|Brief History of the New Testament||Analysis of the Canonical and Apocryphal Scriptures|
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 Jesusa 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
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 churchGnosticism 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.
Also read my commentaries on The Nativity Tradition and The Second Coming.
Geoff Trowbridge, 10/96 (rev. 9/98)
All external links are provided purely as references, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this author.
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.
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?
"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)
This page has a Dewey Decimal Number of 225 according to the BUBL Link Library.
This page was once a member of the Bible Interpretation Webring, but was eventually removed. Click here to find out why...
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. ([email protected])
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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