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