New Testament Canon:

How Do We Know They Got the Right Books?

30-50AD 30-50 AD beginning Johannine tradition/proto-John in Jerusalem
AD40-60AD The Didache and the Gospel of Matthew*
45AD Proto-Gospel of Mark*
47-48AD James
50-55AD Gospel of John/Asia Minor
50AD ADI and II Thessalonians
55AD I Corinthians and I Timothy
56AD II Corinthians and Galatians
57AD Romans and Titus
58AD Philemon, Colossians, Ephesians and II Timothy
56-58AD I Peter
57-60AD Luke, Final Draft of Mark
AD57-62AD ADActs of the Apostles
AD60-65AD ADI, II and III John
61-62AD Jude and II Peter
? final form/John with prologue/epilogue
67AD Hebrews
AD68-70AD Revelations
70AD I Clement
75AD Barnabas
75AD Shepherd of Hermes
This dating Schemata is the view of: John A. Robinson, Dating the New Testament30-50ADWipf Paperback 2001



Textual Validity and Canon of The New Testament

The term canon means "list." The Canon of the Bible is the list of books chosen by the church as the inspired word, the true list of teachings which contain the repository of truth. The church did have many other books besides those that were chosen for the canon, but these books did not have the backing of the Apostolic tradition; it could not be demonstrated that they were accurate recordings of the Apostolic teaching.

The historical case for the canon of the Bible is very important because it grounds the testimony of the Gospels and places them in the light of history, it grounds the events of scripture and serves as documentation for Jesus' words and deeds. The authority of the canon often appears to be the weakest link, causing many people stumble in thinking that none of the Biblical events have any historical validity and that that we cannot prove anything the Bible says about Jesus of Nazareth. Actually, the case for the historicity of the NT is much stronger than it is for any other historical document of the ancient world, including the OT. This is due primarily to the great number of manuscripts which exist (several thousand) and their close historical proximity to the events they describe.

This is far better documentation than the vast majority of texts attesting to events anytime before the middle ages. Consider the fact that we had totally forgotten the existence of the historian Tacitus, who was unknown to historians of the middle ages. Only 10 manuscripts of his works survive and they date no later than the 10th century. Historians do actually doubt a great deal of the content of Caesar's Gallic Wars, contrary to the argument of Evangelical apologetics, but they do not doubt the historical fact there were such wars or that Caesar's army fought them. Yet the only real documentation for this fact comes from Caesar's account, the oldest copy of which dates to 900 years after the events, and only 10 copies are good enough to use. Of the Roman historian Livy (59 BC) only 25 ms and only 1 of these as old as the fourth century. Or the Great Herodotus (d425 BC) whose works survive in a few manuscripts form the middle ages. Yet these are all major sources of our knowledge for the world of the ancient west and late antiquity. These are the sources through which we know what happened in Grease, Rome, Asia Minor, these are the standards through which we judge the historicity of the world of the Bible. "Yet no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the works of Herodotus or Thucydides are in doubt because the earliest MS of their work which are of any use are over 1300 years later than the originals." (F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents, 1956, 16-17).

The great number of manuscripts is important because it demonstrates that the story didn't change. Most of these manuscripts (Mss) are basically the same. There are no major differences. The main differences in manuscripts consist largely of reversed syntax and spelling errors. The NT documents are 99% trustworthy, meaning 99% of the readings all agree. Only about 10% of the variant readings are more substantial than spelling or syntax (that is a liberal estimate) (See F.F. Bruce, the New Testament Documents: Are they Trustworthy)? This means that the story did not change, and it rules out many of the legends told by Internet atheists; such as the notion that strange doctrines were taken out (like reincarnation) or that church officials conspired to rework the original documents. Had this been the case, with thousands of copies from all over the ancient world, we would certainly find some textual support for it. Yet we find none. Most of the Mss are exactly alike.

The earliest known fragment of the NT is the John Rylands fragment dating to 120 AD, and found in Egypt. Because of its close chronological proximity to actual writing, and because it was found far away from its supposed place of origin, scholars believe that it existed for some time before the fragment was copied. The fragment demonstrates, as do most fragments and manuscripts we possess, complete agreement with the versions we know of the NT (Bruce). Moreover, most of the NT can be reconstructed from quotations in the Apostolic fathers within the second and third centuries.

Problems in The Tradition:

Two cautions must be observed at this point. First, unwary readers are put off by the work of scholarship, they read the words of scholars who consider the fact of redaction of the ancient texts (editing), and who find "pre-Gospel" traditions outlined in the Gospels, and these readers conclude that the Gospels were "made up," or that this in some way damages their validity. What they don't realize is that the vast majority of scholars are believers. Even those who speak of redaction, and who seem to be saying the texts were altered and that other traditions exist in back of those we possess, are often believing scholars. Recently I read an interview with the Jesus seminar's John Dominick Crosson, who has obtained a great notoriety for his redefining of Christ. Most fundamentalists assume that Crosson is an unbeliever out to destroy the faith. But I was struck by his faith, by the fact that he does believe. While what he thinks I disagree with to a great extent, he does not allow his knowledge of textual problems to obscure the truth that the finds in Scripture

This is reminiscent of my own experience. When I was in undergraduate school I use to spend my summers researching to disprove the Bible. I was a virulent atheist, hated Christianity, and I was going to be the one finally to lay waist to its absurd claims. This was not only a silly and arrogant ambition, but a well know story as well, I was not the first skeptic who set out to disprove the Bible and wound up believing it! But I found a source which I thought was a "gold mine" for debunking the Bible. It was The Primitive Church by Bernett Hillman Streeter. Oddly enough, I was so enthused by this great work of skepticism, it never occurred to me that I was just reading it out of a limited background, having never read a liberal scholar before. Years later I came to learn that Streeter was a devout believer and a great Cambridge scholar whose reputation for supporting the faith is still alive in certain quarters today! Upon going back and rereading it years later I was struck by the support that it does show, and though the books was written in the 1920s I recommend as back ground for apologetic purposes (and Josh McDowell quotes Streeter a few times in his famous apologetic work Evidence that Demands a Verdict). There are scholars who walk through the most difficult textual problems everyday and come out faith intact every time. So that's the first caveat, be sure who you are reading, and if a scholar seems to be tearing down scripture remember, odds are he or she is a believer and these problems do not have to obscure faith.

Secondly, don't let the fragile nature of the historical case say more than it really does about the historicity of the faith. The case for the historicity of the Gospel accounts does seem fragile. But This is due in large part to the gaps in general knowledge and the allure of speculation. Many scholars cannot resist the allure of speculative assumptions, and some of these, because they seem reasonable, are repeated so many times they become quasi-factual. For example, the famous myth of the Q source. To date there has never been a single fragment of the Q source found, but most scholars speak of it as though the existence of Q is a fact. There is clearly a synoptic problem (that the three Gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke seem to barrow from a common source which may indicate a prior work) but no one knows what the resolution is, and no real proof exists that there was a Q source (the source the three "synoptic Gospels" supposedly draw from). The other reason that the case seems weak is because it is actually so well documented, so much more so than other areas of history, and because it is a point of apologetics, that most people never make comparisons to other aspects of history. For example, no one really knows that the seven wonders of the ancient world really existed, but we all assume they did. The proof for the existence of a Julius Caesar are no better than the proofs for Jesus Christ, but we assume Caesar did exist because no one questions it. We think that the Egyptian civilization began about 7000 BC but we have no real proof. Yet there is no real motive to question this so no one does. True there are buildings and monuments but their dates can all be questioned.

The major reason, however, that the case seems weak is because the Church "fathers" make mistakes. Irenaeus says that Christ lived to be 50, which is in marked contrast to everyone else (probably based on the Jew's statement to him "you are not yet 50" John 8:47). Papias says that Judas was crushed by a Chariot while the Gospels say he was hanged. Eusebius is the one crucial link to all the previous NT history and he is known to have "tweaked" the Bishop lists to produce an unbroken chain going back to the Apostles. Second century historian Hegesippus says that the Church remained of one voice and uncorrupted until the Apostles departed (Marcus, Christianity in the Roman World) but we know form the NT and history that three were other factions, the "Judaizers" (Ebionites and Elkasites) and libertines, early Gnostics, etc. The conservative apologetic would have us believe that there is a straight line of truth handed down from Apostles to Apostolic fathers to historians, etc. But the chain has some weak links. For example Irenaeus does not say that he studied with Polycarp, he says "I saw him once in my youth." So it appears that the evidence is unfounded. But in reality, few other incidents in history have as much evidence in their support as do the events in the Gospels. The case is not weak, and by establishing the historicity of the canon one can establish the historicity of the events themselves. The New Testament documents are trustworthy histories, and even the canonical Gospels can be taken as historical documentation.

The historicity of the canon is demonstrated in the developing tradition of Apostolic ascendancy of the Bishops. The Orthodox church argued that the first Bishops were appointed by the Apostles and chosen to safeguard what the community knew as the truth. When the canon of the Bible was rubber-stamped at the council of Niece (and I use that term because they basically just confirmed the books that were already used by all the church, only a few were actually contested). How do we know they chose the right books? Because for most of the discussion, the real issue was not what was included but what was left out. The books that were included were mainly those that were accepted by the whole church, bearing witness that the universal Christian community knew that these are the authoritative works.

Canon: How do we know they got the right books?

There is often a great deal of skeptical argument that the canon was chosen arbitrarily, or according to political factionalism in the church. Myths about the lights being put out and the "heretical" books disappearing abound. Actually the process of canon lasted 400 years and the councils merely rubber stamped what most of the church already knew as the proper authoritative books.

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