There are some who have set their face against anything which would even hint at the reliability of the New Testament text. Some have suggested that there are scriptures that are left out of the Bible that should be in it. Others say some books in the New Testament should be removed. Some argue that the canon of scripture was not closed until very late and make great fare out of the fact that there was for some time initially no “Bible.” That is, for an extended period there was no single volume containing all of the books we now know constitute the New Testament.
Timothy Beal, for instance, author of The Rise and Fall of the Bible, states “No one in the first century could even have imagined such a thing as a New Testament canon, let alone the Bible as we think of it these days.”1 According to Beal, this even included Jesus. Neither
Jesus nor his followers nor Paul nor any of the authors of any of the texts now in the New Testament, let alone any of the Christians who lived during the first three hundred years of Christianity, could possibly have imagined the Bible, a single book containing a closed canon of Jewish and Christian scriptures. It was both physically and socially impossible. Not only were there just too many different varieties of Christianity with too many different important writings with too many variants in too many different languages; there was simply no medium to bear anything close to that large of a library.2
Bart Erhman, author of Misquoting Jesus and Jesus, Interrupted argues that
there is a “problem of knowing whether the books in our Bibles are the ones that
God wanted to be Scripture in the first place. How do we know only the right books
got in? How do we know that some inspired books were not left out?”3 He further
states that “the debate over which books to include in the Bible was long and hard
fought” and that the final form was never “ratified by a church council of any kind–until
Novelist Dan Brown takes this claim even further. In the best seller The Da
Vinci Code, Brown has Sir Leigh Teabing, the character representing scholarly authority
say: “The Bible is the product of man, my dear. Not of God. The Bible did not fall
magically from the clouds. Man created it as a historical record of tumultuous times,
and it has evolved through countless translations, additions, and revisions. History
has never had a definitive version of the book”(emphasis ELP).5 Elaine Pagels has
argued that the so-
What shall we say to these objections to the New Testament canon being closed early. First, to say that Jesus could not have “imagined” a single volume containing a closed canon of scripture is to betray a limited view of the divine nature of the Son of God. Jesus would not have had to imagine such a book; He would have providentially brought it into existence–and did. Second, for a canon to be closed, it doesn’t have to be enclosed in one single volume. It is recognized that the Old Testament canon was closed and enshrined in multiple scrolls, even if you accept a late date for the closing of the Old Testament canon.
It is clear from the historical evidence that, though they were already in
use in limited applications in the Roman world, it was Christians who championed
the common use of codices, i.e., books, as opposed to scrolls. The Lord’s church
likely championed the move to the codex because it was possible to contain more scripture
in a smaller, more economical, format. The codex also provides a more searchable
friendly format, ideal for Christians who, believing the writings were inspired,
wanted to have ready access to any passage with ease. In fact, some believe the
oldest copy of the New Testament comes from a book. This small section of scripture
contained on three bits of papyri, now housed at Magdalene College at Oxford, contains
portions of the twenty-
middle second century, whereas we do not even hear of the non-
As we shall see, first century Christians were already accepting certain apostolic writings as binding scripture.
The claim that gnostic writings like the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of
Judas were considered equally valuable interpretations of the teachings of Christ
are specious. Jesus, Himself, warned of false teachers spreading errors (Matt. 24:11).
Very early on the apostle Paul warned that there would be apostasies from the faith
soon after his departure (Acts 20:28-
Indeed, the so-
It is true that the Bible did not fall down from the heavens, fully bound in
As these first century, New Testament writings were being circulated among the churches, Christians would have began keeping them and recognizing their authority. It has been suggested otherwise. Neale Pryor has stated that “early Christians did not attach too much importance to keeping their letters. Why should they keep letters from the apostles when they could talk to them face to face? Only when these apostles began to die and their word became scarce was there a conscience effort to preserve every communication from them.”12 As we shall see in the next installment, Jesus not only taught the importance of His words and that His apostles would be guided into all truth by the Holy Spirit, New Testament writings were recognized from the beginning as scripture.
Because the early Christians viewed these letters as sacred documents and on par with the Old Testament writings, an established process of copying them and keeping them safe from corruption would have quickly been instituted, just as it was for the writings constituting the Old Testament. Henry Theissen describes the process of the formation of the canon of the New Testament:
After a gospel or an epistle had been written, it would remain for some time the treasured possession of the individual or the church that had received it. In some cases the originals would be passed from church to church (as for example Laeodocia and perhaps Ephesians), but they would, no doubt, always find their way back to the original recipient of them. By and by the originals were more freely circulated and copied. Undoubtedly, often individuals and churches would make copies of the document in their possession and send them to other individuals and churches, and sometimes individuals and churches may have sent scribes to make copies at the place where the originals were found. But gradually the churches all over the world would attain a more or less complete set of inspired writings of the new dispensation.13
Letters from apostles, the men who knew Jesus intimately and lived with him for three years, or those who were their known companions, would have been recognized as authoritative. Writings which did not bear the stamp of apostolic approval would have been rejected.
1. Timothy Beal, The Rise and Fall of the Bible, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston: 2011. P. 106.
2. Ibid., p. 116.
3. Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted, Harper Collins, NY: 2009, p. 190.
4. Ibid, p. 190.
5. Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, Doubleday, NY: 2003, p. 237.
6. Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: the Secret Gospel of Thomas, Pan books, 2003, Passim.
7. N. T. Wright, Judas and the Gospel of Jesus, Bakerbooks, Grand Rapids, MICH: 2006, p. 77.
9. N. T. Wright, Ibid., p. 76.
10. Mark D. Roberts, Can We Trust The Gospels, Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL:2007. p. 60.
11. Roberts, p. 58.
12. Neale Pryor, You Can Trust Your Bible, Quality Publications, Abilene, TX: 1980, pp. 39,40.
13. Henry Clarence Theissen, Introduction to the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: 1943, William B. Erdmann’s Publishing Company, p. 6.
The idea that the canon was not closed by council ratification till the sixteenth century is surely false on the face of it. Leading New Testament scholar N. T Wright has written:
The popular notion that there was no such thing as a recognized collection of biblical books until the third or even the fourth century, but that all kinds of documents were circulating in an undifferentiated mass until political expediency suggested the selection of those books that would make a political point, is simply rubbish ... The canonical gospels were being ready and quoted as carrying authority in the early and