How We Got the New Testament
Jesus severely rebuked the Pharisees for setting aside the word of God for the teaching of men (Matthew 15:6). They are by no means unique; throughout the ages traditionalists have wanted to elevate human tradition to God's word. Jesus also severely rebuked the Sadducees in Matthew 22:23-33 and Mark 12:18-27. They believed all the Old Testament except the Torah was just human tradition. Jesus told them they did not know the scriptures nor the power of God.
How did we get the New Testament? What of the claim that it too is just human tradition? We will look at that question and the very foundation of our faith.
The Foundation of Our Faith
The center of our faith is Jesus Christ; but some would like to think we do not reliably know what He taught. Ephesians 2:20 says, "[God's household is] built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone."
It is interesting what is absent from the Early Church: there is no debate about what is scripture. It was not an issue until after Marcion the Gnostic began writing his own scripture and rejecting most of the Bible. Diocletian also ordered the burning of all Christian books, and Christians needed to know which were God's Word and worth risking death.
Scripture's Claim Of Authority
2 Tim 3:16 says, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,"
Peter in 2 Pet 3:15-16 says some people distort Paul's letters, just like they do the other scriptures.
Paul says in 1 Thess 2:4 that "we" are entrusted with the gospel.
1 Thess 2:13: "... you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God..."
2 Peter 1:20-21: "Above all, [that's very high] you must understand that no prophecy of scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit."
Three Tests for Scripture
In trying to recreate how the early church recognized what was scripture, we see three tests.
1. Authorship: Was the author an eyewitness or a "secretary" for an eyewitness? See Luke 1:1-3, John 19:35, 1 John 1:1-4, 2 Pet 1:16-18, 1 Cor 9:1-2,5, and 1 Cor 15:7-9.
2. Truth: Does the book contradict what the Bible says anywhere else? If so, throw it out. See Heb 6:18, John 10:35, 17:17, ~John 17:8, Prov 30:5, Num 23:19, and Ps 119:42-43,86,137-142,151,160.
3. Widespread Confirmation: Did Christians every-where generally accept the book as scripture?
Who Wrote What
Matthew Ä Matthew the apostle
Mark Ä John Mark, (Acts 15:37, 2 Tim 4:11) andPeter's interpreter
Luke & Acts Ä Paul's companion
John & Revelation Ä John the apostle
1, 2, & 3 John Ä John the apostle
Romans - Philemon Ä Paul the apostle
Hebrews Ä unknown today, (knew Timothy Heb 13:23)
James Ä the Lord's 1/2-brother
1 & 2 Peter Ä Peter the apostle
Jude Ä the Lord's 1/2-brother
So What About Hebrews?
True or false: The Book of Hebrews could not have been evaluated by the authorship test.
Today we do not know the author of Hebrews. However, the original readers of Hebrews knew the author, as can been seen by Hebrews 13:18,23. Thus the correct answer is false. This highlights an important fact: we are dependent on the judgment of the early (<130 A.D.) Church.
So who do we think wrote Hebrews? Clement of Rome (97 A.D.) alludes to it nine times, so it must have been written before then. Best guesses are Barnabas and Apollos. Clement of Alexandria, Jerome, and Augustine believed it was written by Paul in Hebrew. Tertullian stated it was written by Barnabas. In fact in the Codex Claremontanus, Hebrews is called "Epistle of Barnabas." (Barnabas was called an apostle in Acts 14:4,14) Martin Luther guessed the author was Apollos.
What About James?
James was not James the disciple but Jesus' half-brother. He was an apostle based on these verses:
- Called an apostle by Paul: Galatians 1:19
- Like Paul, Jesus appeared just to him: 1 Cor 15:7
- Pillar of the Church: Galatians 2:9
What About Jude?
We do not know as much about Jude the Lord's brother as James. While it is easy to prove Jude was an apostle, because an apostle's teachings are God's direct word, and Jude is in the Bible, that is a circular argument. He was certainly an eyewitness, but we rely on the judgment of the early church Fathers to recognize that it belonged in the Bible.
Did They Include the Right Books?
The previous discussion does not "prove with certainty" we have the right books, but it gives us good reasons to trust that God knew and made sure Christians got the right books.
Almost every other book written at that time totally fails these three tests: authorship, truth, and widespread confirmation. The two that are closest are First Clement and The Gospel of Thomas.
First Clement, written 97 A.D., is an excellent book to read that some in Antioch and Alexandria thought should be scripture. Its problem is that Clement was not an eye-witness but was in the next generation. It also has a few small errors (i.e. phoenixes do not really live in Arabia).
Whether or not the Apostle Thomas wrote a gospel we may never know until heaven. A book called the Gospel of Thomas was circulated among Gnostics (only), but Gnostics often altered their scriptures and not surprisingly, their Gospel of Thomas teaches Gnosticism and contradicts the Bible.
Infallible Preservation of the Bible
It would do no good for God to accurately give us what was correctly recognized as His Word, if as Mohammed has accused, He failed to ensure its preservation. A God who would do such a thing is not the God who wrote Jeremiah 1:12, Luke 21:33, and Isaiah 55:11. (Also, if He allowed His Bible to be corrupted, then why would He preserve the Quran?)
Faith in God's watching His word is an adequate answer, and it is the only answer we had until the mid-twentieth century. Now however, with early manuscripts and Carbon-14 dating, we have documents that prove historically the reliability of today's scripture. They are
- John Rylands Manuscript: part of John.
- Bodmer II Papyrii: most of John.
- Chester Beatty Papyrii: most of the N.T.
- 10,000 Greek, 14,000 other manuscripts after that.
For more on its accuracy and reliability, read F.F. Bruce's Book The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?.
False Beliefs About Scripture
·Christian liberalism: It is not all the word of God but contains the word of God. The parts we accept become God's word for us.
·Rev. Moon: It was fine 2,000 years ago, but we need something more advanced today
·Mohammed: It was originally ok, but it was totally corrupted later.
·Mormonism: The official teaching of the church leader today has priority over scripture.
Culture and the Bible
What in the Bible is merely cultural and for that time? An "easy" answer is that if you do not like a verse, then it must be cultural!
Christ's servants must not settle for "easy" answers. A few things in the Bible are indisputably for that time, because the Bible says so. Examples are 1 Corinthians 7:25-26 and Acts 10:9-18. To call anything cultural in the Bible, there have to be verses saying or implying so. Otherwise, we have an "easy" answer.
To Be Obeyed
The Bible may be talked about, speculated about, but it was really written to be obeyed. See John 14:23,24 and Ps 119:4-5,17,67,101,134,167,168 among others. The Bible never tells us to do evil or unwise things. What if the Bible said for you to do something you thought was not the best? What would you do? After prayer and discussion with other Christians, would you trust God's judgment more or your own judgment?
We are indebted to the early Church and the early Church fathers, not for deciding, but for recognizing the New Testament. We have solid reasons to believe it was
a) meant to be taken as scripture,
b) given accurately,
c) the right books were included, and
d) preserved reliably.
People must choose if they will obey God and His Word.
by Steven M. Morrison, PhD.