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Last updated: Monday, 26-Aug-96 00:09:21 CDT



Folks who have not studied the Bible's history often have quaint notions of how the Bible was put together. One good friend of mine recently came up with the flat-out statement that King James was the one who decided what went into the New Testament! This page discusses some of the processes behind how the New Testament was put together.

Most of the other disciples are practically unheard of. Were their letters, if they could write, lost, or merely considered by those who won power in the hierarchy of the church to be unimportant? Or left unpublished because they differed in opinion with those who had gained the upper levels of power in that hierarchy. History, even church history, is often written by the winners.

Uh, you really need to read a good book or two on how the Bible was put together. The best layman-level book I have seen is A General Introduction to the Bible by Norman Geisler and William E. Nix (2nd edition, Moody Press); the title is a bit misleading, as the book is entirely about how the Bible was put together and is not an introduction to the theology of Christianity. If you know a bit of Greek, the best seminary-level book is New Testament Introduction by Donald Guthrie (4th edition, 1990, InterVarsity Press, 1161 pp.) Both of them should be available in any decent Christian bookstore near you.

As to other disciples: If one accepts the traditions of authorship, John the apostle wrote John, 1-3 John, and Revelation. James wrote James. Peter wrote 1-2 Peter, and is considered to be the main source for Mark's Gospel. Matthew wrote Matthew.

They would not have had to be literate in order to write. The art of dictation was in flower then. In fact, it is obvious from reading Paul's letters that at least some of them were dictated (though Paul was certainly literate). The notion that an illiterate person couldn't write a letter is one of the stupider arguments, in fact, that has been made against Peter having written 1-2 Peter.

There are several reasons why the other apostles would not have written many (if any) letters to churches. Some of them are:

1. The Jewish Christian movement (as opposed to the Gentile Christian movement that Paul started) was largely limited to Israel, when travel was possible within a few days to all major cities. No need to write to kick butt if you can travel there personally. Virtually all of the apostles were in the Jewish Christian movement; though some traditionally are said to have travelled later in life (e.g., Peter is generally considered to have founded the church in Rome), most hung around close to home.

2. There was a lot of persecution of Christians in Israel, Jewish or Gentile (see Acts). An early death would prevent letter writing.

3. Many of Paul's letters are to churches he had founded or spent a long time at. As one who traveled and church-planted far more than the other apostles, he would be expected to have generated more correspondence.

4. The letters that were saved were saved at least partly because of the distance of the author, and the low likelihood of a visit soon (or ever again, particularly after Paul was imprisoned). If an apostle were regularly visiting, the value of his letters would be less.

There are no letters by other apostles that were deemed to be genuine by the early church and got left out of the Bible. Every letter that was agreed to have been written by an apostle made it into the Bible. There was NO exclusion on political or theological grounds.

There is a possibility that one of Paul's letters has gone missing (Epistle to the Laodocians), but there are some who argue that it was a synonym for Ephesians.

There are some alleged letters by apostles that were rejected by the early church as not having been authored by the person whose name was on it. (see my discussion with Greg Rihn below). Most of these are clearly Gnostic or Docetic in origin.

Speaking of Gnostics, one of the "history is written by winners" arguments used to be made about early Christians of the second and third centuries who wrote bad things about Gnostics. In the process of fighting the Gnostics, all Gnostic documents were destroyed (over the centuries) or simply not deemed as being worth recopying in order to preserve them. So the only record of what Gnostics thought consisted of the representations made by their bitterest enemies. --Until the 1940's, when some Gnostic documents were found at Nag Hammadi. What did they show -- that the Christian critics had accurately described the Gnostic belief system. Surprise! Another punch to the face of the would-be demythologizers!

"or left unpublished" Bad choice of words. Publishing didn't exist. Very few manuscripts of the period survive in original form. What manuscripts do survive are often copies made hundreds of years later. "Publishing" consisted of recopying by hand. If a work was not deemed worth preserving via copying, it rotted -- unless it was saved in a dry climate like the Dead Sea Scrolls.

During the late first century and early second century, there was not much interest in formally assembling the works of Christian correspondence into a formal canon, partly because the church was expecting the Second Coming at any moment (therefore, why bother?), and partly because the numbers were still relatively small and avoiding persecution was a higher priority.

Early church fathers did generate their own correspondence. The earliest surviving non-Biblical correspondence was from Clement of Rome (circa 95-97), who quoted from Matthew, John, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians (hah!), 1 Timothy, Titus, Hebrews, James, and 2 Peter. Other early church fathers who quoted from a number of New Testament books included Ignatius (ca. 110 AD), Polycarp (ca. 110-50 AD, BTW, Polycarp was a disciple of John the apostle, and thus was an important link between the original apostles and the second century church), and Justin Martyr (ca. 140-155 AD, his martyrdom caused the term to be named after him). This is by no means an exhaustive list of the writers of the first couple of centuries whose work has survived, just a list of some of the earliest ones.

The issue of what books should constitute the New Testament canon first came to a head circa 140 AD, when a Gnostic named Marcion claimed that the sole authoritative books of the New Testament consisted solely of Luke and ten of Paul's letters. Marcion also threw out the entire Old Testament.

When Marcion did this, the church leaders of the time dropped their jaws and said,"Say what?" (or the Greek equivalent). This led to correspondence by church leaders delineating what was and was not canonical.

The main theological battles during this period were against Gnosticism and Docetism. Those who put forth the "history is written by winners" arguments in this context basically have the burden of showing that these religious systems represented either the True Christian church or an odd but valid variant on True Christianity (much like Lutherans versus Episcopalians). In point of fact, though, the differences between the mainstream church and Gnosticism et al were more like the differences between Christianity and Mormonism (which teaches that you too can become a god if you're male and do the right things). If anyone in the apa wants to question that these did not represent mainstream Christianity, you had darn well better be prepared to give detailed, researched arguments; this is an area I spent a lot of time reading on when I was considering Christianity's truth claims.

The sources for which books are canonical consist of correspondence from various church leaders that either quoted from New Testament writings (thus implying their authoritativeness) or specifically referred to certain works as authoritative. Starting in 170 AD (the Muratorian Canon), formal lists of authoritative New Testament books began to be drawn up; the Muratorian Canon contained the names of the present New Testament books except for Hebrews, James, and 1 and 2 Peter. Codex Barococcio (200 AD) contained a list of all the New Testament books except Revelation.

As the church got formal support from the Roman Empire, church councils began to formally agree on the list of New Testament books. Athanasius (ca. 367 AD) wrote in great detail on the New Testament canon, formally listing the 27 books we know today. The matter was settled by the councils of Hippo (393 AD) and Carthage (397 AD), both of which ratified the New Testament canon in its present form.

-- Which leads me to what sure sounds like another blooper on your part, in claiming that the New Testament canon was not ratified until 1521 by the Diet of Worms. The Diet of Worms is best known for its trial of Martin Luther, because Luther was objecting to abuses in the Catholic church like the selling of indulgences. I am not aware of any canon-setting done by that council. And again, even if they had, they would have simply affirmed actions taken 1200 years earlier. I certainly agree that the divine inspiration of the Diet of Worms is questionable, but I really don't see what that has to do with a canon that was cast in concrete by 397 AD.

The criteria used for inclusion in the New Testament was apostolic authority. This was assumed to mean that a book was either written by an apostle or by a prophet who was considered to have been recognized by the apostles.

The councils of the late 300's that did the final job of canonization relied upon the writings of the mainstream church of the second and third century, and upon their judgment of the apostolic authority behind certain works.

Of the candidate works for the New Testament, there are four categories:

1. Works that made it in, and that were accepted by all or nearly all of the early church fathers.

2. Works that were accepted by most of the church fathers, and that "made the cut." In many cases, "not being accepted" consists of arguments from silence; the fact that a particular New Testament book was not quoted from by extant writings of a church father does not by any means prove that the writer was unfamiliar with the work or considered it non-canonical.

3. Works that were accepted by some church fathers, but that did not "make the cut." These works were (in general) respected, but deemed not to have apostolic authority.

4. Works that were never accepted by more than a couple of church fathers (or in many cases, NONE), and that were never seriously considered for inclusion in the canon.

Re the first two categories: during the first hundred years after the New Testament was written, all of the books that "made the cut" were specifically quoted by church fathers. One researcher who had nothing better to do with his time showed that all but 17 verses of the New Testament are quoted in the writings of the church leaders between 90 and 300 AD. (This is also a check and balance used in showing that the Biblical texts represent a 99% accurate transmission of the original words, but that's another subject).

The books that fall into category 1 (undisputed) are Matthew through Philemon, 1 Peter, and 1 John. While I can understand that the Pauline epistles are of great concern to the secularized apa members (and Ephesians in particular), these are the wrong books to try to target as having been the subject of dispute. Ephesians was specifically quoted by Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Justin Martyr. NONE of the church fathers, canons, or councils disputed the authenticity of Ephesians.

With the exception of Marcion and a few other rabble-rousers, the strategy of those who wanted to shift the direction of mainstream Christian theology was not to try to claim that certain accepted books were really fakes, but rather to try to add books of their own. After Marcion's attempt failed, Gnostic efforts consisted of a swarm of alleged holy books of their own, rather than trying to throw out part or all of various books that were already generally considered being canonical.

Books that there was some disagreement over included Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2-3 John, Jude, and Revelation. The only Martin Luther connection re the canon that I am aware of is that Martin Luther was a little cautious about James, but never claimed it was non-canonical.

Works that were respected but that did not "make the cut" (known as the New Testament Apocrypha) include: Epistle of Barnabus, Epistle to the Corinthians, 2nd Epistle of Clement, Shepherd of Hermas, Didache, Apocalypse of Peter, Acts of Paul and Thecla, pseudo-Epistle to the Laodocians, Epistle of Polycarp, Seven Epistles of Ignatius. These works basically had only temporary or local recognition (i.e, recognition was limited to a specific geographic area). Some, like the Seven Epistles of Ignatius, were agreed to be authentic (i.e., everyone agreed Ignatius really wrote them) and non-heretical, but Ignatius was not deemed to have apostolic authority. It is quite possible that several of these contain genuine, non-Biblical sayings of Jesus, Paul, etc. (but I would add a word of caution that none of these works, if considered canonical, would significantly change the central theology of Christianity)

There are several dozen works during the first three centuries that were considered spurious, the most famous of which is the Gospel of Thomas (which is not really a Gospel at all, in the sense of a narrative, but is rather a collection of sayings and anecdotes). The vast majority of these works that predate the third century are clearly pushing a Gnostic or Docetic agenda. By 800 AD, Photius listed 280 spurious works (a few more have been discovered since then).

The number of books that were considered spurious (that were provably from the period prior to 300 AD) that were not clearly either Gnostic or Docetic is very small.

Where to go from here? Now, if you want to discuss why a specific book that did or did not make the cut was disputed, I'll be glad to summarize the evidence and arguments. If you want to try to make a generalized case that the category 4 works should have been more seriously considered, then you will first have to prove that Gnosticism and Docetism are compatible with the central truths of Christianity, and are valid variants. You're welcome to try this, of course, but I will warn you that I have lots and lots and lots of ammunition on these subjects. The argument for Gnosticism being Christian simply won't wash.

I do own copies of virtually all of the above books: the ones that didn't make the cut and the majority of those that were considered spurious. Again, if you're curious about one or two of these, I can provide some quotes and specific discussions as to why a book was not included. But a general discussion of the books that did and did not make the cut can only get to a certain level of detail before I am faced with writing several pages of discussion on each disputed book, and I don't think you really are interested in pursuing the discussion to that level of detail.

If you're not familiar with Gnosticism or Docetism and don't understand why I am so confident, I can provide a nutshell summary of the history and beliefs of those movements and an overview of the arguments for why they are not compatible with Christianity; otherwise I'll assume you're willing to take my word on it.

Again, I'll remind you that the above is a quickie summary of the canonization process; it is not intended to be a complete, thorough coverage of the subject.

"Who is to say that while (Paul) was acting as Ann Landers for the early churches that he was divinely inspired in everything he said?"

As I mentioned above, on at least one occasion Paul said that he was speaking just for himself, not for God. The support of Paul as being divinely inspired was supported by every leader of the early Church of the first couple of centuries. As I mentioned above, Paul's authority as one who Speaks for God was affirmed by the Jerusalem church leaders (as recorded in Acts).

It is particularly ironic in the context of your question that the first major challenge to what books should and should not be in the New Testament consisted of Marcion keeping Paul and throwing out the rest! *chuckle*

For me to go into a more detailed discussion of Paul's legitimacy in speaking for God presents a problem. Those assertions rest on the following foundation: that a historical Jesus really existed; that Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead; that Jesus was part of the triune Godhead; that the authors of the Gospels (including Acts, since Luke wrote Acts as well) wrote down essentially accurate information about what Jesus said and did (again, I'm not talking about some literalist notion where every single detail has to be absolutely true; I'm talking about a situation where a, say 10 page summary of the Gospels could be written that you would acknowledge is an accurate account). If you are willing to grant those points for the sake of argument, then, fine, I can discuss in detail the claims Paul has to authority. But if you are not willing to grant for the sake of argument that we have a rough idea of what Jesus said and did (in broad terms), there is no point in discussing Paul. If Jesus is not God, then Paul has more than one screw loose and should be ignored. Are you willing to grant those points?

Unlike many religious systems that are philosophically based, Christianity is a historically-based religious system. If certain events are not true (i.e., Jesus rising from the dead), then the philosophical portion of Christianity falls apart. The same is true for Judaism.

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You seem to have a problem with the way in which the Old Testament Law was affected by the Grace theology of the New Testament. I can nutshell it by simply saying that many of the Levitical laws were superseded by Jesus and his teachings. Those who try to claim that the full Old Testament law should be enforced today are in theological error. -- Since this essentially agrees with your feelings on this subject, do you really want me to defend the reasoning behind that position? It seems unnecessary.

On your comments re Paul and women being silent, see my comments to others above. I think your interpretation is incorrect. One example is that Paul wrote most of his letters to be read aloud to entire churches, not to be passed around among an elite male leadership.

Also (to you and several others): I certainly agree that the Church has done much to women that is wrong and irresponsible, and an abuse of power. However, just as Luther reformed a church that had gone down the wrong path re indulgences, I think it is quite possible for the Christian church to get back on the right path re treatment of women. The examples you and others gave of how the church will automatically let the husband mistreat his wife are not examples of either how the system ought to work or of a church that I would be interested in belonging to. I will not defend abuses of this type, I will agree with you (plural) that there have been abuses; however, I do stand by my positions re how the church should act in providing a balance to situations where husbands abuse their wives.

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I would dispute your contention that the church of the period 35 AD to circa 300 AD had many splinter groups with essentially incompatible beliefs. The main schools of thought other than mainstream Christianity that were battling in that period included Gnosticism and Docetism. Prior to AD 70, there were Jewish and Gentile branches of the church, but the Jerusalem councils thrashed out the differences, and the two groups were in agreement on central beliefs and who the apostles were. The Jewish Christian movement was dealt a major blow due to its differences with Judaism over the wisdom of the Jewish War of AD 66-70. When Jewish Christians refused to join in Bar Kochba's revolt circa 135 AD (and in particular to not acknowledge that Bar Kochba might be the Messiah), the split was final, and the Jewish Christian movement essentially died out at that point.

Other than the Gnostics and Docetists, the other major struggles of the first couple of hundred years of the church included the Ebionites (who denied Jesus' godhood, which was the opposite position of Docetism, which denied that Jesus was human.) Other than this, the next big fight was with Arius, who claimed that Jesus was a created (spiritual) being rather than an eternally existing part of the Godhead; the effort to resolve this caused Constantine to hold the Council of Nicea in 325, which produced the Nicene Creed.

The above groups were not hairsplitting over minor theological points. Indeed, the heresies of the early centuries keep coming back. Arius' doctrines have resurfaced in Jehovah's Witnesses, where Jesus is alleged to be the archangel Michael.

The "Paulist faction," as you call it, did not "prevail" because it was pitted against Jewish Christianity. It prevailed because Jewish Christianity died out as a result of the rejection of Jewish Christianity by Pharisaic Judaism, in particular over the refusal of Jewish Christians to participate in the ill-advised revolts of 66 and 135 AD.

There were a number of what you and I would deem hairsplitting theological arguments, but these mostly occurred from the fifth century onward. Many of these hairsplitting arguments were useful, however, in refining just what the Bible was saying.


Georgie Schnobrich "I wonder whether there was an equivalent temptation to produce altered 'pirate' versions of the New Testament, and if the warnings were a sufficient deterrent."

Actually, the warnings didn't do a bad job. This ties in with some of Greg's comments. In FFZ #2 (Milwapa 94), I discussed the history of the canonization process of the New Testament. The question of "how accurately does our current Bible text represent the original text?" is a related and important question. After all, it's one thing to say that the early Church gave their blessing to say, the Epistle to the Galatians, but if the text we have has been modified from what the early Church had, then the Bible becomes useless very quickly. This is especially important because much of Mormon and Jehovah's Witness and Christian Science (and for that matter, Muslim) theology is heavily dependent upon the notion that the original texts were hopelessly corrupted, and the original meaning was "restored" by the founders of those particular cults. Also, this was one of the main reasons why Thomas Jefferson was a theist and not a Christian -- he felt that the New Testament was mostly not written until a hundred years after the events, and thus was not a reliable account, particularly where the supernatural stuff is concerned.

I am limiting my discussion to the New Testament because of the difference in means of transmission; if someone wants me to discuss the particulars unique to the Law and the Prophets, I'll do so.

The difference between Jefferson's time and now is the discovery of many, many old manuscripts as archaeology got organized and going. In particular, scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries have scoured the Mideast and old churches and monasteries for manuscripts.

The result is that we have more than 24,000 full or partial manuscripts from the New Testament that predate the age of printing. The earliest is a partial page of the Gospel of John (known as the John Rylands fragment) dated to approximately 130 AD.

Are they all identical? Uh, no. In fact, Donald Carson has stated that no two New Testament manuscripts are exactly alike. Ummm, and there are, uh, like, 200,000 variants in the existing manuscripts.

Now wait a minute, relax, relax. Greg and Lefford, please stop screaming,"TWO HUNDRED THOUSAND????"

With 24,000 full or partial manuscripts spanning 1400 or so years, we can build a diagram resembling a family tree that shows how the various manuscripts relate to one another. After all, when a change is introduced, either accidently or deliberately, the change will tend to stay in the text and propagate to future "generations."

The vast majority of the differences are of a letter here and there, a word here and there, etc.

For example, in Revelation 5:1, the Greek word lousanti ("..and washed us...") is pronounced almost exactly the same as the Greek word lusanti ("...and freed us...."). Thus, if two monks are copying and one pronounces the word slightly off or is misheard, the typo goes in.

Other common errors include copying the same line twice, skipping a line, accidently transposing words, etc.

As Geisler and Nix note (A General Introduction to the Bible), the 200,000 variants "represent only 10,000 places in the New Testament. If one single word is misspelled in 3,000 manuscripts, this is counted (by Bible scholars) as 3,000 variants."

I know, I know. Greg and Lefford are now screaming,"TEN THOUSAND???"

Most intentional changes consisted of well-meaning attempts to do things like harmonize the apparent inconsistencies in the four Gospels. Sometimes, when a scribe had two different manuscripts in front of him, he would try to harmonize any differences, e.g., if one mss says "Lord" and another says "God", a well-meaning scribe sometimes copied "Lord and God."

As mentioned in FFZ 2, when someone wanted to introduce lots of wierd doctrine, the usual path taken was to introduce a "new" Gospel or letter allegedly written by an Apostle.

Again, it is certainly true that typos are virtually always introduced in hand copying a manuscript of any substantive length. But the checks and balances that let us know we have an accurate copy of the New Testament books are:

1. The sheer number of manuscripts, 24,000+

2. The timespan covered by the manuscripts

3. The geographic area covered by the manuscripts

4. As mentioned in FFZ 2, the writings of the early Church fathers. Sir David Dalrymple was asked,"suppose that the New Testament had been destroyed, and every copy of it lost by the end of the third century, could it have been collected together again from the writings of the Fathers of the second and third centuries?" Dalrymple did some research and found all but eleven verses.

When you put the above together, you have a mosaic that pieces together into a text that is considered to be quite accurate. Less than one percent of the text is in dispute, mostly consisting of a word here and a word there. The only two sections of any length that are disputed are the stoning of the adultress in John and the tail end of Matthew. Of the one percent that is in dispute, as Sir Fredric Kenyon said,"No fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith rests on a disputed reading....". -- unless you count snake handling, which is only attested to by the disputed verses at the end of Matthew.

How can a layman know which is the disputed one percent? Easy. If you pick up any of the good modern translations (such as the New International Version), you will see the text footnoted with notes like "some manuscripts say...." -- that is the one percent. So you can study the Bible and be aware of when you are reading a section that contains a word or passage that is still in dispute.

This is brought into focus more by comparison with how well we know other ancient documents. After the Bible, the Iliad is the next most-documented ancient document, with 643 full or partial manuscripts, the oldest of which is dated 500 years after the composition of the work, and the earliest complete copy is from about 1200 AD. In addition, five percent of the Iliad text is disputed.

Also note the following, borrowed from Josh McDowell's A Ready Defense:

Author Written Earliest copy Gap # of copies

Caesar 100-44 BC 900 AD 950 years 10

Plato Tetralogies 427-347 BC 900 AD 1200 years 7

Tacitus Annals 100 AD 1100 AD 1000 years 20

Thucydides History 460-400 BC 900 AD 1300 years 8

Sophocles 496-406 BC 1000 AD 1400 years 193

Catullus 54 BC 1550 AD 1600 years 3

Demosthenes 383-322 BC 1100 AD 1300 years 200

Aristophanes 450-385 BC 900 AD 1200 years 10

Sir Fredric G. Kenyon, director of the British Museum, wrote,"Besides number, the manuscripts of the New Testament differ from those of the classical authors... In no other case is the interval of time between composition of the book and the date of the earliest extant [existing] manuscripts so short as in that of the New Testament." He also said,"The interval then between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed."


"Modern computer analysis seems to indicate that he (Paul) didn't (write the Pauline Epistles)."

I have never seen any such claims. Even if someone did try to do such an analysis, there are a couple of problems:

1. In order to say what Paul didn't write, one must make some decisions as to what are the base documents that Paul did write. When the computer analysis was done on the Federalist papers, the computer programmers were aided by having a large volume of writings that they knew were written by Madison, Jay, and Hamilton.

2. The sample that is to be analyzed is quite small, i.e., the total number of words in the Pauline text. The smaller the sample, the more difficult it is to make judgments.

For example, some of the criticisms of Pauline authorship of certain letters rests on usage of certain words or phrases that only occur once in the New Testament. While such observations are interesting, given the size of the New Testament, one would expect a number of words to only be used once.

"I rather think that who wrote the documents is relatively unimportant."

What? If Paul didn't write them, then whoever did and claimed to be Paul was lying. If the author was lying about who wrote the document, then you cannot trust anything else that is said in the document. You therefore must throw the entire document out.

"It is quite likely that the Church Fathers edited them (NT documents) at some time in history. It might be interesting to try to locate the earliest known version of these documents to see how they compare to the versions that were adopted at Worms."

Wrong. See my comments to Georgie, above.

"Still, it would appear more important a question that I have the right to ignore or discard what is said there."

On what grounds? If you acknowledge that God spoke to mankind and the Biblical authors wrote down what happened as best they could, then you must discard with the utmost caution. If you do not acknowledge that, then why bother paying any attention to the Bible at all?


1996 by Ross Pavlac ([email protected]).
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