This piece will explore questions such as:
Who wrote the books of the New Testament?
Who decided which books should be included in the New Testament?
What was the criterion for including or excluding a writing from the New Testament?
How can we be sure that today’s texts are a reliable representation of the originals?
It seems that many questions about Christianity, or debates about truth, will bring up doubts about the Bible's trustworthiness. This piece will specifically address the New Testament. Our blog will soon have another discussion on the Bible as a whole and the certainty of truth.
For now this discussion will look at how we received the New Testament and how it has been preserved through the ages. Let is begin with a brief overview of how the books of the New Testament came to be written.
1 - THE APOSTOLIC AGE
Church history ensues roughly 30AD at the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. From that time the church began to be established by the disciples who had been chosen by Jesus, had walked with Him and heard the doctrine of the Kingdom from His mouth.
Soon after that the Lord also called Paul (then named Saul) as the last to join their ranks. As with the others, the Lord Himself taught Paul the gospel of the Kingdom, only his teaching came by way of revelation not observation. He was then approved by Peter, John and James and given the right hand of fellowship as an apostle along with them (Galatians 2:9). It was the apostles who were entrusted with establishing the foundation of Christianity and setting its doctrines and practices in place.
"Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone." – Ephesians 2:19-20
As of the day of Pentecost, the apostles became the first evangelists. They were fervent in preaching the gospel and the early church grew quickly into a network of believers spread across many cities and territories. These gathered to fellowship together as small churches in private homes since there was no formalised Christian institutional structure. They were tight-knit communities who held all things in common and stayed away from excess and ceremony. They forsook their former lives, making their faith in the Lord, their identification with His sufferings, and their love for others their hallmark.
While Peter and James stayed mostly in Jerusalem preaching to the Jews, Paul was sent to the gentiles. He would move from city to city, staying for months or even years at a time, converting unbelievers and setting all things in order according to the gospel. When the apostles could not go to believes in person, or wanted to send a message to the churches, they wrote letters. These letters were then circulated amongst the churches.
"I charge you by the Lord that this epistle be read to all the holy brethren." – 1 Thessilonians 5:27
As a result, the churches began to make copies of the apostle’s letters to share with each other and these began to circulate between the cities for mutual encouragement. We have evidence that this was happening from the very beginning, even while letters were still being written and most of the apostles were still alive.
It is these letters which were finally compiled to form the New Testament. Between 44–75AD, all of the first apostles had been martyred, with the exception of John. He was supposed to have been martyred too, but he escaped boiling oil unharmed and was banished to the Isle of Patmos where he saw the vision of Revelations. He died a very old man in roughly 100AD.
Apostolic Age Time-line
30AD – Jesus was crucified.
33AD – Stephen was the first martyr.
34AD – Paul was converted.
30-40AD – The gospel of Matthew (the disciple of Jesus) was written.
45AD – James (apostle and brother of John) was martyred. Peter was in prison set to be martyred as well but angels let him escape from prison.
45-50AD – The gospel of Mark (the traveling companion of Peter) was written.
45-65AD – The gospel and letters of John (the disciple of Jesus) were written.
50AD – The gospel of Luke (the traveling companion of Paul) was written.
50-65AD – All Paul’s letters were written.
54AD – Philip was martyred.
60AD – Matthew was martyred.
60-62AD – The letter of James (the half-brother of Jesus) was written.
60-65AD – The letters of Peter (the disciple of Jesus) were written.
64AD – The book of Hebrews was written and initially attributed to Paul.
65AD – Nero’s persecution of the church during which Peter and Paul were martyred.
68AD – James the Just (Jesus’ half-brother) and Mark were martyred.
70AD – The book of Jude (the brother of Jesus and James) was written.
70AD – The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed.
70-90AD – The letters of John (the last remaining disciple of Jesus) were written.
72 AD – Jude and Thomas were martyred.
73AD – Barnabas (traveling companion of Paul) was martyred.
81AD – Domitian’s persecution of the church. John was put in boiling oil but was unharmed.
90-100AD – The book of the Revelation of John (the disciple of Jesus) was written.
100-105AD – The death of John (the disciple of Jesus).
It was the writings of the original apostles, approved by their Lord Jesus for the establishing of the foundation of the church, which were regarded by the infant church as doctrine.
"Let a man so consider us (Apostles), as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God." – 1 Cointhians 4:1
"And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers." – Acts 2:42
With the death of John, the possibility of further books authored by the first apostles came to a close and with it, any new writings that could be included in the final collection called the New Testament.
The basic factor for determining New Testament canonicity was inspiration by God, and the chief test to determine that was apostolic authorship.
"In New Testament terminology, the church was ‘built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets’ (Eph. 2:20) whom Christ had promised to guide into ‘all the truth’ (John 16:13) by the Holy Spirit." – McDowell, Josh. Evidence that Demands a Verdict.
If the primary rule for inclusion of a book into the New Testament canon was apostolicity, it should come as no surprise then that all the books known to be authored by Jesus’ chosen apostles were included.
Beside those books, there are only 3 others which were not of apostolic authorship. These are firstly the Gospel of Mark, who was the traveling companion of Peter and carefully recorded Peter’s account of the gospel. Secondly the writings of Luke, which included a Gospel and the book of Acts. The latter was Luke’s a first-hand account of his travels with Paul.
Though Mark and Luke were not apostles, their writings were included because they were historical accounts written under Peter and Paul’s apostolic oversight.
"Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History III. preserves writings of Papias, the bishop of Heirapolis (130 A.D.) which Papias got from the Elder (apostle John): “The Elder used to say this also: ‘Mark, having been the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately all that he (Peter) mentioned, whether sayings or doings of Christ, not, however, in order. For he was neither a hearer nor a companion of the Lord; but afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who adapted his teachings as necessity required, not as though he were making a compilation of the sayings of the Lord. So then Mark made no mistake, writing down in this way some things as he (Peter) mentioned them; for he paid attention to this one thing, not to omit anything that he had heard, not to include any false statement among them.’" – McDowell, Josh. Evidence that Demands a Verdict.
2 - APOSTLES
Since apostolicity is the chief test for the choice of books included in the New Testament, we need to determine who had the right to be called an apostle. The 12 disciples were the first apostles, called so by Jesus Himself as recorded in Luke’s Gospel.
"He called the disciples to Himself and from them He chose 12 whom He also named apostles: Simon, whom He also named Peter, and Andrew his brother; James and John; Philip and Bartholomew; Matthew and Thomas; James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon called the Zealot; Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot who also became a traitor." – Luke 6:16
These were not the only apostles however. We know definitively that Paul was also, at least two of Jesus’ brothers seem to have been, and Barnabas (Acts 13:2), Apollos (1 Corinthians 1:12) and others likely were as well. According to Paul’s definition, apostles had at least three defining traits:
The Lord had to have appeared to them personally after His resurrection. Here Paul accounts a list of those blessed in that way, himself as the last in the list and thus the final apostle.
"He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas (Peter), then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James (Jesus’ brother), then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time." – 1 Corinthians 15:4-8
"Am I not an apostle? Am I not free? Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord?" – 1 Corinthians 9:1
The Lord had to have called them personally as an apostle.
"Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God." – Romans 1:1
"As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, “Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." – Acts 13:2
"Paul, an apostle (not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead)." – Galatians 1:1
"(for He who worked effectively in Peter for the apostleship to the circumcised also worked effectively in me toward the Gentiles). – Galatians 2:8
Their apostleship had to be confirmed with the miraculous power of the Spirit working through them. If they were separated unto God, sent by Him as servants and apostles, His power could been seen through their works to prove to men that they had God’s stamp of approval.
"Truly the signs of an apostle were accomplished among you with all perseverance, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds." – 2 Corinthians 12:12
"And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power." – 1 Corinthians 2:4
"Now some are puffed up, as though I were not coming to you. But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord wills, and I will know, not the word of those who are puffed up, but the power. For the kingdom of God is not in word but in power." – 1 Corinthians 4:18-20
Note in this next extract from the book of Acts, how all three the marks of apostleship are mentioned. And how after they were chosen, had seen the Lord alive and received power from Him, their task was to go into the world and be His witness. It is on this basis that apostles received their authority as those approved by God to teach on His Kingdom and lay the foundation of the church.
"The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which He was taken up, after He through the Holy Spirit had given commandments to the apostles whom He had chosen, to whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God. And being assembled together with them, He commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, “which,” He said, “you have heard from Me... But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." – Acts 1:1-4, 8
3 - THE BROTHERS OF JESUS
Directly after His ascension, which was witnessed by “the apostles... being assembled together” we get a list of who was there when they returned from the mount.
"And when they had entered, they went up into the upper room where they were staying: Peter, James, John, and Andrew; Philip and Thomas; Bartholomew and Matthew; James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot; and Judas the son of James. These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers." – Acts 1:13-14
Here we see the remaining 11 of the 12 disciples, along with Jesus’ brothers listed (which indicates that there were at least two present). We know that in human terms, Jesus had 4 half-brothers.
"Is this not the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary? And His brothers James (the less or James the Just), Joses (also called Joseph), Simon, and Judas (also called Jude)?" – Matthew 13:55
James the Less
Jesus’ half-brother James, was called “James the Less” in the book of Mark to distinguish him from the other two who were disciples. Those being the brother of John and son of Zebedee, and James the Son of Alpheus.
"So when the centurion, who stood opposite Him, saw that He cried out like this and breathed His last, he said, “Truly this Man was the Son of God!” There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the Less." – Mark 15:39-40
This James the Less, sometimes also called James the Just, was the man Jesus appeared to after His resurrection which Paul makes mention of in 1 Corinthians. James was therefore accounted an apostle from the beginning. He was in very high regard amongst the 11 disciples and Paul. We can find evidence of this in many New Testament verses. From the beginning he was leader of the church in Jerusalem along with Peter. James the Less is also the one who wrote the book of James found in the New Testament. It was him, along long with John and Peter, who gave Paul the right hand of fellowship (Acts 13:2). Note: It could not have been the other James, (brother of John), because he was the first of the apostles to be martyred (Acts 12:2).
"Those who seemed to be something added nothing to me. But on the contrary, when they saw that the gospel for the uncircumcised had been committed to me, as the gospel for the circumcised was to Peter (for He who worked effectively in Peter for the apostleship to the circumcised also worked effectively in me toward the Gentiles), and when James, Cephas (Peter), and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised." – Galatians 2:7-9
Judas or Jude
So far we have covered the claim to apostleship of all the authors of books of the New Testament except the book of Jude. This is the shortest book with only a single chapter. The book was written by Jude, which is simply a variation on the name Judas or Judah (all spelled the same in Greek). He identifies himself as the brother of James (probably to distinguish himself from the other Jude, one of the 12 who was called the son of James). Since James the Just had a brother called Judas (Jude), it is understood that Jude was the half-brother of Jesus also. We have already noted that more than one of Jesus’ brothers was numbered amongst the apostles, and with them at Jesus’ ascension. It seems likely that it was James and Jude that were there, which would identify Jude as an apostle also.
4 - CIRCULATION OF APOSTOLIC LETTERS
The apostles had been approved by God through the power of His Holy Spirit working in them, and were accepted by the church as men of God. Their letters were in circulation even before John, the last apostle, died. John himself is said to have given his own gospel to different church communities during his lifetime.
With the passing of the last of the original apostles, the Apostolic Age came to a close. A new era began called the Age of the Apostolic Fathers. The first church fathers were the direct disciples of the apostles. They faithfully continued in the doctrine they were taught through a time of some of the worst Christian persecutions in history. As with the apostles, martyrdom was the fate of most of them. From their writings we can glean something of how the apostolic letters were circulated and adopted across the church as foundational scripture.
The books of the New Testament were written as separate letters, to different audiences, in cities spread all over Christendom, over a period of 50 to 60 years. It took some time therefore for the books to be compiled into collections, and even more time for a final list to emerge. We will now have a look at how that process took shape.
The church fathers, though filled with the Holy Spirit and still exhibiting His power in their lives, were of less supernatural power than their predecessors, the apostles. For this reason they did not claim the same spiritual authority as their mentors, nor were their writings considered inspired in the same manner as the apostles.
Ignatius (A.D. 50-115): “I do not wish to command you as Peter and Paul; they were apostles.”
– McDowell, Josh. Evidence that Demands a Verdict.
Polycarp (AD 115), Clement and others refer to the Old and New Testament books with the phrase “as it is said in these scriptures.” – McDowell, Josh. Evidence that Demands a Verdict.
A letter to the Christians in the city of Corinth written by Clement (mentioned in the above quote) was mostly likely composed some time between 70 and 100AD. It ranks as probably the earliest Christian document outside the New Testament. In it are 95 quotes taken from 10 of the 27 books which eventually formed the New Testament. This shows that many of the letters of the apostles were accepted and in circulation before the death of the last apostle.
Clement of Rome (95AD) a disciple of the apostle Peter, quotes from: Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, I Corinthians, I Peter, Hebrews and Titus.
By 100AD it is said of Clement: “He knows several of Paul’s epistles, and values them highly for their content; the same can be said of the Epistle to the Hebrews, with which he is well acquainted.”
Writings attributed to the Apostles circulated among the earliest Christian communities. The Pauline epistles were circulating, perhaps in collected forms, by the end of the 1st century AD.
Papias (a disciple of John), attests to the veracity of John’s Revelation and also quotes in his writings from the first letter of John, and the first letter of Peter. This next early church quote shows the acceptance of the book of the Revelation of John.
"I do not need to dwell on the inspiration of John’s book of Revelation since from the earliest times the blessed Papias (a disciple of John), Ireneaus (a disciple of Polycarp who was a disciple of John), Methodius and Hippolytus bear witness to its genuineness." – The Early Christians in their Own Words by Eberhard Arnold, p137
The best evidence for the early circulation of apostolic writings comes from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Among them were found text fragments dated as far back as a decade after being written. This proves the fact that these letters were being copied and circulated between the churches from the very beginning. This news should not surprise us because John, Paul, James and Peter all encouraged the circulation of their epistles amongst the churches.
Fragments of the Dead Sea Scroll texts are dated as follows:
Mark 4:28 (7Q6) dated 50AD
Mark 6:52,53 (7Q5) dated 50AD
Mark 12:17 (7Q7) dated 50AD
Acts 27:38 (7Q6) dated 60+AD
Rom. 55:11,12 (7Q9) dated 70+AD
1 Timothy 3:16, 4:1-3 (7Q4) dated 70+AD
2 Peter 1:15 (7Q10) dated 70+AD
James 1:23,24 (7Q8) dated 70+AD
Within the span of 100-150AD we begin to find distinct collections of apostolic letters forming and church fathers becoming acquainted with large sections of what would finally be called the New Testament. Between 100-140AD Polycarp alone (a disciple of John), made some 120 quotes from 16 books of the New Testament. Amongst them were all four gospels, Acts, and most of Paul’s epistles.
Ignatius (70-110AD) was martyred for his faith in Christ. He knew all the apostles and was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John. His seven epistles contain quotations from: Matthew, John, Acts, Romans, I Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Galatians, Colossians, James I and II, Thessalonians I and II, Timothy and I Peter.
– McDowell, Josh. Evidence that Demands a Verdict.
Shepherd of Hermas (115-140AD) cited Matthew, Mark, Acts, 1 Corinthians, and other books. Didache (120-150AD) referred to Matthew, Luke, 1 Corinthians, and other books. Papias, companion of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John, quoted John. This argues powerfully that the gospels were in existence before the end of the first century, while some eyewitnesses (including John) were still alive
Justin Martyr, (martyred for his faith in 165AD) made multiple references to the “memoirs of the apostles” which he also called the “gospels of the apostles” from as early as 100AD, saying how they were read in the churches every week for as long as time allowed.
Justin Martyr (whose writings span the period from 100–163AD)... quotes the letters of Paul. References are found to Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians, and possible ones to Philippians, Titus, and 1 Timothy, 1 Peter, and Acts in his writings.
In the next quote Justin Martyr (150 AD) refers to Revelation 20.
“And further, there was a certain man with us, whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ, who prophesied, by a revelation that was made to him, that those who believed in our Christ would dwell a thousand years in Jerusalem; and that thereafter the general, and, in short, the eternal resurrection and judgment of all men would likewise take place.” – Justin Martyr, Dialogue 81.4
Of the four Gospels alone there are 19,368 citations by the church fathers from the late first century on. This includes 268 by Justin Martyr (100-165AD), 1038 by Irenaeus (active in the late second century), 1017 by Clement of Alexandria (155-220AD), 9231 by Origen (185-254AD), 3822 by Tertullian (160–220AD), 734 by Hippolytus (236AD), and 3258 by Eusebius (265-339AD).
By 150-180AD we begin to see more encompassing collections of apostolic writings being made. For example:
Irenaeus (180AD) apparently quotes from 21 of the New Testament books and names the author he thought wrote the text. He mentions the four gospels, Acts, the Pauline epistles with the exception of Hebrews and Philemon, as well as the first epistle of Peter, and the first and second epistles of John, and the book of Revelation. Irenaeus argued that it was illogical to reject Acts of the Apostles but accept the Gospel of Luke, as both were from the same author... He may also refer to Hebrews (Book 2, Chapter 30) and James (Book 4, Chapter 16) and maybe even 2 Peter (Book 5, Chapter 28) but does not cite Philemon, 3 John or Jude.
From the year 180AD we get the following text called the Muratorian Canon:
“The third gospel book we accept is that according to Luke. Luke was a physician. He wrote his book after Christ’s ascension and after Paul had taken him as his companion on the way...
The author of the fourth gospel is John. When his fellow apostles and bishops urged him to write it down he said, ‘Fast with me from now on for 3 days, and let us share with one another whatever is revealed to each of us.’ The same night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles, that John should write everything down in his own name and that all the others should check it... The Acts of all the apostles, however are compiled in only one book. Luke collected them for the excellent Theophilus because these different events took place in his own presence. These are all he wants to report, as is clearly born out by his omission of the martyrdom of Peter and by the fact that he does not report anything about the journey of Paul from the city of Rome to Spain...
To all those who want to know, the letters of Paul themselves make it clear who wrote them, and from what place and for what reasons they were written. First of all he writes to Corinth, forbidding all dissension: to the Romans however he writes more fully, introducing them to the order of the Scriptures and showing them that Christ is the crux of everything. It is not necessary for us to dwell on individual letters because he, the blessed apostle Paul, following the order of his predecessor John, write only to seven churches by name, and in his sequence: first to the Corinthians, second to the Ephesians, third to the Philippians, fourth to the Colossians, fifth to the Galatians, sixth to the Thessalonians, seventh to the Romans. Although he writes to the Corinthians and the Thessalonians a second time to admonish them, yet it is clearly evident that there is only one church spread over the whole earth... The letter (of Paul) to Philemon, though, and the one to Titus and the two to Timothy were written out of love and personal affection and yet are held in great honour in the whole church everywhere. They are held sacred for the carrying out of church discipline in the church.
There is also in circulation a letter to the Laodecians and another to the Alexandrians, forged in Paul’s name for the dissenting group of Marconion, as well as several others that cannot be accepted by the whole church everywhere, for it will not do to mix gall with honey. Certainly the letter of Jude and two bearing the name of John are accepted by the whole church and also the Wisdom of Solomon written by his friends in his honor. We also accept a revelation by John and one by Peter, although some of us do not want the latter to be read aloud in the church. The Shepherd was written very recently in our times (140-155AD) by Hermas of Rome when his brother Pius occupied the chair of the church at Rome... yet to the end of time, it cannot be read aloud to the people in the church either with the prophets, who’s number is complete, or with the apostles.”
The above quote from 180AD shows how established an accepted list of apostolic writings was in the church by that time. This list is the first record we have of a more formal compilation of writings considered inspired by the earliest form of the church. Every book currently found in our New Testament is included in his list, with the exception of Hebrews, James, Peter’s letters and the third letter of John.
Included in the list are four books which are not in the New Testament. Laodecians, Alexandrians he says are known to be forged. The Shepherd and the Revelation of Peter were both written after the end of the Apostolic Age, and therefore could not be read along with apostolic writings. We understand then that these books were omitted from the New Testament and not considered of equal status.
The oldest clear endorsement of the four gospels as being the only legitimate gospels, was also written around 180AD by Irenaeus in Against the Heresies:
“It is not possible that the gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the church is the gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh.” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Testament
Irenaeus continues in Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 3, that he “had the preaching of the Apostles still echoing in his ears and their doctrine in front of his eyes.” He quotes from: Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, I Corinthians, I Peter, Hebrews, and Titus. – McDowell, Josh. Evidence that Demands a Verdict.
Irenaeus (180AD), who was a student of Polycarp (who in turn was a student of the apostle John), wrote: “So firm is the ground upon which these Gospels rest, that the very heretics themselves bear witness to them, and, starting from these [documents], each one of them endeavours to establish his own particular doctrine” (Against Heresies III)... His writings attest the canonical recognition of the fourfold Gospel and Acts, of Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus, of I Peter and I John and of the Revelation. – McDowell, Josh. Evidence that Demands a Verdict.
Thus by no later than 180AD the writings of the current New Testament were already well established as the foundation of Christian doctrine and inspired by the Holy Spirit.
The New Testament was given its primary form between the years 140AD and 200AD. From then on it was seen as the authoritative gift of the Spirit and even revered above the Old Testament... Included were the Revelation of John, the four gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and the apostolic letters. – The Early Christians in their Own Words by Eberhard Arnold, p31.
Based on the quotes we have seen so far, 26 of the 27 books of the eventual New Testament were accepted and circulating in the church. The exception is III John. It was one of the last of the New Testament books to be written. This may have influenced the rate of its early circulation. It is not known if it was accepted or rejected since no mention is made of it. This may also be because of its insignificance, it is only 14 verses long and holds no new or questionable doctrinal teachings (much like II John).
5 - EARLY CHURCH FATHERS
Clement, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Polycarp
All of the church fathers we have been quoting from this period were martyred. Clement and Ignatius were killed during Roman Emperor Trajan’s persecution of the Christian church which began in 108AD, shortly after the Apostolic Age came to a close. Justin and Polycarp were killed under the persecution of Marcus Aurelius in 165AD, bringing a close to this period and its persecutions.
Clement – martyred by being tied to an anchor and thrown into the sea (99AD).
Ignatius – martyred in the Colosseum and mauled by lions (108AD).
Justin (Martyr) – martyred by beheading (165AD).
Polycarp – martyred by fire. When the flames would not consume him he was pierced (166AD).
The early church fathers wrote pieces of their own, under their own names, not claiming to be inspired scripture. These were held in high regard by the churches but were never seen as inspired texts or on the level of the letters of the first apostles. But by around 140-150AD, in the void left by the martyred apostles and church fathers, an influx of new writings surfaced. Some of them were known to be Gnostic (an occult twist on Christianity), which commonly claimed authorship from the deceased apostles in order to gain veracity. But often the true authors of the texts were known. Also these letters exposed themselves by both their late arrival and their heretical doctrines which did not agree with the true apostle’s teachings. The early church fathers vehemently resisted these, but after their decline, the church was not able to withstand the influx of new doctrinal mixture.
Polycarp often exclaimed, “Dear God for what times hast thou preserved me, that I should endure these things!” He even went so far as to call a leader of the Gnostic movement the firstborn of Satan. Under no circumstance would the Christians recognise anything ‘Christian’ in this ‘Gnosis’ or ‘mystery knowledge’... the slightest contact with these counterfeits was considered dangerous beyond measure. – The Early Christians in their Own Words by Eberhard Arnold, p31
Polycarp was the last of his generation of direct disciples of the apostles.
6 - SECOND GENERATION OF CHURCH FATHERS
Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Hippoluytus
Iranaeus was a disciple of Polycarp. He spent most of his years as a bishop defending the gospel against gnosticism in the years of the infancy of the formalised church. Hippoluytus was a disciple of Iranaeus, who avidly opposed the Pope’s accommodation of pagans into the church, he finally died in exile. Tertullian, like Iranaeus, wrote prolifically against the gnosticism of his time. Origen was an academic and the most prolific writer of his day. He spent his carer traveling, studying and laying down the principals of Christian theology. His studies were probably the basis for the 367AD list of canonised books.
By the early 200s, Origen may have been using the same twenty-seven books as the New Testament canon, though there were disputes over the canonicity of the Letter to the Hebrews, Epistle of James, II Peter, II John and III John and the Book of Revelation... Origen was largely responsible for the collection of usage information regarding the texts that became the New Testament. – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Testament
Origen founded the Christian School of Caesarea, where he taught logic, cosmology, natural history, and theology, and became regarded by the churches of Palestine and Arabia as the ultimate authority on all matters of theology. He was tortured for his faith during the Decian persecution in 250 and died three to four years later from his injuries. – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origen
But despite their best efforts, this generation of church fathers could not hold back the tide of paganism, gnosticism or correct the errors of the formalised church. The purest form of the early church of love, simplicity, power of the Holy Spirit and martyrdom would soon fade into memory.
7 - BIRTH OF A FORMALISED CHURCH
249-251AD – Severe Christian persecution under the emperor Decius.
284-305AD – Christian persecution under emperor Diocletian.
313AD – Edict of Milan issued by Constantine - Christianity legalized in the Roman empire.
325AD – Constantine calls the first ecumenical council at Nicea.
367AD – Saint Athanasius is the first to list all 27 New Testament books in his festal letter.
382AD – Saint Jerome begins a translation of the Bible into Latin.
397AD – Synod at Carthage ratifies the 27 books of the New Testament as sacred scripture.
By the close of the second century, a new form of church leadership was beginning to emerge. These were called Bishops and claimed their authority through ‘the official office of apostolic succession’, not through the anointing of the Holy Spirit. It is under them that church structure began to be formalised. Under the Bishops the character of the church changed dramatically. Infant baptism was introduced. The sacrament of the Eucharist was introduced, gnostic and pagan writings began to circulate and the church gained a stately position of power within society where previously Christians were a thing only to be spat on. Within 100 years, this new form of church leadership became influential in government and a forceful power in society, until finally ‘Christianity’ was made the official religion of Rome and united with state.
From now on, (200AD and later) the organisation of the bishop’s monarchical rule, their synodal decrees, and finally the ascendancy of the Pope guaranteed the uniformity of the catholic world. The bishops declared themselves the legitimate successors to the apostolate and prophetic Spirit, and the Spirit was restricted to their office... Theodore Mopsuestia described the gradual dying out of the apostles and prophets and the growing power f the bishops to govern the church: after the death of the first apostles, the weakness of the second generation apostles was obvious through the weakening of their power to perform miracles. As a result they voluntarily renounced their leadership, transferring part of their authority to the church overseers, who became provincial bishops... AD190, the Roman Bishop Victor laid the foundation for that ecclesiastical edifice by excluding from the church all those who refused to accept the Roman Easter practice... an unbelievable proliferation of church ceremonies and an utterly different and new kind of piety took over. Infant baptism too can be traced to the time immediately following... together with Oriental mystery cults, it was Greek philosophy – especially Plato – that exercised increasing influence (in the direction of the formalized church)...the Christianity of the churches became a great power in the field of learning and literature, extensively absorbing contemporary culture and philosophy. As late as the third century, men like Iraneus, Hippolythus and Tertullian tried in vain to reestablish the purity of the original Christian truth.
The Early Christians in their Own Words by Eberhard Arnold, p32-34.
This new church structure claimed the authority of the original apostles as their own, claimed their writings as their own, and their spiritual authority as their own. As such they canonised the books of the New Testament, by it creating a formal, closed list of New Testament scripture. It is also then that the modern order of those books was set in place. These scriptures became the care of the church and no longer the business of the lay-men. The church leaders were now the only custodians of the Holy Spirit and the only ones allowed to interpret scripture.
8 - CANONIZATION OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
Athanasius was the first man to formally identify the 27 books which would become the New Testament. He was unwillingly elected in as Bishop of Alexandrea and tried in vain to escape the office. He soon found himself in theological disputes with the Arians who denied the Trinity. They laid false accusations against him which caused his exile by the Roman emperor in 336AD. After the emperor’s death he returned only to be exiled again by the new emperor (son of the first). He was proven innocent and allowed to return again. His struggle with the Arians was not over however and he was arrested and exiled a third time. This time he withdrew to the desert where he lived the life of monk for 6 years. Again he was proved innocent and returned home only to be exiled by the next Roman emperor who opposed Christianity. When the emperor was succeeded, Athanasius was allowed to return once again. He finally endured a fifth exile from the next Emperor, but only for a few months before the Emperor was convinced that he should retract his order. In all his exiles lasted between 336 and 366AD.
After his return from the fifth and final exile, he resumed writing and preaching. It is at this time that he sent out a letter suggesting the canonisation of the current 27 books of the New Testament. We know already that his selection leaned heavily on the writings of Origen.
In a letter of 367, Patriarch Athanasius of Alexandria gave a list of exactly the same books that would become the New Testament–27 book–proto-canon, and used the phrase “being canonised” in regard to them. – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_canon#Christian_biblical_canons
Athanasius of Alexandria (A.D. 367) gives us the earliest list of New Testament books which is exactly like our present New Testament. This list was in a festal letter to the churches.
McDowell, Josh. Evidence that Demands a Verdict, eBook: Historical Evidences for the Christian Faith (p. 37). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
The information used to create the late-4th-century Letter which declared accepted Christian writings, was probably based on the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius of Caesarea, wherein he uses the information passed on to him by Origen to create both his list and Origen’s list.
Thus after Athanasius put forward a formal list of 27 books for the New Testament, the list was adopted by the church and ratified (officially approved) another 3 times over the next 34 years.
Pope Damasus I, the Bishop of Rome in 382, promulgated a list of books which contained a New Testament canon identical to that of Athanasius. A synod in Hippo in 393 repeated Athanasius’ and Damasus’ New Testament list (without the Epistle to the Hebrews), and the Council of Carthage (397) repeated Athanasius’ and Damasus’ complete New Testament list. Scholars debate whether Athanasius’ list in 367 formed the basis for later lists. Because Athanasius’ Canon is the closest canon of any of the Church Fathers to the one used by Protestant churches today, many Protestants point to Athanasius as the Father of the Canon.
F. F. Bruce states that “when at last a Church Council— The Synod of Hippo in A.D. 393 — listed the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, it did not confer upon them any authority which they did not already possess, but simply recorded their previously established canonicity. (The ruling of the Synod of Hippo was re-promulgated four years later by the Third Synod of Carthage.)”
– McDowell, Josh. Evidence that Demands a Verdict.
9 - BOOKS UNDER DISPUTE
During the period of 200-360AD, 5 of the eventual New Testament books came under dispute. Let us have a look at some of the issues raised by the formalised church as regards books they finally decided to included in the New Testament canon.
The earliest churches accepted Paul as an apostles and one having the authority of God. His letters were therefore all accepted too. Amongst these, the book of Hebrews was considered one of Paul’s letters from the very beginning and was thus an apostolic book. Possibly around 200AD or later, the church in Rome brought his authorship into question based on the fact that the subject and revelation echoed Paul’s teaching but the language style was more polished. It was suspected that possibly Luke or someone else penned the words for Paul. The book was nevertheless taken to be of Pauline origin and thus it became canonised with the rest of the New Testament as his 14th epistle. In the 15th century the matter of style brought around questions about his authorship again. It has not been definitively settled since. Undoubtedly the author shows extraordinary revelation of the person of the resurrected Jesus Christ, the kind of revelation that few bar Paul have ever had.
Origen (who lived 184-253AD) wrote of the book of Hebrews:
“Men of old have handed it down as Paul’s, but who wrote the Epistle God only knows.”
Origen of Rome also said:
“In the epistle entitled To The Hebrews the diction does not exhibit the characteristic roughness of speech or phraseology admitted by the Apostle [Paul] himself, the construction of the sentences is closer to the Greek usage, as anyone capable of recognising differences of style would agree. On the other hand the matter of the epistle is wonderful, and quite equal to the Apostle’s acknowledged writings: the truth of this would be admitted by anyone who has read the Apostle carefully...If I were asked my personal opinion, I would say that the matter is the Apostle’s but the phraseology and construction are those of someone who remembered the Apostle’s teaching and wrote his own interpretation of what his master had said. So if any church regards this epistle as Paul’s, it should be commended for so doing, for the primitive Church had every justification for handing it down as his. Who wrote the epistle is known to God alone: the accounts that have reached us suggest that it was either Clement, who became Bishop of Rome, or Luke, who wrote the gospel and the Acts.”
This next quote of Eusebius (who lived from 260-340AD), is possibly making reference to the above two quotes of Origen because we know that Eusebius leaned heavily on Origen’s accumulation of knowledge. He wrote:
“Paul’s fourteen epistles (including the book of Hebrews) are well known and undisputed. It is not indeed right to overlook the fact that some have rejected the Epistle to the Hebrews, saying that it is disputed by the church of Rome, on the ground that it was not written by Paul.” –https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Testament
Clement of Alexandria (150-215AD, quoted by Eusebius) says that Paul wrote it in Hebrew and Luke translated it into Greek. – https://bible.org/seriespage/introduction-hebrews
No reasonable objection to Jame’s letter was ever raised, except possibly that it circulated more slowly than others.
Its late recognition in the Church, especially in the West, may be explained by the fact that it was written for or by Jewish Christians, and therefore not widely circulated among the Gentile Churches. – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistle_of_James
James is however considered accepted by the early church since it was referenced by Clement of Rome (95AD) and again by Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, The Shepherd of Hermas (130AD) and Origen (185-245AD).
Except for the book of Revelation, Jude was probably the last of the New Testament books to be written. It makes reference to the tradition of the apostles which had already taken form within the church and encourages believers to hold fast to what they have heard and not give ear to new doctrines.
"Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints." – Jude 1:3
The letter became contentions because it makes a possible reference to the Book of Enoch, which had never been accepted by the church. The book of Enoch falls in a class of books called Gnostic writings which claimed false authorship in order to gain veracity. Their doctrines however are contrary to Christian writings and underpin a sort of ‘Christianised’ occult belief. Jude’s reference to thoughts in the Book of Enoch brought debate as to whether the letter of Jude had the right to be included into the New Testament. As a general rule, questionable writings were omitted from the final selection of texts. The probable reason for the inclusion of the book of Jude is that it was penned by an apostle and that the doctrinal message is sound.
Jude is considered accepted by the early church since it was referenced by Pseudo-Barnabas (70-130AD), Clement of Rome (95-97AD), The Shepherd of Hermas (115-140AD), Polycarp (110-150AD), The Didache (120-150AD), Athenagoras (177AD), Theophilus of Antioch (died 183-185AD), The Muratorian Canon (180AD), Tertullian (150-220AD), Clement of Alexandria (150-215AD) and Origen (185-254AD).
The book of 2 Peter was questioned seemingly because of chapter 2 that warns of false teachers infiltrating the church. This passage holds a strong resemblance to the warning of Jude. It was argued that possibly the book drew from Jude as a source and therefore would have been written after Peter’s death. The argument could just as soon have been made that Jude drew from Peter’s writing or that the two simply spoke of the same revelation. It was included in the canon as of apostolic authorship.
Origen: “And Peter, on whom the Church of Christ is built, ‘against which the gates of hell shall not prevail’ (Matt. 16:18), has left one acknowledged Epistle; possibly also a second, but this is disputed.” – http://www.bible.ca/b-canon-disputed-books.htm
II Peter is referenced 3 times by Clement of Rome (95AD). It may also have been alluded to in Justin Martyr’s (115-165AD) Dialogue with Trypho. Then again by Irenaeus (130-200AD) and Clement of Alexandria (150-215AD).
II & III John
Little is known about the reason John’s letters were under dispute, no reasonable objection seems to have been made. Both books bare a strong resemblance to John’s gospel and the book of Revelation also penned by him. Possibly the late writing of the books stalled their circulation since John lived so much longer than the other apostles. Both are very short, holding only 13 and 14 verses. Again, it could be their insignificance that caused them to be quoted and mentioned as little as they were.
Irenaeus cites 1 John in Against Heresies, and, three paragraphs later, refers back to the same epistle but quotes from 2 John. He may have regarded I-II John as one letter; perhaps he was quoting from memory. The Muratorian Canon (180 AD) includes 2 John. Hippolytus (170-235), accepted 2 John as scripture.
It should not be surprising that 3 John has little external attestation in light of its brevity and lack of quotable material. “It is not certain that any evidence for it can be cited before the third century…”2 Yet, since the author identifies himself as “the elder” and since its opening, closing, style, and outlook are so similar to 2 John, there can be little doubt that the same author wrote both letters. If this same author wrote 1 John and the Gospel of John, as we have argued, then there is a strong probability that it is none other than John the apostle.
10 - MODERN VALIDATION OF THE NEW TESTAMENT TEXTS
One thing to keep in mind is that the church did not create the canon or books included in what we call Scripture. Instead, the church recognised the books that were inspired from their inception.
– McDowell, Josh. Evidence that Demands a Verdict.
In defence of the above statement, it seems interesting that the books finally selected for biblical canon came under more scrutiny and dispute by the educated formalised church than they ever did by the Spirit-filled early church. This is understandable since the formalised church’s methodology was study and higher criticism and the earlier church depended on faith and the presence of the power of God.
The early church, while they had and circulated the letters of the apostles, did not have them collectively bound into one book. Let us look at the acceptance of each book as it relates to the early and the later formalised church:
The only notable dispute made about the books included in the New Testament is that of Jude’s reference to Enoch. Beside that, all other disputes were the result of academic and arguments, not doctrinal or other evidenced error.
Having seen how the books of the New Testament were actually recognised from the beginning and not simply chosen 300 years after the writing, we turn our attention to the trustworthiness of modern copies. Our hope is to establish if the current “Original Greek” text we have – from which our English Bibles were translated – is faithful to the original letters of the apostles or not. To do that we need to compare the current version we have, to our archaeological findings of the early surviving texts.
Note that it is outside the scope of this piece to ask weather the English translations (of which there are many) are faithful representations of the Greek or not.
11 - SURVIVING MANUSCRIPTS
The Bible has been preserved better than any other writing in history. New Testament’s earliest surviving fragments of scripture date all the way back to 50, 70 and 90AD, even before the end of the Apostolic Age. This is only a few years after being written. Add to that the 24 000 other fragments and complete copies which date between 50 and 300 years after being written and you have a wealth of copies to crosscheck against.
There are now more than 5,300 known Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Add over 10,000 Latin Vulgate and at least 9,300 other early versions (MSS) and we have more than 24,000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament in existence today. No other document of antiquity even begins to approach such numbers and attestation. In comparison, the Iliad by Homer is second with only 643 manuscripts that still survive. The first complete preserved text of Homer dates from the 13th century (over two thousand years after first being written).
– McDowell, Josh. Evidence that Demands a Verdict.
As with other ancient books, the physical pieces of “paper” on which the original authors first wrote the New Testament have been lost to history. But we have thousands of other ancient writings (on papyrus, vellum, and parchment) with original-language text copied from each book of the Bible—about 5,400 distinct pieces when it comes to the New Testament, many going back to the first three centuries. They allow us to reconstruct with a huge degree of confidence what the originals said. (By comparison, for Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars we have at most ten readable copies, the earliest of which dates nine hundred years after Caesar’s time.)
With such a vast number of surviving texts, variations within the copies is to be expected. What is astonishing however is that the majority of these variations are to be found in punctuation, spelling and word ordering that have no affect on the final meaning of the text. According to two independent researches done by Hort and Abbot, the remaining effectual discrepancies between the texts account for a fraction of a percent of the New Testament.
Hort’s estimate 0,01% deviation
Abbot’s estimation 0,025% deviation
This level of accuracy across such a large volume of evidence, spread over so many years, is a nearly impossible achievement. It can therefore be said with certainty that the text we have today are true copies of the original apostolic letters.
While many variations have been discovered between early copies of biblical texts, almost all have no importance, as they are variations in spelling, punctuation, or grammar. Also, many of these variants are so particular to the Greek language that they would not appear in translations into other languages. Outside of these unimportant variants, there are a couple variants of some importance. The two most commonly cited examples are the last verses of the Gospel of Mark and the story of the adulterous woman in the Gospel of John... According to Norman Geisler and William Nix, “The New Testament, then, has not only survived in more manuscripts than any other book from antiquity, but it has survived in a purer form than any other great book—a form that is 99.5% pure.”
“In an article in the North American Review, a writer made some interesting comparisons between the writings of Shakespeare and the Scriptures, which show that much greater care must have been bestowed upon the biblical manuscripts than upon other writings, even when there was so much more opportunity of preserving the correct text by means of printed copies than when all the copies had to be made by hand. He said: “’ It seems strange that the text of Shakespeare, which has been in existence less than two hundred and eight years, should be far more uncertain and corrupt than that of the New Testament, now over eighteen centuries old, during nearly fifteen of which it existed only in manuscript... With perhaps a dozen or twenty exceptions, the text of every verse in the New Testament may be said to be so far settled by general consent of scholars, that any dispute as to its readings must relate rather to the interpretation of the words than to any doubts respecting the words themselves. But in every one of Shakespeare’s thirty-seven plays there are probably a hundred readings still in dispute, a large portion of which materially affects the meaning of the passages in which they occur.’”
– McDowell, Josh. Evidence that Demands a Verdict.
From as early as 250AD we even have surviving manuscripts containing almost the entire New Testament.
This fragment of John’s gospel survives from within a generation of composition. Since the book was composed in Asia Minor and this fragment was found in Egypt, some circulation time is demanded, surely placing composition of John within the first century. Whole books (Bodmer Papyri) are available from 200. Most of the New Testament, including all the gospels, is available in the Chester Beatty Papyri manuscript from 150 years after the New Testament was finished (250AD). No other book from the ancient world has as small a time gap between composition and earliest manuscript copies as the New Testament.
12 - QUOTES OF THE CHURCH FATHERS
Besides the actual surviving manuscripts, there are thousands of quotations of apostolic letters in the works of the church fathers.
J. Harold Greenlee says that the quotations of the Scripture in the works of the early Christian writers “are so extensive that the N. T. could virtually be reconstructed from them without the use of New Testament manuscripts.”
Bruce Metzger reiterates the above, in reference to the quotations in the commentaries, sermons, etc. by saying: “Indeed, so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament,”
Sir David Dalrymple was wondering about the preponderance of Scripture in early writing when someone asked him, “Suppose that the New Testament had been destroyed, and every copy of it lost by the end of the third century, could it have been collected together again from the writings of the Fathers of the second and third centuries?” After a great deal of investigation Dalrymple concluded: “Look at those books. You remember the question about the New Testament and the Fathers? That question roused my curiosity, and as I possessed all the existing works of the Fathers of the second and third centuries, I commenced to search, and up to this time I have found the entire New Testament, except eleven verses.”
– McDowell, Josh. Evidence that Demands a Verdict.
Among others who quoted from the New Testament prior to its canonisation were:
Clement of Rome (95AD).
Justin Martyr (133AD).
Irenaeus (170AD) 1038 quotes from the gospels excluding his other apostolic quotes.
Clement of Alexandria (150-212A.D). 2,400 quotes of all but three books of the New Testament.
Tertullian (160-220AD) more than 7,000 New Testament quotes.
Hippolytus (170-235AD) has more than 1,300 references.
Origen (185-254AD) lists more than 18,000 New Testament quotes.
Cyprian (died 258AD) uses 1,030 citations from the New Testament.
Geisler and Nix rightly conclude that “a brief inventory at this point will reveal that there were some 32,000 citations of the New Testament prior to the time of the Council of Nicea. These 32,000 quotations are by no means exhaustive.
– McDowell, Josh. Evidence that Demands a Verdict.
We therefore have the surviving scriptures from the earliest days of the church, as well as the quotes from church fathers by which to cross check that our modern gospels are true copies of the originals. The evidence is so overwhelming, and counter evidence so absent, that the accuracy of the New Testament is beyond doubt.
The New Testament is then compiled of the writings of the apostles, who were chosen by Jesus Christ Himself, and approved by God. Their letters were faithfully copied and shared amongst the churches, and considered inspired from the first. Three hundred years later, after much scrutiny, they were compiled into a final closed canon. Nearly two thousand years after being written, we have a wealth of archaeological evidence proving that they have survived the test of time. No other text in human history can boast anything close to the same, (though they are written by one person, in one place, at one time) thus affirming the hand of God over them.
We believe therefore that the superhuman feat of such an accurate surviving New Testament is itself evidence that the hand of God has been preserving it through the ages. No other book has been scrutinised, hated or smothered more over the last 2000 years of history – and yet it survives to this day in tact.