Wednesday, February 15, 2012

How we got the New Testament

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.

John 14:26

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.
John 16:13-14

Tracking the development of the New Testament is not as easy as doing so for the Old Testament because a lot of the books in the New Testament were actually letters that were written to people, churches, or groups of churches in different parts of the world. They were not all written to one people in one location like the Old Testament was. But similar to the Old Testament, the New Testament begins not with a book being written but with the very words of God. 

The New Testament begins with the words of Jesus. Although Christ didn't write anything down Himself, the words He spoke were later written and compiled into books by His disciples. Now I know some of you are thinking, 'How can we be sure we have Jesus actual words?' Scripture tells us that Christ provided for that. In John 14:26 Jesus promises His disciples that the Holy Spirit will come upon them after His death and will remind them of everything He had said to them. Though it is not explicit in the text, it seems clear in retrospect that the Spirit was to do this in order to enable the disciples (later known as Apostles) to write the New Testament books with accuracy. Of course, the New Testament includes theology and teaching that is not attributed to Jesus Himself, but Jesus also hints at this development. In both John 14:26 and 16:13-14 Christ informs His disciples that the Spirit would not only remind them of what He said but that He would also teach new things, things yet to come.

As best as we can determine Jesus was crucified sometime around 30 AD. We believe that the last book of the Bible to be written (which coincidentally is Revelation) was written around 95 AD. (There is some disagreement on this last point but I believe 95 AD makes the most sense.) But it took some time for all of the New Testament books and letters to be gathered into one collection. There was a good deal of agreement early on. Individual churches that had a book or letter from one of the Apostles would not only read it in their own worship services as Scripture but would also circulate it around to the other churches so they could make copies. We even have a few places in the New Testament where one of the other New Testament books is quoted as Scripture. See II Peter 3:15-16 and I Timothy 5:17-18 (this second one is a melding of Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7). As was true in the Old Testament however, there were other books written as well around this time about Jesus which the churches did not believe to be Scripture, so how did the churches decide which books and letters were Scripture and which were not?

They had some criteria for canonicity (or criteria for making it into the New Testament collection). First, the book needed to be written by an Apostle or a known associate of one of the Apostles. Considering the passages above, this makes sense doesn't it? The Holy Spirit had especially equipped the Apostles for writing Scripture, plus they were the ones who had witnessed Jesus' earthly life so they were the ones who could rightly pass His teaching on. Second, the content of the book or letter must conform to Old Testament Scripture. Since all Scripture is true, it does not contradict itself. Therefore, if a book was written about Jesus which contradicted teachings of the Old Testament, then it was not accepted as Scripture. Third, the way in which the church at large used and viewed the book was given weight. It is important to make a distinction here. The Roman Catholic Church believes that the church stands in authority over the Bible. Protestant churches do not believe this. Scripture is the ultimate and final authority. Thus, at no time did the early church vote to make a book Scripture. They merely tried to establish from the Holy Spirit's leading which books were already Scripture and which books were not. In the Protestant view the church does not have the authority to make something Scripture, only to recognize whether or not God has done so. 

Some books in the New Testament were more quickly recognized than others. Because they were not written by Apostles the church took longer to reach a consensus on Mark, Luke, Acts, Hebrews, and Jude. In 367 AD Athanasius sent out his annual Easter letter and included a list of New Testament books which exactly matches our 27 books of the New Testament. By 397 AD this full list of 27 was widely accepted enough to be approved at the Council of Carthage. 

All of this is a helpful reminder that we do not stand above Scripture. Scripture stands above us. I know that I am fallible. I make mistakes. I am sometimes wrong. Scripture on the other hand is never wrong. It is perfectly true and without error. This is not true because my logic tells me it is, it is true regardless of what I think. I accept Scripture as true because it is true. It is not made true because I agree with it. As silly as that sounds it has very important application in our culture. Right now America disagrees with the Bible on a number of issues, and since none of us are above the influence of the thoughts and paradigms of our time, chances are that (whether we know it or not) you and I disagree with the Bible on some issues. The question is this, when you read something in the Bible that your reason tells you is wrong what will you choose to believe, the Bible or your own logic? It is hard for us to submit our reason to the Bible, because we think we are right. But if we really believe that the Bible is without error, then we must submit ourselves to it as a teacher. The Bible is right, even when I want to disagree with it.

For further reading...
- Every so often someone will bring up the other books that were written around the time of Jesus as though they are a newly found. Perhaps Time magazine will run a cover on them like they do damage to the Bible. This is not the case. The church has been aware of their existence from the beginning. They simply did not pass the tests to be considered Scripture. For many (if not all) of these book it is obvious why they were not counted as Scripture. Here are some examples:
  • Gospel of Thomas: Verse 114- "Simon Peter said to him, 'Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.' Jesus said, 'I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.'
  •  The Infancy Gospel of Thomas: Verse 2.1, 2.2, 3, & 3.1- "And the son of Annas the scribe had come with Joseph. And taking a willow twig, he destroyed the pools and drained out the water which Jesus had gathered together. And he dried up their gatherings. And Jesus, seeing what had happened, said to him, 'Your fruit (shall be) without root and your shoot shall be dried up like a branch scorched by a strong wind.' And instantly that child withered. While he was going from there with his father Joseph, a child running tore into his shoulder. And Jesus said to him, 'You shall no longer go our way.' And instantly he died. At once the people, seeing that he was dead, cried out and said, 'Where was this boy born that his word becomes a deed?'"
- And in case this makes you wonder about the Apocrypha (books from the Old Testament era that Protestants deny are Scriptural) here are some quotes on heretical teachings found in it as well. (Quotes taken from Robert Saucy's book footnoted below).
  • Sirach 33:26- "For a wicked slave there are racks and tortures."
  • Sirach 22:3- "The birth of a daughter is a loss."
  • Sirach 42:14- "Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good."
  • Tobit 12:9- "Almsgiving saves from death, and purges away every sin."

*I have leaned heavily on notes from my Systematic Theology I class taken at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville Kentucky with Dr. Bruce Ware in 2008 and on Robert Saucy's Scripture: It's Power, Authority, and Relevance.

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