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The New Testament (2)
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     There are some who have set their face against anything which would even hint at the reliability of the New Testament text.   Some have suggested that there are scriptures that are left out of the Bible that should be in it.  Others say some books in the New Testament should be removed.  Some argue that the canon of scripture was not closed until very late and make great fare out of the fact that there was for some time initially no “Bible.”  That is, for an extended period there was no single volume containing all of the books we now know constitute the New Testament.  

     Timothy Beal, for instance, author of The Rise and Fall of the Bible, states “No one in the first century could even have imagined such a thing as a New Testament canon, let alone the Bible as we think of it these days.”1  According to Beal, this even included Jesus.  Neither

Jesus nor his followers nor Paul nor any of the authors of any of the texts now in the New Testament, let alone any of the Christians who lived during the first three hundred years of Christianity, could possibly have imagined the Bible, a single book containing a closed canon of Jewish and Christian scriptures. It was both physically and socially impossible.  Not only were there just too many different varieties of Christianity with too many different important writings with too many variants in too many different languages; there was simply no medium to bear anything close to that large of a library.2

     Bart Erhman, author of Misquoting Jesus and Jesus, Interrupted argues that there is a “problem of knowing whether the books in our Bibles are the ones that God wanted to be Scripture in the first place.  How do we know only the right books got in?  How do we know that some inspired books were not left out?”3  He further states that “the debate over which books to include in the Bible was long and hard fought” and that the final form was never “ratified by a church council of any kind–until the anti-reformation Catholic Council of Trent in the sixteenth century.”4   

     Novelist Dan Brown takes this claim even further.  In the best seller The Da Vinci Code, Brown has Sir Leigh Teabing, the character representing scholarly authority say: “The Bible is the product of man, my dear.  Not of God.  The Bible did not fall magically from the clouds.  Man created it as a historical record of tumultuous times, and it has evolved through countless translations, additions, and revisions.   History has never had a definitive version of the book”(emphasis ELP).5  Elaine Pagels has argued that the so-called secret Gospel of Thomas is just as valuable as a description of the teaching of Jesus as that which is contained in the four Gospels accounts we have in our Bibles.6


      What shall we say to these objections to the New Testament canon being closed early.  First, to say that Jesus could not have “imagined” a single volume containing a closed canon of scripture is to betray a limited view of the divine nature of the Son of God.  Jesus would not have had to imagine such a book; He would have providentially brought it into existence–and did.  Second, for a canon to be closed, it doesn’t have to be enclosed in one single volume.  It is recognized that the Old Testament canon was closed and enshrined in multiple scrolls, even if you accept a late date for the closing of the Old Testament canon.   

     It is clear from the historical evidence that, though they were already in use in limited applications in the Roman world, it was Christians who championed the common use of codices, i.e., books, as opposed to scrolls.  The Lord’s church likely championed the move to the codex because it was possible to contain more scripture in a smaller, more economical, format.  The codex also provides a more searchable friendly format, ideal for Christians who, believing the writings were inspired, wanted to have ready access to any passage with ease.  In fact, some believe the oldest copy of the New Testament comes from a book.  This small section of scripture contained on three bits of papyri, now housed at Magdalene College at Oxford, contains portions of the twenty-sixth chapter of the Gospel account of Matthew.   The late Dr. Carsten Thiede has persuasively argued (though modern scholarly consensus is against his view) that the Magdalene Papyri can be dated to the period of the eyewitnesses of Jesus, i.e., to the middle of the first century, and could very possibly have been written by Matthew himself.   This is important for two reasons.  First, because the Magdalene text expresses the name of Jesus using the nomina sacra–a special, shorthand way to write the name of deity–it clearly demonstrates that the earliest disciples understood that Jesus referred to Himself as God, something which liberal theologians care not to admit.  Second, the fact that it was a book and not a scroll shows that there was a conscience effort on the part of first century Christians to preserve their writings in this particular form, probably for the reasons given above.  In any event, it is clear that the Lord’s church was moving very early toward a format that would allow the entire canon to be housed in a single volume.


The New Testament
(Part one)
Copyright Eric L. Padgett  03-30-2012

 middle second century, whereas we do not even hear of the non-canonical ones until the middle or end of that century (emphasis ELP).7

As we shall see, first century Christians were already accepting certain apostolic writings as binding scripture.

      The claim that gnostic writings like the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Judas were considered equally valuable interpretations of the teachings of Christ are specious.  Jesus, Himself, warned of false teachers spreading errors (Matt. 24:11).  Very early on the apostle Paul warned that there would be apostasies from the faith soon after his departure (Acts 20:28-32; II Tim. 4:1-5).  Indeed, there were already departures manifesting themselves during his lifetime (Gal. 1:6-9).   Some believe that the Colossian Heresy was a form of gnostic error.  Certainly John was dealing with gnostic teaching (I John 1:1-3).   By the second century A. D., Irenaeus clearly viewed these gnostic writings as from an heretical school of thought and rejected them as non-canonical.  He described the Gospel of Judas, for instance, as a “fictitious history.”8   The presence of heretical teachings in the first century does not mean that there were different but acceptable varieties of Christianity any more than the fact that there are counterfeit twenty dollar bills mean that there are different but acceptable varieties of twenty dollar bills.

     Indeed, the so-called Gnostic Gospels are late productions compared to the New Testament gospel accounts.  N. T. Wright states bluntly: “One last contrast between the canonical gospels and the gnostic ones.  There is no point in dressing it up: the canonical gospels are early, and the gnostic ones are late.”9  With the exception of the so-called Gospel of Thomas, “most scholars put the composition of all the non-canonical gospels in the second century A. D. or later.”10  A survey of all New Testament scholarship today, both conservative and liberal, would show that all four Gospel accounts were written well within the first century A.D.11

      It is true that the Bible did not fall down from the heavens, fully bound in burgandy-colored genuine cowhide leather, on acid-free paper, divided into neat chapters and verses with a concordance, dictionary, and pronunciation guide.  But no one--at least no sane person--has ever claimed this.  That there have been multiple copies and translations through time, some good, some bad, again, no one has ever denied.   But what we do believe, and what the Bible claims, is that an omnipotent Creator, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, has at sundry times and in divers manners revealed His will for man to man and has promised to preserve that word as pure as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times (Heb. 1:1,2; II Pet. 1:19-21; Psalm 12:6; Matt. 24:35).


      As these first century, New Testament writings were being circulated among the churches, Christians would have began keeping them and recognizing their authority.  It has been suggested otherwise.  Neale Pryor has stated that “early Christians did not attach too much importance to keeping their letters.  Why should they keep letters from the apostles when they could talk to them face to face?  Only when these apostles began to die and their word became scarce was there a conscience effort to preserve every communication from them.”12  As we shall see in the next installment, Jesus not only taught the importance of His words and that His apostles would be guided into all truth by the Holy Spirit, New Testament writings were recognized from the beginning as scripture.

     Because the early Christians viewed these letters as sacred documents and on par with the Old Testament writings, an established process of copying them and keeping them safe from corruption would have quickly been instituted, just as it was for the writings constituting the Old Testament.  Henry Theissen describes the process of the formation of the canon of the New Testament:

After a gospel or an epistle had been written, it would remain for some time the treasured possession of the individual or the church that had received it.  In some cases the originals would be passed from church to church (as for example Laeodocia and perhaps Ephesians), but they would, no doubt, always find their way back to the original recipient of them.  By and by the originals were more freely circulated and copied.  Undoubtedly, often individuals and churches would make copies of the document in their possession and send them to other individuals and churches, and sometimes individuals and churches may have sent scribes to make copies at the place where the originals were found.  But gradually the churches all over the world would attain a more or less complete set of inspired writings of the new dispensation.13

Letters from apostles, the men who knew Jesus intimately and lived with him for three years, or those who were their known companions, would have been recognized as authoritative.  Writings which did not bear the stamp of apostolic approval would have been rejected.


Endnotes


1.  Timothy Beal, The Rise and Fall of the Bible, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston: 2011. P. 106.

2.  Ibid., p. 116.

3.  Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted, Harper Collins, NY: 2009, p. 190.

4.  Ibid, p. 190.

5.  Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, Doubleday, NY: 2003, p. 237.

6.  Elaine Pagels,  Beyond Belief: the Secret Gospel of Thomas,  Pan books, 2003,  Passim.

7.  N. T. Wright, Judas and the Gospel of Jesus, Bakerbooks, Grand Rapids, MICH: 2006, p. 77.

8.  http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.ii.xxxii.html

9.  N. T. Wright, Ibid., p. 76.

10.  Mark D. Roberts, Can We Trust The Gospels,  Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL:2007.  p. 60.

11.  Roberts, p. 58.

12.  Neale Pryor,  You Can Trust Your Bible, Quality Publications, Abilene, TX: 1980, pp. 39,40.

13.  Henry Clarence Theissen,  Introduction to the New Testament,  Grand Rapids, Michigan: 1943,  William B. Erdmann’s Publishing Company,  p. 6.


    The idea that the canon was not closed by council ratification till the sixteenth century is surely false on the face of it.  Leading New Testament scholar N. T Wright has written:

The popular notion that there was no such thing as a recognized collection of biblical books until the third or even the fourth century, but that all kinds of documents were circulating in an undifferentiated mass until political expediency suggested the selection of those books that would make a political point, is simply rubbish ...  The canonical gospels were being ready and quoted as carrying authority in the early and

Magdalene Papyrus
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