How Did the New Testament Come Together?

Retraction. Yep, sometimes our Quality Assurance department misses things. In several of our 3BT posts over the last few years, we have said that the bishops at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE voted on which books would make the cut for the New Testament. We probably lifted that straight from The DaVinci Code.  And we were wrong. The Council of Nicaea was called by Constantine to debate the all-important issue of whether Jesus and God were equal, or whether Jesus came after God and was therefore a lesser God. Constantine didn’t care which side was correct; he just wanted to coerce all the bishops across the empire to agree on one or the other and stop bickering.

The first time we see a mention of the 27 books of today’s NT is in 367 CE, in a letter from Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, Egypt. This was well after the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. So if it wasn’t at the Council in 325, how did the NT come together? 

  • Criteria. First, any book that made it into the New Testament canon had to be old — let’s use pre-120 as a benchmark. And it had to be attributed to a disciple or follower of Jesus. How’d they determine that? It was not a matter of forensics or handwriting analysis. Authorship was passed on word of mouth. So you can imagine how easy it may have been a forgery (or several) to slip in under the name of Paul or Peter. Even today, Biblical scholars cannot agree on which books are authentic and which were written by a different author.
  • Early versions. The first version of the New Testament was 10 letters from Paul, plus the Gospel of Luke (written by Paul’s traveling companion). This was put together by a guy (Marcion) in the early 2nd century. Marcion did not like the Jewish version of Christianity, and so excluded certain books accordingly. Fun fact:  Even Luke himself (Chapter 1) says there were earlier versions of the Gospels that had been written before him. 
  • There’s always something. The early Christian groups all had their own ideas of who God was, who Jesus was, how salvation worked, etc. And all of them thought they were endorsing the “true” Christianity. So despite Marcion’s attempt to narrow the NT canon down to his ideal, after he died the other church elders decided to be more inclusive. They brought in the other three gospels, plus writings from Peter, James, John, and Jude. 

Over the first four centuries, the 27 books just kinda fell into place as the New Testament. Various Christian denominations list different dates for when they officially ‘accepted’ the NT canon. The Orthodox Christians recognized it in 692 CE. The Church of England weighed in finally in 1563. None of these were mentioned by Dan Brown in his novels.

We acknowledge all the great work by Professor Bart Ehrman, and his blog site which helps decipher these complex issues.

Question of the week. At the end of Matthew 27, there’s this:

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.

What? Is this a real event or symbolic? We’ll see if the interns can figure this one out for next week.

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