The "Whole" Bible

Brief History of the New Testament Analysis of the Canonical and Apocryphal Scriptures

Introduction:

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT

In the two thousand years since the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the world of Christendom has seen incredible changes, including a split with the Eastern Orthodox Church and a Protestant Reformation, accompanied by a rejection of much core ideology. Yet throughout it all, the collection of scripture called the New Testament has remained unchanged and largely unquestioned, even though it was assembled by the same church leaders whose beliefs many now refute.

To challenge the veracity of the canonical New Testament is, at best, an uncomfortable position; such questions strike at the very heart of most Christians' faith. Nevertheless, these sacred writings have come to us only after decades of oral traditions and centuries of scribal rewrites, much according to the beliefs of select groups in the early days of Christianity. It is only by attempting to study the origins and evolution of the New Testament scriptures that one can hope to discover the true historical Jesus—a worthy goal of any Christian believer.

The source texts:

Sifting through the scores of different English versions of the New Testament, one is poignantly reminded of how translation, particularly of archaic language, is subject to personal interpretation. It is therefore vitally important that we get as close to the original source as possible. The oldest surviving complete text of the New Testament is the Codex Sinaiticus, dating back to the middle of the fourth century. The oldest fragments, the Bodmer and Beatty Papyri and Papyrus 52, date back to the second century but only contain bits of the Gospel of John. All of these texts are Greek. This presents a few disturbing problems.

First, Jesus's native tongue was Aramaic, and even if he knew Greek, he certainly did not speak it to his apostles, many of whom were uneducated fishermen. Without any surviving Aramaic texts, the actual words of Christ are lost forever, mired in a sea of subjective translation by ancient scribes. Second, we are faced with a gap of as much as three hundred years between the composition of a text and our surviving copies. In a world without a printing press, texts would often undergo drastic evolution through centuries of handwritten duplication.

Origins of the canon:

Our four canonical gospels did not begin their lives as the gospels of "Matthew," "Mark," "Luke" and "John." Different groups of early Christians maintained their own oral traditions of Jesus's wisdom, as writing was a specialized skill and not every fellowship enjoyed the services of a scribe. When written accounts of Jesus's teachings began to circulate (i.e., the theoretical "sayings" gospel Q and the Semeia or Signs source), the independent groups would supplement them with their own traditions about the savior, each believing their own versions to be "the Gospel." Eventually, as these expanded writings spread through other communities, some versions were viewed as having more authority than others. It was not until the pronouncement of Bishop Irenæus (185 C.E.) that Christians began to accept only the four familiar gospels as authoritative, and to refer to them by their modern titles.

The rest of the canon was much slower to develop. For the next two centuries, the four gospels would be coupled with a myriad of different letters, epistles, stories and apocalypses, according to what a particular congregation judged as relevant to their understanding of Jesus Christ and his message. Catholicism was only one of the dozens of "denominations" within the early church—Gnosticism was prevalent throughout Egypt, Montanism in Asia Minor, Marcionism in Syria. Eventually, the Catholic church was adopted as the state religion of the Roman Empire, and all other systems of belief were branded as heresies. Following the Epistle of Athanasius in 367 C.E., the Church finally reached agreement upon which writings were truly authentic and representative of apostolic tradition, thus forming what we know today as the canonical New Testament. Although factions of the Church continued to debate the merits of various books for centuries, and many even used other writings in their liturgy, most uncanonical writings were ordered to be destroyed. In many cases, possession of heretical literature was punishable by death. We are extremely fortunate that many of these texts have survived the millennia, giving us insights into the development of various early Christian traditions.

Proceed to my Analysis of the Canonical and Apocryphal Scriptures.

Also read my commentaries on The Nativity Tradition and The Second Coming.

Geoff Trowbridge, 10/96 (rev. 9/98)


Other sources for Christian scriptural history:

All external links are provided purely as references, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this author.


Suggested reading:

Book


Bookpile


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Bookpile


Book

  • Ancient Christian Gospels by Helmut Koester
    A very thorough study of the development of the canonical and apocryphal gospels and their relationships
  • The Making of the New Testament by Arthur G. Patzia
    A complete analysis of the origin, collection, copying and canonizing of the New Testament documents
  • Four Other Gospels by John Dominic Crossan
    Arguments for the independent traditions behind the gospels of Thomas, Peter, Secret Mark and Egerton
  • Honest To Jesus by Robert W. Funk
    The founder of the Jesus Seminar proposes a radical shift in our understanding of Jesus and his message
  • The Real Jesus by Luke Timothy Johnson
    A conservative scholar's assessment that any search for the "historical" Jesus outside the NT canon is ultimately self-defeating
  • The Unauthorized Version by Robin Lane Fox
    An admittedly atheistic historian finds a good deal of truth as well as fiction behind the Christian Bible
  • Who Wrote the New Testament? by Burton L. Mack
    An analysis of the societies, individuals and motivations that produced the Christian scriptures
  • Who Tampered with the Bible? by Patricia Eddy
    An intelligence analyst determines what changes were made to the early New Testament documents to accommodate various Christian doctrines
  • The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels
    The history behind the writings discovered at Nag Hammadi and the supression of the Gnostics by the early Church
  • Heretics by Gerd Lüdemann
    A complete examination of the various conflicting doctrines practiced in early Christianity, their influence on the canon, and the eventual triumph of Catholic orthodoxy
  • The New Testament and the People of God by N.T. Wright
    The first book in an eventual five-volume series on the historical, philosophical and theological questions surrounding the origins of Christianity (see also Volume 2 and Volume 3).

Apologist Josh McDowell's book Evidence That Demands a Verdict contains a chapter on the infallability of the NT canon. This chapter prompted a critical response by Larry Taylor of the Secular Web, and a subsequent rebuttal by James Patrick Holding of Tekton Apologetics.

This site does not attempt to directly address the issue of the Synoptic Problem, though certainly the subject is quite relevant to the study of biblical origins. I personally feel that the blind acceptance of the Two-Source Hypothesis among the vast majority of scholars is resulting in some irresponsible conclusions about scriptural history. For some alternate theories that are gradually reopening the subject to debate, try William R. Farmer's Argument for Matthean Priority (discussed further on the homepage of the Two Gospel Hypothesis) or Mark Goodacre's A World Without Q. For more resources on the subject, try Stephen Carlson's Synoptic Problem page, or to examine parallel passages in the fourfold gospel tradition, try David Wallis's Harmony of the Gospels.

I owe much of my inspiration for this project to two individuals, James Still and Glenn Miller, who were among the first to offer terrific sources of biblical criticism and apology (respectively) while the WWW was still in its infancy. Their dialogue on NT Reliability (including Still's latest response) remains a shining example of intelligent, civil online debate.


Dialogue

Speaking of online debate, I've been known to engage in a few scintillating discussions myself. Many of the topics discussed here I had planned to address in future essays, but I figured why reinvent the wheel?


Other resources to assist in freethinking biblical interpretation:

"A fragment of religion which has been experienced and recognized is worth more than an orthodoxy which is fully known. A tiny ray of the light of Jesus in my life is more important than any orthodoxy." — Gerd Lüdemann, Prof. New Testament, U. Göttingen (trans. by John Bowden)


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NOTE: The opinions expressed on these pages are those of the author, and not of any associated organization, congregation, or individual (including my lovely wife). Comments, suggestions, and the inevitable maniacal hate-mails are always welcome. (trowbridge@maplenet.net)

This site's primary URL is at http://www.maplenet.net/~trowbridge/NT_Hist.htm, and can be easily found at http://welcome.to/wholebible.

I last dinked around with this section on 9/14/2005.

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