Ever since my college years at Southern Methodist University
(even before my Graduate School years at Duke University) the
study of the New Testament has been a favorite of mine. Of special
interest to me has been the field of study known as Canonical
Criticism, which is, in part, devoted to uncovering the
development of the New Testament itself.
Put simply, the New Testament did not materialize out of thin
air; it didnt descend from heaven to the apostles as they
prayed in the upper room; it didnt just appear. Think about
it for a minute: the many books and letters of the New Testament
first had to be written. Paul had to make his missionary journeys,
found his churches, and then write to them long before his letters
could be collected and copied (by hand -- they had no Copy Machines).
The earliest piece of literature to be included in the New Testament
today is most probably 1 Thessalonians, which can easily be dated
(depending upon who you ask) to about the year 50 AD. The rest
of St. Pauls letters date from the early 50s through to
about 63 AD, when he was executed in Rome. The Gospel of St.
Mark was probably written sometime right after the death of St.
Peter, also sometime around 63 AD, because we know of an early
second century Bishop and Church historian (named Papias) who
tells us that Mark wrote down the words of St. Peter and then,
soon after the Apostles death, formed them into the Gospel
as we have it today. It is most likely that Matthew and Luke
then used Mark as an outline for their Gospels, along with a
now lost book that many scholars believe was written soon after
the death of Jesus and which contained only the teachings of
our Lord. Luke also wrote a companion book to his Gospel, called
The Acts of the Apostles, which can also be easily dated
to sometime soon after 70 AD. Indeed, Matthew and Luke were both
probably written sometime after 75, and Acts was probably written
at around AD 80.
I could go on, but for brevitys sake let us just say that
by the year 100 AD all the books which we now find in the New
Testament had been written, and that the letters of St. Paul
had been collected. This does not mean, however, that these were
the only Christian writings that the early church used; quite
the contrary, there were literally dozens of Gospels and hundreds
of different letters to read. Some of this material has survived
to today, but not in the Bible. The simple fact is that someone,
somewhere and somewhen, decided which books and which letters
would be compiled together to make up the Christian Testament.
And, surprisingly enough, Church history gives us many of the
steps that comprise the collection and adoption of the New Testament.
Only, for whatever reason, most people dont know about
It may come as a surprise to you, but even as late as the year
300 AD there was still no official Church position
as to which books should be included in the New Testament. There
were many different lists circulating among the various regional
churches and, while there was a general sense of agreement as
to the canonicity (authenticity) of the four Gospels (Matthew,
Mark, Luke, and John), and the letters of Paul, there was far
less agreement on much of the rest of the New Testament. The
earliest list, which comes from a Heretical group lead by a man
named Marcion and is dated at about 150 AD, has only the Gospel
of St. Luke and 10 of the letters of St. Paul. The first list
published by the Church at Rome has the four Gospels, St. Pauls
letters, and the letters of St. Peter and St. John. Some areas
believed that The Gospel of the Hebrews should be
added, and the Gnostic Churches of north Africa wanted the addition
of a whole slew of books, including The Gospel of Thomas.
Needless to say, there was a lot of confusion as to which books
should be considered authoritative. Indeed, the later
you go the more confusing things get. By 200 AD, some lists supported
the authority of the letter of St. James and the Book of Revelation,
while other lists did not; indeed, many lists included books
like The Shepherd of Hermas, but didnt include
James or Revelation.
It wasnt until the year 367 AD that the current contents
of the New Testament were identified by St. Athanasius. Indeed,
so sure was he that his list was the correct one that he sealed
it with the following words:
These are the springs of salvation, so that one who
is thirsty may be satisfied with the oracles which are in them.
In these alone is the teaching of true religion proclaimed as
good news. Let no one add to these or take anything from them.
I cannot think of a better description of the New Testament than
this: they are the springs of salvation. but why
did our Fathers and Mothers in the Faith require almost 300 years
to decide which documents constitute the springs?
I can think of many reasons, but the simplest of them all is
the best: human error. We are not perfect, and neither were the
saints who came before us in the Faith. They listened to the
voice of God as best they could when they wrote the scriptures,
and they did the same when they chose which books would make
up the scriptures, but they were not perfect--and neither are
we. Frankly, I think its a miracle that they managed to
listen well enough to the Spirit to get it right at all. Let
us all pray for similar ears.