In our first article in this series, we took a look at what the canon of Scripture is, then in our second article we saw how the books of the Old Testament came together. Next, we considered why the books of the Apocrypha are not found in our Protestant Bibles today. In this article, we turn to the books of the New Testament. Why did Christians add the books of the New Testament to the collection of Old Testament Scriptures? Was this the product of later development? And what about Roman Catholic Tradition?
After the close of the OT Canon, there was a period of about 400 years of silence, as far as divinely inspired writings are concerned. To be sure, there were many books written during this period between the testaments (known as the intertestamental period), and even some that claimed to be divinely inspired. The books of the Apocrypha fit into this intertestamental period. However, the Jews never recognized any other writings than what already was in their collection of inspired Hebrew Scriptures which we now called our Old Testament.
So why were new books added to the Bible after 400 years of silence?
There are three main reasons:
1. The NT is foreshadowed by the OT
The Old Testament ends with the words of Malachi, expecting the promised Messiah to come (see Mal. 3:1-4; 4:1-6). So, it makes sense that there would be no further Scripture written until the next stage in redemptive history occurs. Just as each of the great acts of redemption of God were interpreted for us in the Old Testament, the New Testament records and interprets for us the greatest act of redemption – the sending of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, to be the Saviour of the world.
Even in the Jewish ordering of the books of the Old Testament (the TaNaK), the last book is what we call 2 Chronicles in our Bibles, and it ends with a cliffhanger. Cyrus, the king of Persia is charged by the Lord to rebuild the Temple and issues a command for people to accomplish the work. The book ends abruptly with the words, “Let him go up.” Some scholars even think that this is a cut off sentence. If you were a Jew who was tracking with the history of redemption being recorded in the Jewish Scriptures (OT), then this “ending” would seem incomplete… does the Temple get rebuilt? Is Israel restored to its former glory? What about all the promises of Messiah from the Prophets? So, the OT story ends with expectation of something more to come.
2. Jesus equipped his apostles & disciples to write the NT
Jesus himself promised the gift of the Holy Spirit to his apostles and disciples Who would teach and bring to their remembrance all things, guiding them into all truth (see John 14:26; 16:13-14). This is why the New Testament primarily consists of the writings of the apostles, their associates and disciples of Jesus. The gift of the Holy Spirit enabled and carried them along as they wrote the NT Scriptures (2 Peter 1:21).
3. The apostles claimed the authority to write Scripture
The apostles claimed the authority equal to that of the Old Testament prophets to speak and write the very words of God. Peter encourages his readers to remember “the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles” (2 Peter 3:2). To lie to the apostles (Acts 5:2) is equivalent to lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3) and lying to God (Acts 5:4). Paul tells the Corinthians that, “If any one thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord” (see 1 Corinthians 14:37). There are many other places where we can see this claim to authority such as 2 Corinthians 13:3, Romans 2:16, Galatians 1:8–9, 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 4:8, 15; 5:27 and 2 Thessalonians 3:6 and 14.
The Product of Later Development?
Some skeptics claim that the books of the New Testament only were given authority later on as Christianity developed.
However, the recognition of the writings of the apostles and disciples of Jesus as Holy Scripture was not a development that happened later on. In fact, right in the NT itself we have Peter classifying Paul’s epistles as Scripture. Peter says,
“So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15–16).
Here Peter classifies Paul’s writings with the ‘other scriptures’ – referring to the Old Testament canon.
A second example of this is found in 1 Timothy 5:17-18. Paul says:
“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching; for the scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain,’ and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” ’
The first quotation of Scripture Paul uses is from Deuteronomy 25:4. However, the second quotation (The laborer deserves his wages) is actually from Luke 10:7 – it uses exactly the same Greek words as the text in Luke. So, here we have Paul, quoting the writings of Luke alongside a clearly accepted OT canonical book (Deuteronomy), and calling it Scripture. So we see from these two passages clear evidence that even from very early in the church (even before the close of the NT canon), the writings of the apostles and disciples of Jesus were considered as Scripture. Thus, as more of the NT books were written, the canon of Scripture expanded as guided by the Holy Spirit.
The Early Church and the Canon
We also have the testimony of the Early Church writers. The early church father, Tertullian (155 – 220 AD) noted:
“The law and the prophets she [the Church] unites in one volume with the writings of the evangelists [the authors of the Gospels] and apostles; from which she drinks in [receives] her faith.”
And Irenaeus said:
“I have pointed out the truth, and shown the preaching of the church, which the prophets proclaimed but which Christ brought to perfection, and the apostles have handed down. From which the church, receiving [these truths], and throughout all the world alone preserving them in their integrity, has transmitted them to her sons.” (Irenaeus – c. 130 – 202 AD, Against Heresies, 5. preface, in ANF, 1:526.)
In the early years of the Christian church in the first centuries after Christ and the apostles, the Bible in its entirety with all the writings of the NT was not readily available to all Christians. Remember that this was prior to the internet and printing press – so transmission was a lot slower than it is today! Much of the teaching of Jesus and the apostles was transmitted via word of mouth and hand copied manuscripts in the first centuries of the church. Writing materials were expensive and not everyone could read or write in those days. So, there are some Early Church writers who do not seem to know of all the New Testament books because of availability to them at the time. This is quite understandable given the circumstances. However, even with these challenges, it was in relatively short order that the New Testament canon of books was recognized as we know it today. This is testiment to how committed the early Christians were to the copying and distribution of the New Testament Scriptures. In fact, there is no other comparable example in antiquity of a tradition so committed to the preservation and propagation of its written text.
Roman Catholic Tradition
This leads to the question of the place of tradition within the Christian church. Roman Catholics make a big deal of the appeal to Tradition (capital T) as the apostolic teaching handed down to the church via the apostolic succession of Popes. This “Tradition” supposedly contains teachings confirming Roman beliefs about Mary, Indulgences, Papal infallibility, etc. However, is this really what was transmitted via this oral tradition of the early church?
The Rule of Faith
“These written records and unwritten tradition were seen as two parts of a unified whole, and the early church appealed to both to express its doctrine and to fight heresy. “The only true and life-giving faith, which the church has received from the apostles and imparted to her sons,” was referred to as “the glorious and holy rule of our tradition,” “the rule of faith,” and “the rule (or canon) of truth.” This tradition was essentially fixed and agreed upon by all the churches, with its content being a succinct statement of essential Christian doctrine. Whatever was believed in the church had to conform to this rule of faith. Indeed, true doctrine could be distinguished from false by tracing its origin to “the tradition of the apostles.” Moreover, this rule of faith was public knowledge, accessible to everyone. Thus, it stood in contrast to certain heresies that claimed a “secret knowledge” of the truths of the Christian faith. This hidden wisdom was reserved for the elite of these erring movements and often went against biblical teaching. Not so for apostolic tradition: It was public knowledge in conformity with Scripture.” (Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology, 39–40)
The Apostles Creed (which is dated by some as early as the 2nd century) is quite possibly an example of this “rule of faith” which the Early Church used. It was useful in combating heresy, as not all churches had access to all the books of the NT until there was enough time for them to be circulated. The Apostle’s Creed contains an example of this concise summary of the essential teaching of the Christian faith. The tradition which the Early Church Writers referred to was a summary of biblical truth which was readily available and widely known by the Christian church, not some hidden knowledge about Papal infallibility or Marian dogmas that would be later ‘discovered’.
Roman Catholics wrongly ascribe their later definition of Tradition to this early tradition of the church to give legitimacy to their extra-biblical practices and beliefs. However, no firm support can be given from the early church for much of Rome’s later dogmas and beliefs.’ There have been some claims by Catholic apologists that those dogmas were there in latent “seed” form and later grew to become the full-orbed dogmas we know today. However, this is a claim that has been refuted over and over, and streches credulity – both historically and theologically. A further problem is that the Roman Catholic Church gets to define for itself what is and what isn’t considered ‘Tradition’. So if the church defines for itself what is Tradition, and Tradition determines what is to believed, then there never is any possibility of correction. It becomes a vicious cycle that precludes reform.
My goal in pointing this out is not to be mean towards my Catholic friends, but rather to challenge them lovingly to investigate the truth. My desire is to see many Roman Catholics come to a true knowledge of saving faith and a right view of Scripture. Though this is a short treatment of this topic, there are many great books and debates which go into greater depth on this topic than what we have space for here.
This leads us to the next question: How did the church recognize which books are canonical and which are not? This will be the topic of our next article in this series.
Articles in this series:
- What is the Canon of Scripture? | (Part 1)
- Why were the Books of the Bible collected together? | (Part 2)
- What about the Apocrypha? | (Part 3)
- Why were the New Testament Books added to the Bible? | (Part 4)
- How do we Recognize the Books that are Scripture? | (Part 5)
- Is the Bible missing any books today? | (Part 6)
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