When did the Bible become the Bible? — Part #1 (The New Testament)

Detail from Uncial 076 (Gregory-Aland), Greek manuscript of the New Testament (5th or 6th century). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Detail from Uncial 076 (Gregory-Aland), Greek manuscript of the New Testament (5th or 6th century). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

[Part 1. New Testament] [Part 2. Old Testament]

A friend once asked me, “When did the Bible become the Bible?” Although that is a question with a fairly well-understood answer historically, it’s not a simple, straightforward answer to relate; it’s one that, to be properly understood, requires some time to explain (and I told him so at the time!).

It’s also a question whose answer looks very different depending on whether you’re considering the Old Testament or the New.

In this, the first of a two-part series, we answer the question, “When did the Bible become the Bible?” beginning with how we arrived at the New Testament.

“A friend once asked me, ‘When did the Bible become the Bible?’ Although that is a question with a fairly well-understood answer historically, it’s not a simple, straightforward answer to relate; it’s one that, to be properly understood, requires some time to explain (and I told him so at the time!).”

Of course, the form of my friend’s question already implied a number of things that were known and understood. These were:—

  • That the Bible is composed of numerous books;
  • That the books of the Bible were composed over a period of time;
  • That the Bible was not penned as a complete whole and instantaneously dropped on the world; and
  • That at some point the individual books were ‘collected’ into what we now refer to as the Bible.

And that is a good starting-point.

The Bible is indeed composed of numerous books (it has in fact been described as rather a library of books[1]), sixty-six according to the Protestant reckoning. They were written as individual books,[2] and conversely, they are not the product of one single, human author. In other words, there was not some point in time where somebody sat down and said to himself (herself), “Let’s write the Bible.” Even the most superficial reading of it shows this clearly.

“There was not some point in time where somebody sat down and said to himself (herself), ‘Let’s write the Bible.’ Even the most superficial reading of it shows this clearly.”

In fact, the Bible was written over an extremely long period of time. The events related in the earlier parts of the Old Testament were almost certainly transmitted orally in the first instance. But at some point these oral traditions came to be written down, and there are clear indications in the Bible itself that this process was going on during the 2nd millennium B.C.[3] — although the Old Testament did not reach its final form until much later, nor was a great part of it written until much later.

We will consider the Old Testament in a future post. For now let us consider, “When did the New Testament become the New Testament?”

Contents

The New Testament
Initial collection (early 2nd century)
     —  Clement of Rome (c. A.D. 95)
     —  Ignatius of Antioch (c. A.D. 107)
How many Gospels? Irenaeus of Lyons (c. A.D. 180)
Another second-century witness to the Four: Tatian’s Diatessaron
The emerging canon: The Muratorian Fragment (c. A.D. 170)
The final New Testament canon (4th and 5th centuries)
Conclusion

The New Testament

“When we say ‘New Testament books,’ we aren’t necessarily referring to something the length of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.”

The New Testament that appears in our Bibles today comprises twenty-seven books. When we say ‘books,’ we aren’t necessarily referring to something the length of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or even of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Many of the books of the New Testament are really letters, and some of these quite short: 2 John (the Second Letter of John) is only 301 words long in the English Standard Version Anglicized translation.

The books included in our New Testament are:

  • Four Gospels (namely, of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)
  • The Acts of the Apostles (a historical work by the writer of Luke’s Gospel)
  • Thirteen letters of the Apostle Paul
  • Letter to the Hebrews, an anonymous letter to some Jewish Christians
  • A letter by James, the Lord’s brother
  • Two letters of the Apostle Peter
  • Three letters of the Apostle John
  • A letter by Jude, the Lord’s brother
  • The Revelation to John

These twenty-seven books were written between around A.D. 49 (Galatians, 1 Thessalonians) and A.D. 95 (Revelation).[4]

Initial collection (early 2nd century)

“The apostles were dying out, and still Jesus had not returned. Increasingly it must have become clear to the Church that the spoken word of the apostles’ preaching had to make way for their written words.”

Around the end of the first century, Christians began to collect together the Letters of Paul, and the Gospels.

It seems likely that this process began as the Christian Church came to the realization, during the latter half of the first century, of the vital importance of preserving and spreading the apostolic writings. The apostles — the authentic eyewitnesses to the words and deeds of Jesus — were dying out, and still Jesus had not returned. Increasingly it must have become clear to the Church that the spoken word of the apostles’ preaching had to make way for their written words.

Thankfully we have some extremely early Christian writings from the generation that lived just after the apostles (i.e., at around the turn of the second century). In these writings we can see this process of collection at work.

Clement of Rome (c. A.D. 95)

“We have one authentic letter by Clement of Rome, named 1 Clement, written around A.D. 95, in which Clement quotes from, or alludes to, between eleven and fourteen of the books that are now in our New Testament.”

Thus if we consider Clement of Rome, overseer of the Christian church at Rome at around the end of the first century. We have one authentic letter of his, named 1 Clement, written around A.D. 95. What is interesting about this letter, is that already Clement is quoting from a number of New Testament books (forgive the anachronistic usage: he wouldn’t have known them as such).

I have shown here and here that Clement quotes from, or alludes to, between eleven and fourteen of the books that are now in our New Testament.

Notably he quotes from Paul’s letters to the Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians (almost certainly), 1 Timothy (almost certainly), and to Titus. (He also quotes extensively from the Letter to the Hebrews, which many early theologians believed was written by Paul.)

Equally notably he quotes from two of the Gospels — Matthew and Luke (and possibly also from Mark, though this is far from certain).

Hence in this single letter alone, we can see the process underway of collecting together Paul’s thirteen letters which we now possess. We can also the process underway of collecting together the Gospels.

Ignatius of Antioch (c. A.D. 107)

We also have seven letters of Ignatius, overseer of the church at Antioch in Syria, written to six churches and one of his fellow church-overseers Polycarp, whilst he (Ignatius) was being taken to Rome to be fed to wild beasts in the arena for being a Christian. These were written around A.D. 107.

Analysis of Ignatius’ seven letters shows that Ignatius quotes from, or alludes to, ten of Paul’s letters:

  • Romans
  • 1 Corinthians
  • 2 Corinthians
  • Galatians
  • Ephesians
  • Philippians
  • Colossians
  • 1 Thessalonians
  • 1 Timothy
  • 2 Timothy[5]

Likewise there are clear allusions to the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John; as well as possible allusions to the Gospel of Mark and to the Acts of the Apostles (written by Luke).

Thus, as in 1 Clement, we see the process of collecting the letters of Paul and the Gospels. Indeed, this process may already be significantly farther on than when Clement wrote a decade earlier.

How many Gospels? Irenaeus of Lyons (c. A.D. 180)

“In his work Against Heresies, Irenaeus explicitly rejects these later [Gospels] of the second-century offshoot groups of Christianity, and insists that there can only be four recognized Gospels: those of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”

During the second century a number of ‘alternative’ Gospels appeared, besides those of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John which are now in our New Testament.

These alternative Gospels were the productions of various offshoot groups within Christianity who wanted to validate their particular ‘version’ of Jesus. Most of these present a Jesus who is quite different to the one in the New Testament Gospels. For example, many of these offshoot groups — especially the Gnostics (an umbrella term for a number of groups) — did not believe that Jesus was really a human being. So they constructed their own Gospels which presented a divine-but-not-human Jesus.

The question therefore naturally arose in the second century, “Which of all these Gospels are the right ones? Which are the authentic ones?”

To address this and other vital issues for the faith, Irenaeus, overseer of the church at Lyons in what is now France (c. A.D. 180) wrote a five-volume work, Against Heresies. In this work he explicitly rejects these later productions of the offshoot groups, and insists that there can only be four recognized Gospels: those of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Thus he writes,

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.[6]

Irenaeus’ argument more or less settled the question of the Gospels for the orthodox Christian Church. Although the offshoot groups continued to exist, and continued to use their bespoke writings, for the orthodox Church it was now Matthew, Mark, Luke and John which were firmly established as the only authentic Gospels.

Another second-century witness to the Four: Tatian’s Diatessaron

“Tatian’s Diatessaron bears further witness to the idea of there being four authentic Gospels in the minds of Christians by the middle of the second century.”

Another important witness to the collection of four (and exactly four) Gospels from this period is Tatian.

Tatian was a Christian who, around the middle of the second century, composed a work, the Diatessaron, which was a ‘combined version’ of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. You can read more about Tatian and his great work here.

For a time the Diatessaron was enormously popular and even threatened at one stage to supplant the four Gospels themselves in the public reading of the Church. Eventually, however, the four distinct Gospels won out.

We have copies of the Diatessaron today which prove that it was a composite of the four Gospels which are in our New Testament. Hence this work bears further witness to the idea of there being four authentic Gospels in the minds of Christians by the middle of the second century.

The emerging canon: The Muratorian Fragment (c. A.D. 170)

By the latter part of the second century, in the face of the threat posed by the ‘rival Gospels’ (and other writings) mentioned above, the need for a definitive list of inspired writings came to the fore.

The Muratorian Fragment, or Muratorian Canon (described here), is our first surviving attempt at a definitive list of ‘New Testament’ books. It lists the following as the inspired writings:

  • Matthew
  • Mark[7]
  • Luke
  • John
  • Acts of the Apostles
  • Romans
  • 1 Corinthians
  • 2 Corinthians
  • Galatians
  • Ephesians
  • Philippians
  • Colossians
  • 1 Thessalonians
  • 2 Thessalonians
  • 1 Timothy
  • 2 Timothy
  • Titus
  • Philemon
  • 1 John
  • At least one other (unidentified) letter of John
  • Jude
  • The Revelation of John
  • The Revelation of Peter (this is not in our New Testament)
  • Wisdom of Solomon (this is in the Old Testament Apocrypha)[8]

This is not exactly our twenty-seven book New Testament — it has a number of books missing from our New Testament, and a couple of extras which aren’t in our New Testament. But it has twenty-two of our twenty-seven New Testament books, so in a sense already at this stage the canon of New Testament books is 81% in place.

The final New Testament canon (4th and 5th centuries)

The coalescence of agreement over the New Testament books that was reached towards the end of the second century was enough to carry the orthodox Christian Church through to the middle of the fourth century, even if there continued to be debate and disagreement around the margins of the canon.

“Around the middle of the fourth century, with Christian orthodoxy becoming more precisely-defined, the need for a definitive list of New Testament books again became pressing. Two moments in this period signify the finalization of the New Testament canon.”

Around the middle of the fourth century, with Christian orthodoxy becoming more precisely-defined, the need for a definitive list of New Testament books again became pressing.

Two moments in this period signify the finalization of the New Testament canon of twenty-seven books and the culmination of this three-hundred-year process.

The first of these is Athanasius of Alexandria’s Easter Letter of A.D. 367. In this letter he gave a list of inspired New Testament books — and for the first time, a list which exactly matches the twenty-seven books of our New Testament today.

Athanasius was one of the most famous and most high-profile Christian leaders of his age, so his list was bound to carry considerable weight.

The second moment in this period was the promulgation of the same list of twenty-seven inspired New Testament books by three North African Councils — the Synod of Hippo in 393; the Council of Carthage in 397; and the Council of Carthage in 419.

The decisions of these Councils — backed by the towering figure of Augustine of Hippo — ensured that it was Athanasius’ list of twenty-seven books which eventually came to be regarded as the inspired revelation of God in the New Testament.

Conclusion

“Above all, the formation of the canon of twenty-seven New Testament books was a process. A process by which the canon emerged.”

Above all, the formation of the canon of twenty-seven New Testament books was a process. A process by which the canon emerged.

It was a process which began with the Church’s realization, towards the end of the first century, that the spoken apostolic word would not always be around and that it was therefore vital to preserve the written apostolic word. This realization led to a process of collecting the apostolic writings, particularly the Gospels and the Letters of Paul, around the end of the first century.

In spite of threats from various quarters — the Gnostic Gospels, the Diatessaron, and so on — the second century confirmed the four Gospels and the Letters of Paul as the core of the New Testament, along with other writings considered apostolic which were more on the fringes of the canon (and one or two of which finally ended up outside of it).

“When the [fourth- and fifth-century decrees] promulgated the list of twenty-seven inspired books that we consider our New Testament today, they were not making some arbitrary selection of the books which matched their particular theological preferences (as is sometimes claimed). They were simply ratifying and confirming the consensus which had been built up by the long usage of the Christian Church over the preceding three hundred years.”

Thus, when the Easter Letter list of Athanasius and the subsequent North African Councils promulgated the list of twenty-seven inspired books that we consider our New Testament today, they were not making some arbitrary selection of the books which matched their particular theological preferences (as is sometimes claimed).

Rather, they were simply ratifying and confirming the consensus which had been built up by the long usage of the Christian Church over the preceding three hundred years.

From a personal point of view, the way the New Testament canon developed is at once both puzzling and reassuring.

In some ways it would have been much easier theologically if God had simply dropped the New Testament, in finished form, on the world — if, alternatively, the Lord Jesus himself had left his twelve apostles with a definitive collection of ready-made writings before his ascension.

But that is not how God chose to do things. The Lord Jesus himself bequeathed no writings of his own whatsoever to the Church; rather he entrusted the writing of the entire New Testament to his apostles and their associates under the direction of the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

In a similar way, God entrusted the formation of the New Testament canon to the Christian Church of the first four centuries. Now there is a great deal that the Christian Church got wrong during this period; hence it is impossible to maintain some notion of the ‘Infallibility of the Church’ even during this limited period.

But given what the New Testament says about itself (again, 2 Timothy 3:16-17), we must believe that this protracted and often tortuous process by which the New Testament canon emerged, was a process also guided and superintended by the Spirit of God.

And in a strange way, that gives me a wonderful assurance that God knows what he’s doing.

*        *        *

In our next post, we will consider the second part of this question: “When did the Old Testament become the Old Testament?”

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] Revd. Preb. Richard Bewes, ‘How Big is Your Bible?’, in Holy Bible Uncovered: New International Version. Bible Society, Swindon

[2] Although some we consider two books of the Bible were originally conceived of as a single work, and are indeed so reckoned in the Jewish Bible: for example, 1 & 2 Samuel are reckoned as one book in the Jewish canon; likewise 1 & 2 Kings; likewise 1 & 2 Chronicles. See here.

[3] Example: In the book of Joshua (itself an early work within the Old Testament), we find an explicit reference to a still earlier, written work, now lost:

12“At that time Joshua spoke to the LORD in the day when the LORD gave the Amorites over to the sons of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel,

‘Sun, stand still at Gibeon,
and moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.’

13And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in the midst of heaven and did not hurry to set for about a whole day.” (Joshua 10:12-13)

[4] See, e.g., https://www.esv.org/resources/esv-global-study-bible/chart_40_00_nt_timeline/

[5] There are also possible allusions in his letters to Paul’s letters to Titus and to Philemon, and also to the Letter to the Hebrews; but these are far from certain.

[6] Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, 3.11.8. This can be found in Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. I. T&T Clark, Edinburgh; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted 1996: p.428. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.xii.html.

[7] Matthew and Mark are missing from the beginning of the Fragment, but were evidently the first two entries in the list. See the text of the Muratorian Fragment at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/muratorian-latin.html.

[8] http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/muratorian-latin.html. See also The Lion Handbook: The History of Christianity (©1977, 1990 Lion Publishing, Oxford), 1996 paperback edition, pp.134-135.

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