How the New Testament Came to Be
How did the books of the New Testament come about? These were written by mere fishermen, a persecutor, a doctor, a tax collector, and some of the half-brothers of Jesus; how are we to know that these books hold the same spiritual inspiration and should be considered part of the Holy Scriptures as the books of Moses, David, Solomon, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc? Furthermore, haven’t these writings been changed over the years? How do we know the writings of these men have been reliably passed down?
In ancient times, before computers, the printing press, ballpoint pens, and notebook paper, the primary mode of education, learning, worship, and teaching was done orally by word of mouth. Books—which were scrolls of papyrus or parchment, were relatively rare. Word of mouth is how the life and teachings of Jesus were originally passed down. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, or their contemporaries, had the interactions, words, teachings, parables, stories, etc. of Jesus committed to memory; and then wrote them down to be preserved for history. The earliest Gospel written was Mark. Some believe it was written as early as 14 years after Jesus’ death. As we will learn, most biblical experts believe that the three synoptic Gospels were written no later than 30 years after Christ’s death.
Are we to buy the fact that these men were able to accurately recall the events and words of Jesus some 14 to 30 years after he was put to death? Remember, this was a different time than the one we live in today. Some Rabbis had the entire Old Testament memorized! For those of us old enough to remember a time before smart phones, we used to have telephone numbers, directions, math, and other bits of information memorized. How much more the men and women of ancient times would be able to memorize chunks of information, stories, and history.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke are referred to as the Synoptic Gospels. Meaning they are similar to one another. The Gospel of John was written about 30 years after the Synoptic Gospels (around 90 A.D.). About the time that the Synoptic Gospels were written, and even a little earlier, Paul’s Epistles (letters) were penned. These letters were originally sent to specific churches to teach, encourage, build up, and address issues, etc. Upon receiving these letters, the churches would copy them by hand and then send them around to other churches so others would know what Paul was teaching their church. The Gospels, the writings of Peter, James and Jude were feverishly copied as well and spread throughout the known churches at the time.
Obviously, we do not have the original surviving papyri of the Gospels, Paul's Epistles or any of the books of the New Testament (nor any book from antiquity for that matter). So how can we be sure what we have today is an accurate representation of the original? The key is copies…yes, copies! The more manuscripts (ancient writings written on scrolls of papyrus or other ancient writing material such as parchment) that agree with each other, the more we can cross-check them to figure out what was in the original. Yes, there were mistakes, there was human error during this handwritten copying process; but when you have a lot of manuscripts, you can see where most of the copies agree and see where some may differ, making it clear where penmanship error exists.
A Ridiculous Number of Manuscripts
How many manuscripts exist today of the New Testament? Before we answer that question, it is important to realize that classical authors are often represented by but one surviving manuscript. If there are 6 or more, one can speak to the advantageous situation for reconstructing the text. For the New Testament, we have well over 5,000 manuscripts in the Greek! That by far exceeds any other ancient book we have from antiquity. Next to the New Testament, the greatest number of manuscripts of any ancient book is from Homer’s Iliad. There are fewer than 650 Greek manuscripts of it today. Having well over 5,000 Greek manuscripts allows us to compare, compare, compare them for accuracy to have confidence in knowing what the original was like.
Most of our surviving manuscripts of classical authors often come from the Middle Ages (476 A.D. -1453 A.D.) and are recorded much later than the original. The earliest manuscripts of the Iliad are from the 2nd and 3rd century A.D.; about a thousand years after Homer wrote it. The earliest manuscripts we have of the New Testament books are from approximately the end of the 2nd Century A.D. (approximately 100 years after they were originally recorded). Some of the earliest manuscripts we have in our possession today are the Bodmer and Chester Beatty Papyri containing most of the New Testament, the Codex Sinaiticus, a complete copy of the New Testament, and the Codex Vaticanus, a nearly complete manuscript of the New Testament. In addition to the Greek, when we add in the Latin, Ethiopic, Slavic and Armenian manuscripts, there are about 24,000 in all, which are about 99.9% accurate to each other. The remaining 0.1% does not affect any area of essential Christian doctrine.
When Were They Written Down?
Except for John the Apostle’s books, most believe the authors of the New Testament books and epistles wrote them prior to 66 A.D. The reason being, is because the Book of Acts is a history of the early church. It’s centered mostly in the city of Jerusalem and on the lives and ministries of Peter and Paul. Acts records many historical events that occurred in Jerusalem such as the martyrdoms of Stephen and the Apostle James. It also records Paul’s multiple arrests, trials, and imprisonments before Governors Felix, Festus and King Agrippa. However, the deaths of Peter and Paul (believed to be in the mid 60s A.D. under Emperor Nero) are not mentioned; neither are the major historical events of the Jewish War with the Romans (beginning in 66 A.D.) or the destruction and fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Since Acts does not mention these major events, it is believed it was written prior to them. If this is the case, the events and writings of the early Apostles (which take place in the book of Acts) occurred and were written earlier than the mid-60s A.D.
Why is this important? Jesus was crucified in 33 A.D. Some say the Gospels are legends that developed about Jesus over time. However, 30 years is simply not enough time for man-made myths to develop about who the person of Jesus was. If what we read about Jesus in the Gospels were not true, the people still alive at the time would simply have said “No, Jesus didn’t perform miracles, he wasn’t a wise teacher, he didn’t rise from the dead, etc.” Instead, what the Jewish leaders said of him was that he was a magician, that deceived the Jews and led them astray, and that his disciples stole his body out of the grave.
To be frank, there are other ancient writings describing the life of Jesus that claim inspiration: The Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of the Thomas, the Gospel of Truth, etc. The early Christians began to feel the need to distinguish between those truly inspired writings and the questionable ones.
The three major criteria used by the church to identify the canon (Greek word meaning “standard”, “rule” or “norm”) were apostolic origin, conformity to the rule of faith and the usage & acceptance of the writing in the early churches.
First, the books must have apostolic authority—they must have been written either by an apostle who was an eyewitness to what he wrote about, or by followers of apostles. Mark and Luke, while not among the twelve disciples, early tradition has Mark as a helper of Peter, and Luke as an associate of Paul. Although Paul had not walked with the human Jesus, he met the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus, and his testimony and missionary activity made him the model of an apostle.
Second, there was the criterion to what was called the rule of faith. Did the document agree with basic Christian tradition that the church recognized? For example, the Gospel of Thomas, which was written about 100 years later than the Synoptic Gospels, quotes Jesus as saying, “Lo I 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 makes herself male will enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Some of these other “Gospels” just didn’t add up and weren’t consistent with the life and person of Jesus that we see in the New Testament canon.
The third criterion was whether the document had wide acceptance and usage by the Church. If many churches used it and it edified them, it was thought to be inspired. Something inspired by God will inspire His worshipers. By the end of the second century, the four Gospels, Acts, and Paul’s epistles were highly valued and accepted by almost every church. No “official” list existed, but churches tended to turn to these as having spiritual authority. The books of Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude and Revelation were disputed by some churches. Specific churches had their own “canons”, holding to some books while disputing others.
In 367, an influential bishop, Athanasius of Alexandria, wrote his Easter Letter and it became widely circulated. In it, he named the twenty-seven books we now include in our New Testament. He stated that no other books could be regarded as Christian Scripture. 30 years later, the Council of Carthage in 397 confirmed his list. Athanasius’ list received general acceptance and churches have used these books ever since.
It is important to note, however, that the New Testament canon was not the result of church politics. When the pronouncement was made about the canon, it merely confirmed what the consensus of the church had already determined at that time. “The canon is a list of authoritative books more than it is an authoritative list of books. These documents didn’t derive their authority from being selected; each one was authoritative before anyone gathered them together.” (Dr. Bruce Metzger, Case for Christ by Lee Strobel) The fact that books like Hebrews, James, Revelation, etc. were more slowly accepted into the canon shows how careful the early Church was in not just accepting any book that had the name Jesus in it.
The New Testament fares exceptionally well in terms of its historical reliability and far exceeds what is expected of ancient texts. We hold confidence that we have the New Testament in essentially the form that the authors originally penned them. The writings have been confirmed over and over by experts. We can be assured the Jesus we read about in the New Testament, accurately reflects His life and teachings from 2,000 years ago.
Elder – NEO Church