the twelve prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Tobit, Judith, Esther, two books of Esdras, two books of the Maccabees. Of the New Testament: four books of the Gospels, one book of the Acts of the Apostles, thirteen Epistles of the Apostle Paul, one epistle of the same [writer] to the Hebrews, two Epistles of the Apostle Peter, three of John, one of James, one of Jude, one book of the Apocalypse of John. Let this be made known also to our brother and fellow-priest Boniface, or to other bishops of those parts, for the purpose of confirming that Canon. Because we have received from our fathers that those books must be read in the Church. Let it also be allowed that the Passions of Martyrs be read when their festivals are kept.
This contained all of the 27-books of our NT but also included some apocryphal books (in bold text).
As we conclude this long historical post, I will note that the idea of “inspiration” as we know it has not been needed thus far. What we needed to know was that these NT books that we have, were the same ones the early church used to learn about the faith – faith that led them to Jesus as Lord. Even without broaching the issue of inspiration, the pragmatic view is that these books were sufficient for their intended purpose – that of making us disciples as they were. If it was beneficial and profitable enough for them, it is good enough for us. We will look at “inspiration” in upcoming posts but I will have to stop here for now.