The New Testament (NT), as we know it today, did not mystically fall to us from heaven but it was manually developed through a long, arduous and contentious process.
During the first 20 years after Jesus' death, the early Christian Church relied heavily on stories passed on one to another, via word of mouth. They did not place any value on writing these down, possibly because most of them were fairly uneducated and illiterate. Eventually and quite slowly they started to compile collections of Jesus' sayings, however these were still fairly limited in their narrative, and in fact there was no mention of the virgin birth, miracles, crucifixion or the resurrection.
By the mid 1st century. numerous gospels, epistles and other texts started circulating amongst the Christian Churches. First came the Epistles by Paul such as 1 and 2 Thessalonians which are our earliest books from the NT. Gospels such the Gospel of Thomas and the Q were amongst our earliest gospels developed (however, it is important to note that the latter has never been found). Mark was the first to produce a gospel using a specific narrative structure. This structure was later copied by the authors of both Matthew and Luke. Some scholars believe this structure was "borrowed" from Homer's epic which contains a near exact narrative structure. The Gospel of John seems to have been written around 90 AD.
In addition to this we had the Acts of Peter, the Apocalypses of Peter and John, the Book of Barnabas, Hermas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospels of the Hebrews, Ebionites and the list goes on an on. Below is the listing of the main events in the process which led to the formation of the NT:
- 95 CE: 1Clement is written by the church father Clement. He quotes sayings by Jesus that are not in any of the gospels found since. He makes references to Paul's letters but never mentions any actual written gospels, which indicates that these were not well known or distributed at this stage. Clement also only refers to Paul's letters as wise council and reserves the use of the word "scriptures" for the Old Testament only.
- 110 CE: The Didache is written by the Orthodox Church fathers, quoting the Gospel of Matthew (it refers to it as "The Gospel of Jesus"), and direct extracts from the Old Testament. The church fathers Origen, Clement of Alexandria and the churches in Egypt considered the Didache to be inspired scripture.
- 110 - 140 CE: Papias writes down his collection of sayings. He did not trust any of the gospels nor the epistles but decided to rely on oral tradition (stories told in the marketplace). Some of his quotations do indeed seem to come from some form of Matthew and Mark, but he never attributes these to the gospels themselves. Some of his claims have a sense of Baron Munchausen about them such as when he explains how Judas' head swells to become “wider than the width of a wagon trail so that his eyes were lost in the flesh,” and that the place where he died “maintained a stench so bad that no one, even to his own day, would go near it.” At the very least, this serves as an indication of the nature of the stories being circulated at this time. Papias also noted that the author of Mark was a young secretary of Peter, who had never met or seen Jesus himself. Once again we don't know how reliable this is, however Eusebius used this source to repeat the claim about Markan authorship.
- 100 - 154 CE: The book of Hermas is written by a man who, supposedly, had known Paul (Romans 16:14). The early church so revered this work that they included it in what they considered to be inspired scripture. The book of Hermas was considered inspired scripture even as late as the 4th century.
- 100 - 200 CE: The Christian Church begins to grow into various segments such as the Orthodox (later split into Catholic and Coptic), Ebionites, Nazarenes and Marcionites amongst others. Various gospels and epistles were written and copiers were changing texts to fit in with their own agendas and preferred doctrines. Due to pressure from Roman authorities, who saw Christianity as a social problem, the various Christian groups began to compete for Roman favour. The Gnostics would blame the Orthodox Church for all problems with the Roman authorities and vice versa. At this time, any anti-Roman sentiments within religious literature would be frowned upon and any anti-Semitic texts were applauded by the Roman authorities, which had a significant influence on the gospels and epistles being produced and copied. For example the verse "Give unto Caesar what is due unto Caesar" and the reduced responsibility of the Roman authorities during the crucifixion of Jesus could be viewed as possible examples of this.
- 140 CE: The first Canon is recorded by Marcion who was a Gnostic church father. Marcion strongly supported Paul but he believed that Jesus' God was different from the God that the Hebrews worshipped. He included a heavily edited version of Luke and Paul's epistles but excluded all others, even excluding the entire Old Testament. Marcion, in general, rejected anything Jewish-related, including the Gospel of Matthew and the Book of Hebrews. The Orthodox Church responded to this and wrote various anti-Marcionite literature, calling him a heretic. Some scholars believe that 2 Peter was produced as part of the Orthodox Church’s response against Marcion. What is important to note is that this was the first Canon and all of Marcion's books made it into the final Orthodox Canon centuries later. Some of Marcion's own editing as well as his prefaces to Paul's epistles were even included in the Latin Vulgate itself.
- 150 CE: Justin Martyr refers to the Gospels as the "Memoirs of the Apostles", He refers to Mark as the "Memoirs of Peter". An idea he probably got from Papias or from the same oral tradition that Papias received it from. Justin goes on to describe church services where these "memoirs" were being read alongside the Old Testament. This gave rise to an interest in these texts and helped established the idea that the Gospels should be seen as being equal to the Old Testament scripture.
- 156 CE: A new movement within the early church started to develop called Montanism. They prayed in tongues and primarily preached apocalyptic teachings such as the famous adage "the end is nigh". They shunned educated clerics and admitted women to their clergy. In fact, you could say that they were very similar to our modern day Evangelical Churches. They were considered as demonic by the Orthodox Church due to their reliance on personal revelation as opposed to the scriptures themselves. This marked the beginning of the drive by the Orthodox Church to form an official version of the New Testament. It's at this time that the term "New Testament" is first mentioned. Interestingly, the Church did not want to include the book of Revelation in this Canon as it was very similar to the Montanists' apocalyptical ideas.
- 161 - 180 CE: Dionysius complains that other people had changed his own letters written to the various churches and goes on to complain that even his version of Mark contained too many errors and additions to be reliable. Eusebius, thus, became one of the main sponsors for formalising the books which would be considered “inspired”, and decide which were the preferred versions of those books.
- 170 CE: The first Orthodox Canon is produced by Tatian, a convert of Justin Martyr, from the Syrian Church. This Canon was actually a Syrian translation and not in the original Greek. He decided upon the four gospels which we have today - possibly because his mentor supported these four gospels. He included Paul's epistles and Acts and then proceeded to forbid the reading of any other books in the church.
- 170 CE: The first attack against any questionable texts is launched by the Orthodox Church when a well meaning priest is exiled after he writes the Acts of Paul in honour of Paul. The Acts of Paul is still included in the Armenian Church's Bible today. Interestingly enough, Tertullian attacked the book, but not because it was falsified, but because it depicted a woman teaching on the baptism, as according to the Orthodox Church only men were allowed to teach. It shows that even at this stage, texts were not necessarily accepted or rejected on their historical validity but rather on the subjective ideologies of the church fathers.
- 325 CE: The Council of Nicea meet to discuss Jesus' divinity. Arianism, lead of Arius, opposed the idea of Jesus as Divine, as they believed that Jesus was not equal to God himself. The Orthodox Church however were in favour of the doctrine that Jesus was equal to and, in fact, part of God Himself. The council's decision, after much discussion, was that Jesus was indeed equal to God. Subsequently, the only two bishops who voted against the notion, were exiled and lost all their material possessions and property. The canonization of scripture was also discussed but they could not agree on a single canon at this stage.
- 327 CE: Eusebius writes the fifth and final revision of the "History of the Church". This had previously been revised following his conversion from Arianism. At this stage, there is still no agreement regarding the official Biblical Canon. In this book he states the different considerations for books that are nominated for inclusion into the Bible. He lists three types of texts categories:
* Texts that are recognized as inspired by every orthodox author he knows.
* Texts that are considered inspired by some orthodox authors but disputed by other authors.
* Texts that are considered to be heretical by all orthodox authors.
Basically, Eusebius used his own subjective criteria (orthodox) to select his own Canon. He identified the four gospels, no more and no less because of mythical and numerological reasons (Irenaeus and Cyprian had used these criteria previously as well). He also includes Acts, Paul's epistles, Hebrews, 1 Peter and 1 John. He mentions that the Book of Revelation is disputed but confusingly still includes it into the first category.
He then goes on to list the disputed texts but not heretical texts, which included James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, the Acts of Paul, Hermas, the Apocalypse of Peter, Barnabas, Gospel of the Hebrews and book called the "Teachings of the Apostles". To confuse matters further, he again includes the book of Revelation into this category.
Lastly he listed the books which he considered to be heretical, which were the Gospels of Peter, Thomas, and Matthias, and the Acts of Andrew and John.
- 327 CE: Eusebius states that he was commissioned by Constantine to produce 50 pristine copies of the officially recognised imperial Bible. We are not sure exactly what these copies looked like, however scholars found the Codex Sinaiticus developed in the 4th century, which is a possible copy of Eusebius' Bible. It includes the four Gospels, Acts, Paul's epistles, Hebrews, seven Catholic epistles, the book of Revelation, Barnabas and the book of Hermas. The Vaticanus Codex was also discovered that dates from this same period. It contains similar material in the same order. Both of these texts are incomplete however and we don't know if any other books were included.
Finally, it is impossible to discuss Eusebius' work without addressing his character. The 19th century historian Jacob Burckhardt, describes Eusebius as "the first thoroughly dishonest historian of antiquity". Eusebius himself said that, "It will sometimes be necessary to use falsehood for the benefit of those who need such a mode of treatment." This is an alarming passage as he also stated that he believed that Moses used certain falsehoods in the book of Genesis in order to persuade the people to follow in the footsteps of God. How far did Eusebius go? Did he use “falsehoods” in order to persuade people of his own ideologies? Scholars believe that Eusebius forged certain documents including official letters by Antoninus Pius and possibly even the Testamonium Flavianum itself. Unfortunately, he is our main source for much of what know regarding the church fathers and it was his personal theology which formed the bedrock on which the NT Canon was based.
- 350 CE: Bishop Cyril develops a series of lectures for the churches in Jerusalem, which would cover all aspect of Orthodox Christianity. Included in this is the first official announcement from a senior ranking official of the church as to which books are recognized by the church as the NT Canon. Cyril declares that no other books are to be read, not even privately. His canon consists of all the books we have in our NT Canon today, however he excludes the book of Revelation.
- 363 CE: The Synod of Laodicea is held in Asia Minor to decide the official contents of the Bible. The result was the following announcement: "Let no private Psalms nor any uncanonical books be read in the church, but only canonical ones of the New and Old Testament". Once again they use the same list as the Cyril produced and exclude the book of Revelation. We have no indication as to how they came to this conclusion but it has been suggested that they simply relied on Syril's previous Canon.
- 367 CE: Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, had previously published a book called the Festal Epistle. This book contained the dates for all Christian festivals and it was considered the authoritative statement on these events by the Catholic church. Like Eusebius, Athanasius was fiercely anti-Arian and a conservative. In 367 CE he extended the scope of this epistle and included his Canon into it as well. This was considered an authoritative statement by both the Syrian and Western churches. His Canon included Revelation and looked exactly like our modern Canon today. However, even at this stage, there was still some dispute in regards to the Canon for example, Gregory of Nazianzus continued to protest the inclusion of Revelation, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 John and 3 John.
- 692 CE: There was continued debate amongst the various bishops in regards to the NT canon. Finally in 692 the Trullan Synod was convened under Emperor Justinian. The synod declared that they considered both the Synod of Laodicea and Athanasius' Canons to be authoritative, even though these contradicted each other in regards to the book of Revelation. They also included 2 letters they attributed to Clement as well as 8 other books "which it is not appropriate to make public before all, because of the mysteries contained in them." These are now lost to us but one can only speculate what they may have contained. This contradictory decision gave rise to much confusion and there were at least 6 different Canons used by churches in the East even as late as the 10th century. The Syrian churches still exclude Revelation from their Bibles to this day.
- 7th - 16th century CE: Various Canons began to circulate in both the Eastern and Western churches. The Eastern Bibles still differ today from Western Canons.
- 1546 CE: The Council of Trent finally recognizes the Canon, and this is still the article of faith used today. During the course of the next century Protestant churches also agree on the same 27 books in the NT Canon.
The road which led to the formation of the New Testament was thus not simple and certainly not inspired in any shape or form. We had extreme disagreements not just amongst the early church fathers but also between the Eastern and Western churches. The criteria used to decide which books were included and excluded were ever changing and often church councils would contradict each other. Some of the earliest disputed texts such as Revelation and 2 Peter were included, whilst some of the texts which were recognised by the 2nd century churches such as Hermas were finally excluded. Political, geographical, religious and cultural aspects all influenced the process. It reflects how we seek out truth, deny truth, have prejudices, agree and disagree, love and hate. It is the product of 1600 years worth of humanity.
B. Metzger -The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance
B. Ehrman - Lost Scriptures - Books that did not make it into the New Testament