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Apologetics – Lesson 5: Do We Have the Complete Bible? (Part 2)

February 24, 2012

Continuing from Lesson 4 we resume our review of the canon of Scripture and turn our attention to the New Testament (NT.) The 27 books of the New Testament were not all written at the same time. These books were written over a period of time (45 A.D. to 95 A.D.). Since there were many other “books” written around this period of time, how did the people of God know which “books” were Scripture (given by God) and which were not? How did they decide on the 27 books of the New Testament?

Reviewing the Process:

Remember from Lesson 4 that the word “canon” comes from the Greek word kanon meaning a measuring rod. Over time, the meaning of the word changed and came to mean “that which was accepted as meeting a particular standard.” The canon of Scripture refers to the “books” that have been put to the test and that have “measured up” being accepted as Scripture. The people of God did not make the 27 books of the New Testament into the Word of God by accepting them into the canon of Scripture. They were simply recognizing and acknowledging what a book had demonstrated itself to be. God superintended this process until the canon of the New Testament was complete. Remember that the canon is a product of history not the result of miraculous event. The people of God determined the canon of the Old Testament (OT) in a process over time. This gives us a clue that the formation and canon of the NT will be formed in much the same manner. However there are some differences. The NT was formed in a much shorter time and over a wider geographical area than the OT. The NT is also significantly smaller than the OT being about a third to a quarter the size of the OT.

Assembling the Canon:

Local churches were involved in the process of receiving and recognizing the NT canon. The requirements for a book to be canon in the NT are the same as those we reviewed in Lesson 4 and we will not review them here. Skeptics often ask, “How can Christians believe the New Testament to be these 27 books designated as Scripture by fallible men at a fourth century council?” How can just a handful of people at the Synod of Hippo 393 A.D. tell the “world” what is Scripture? However, long before church councils were convened, local church elders were collecting, evaluating and recognizing which of the many writings of their day were the inspired Word of God and which were not. The church had an awareness and an understanding that God was using the Apostles to write the Scriptures (2 Peter 3:15-16). Note this quote from F. F. Bruce:

“When at last a church counsel—The Synod of Hippo in A.D. 393— listed the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, it did not confer upon them any authority which they did not already possess, but simply recorded their previously established canonicity.” It took time for the “writings” to circulate and for the church to evaluate and decide which writings were indeed Scripture.

The Nicaea Myth:

We need to pause here and deal with a common myth that has been repeated so often that many people simply assume it to be true. May people (both inside and outside Christianity) will argue that the canon was determined by the church at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. They will use this claim to disprove the Bible by saying that the church did not have a complete Bible for the first 400 years of its existence and that the church leaders at the Council voted on the books and only the 27 books we have today earned enough votes to make it into the canon. Others, like the Gospel of Thomas, were excluded simply because the leaders at the Council did not like them. This argument would hold significance except for one important fact: it is a complete myth! The Council of Nicaea had nothing whatsoever to do with the canon of Scripture. The purpose of the Council was to deal with the Arian heresy that argued that Christ was a mere creature and not divine. It is an important council in that it was the first ecumenical council and what came out of it (the Nicene Creed) represents the first creedal statement explaining what Scripture teaches about the nature of Christ. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the canon of Scripture.

Defining the Terms:

In dealing with the canon of Scripture there are four basic categories into which individual books fall. These serve to provide a guide and give us some context in which to understand the formation of the canon. The four categories are:

  • Homologomena – Books accepted by all. These books were not seriously questioned by anyone.
  • Antilegomena – Books disputed by some. These were initially accepted and ultimately considered canonical but were, at one time, questioned.
  • Pseudepigrapha – Books rejected by all. These are writings attributed to fictitious authors or claimed to have been written by a significant author well after the author’s death. They were never truly considered for the canon for obvious reasons.
  • Apocrypha – Books accepted by some. This was explained in Lesson 4 as a book whose origin is doubtful or unknown. Some people accept apocryphal books as Scripture but most do not.

These apply to the Old Testament as well as the New Testament. In Lesson 4 we referenced the Apocrypha but did not mention the other three. The reason for this is that there is very little serious dispute today about the canon of the OT other than the issue of the Apocrypha. For the sake of completeness we will briefly review them here. There is much more that can be said about these but we lack the space and time for the discussion. I will refer you to some of the reference works cited from Lesson 4.

  • OT Homologomena – All the books of the OT with the exception of the Antilegomena.
  • OT Antilegomena – Five canonical books fall into this category: Song of Solomon (because of the sensual nature), Ecclesiastes (because of it’s reference to the vanity of life), Esther (the name of God is absent from the book), Ezekiel (because of apparent anti-Mosaical teachings), and Proverbs (because of an apparent contradiction.)
  • OT Pseudepigrapha – A number of books, which fall into the categories of legendary and apocalyptic in nature. All have been proven to be from false origin and thus rejected completely. Space does not permit a complete listing but examples of this are: The Book of Jubilee, The Book of Adam and Eve, 1 Enoch, and the Assumption of Moses.

In the NT we also have the same kinds of books:

  • NT Homologomena – Twenty of the 27 books had no serious questions about their canonicity.
  • NT Antilegomena – Seven books fall into this category: Hebrews (because the author is unknown), James (because of its emphasis on works and confusion over which James wrote this book), 2 Peter (Because of differences in style from 1 Peter), 2 & 3 John (because of their brief content and uncertain author), Jude (because of its quote from the book of Enoch), and Revelation (because of its differences with John’s gospel.) Ultimately all these were accepted into the canon.
  • NT Pseudepigrapha – This represents many fanciful and heretical works that were neither valuable nor genuine in their origin. Many were named after an apostle or witness of Christ but written well after that person’s death. A classic example of this is the Gospel of Thomas. We will discuss these books specifically later in this Lesson.
  • NT Apocrypha – Some of these books were quoted by the church fathers and appeared in some Bible translations but, while some are useful, were determined to not be part of the canon of Scripture. More on these later in this Lesson.

The Canon Lists:

There were a number of reasons why the early Church was prompted to determine a complete canon list. First there was the threat of heretics. In this case specifically the Gnostic heretic Marcion who has the distinction of being the first to publish a canon list. Unfortunately this list was in support of his Gnostic ideas. He ignored the OT and included only a shortened version of Luke and an edited list of Paul’s writings. Christians needed to respond to Marcion’s canon list with the true list of inspired Scripture. Second, there was the appearance of the NT Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. As more writings appeared it was necessary to recognize which were God-breathed Scripture and which were not. This was to avoid confusion in the Church as to which writings were authoritative. Finally, there was the issue of persecution. Much of the early Church history, prior to Constantine, is written in the blood of Christian martyrs who suffered through periods of intense persecution. When the soldiers came for the Christians they also burned all the manuscripts they found. Christians needed to know which books were worth dying for.

There were several canon lists produced by the church in the first few centuries. The following is a brief list of the lists we have:

  • The Muratorian Fragment (170 A.D.): This early list of NT books mentions all the 27 books of the N.T. except for Hebrews, James, 1 Peter and 2 Peter.
  • Quotations: The Early Church Fathers (end of second century) quote from the books of the New Testament we have today.
  • Athanasius’s canon (367 A.D.): The canon consisted of the 27 books of the New Testament which we have today.
  • The Synod of Hippo (393 A.D.): The canon consists of the 27 books of the New Testament which we have today.
  • The Council of Carthage (397 A.D.): The canon consists of the 27 books of the New Testament which we have today.

Missing Books:

Finally we come to the question of missing books in the NT. There has been much ink spilled with regard to the NT Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha and I have no desire to make a case against each and every book in this summary. May people will argue that these books were lost or prevented from being in the canon due to prejudice or bias on the part of the early church. However the evidence of history simply does not support this conclusion. These writings were not “lost”—they were put to the test and rejected for obvious reasons. All come from very late sources relative to the rest of the NT and contain many ideas and teachings contrary to that found in the NT. Furthermore there was no central governing body of the church during the first few centuries. Remember that for much of this time the church was under sever persecution and hiding from the authorities. There simply was no opportunity for a controlling agency to assert itself over Christians across the world at the time. The following is a short list of some of these books and the reasons they were rejected:

Gospel of Thomas & Infancy Gospel of Thomas

  • Dates from the early 2nd Century. (About 100 years removed from the events of Jesus’ life.)
  • It is a mixture of sayings of Jesus and Gnostic teachings that only an enlightened few were supposed to be able to understand.
  • Jesus creates clay sparrows and makes them fly and curses a young boy who withered like a tree.

The Cross Gospel

  • A passion-resurrection text hypothesized by Jesus Seminar scholar John Dominic Crossan.
  • Believed to be the source for the Gospel of Peter and other gospels.
  • There is no evidence of this document ever existing and is purely hypothetical.

The Gospel of Peter

  • Dates from late 1st to mid 2nd Century.
  • Exonerates Pilate form all responsibility in the crucifixion of Jesus.
  • Contained traces of the Docetic heresy which maintained that Jesus’ physical body was an illusion. Yet the NT is plain that Jesus had a physical body like any man.

Conclusion:

There is much more that could be said about this subject and it is impossible to do it justice in a lesson like this. However, I hope that this has served to challenge the presuppositions of those who simply assume that the NT canon is corrupt because of what they have heard from Christianity’s detractors.

References

  • The Canon of Scripture, F. F. Bruce
  • How We Got the Bible, Neil Lightfoot
  • Scripture Alone, James White

 

God bless.

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