How was the Bible formed? Part 1: NT

So how did the Bible come to be?

I will frequently hear people mention the New Testament as though the books that are included were written hundreds of years after Jesus (as if to say, they are not really true and more likely made-up) and a select few just arbitrarily picked the books that “made it in.”

Saying that Constantine picked the “winners” and “losers” makes a great story for those wishing to discredit the Bible, but it’s simply not the case. The NT was written very close to the time of Jesus’ ministry and there was broad and almost unanimous consensus on almost all of the 27 NT books.


[Fragment of Matthew from the 4th century]

Let me give you a few markers that don’t jive with the narrative to discredit the NT:

  • Justin Martyr quoted extensively from the NT. Why is this important? Because Martyr’s first work “First Apology” was written in the early-to-mid 100s. His function was to defend the faith and he used the Bible, the NT, to defend it (much like we do today). The NT was already written, established, and not a document that was bring changed or formed to create some new religion. It’s set before the mid-100s.
  • Tatian was also an early Christian apologist. He compiled a work called the “Dia Tessarōn” (διὰ τεσσάρων) “through the four”. This was what we might call today a “harmony of the gospels.” That is, he took all 4 gospels and synthesized them all together into one group. Here’s the important points on this issue, it was written also in the mid-100s and used only the 4 gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There was no broad debate about which gospels were “the gospels” it was accepted and understood. Were there individuals who might want to include something else? Sure, just as there are today, but these are the outliers and exceptions who gained no support, they are loan wolfs, the consensus shows that the 4 Gospels were set by the mid-100s. And it also shows that the church was not willing to add non-apostolic works into their Scriptures. Tatian probably wanted his book to replace the 4 gospels (make it easier) but it never did. It was used to read in worship services from time to time, but was never used as an authoritative work (e.g. never to defend the faith), that stayed with the established 4 Gospels that we use today. The 4 Gospels were too well established, by the mid-100s, to be replaced. This is also important because it’s in the Gospels that skeptics try to discredit the historicity of Jesus and suggest that they developed over a long time and were a compost creation to suit the desires of secret men in smoky back rooms with an agenda to rule the empire by religion. Again, that narrative just doesn’t fit the facts of how the NT was being used this soon.
  • Irenaeus is yet another early defender of the faith who writes (among other things) “Against Heresies” (Adversus Haereses) and very strongly states that there are 4 Gospels, and only 4 Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He wrote this in c. 180. This kind of statement about the Gospels, with such scant dissection, could not have been made-up by him. It is because it was based on a well-established long-standing tradition.
  • Constantine’s Council of Nicaea was 145 years after even the latest of these apologists (Irenaeus) who used the NT extensively. This council confirmed the official canon of the NT, they did not set it for the first time at this meeting, there was essentially no debate, simply the existing list of books that had been used for ≈200 years was signed-off on by bishops to make it the official church position on the canon. It’s only later that the NT began to be “disputed” or people wanted to start adding books, that’s why they had to make this canon official at this late date, but not earlier, it was set much earlier, and the early list is what “won the day” (though there was no real contest at all). By the end of the 2nd century at least 20 of the 27 NT books that we have today were “set in stone,” and these are the big ones like the 4 Gospels, Acts, most of Paul’s letters, etc. The only ones in any kind of dispute were those which were somewhat apocalyptic (2 Peter, Revelation, etc.) or very short so as to be viewed as perhaps not all that useful (Philemon, Jude, etc.). There were books like “1Clement,” “Shepherd of Hermas,” “The Didache” but these were all understood to be a group second-generation writings after the Apostles and thus not included in the actual Scriptures, though very valuable, they never received the corporate recognition that the actual NT books did. There was an overwhelming consensus, not a select few picking and choosing.
  • Athanasius of Alexandria writes a letter in 367 and he definitively names the 27 books of the NT and his list becomes the one that is confirmed in all subsequent councils throughout the end of the 4th and begining of the 5th centuries. The debate was settled with much deliberation, and affirmed the early canon of the NT through multiple councils. The NT is essentially set very early and received broad consensus affirmation. Though there were a few books in dispute by minority groups later on, the core of the NT was not. The historicity and authority of the Bible cannot honestly be called into question on the grounds of the formation of the NT.

Not only was the issue of “which books make it in the NT” set and established very early, the actual words within the NT itself are extremely reliable.

  • When you put together the writings of the early church fathers, you can actually recreate the Greek NT simply on their quotations alone.
  • There are thousands of manuscripts that we can compare (it’s easier today than ever with a work like the Editio Critica Maior) and forensically deduce what the original wording of the NT was, but there are some 18 Greek manuscripts that are within 150 years of the original writings which make-up more than 40% of the NT alone. These did not develop over a long period of time. In fact, the only real dispute among alternate readings are less than 5% of the words, most of these are simply spelling issues (i.e. does the word end with an ν or an α), and no major doctrine is called into question as a result.

All the honest evidence points to them being established and set early, not later as some would have you believe. We can trust that the text of the NT is (for all practical purposes) the original text that was written within the life of the Apostles. Those rare cases where there might be a question (those 5%) we have all the alternatives, in all the ancient NT manuscript papyri that have recently been found, we are not finding new readings we were not aware of already, or text of the NT becomes more sure the more documents that are found, not less.

What about you?

What have you heard about how the NT came together?

Do you trust the Bible? I believe you should…

(Here’s a good quick article by Rick Brannan with John D. Barry on some early [<5th century] manuscripts)

About John Harris

I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.
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