During my skeptical years I bought into the misconception that the books of the Bible were decided, and even written, by a certain group of men hundreds of years after the fact, and because of that we could not trust it. But that is far from the truth and the onus is on us to know the facts.
Last week we looked at the transmission of the Old Testament and the evidence supporting the fact that the Scriptures of Moses’ time are the same as we have today. Most scholars, Christian and non, will agree that the Old Testament stands firm as reliably transmitted over time.
What about the reliability of the New Testament?
Let’s start with the evidence that most agree on:
- Literary and historical standards tell us that the earlier an ancient account was written (closer to the events), and the more copies we have of the account, the higher the reliability, and the New Testament falls into this category.
- The New Testament documents are considered primary eyewitness accounts, not secondary, because they were written during the time of people who were alive to confirm or dispute the events of the first century.
- The writings of the New Testament were widely dispersed throughout the Roman Empire and beyond almost immediately, thus eliminating time for changes, forgeries or embellishments.
- We have over 24,600 early New Testament manuscripts and fragments from five different document families found in ancient Christian communities dating as early as the second century that can be viewed in various libraries and museums around the world:
New Testament Manuscript Families:
1. The Western Text: (2nd to 13th century)
-Includes two early second century manuscripts from the Old Latin and Syriac translations.
-Used mainly in North Africa, and then early on in the west.
-Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Cyprian used this text.
2. The Alexandrian Text: (3rd to 12th century)
-Originated in Alexandria, Egypt and was used by the early Alexandrian Church fathers.
3. The Caesarean Text: (3rd to 13th century)
-Thought to be a compilation of the Western and Alexandrian texts.
-Origen and Eusebius are associated with this group of texts.
Most of our modern English Bibles today are taken from one of these last two families.The difference between them is about 200 variants or the equivalent a few words.
4. The Proto-Alexandrian Texts/Critical Text: (2nd to 4th Century)
-Best known as the “Critical Text” because it has some of the oldest copies available including: Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus, Papyrus 66 and the Bodmer Papyrus 75.
-The New American Standard Version (NAS[V]B), English Standard Version (ESV), and New International Version (NIV) reflect this family of texts.
5. The Byzantine Text/Majority Text: (5th to 10th Century)
-Best known as the “Majority Text” because there are more available copies.
-Adopted in Constantinople and used as the common text in the Byzantine world.
-Martin Luther translated his German Bible from this family.
-The King James Version (KJV, NKJV) reflects this family of texts.
- Scholars find a 99.5% agreement within these early manuscripts with variations stemming mainly from differences in spelling, grammar, word order and minor deletions or additions (noted in modern Bibles in the footnotes), none of which effect any doctrine of the Christian faith.
- From the time of Christ to the printing press, the written Word was considered sacred and was protected in these various Christian communities throughout the ancient world beginning with the early Church fathers of the first three centuries and continuing through the official Church of Rome established in the forth and fifth centuries.
- Since the invention of the printing press more than 6 billion copies of the Bible have been printed in more than 2300 languages with many of the versions translated directly from the original languages.
- In many third world countries today Christianity is fast growing, even in Muslim nations, and the Bible is being requested more than copies are available.
- Both Christian and non-Christian scholars consider the Bible to be the greatest piece of literature ever written.
Canonization: How were the books of the New Testament decided?
- In the first and second centuries the churches in Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica, Ephesus and Rome still possessed the autographs and many of the manuscripts from the apostolic authors.
- By the second and third centuries these manuscripts were widely dispersed and used in churches as evidenced in lectionaries and quotations taken from the leaders of the early Churches, and we still have them today.
- Even if we did not have any of the manuscripts we could reconstruct the entire New Testament (with the exception of about 11 verses) from the quotations of the early Church Fathers alone.
- Marcion, a Gnostic heretic in the second century, actually helped begin the canonization process because he promoted Gnostic teachings and rejected many of the books of the New Testament simply because they were written by Jews.
“It was specially important to determine which books might be used for the establishment of Christian doctrine, and which might most confidently be appealed to in disputes with heretics. In particular, when Marcion drew up his canon about AD 140, it was necessary for the orthodox churches to know exactly what the true canon was, and this helped to speed up a process which had already begun. It is wrong, however, to talk or write as if the Church first began to draw up a canon after Marcion had published his.” F.F. Bruce, “The Canon of the New Testament”
- In AD 325 the Emperor Constantine proclaimed Christianity as a legal religion, thus putting an end to persecution, and the council of Nicaea was convened around this time to combat gnosticism by confirming the Deity of Jesus.
- Athanasius, in AD 367 defending against Arianism, laid down the twenty-seven books of our New Testament (already in use) as canonical alone; shortly afterwards Jerome and Augustine followed his example in the West.
- At Hippo Regius in 393, and at Carthage in 397, the Christian communities finally codify what was already the general practice and we had the final canon of the New Testament.
What standards were used to canonize the Bible?
Does it speak with God’s authority?
- Is it consistent with God’s teachings throughout history?
- Is there evidence of God’s Words and promises from Scripture?
- Does it contain the Prophetic principle? —“Thus says the LORD”
Does it have the authentic stamp of God?
- Do the teachings relate to truth and the truths of the Old Testament?
- Are the teachings consistent with the teachings of the Jesus, the Prophets and the Apostles?
- Does it follow the past truth principle of previous revelation found in Scripture?
Does it impact us with the power of God?
- Were miracles evidenced based on these teachings?
- Was there evidence for changed lives in the life of the believers?
Was it accepted by the people of God?
- The Patristic principle: Was it accepted by the early Church fathers?
- Did the believers in the early church lived by it?
- Was the Scripture found in the early believers’ personal item such as quotations, inscriptions, testimonies, etc.?
Was it supported by the other authors of Scripture?
- Petrine principle: Did Peter support it?
- Pauline principle: Did Paul support it?
What about those other books and so called gospels?
The Apocrypha: (means hidden or doubtful) These books do contain some valuable historical information useful in understanding the intertestimental period (c. 250-60 BC), but have never been considered inspired writings. They were included in the Latin Vulgate in part to defend some of the teachings of the Catholic Church (such as purgatory). The Catholic Bible today contains eleven of them in their deuterocanonical section.
Why Protestants Say “No”
- Does not claim to be inspired by God
- Was not written by prophets of God (1 Mac. 9:27)
- Was not confirmed by supernatural acts of God (Heb. 2:3-4)
- Was not accepted by the people of God (Judaism) and they were never included in the Hebrew Old Testament
- Does not always tell the truth of God: On praying for the dead (2 Mac. 12:46); On working for salvation (Tobit 12:9)
- Was not accepted by Jesus the Son of God (Lk. 24:27)
- Was not accepted by the Apostles (who never quoted it)
- Was not accepted by the early Church and was never included in the Protestant New Testament
- Was rejected by the great Catholic translator Jerome
- Was not written during period of the prophets of God
- They contain some absurdities and inconsistencies with the rest of the Biblical Canon
Gnostic gospels: (Gnosis means knowledge) Gnosticism came out of Greek philosophy and had a belief that one could gain “secret knowledge” of God through certain practices. There was an attempt to assimilate it with early Christianity. It fostered the conviction that matter is evil and that emancipation (being set free) comes through special knowledge.
Reasons for rejecting Non-Canonical New Testament Books:
- The Gnostic heretic Marcion, about AD 140, was the first to promote Gnostic writings in the Christian community.
- Gnostic gospels and writings were written well into the second through forth centuries by authors who were not primary eyewitnesses and who falsely took the names of many of the apostles and disciples such as the gospel of Thomas, James, and Phillip (there are over 300 of these writings).
- Gnostic literature contain absurdities and inconsistencies with the early beliefs of the apostles and disciples and do not reflect a first century Palestinian Jesus.
- Gnostic writings have no basis in primary evidence, cross-references to other Scripture, or confirmation from the first and second century Churches.
- The early Church Fathers unanimously rejected them.
- These documents contain false doctrines and heresies (Gnosticism, Ascetisicm, Docetism, Modalism, etc.) that are inconsistent with the doctrinal essentials of classical Christianity.
Check out this short article by J. Warner Wallace: Do the Non-Canonical Gospels Challenge the Historicity of the New Testament?
Watch this 22 minute video from one of the top New Testament Scholars, Dr. Craig Evans called Fabricating Jesus from the Gnostic gospels:
Join us next week for more evidence for the reliability of the New Testament!
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Hebrews 4:12
You will not find this material in the public school curriculum even though it is based on solid evidence and grounded in research. It is ironic that following the evidence to where it leads stops at the door of our public schools as they will not let a “Divine footprint” in! Join us this year as we examine evidence for Christianity and learn how to become a thoughtful defender and ambassador of your faith.
Click into the resource page of this website to view many of the top Christian thinkers and apologists along with some of their work; connecting to these types of resources is essential in your Christian growth.
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