Where did our Bible come from? Part 6: The window for the development of the New Testament
If you’re just joining this series, I’m currently giving a rather lengthy answer to the question of how we ended up with the books that we consider the bible. Feel free to go to the home page and click back on the previous posts which introduce this concept, state why we don’t accept various other descriptions of canon, and gives some interesting tidbits about the development of the Old Testament. Today’s post now begins to talk about the New Testament. Once that is wrapped up, we’ll talk about the unity of the bible and then conclude with some final helpful tips.
While the process of the canonization of the Old Testament was complex, we unfortunately know very little about that process (the same cannot be said of the New Testament). The only things we could definitively say were that the Torah was considered canonical very early on, likely just after its completion, and that by the time of Jesus what Protestants accept as the Old Testament had begun to function canonically, even if a formal pronouncement of canon had not yet occurred. In fact the genuine need to declare a set of books as canonical to the exclusion of others did not seem to arise anywhere in a definitive state until the fourth century among Christians (while the Jewish council of Jamnia was earlier, it is unclear that it actually had authority over other Jewish communities). The criteria for canonization seemed to be less a matter of date of writing and more a matter of function. Recall that the “writings” (Kethubim) was likely the last collection canonized, yet it spans the largest period of time. Arguably, Job is the earliest book in all of the Old Testament and Chronicles is the most recent. Eventually the text of the Old Testament eventually began to function as authoritative, probably due to the other criteria mentioned last time, without having the official approval on it as authoritative. This indicates something that we need to keep in mind about the early church: the need for a canon was less important than the actual content of the gospel, namely Jesus Christ who was God incarnate, died in our place, and was raised from the dead conquering all evil in this world with a great sense of finality.
The need for a canon is felt
However, by the time of the fourth century a number of other “gospels” and dubious epistles had begun to appear. The Gnostic sect of Platonism, which had taken that dualistic philosophy and sought to add some rather grand religious concepts to it, had decided that it would attempt to assimilate Christianity. This decision, which, like many other religious decisions, was likely less formal and more gradual, resulted in them taking some themes from Christianity, such as a focus on Christ as God, an emphasis on the evils of sin and (as a result of sin) the world as it currently operated, and the suggestion that there is a higher truth to the world to which most of those in the world are blind. However, to these themes the Gnostics subtly added their own, twisted theology: themes like the suggestion that creation is inherently bad (rather than temporarily fallen), that Christ was not really human, that there were multiple gods, and that salvation was really a matter of attaining a secret knowledge and not commitment to Christ as one person of the single God. As a result of this, it became necessary for the church to distinguish itself from the Gnostics who were preaching an incorrect and dangerous gospel. Since the Gnostics were subtly using the same language and terminology of Christianity, the clearest, easiest, and quickest way to distinguish this false gospel from the true gospel was to lay out a specific canon that limited which writings would be considered authoritative.
Keep in mind that, much like the Old Testament, the council which formally stated the 27 books we know as the New Testament did not establish the canon, but merely recognize those writings that already functioned as canon for the early church, and had arguably been functioning as canon from a very early period. Nevertheless it will be helpful to know the absolute end date for the decision that marked which 27 books would compose the New Testament.
The latest possible date for any church would be around 508 for the Syrian church, who had only formally accepted 22 of the 27 before this date. However, most of the Church had accepted the 27 books of the New Testament by the time of the councils of Hippo Regius (393) and Carthage (397). Before this, church fathers Jerome and Augustine had already listed these books as canonical, but the earliest complete list we have comes from a letter by Athanasius in 367. Usually this type of study lists the “Eusebian Canon” which is a collection from a letter by Eusebius from the very early 300s. However, Eusebius was never the most trustworthy source and even his letter does not list the full 27 (Revelation is not mentioned, nor is the letter we know as Hebrews (though a different Hebrew letter was mentioned)) and includes other books not considered canonical (like the Apocalypse of Peter). However, the overwhelming majority of the New Testament is part of a list dating around 200 called the “Muratorian Fragment.” It is only a fragment and references two Gospels (not written in the fragment, but likely Matthew and Mark), Luke John, Paul’s 13 letters, Jude, 1 & 2 John and the Apocalypse of John (Revelation) as being canonical. A little later, again in the 300s, Origen mentions essentially the full 27 books, but lists many of them as disputed (James, Hebrews, 2 & 3 John, 2 Peter, Jude). However, we do have a nice end date that suggests by the mid-300s, at the latest, the 27 books of the New Testament was essentially established.
What about when the New Testament began to be written? We’ve established the upper limit on when these books were codified. What about the lower limit? The earliest of the written gospels is almost universally accepted to be Mark. While a handful date Mark as early as 50, it seems more likely that Mark was written sometime between the late 50s to the mid-60s. However, we have strong reason to believe that the earliest New Testament writing is actually one of the Pauline epistles, very likely the first letter to the Thessalonians. While it could have been written as early as the late 40s, it is more likely to have been written sometime in the earl 50s. So, it is likely that by the 50s documents begin to emerge and be circulated that might be considered Scripture. It is also very likely that the writers of the New Testament understood that what they were writing was Scripture, a point that I’ll address in a later post. While we could also frame the question in terms of when the last New Testament book was written, that is a much more complicated, and less agreed upon, answer. Sometime between 70 and 150 the final New Testament book was written. Personally, I tend to set the dating for the final book as fairly early, with Revelation (generally, but not necessarily) considered the last book to be written by most, and the last book written prior to the close of the first century. The dating of Revelation essentially boils down to whether the persecution the church is undergoing would make more sense as that instigated by Nero, or the more sever, but later, persecution instigated by Domitian (since I accept an earlier date, I would lean toward Nero).
Nevertheless, we now have a window during which the New Testament went from unwritten to the authoritative 27 books we know today: from roughly 50-367. It seems the New Testament was both written, and considered authoritative, over a much briefer period of time than the Old Testament. While the Old Testament took shape over more than a millennium (if not two millennia), the New Testament took that same status over a matter of a couple centuries (if not merely a few decades). With that established, now we can begin to look more specifically at the development of this authority, starting with the Gospels, in the next post.