Apologetics can seem like tricky business. It doesn’t matter how well-versed you are in Scripture, how much theology you’ve read, or how positive your intentions are; eventually, someone is going to ask you a question that will stump you. I think a lot of Christians might view this as a bad thing. Not being able to answer a question related to our faith might mean that we aren’t as knowledgeable about it as we think, or worse, that our faith may be built on logical fallacies.
The good news is that you aren’t the first Christian to run into this issue and you certainly won’t be the last. The even better news is that The Bible isn’t a dead historical compendium from thousands of years ago – it is a living, breathing document that is meant to be examined, meant to be dissected, and meant to answer some of our toughest questions about what it means to be human and the relationship that exists between God and his creation. Christians believe that The Bible should have a place of ultimate authority in our lives as both direct instruction from God and an essential resource for understanding the character of God.
One thing you’ll find about questions and challenges to Christianity, or religion as a whole, is that they can sometimes seem vast and impossible to conceptualize fully. In practice, however, these challenges really tend to be boil down to ten or twelve core questions that get phrased a bit differently over and over again. One of the most popular and enduring of these questions is, “How can I give The Bible a place of authority in my life? It’s not like God just dropped a golden book from heaven with his perfect Word. It’s a human document, which means humans not only wrote it, but humans ultimately decided what books of The Bible made the cut and which didn’t.” The implication here is that certain proposed books of the Bible, such as the Apocrypha or some of the “alternative Gospels,” were excluded for political reasons or because they suggested an ulterior narrative to the one we have in our current Bible. This question of “Who decided what books made it into The Bible?” might seem fairly modern – after all, we tend to imagine that the Western world has swallowed The Bible hook, line, and sinker for the past 1,900 or so years and that we are the first to raise an eyebrow. This is, of course, not the case at all. In addition, as long as this question has been asked, it has had a very thorough and historical answer.
The Old Testament
This question about what ended up in The Bible and why is generally directed at the New Testament, but I think we should first briefly address how we got the Old Testament in its current format. The first five books of the Old Testament (called the Torah or Pentateuch) were the earliest to be accepted as canonical. Scholars don’t have an exact date for when this occurred, but it was likely around 600 BC if not earlier. These books had existed for centuries beforehand, but it wasn’t until the later prophets brought them back to the theological forefront that they were actually canonized.
Speaking of the prophets, their writings form a major part of the Old Testament. These writings were recognized as authoritative almost immediately, but were probably not compounded into a single form until about 200 BC. For the Jewish people of this time, the canonization and assembly of these books was of utmost importance. The writings themselves had existed for hundreds of years, but there had been less of a need for organization due to the fact that the Israelites existed as a single people – a single cultural unit that followed traditions of worship together. By 200 BC, the Jewish people had been scattered significantly, and it was extremely important to have a single collection of books that could be considered the Word of God.
What’s important to remember is that the books of the Old Testament had existed in Jewish tradition and had been a part of worship for centuries. We have no evidence that there was any dispute about the inclusion of these books; in short, these were well-known and well-discussed documents of Scripture that carried the authority of being “God-breathed.” This brings us to the Apocrypha, and the question of why the Apocrypha were not included in the Old Testament.
For some background, the Apocrypha is a group of a dozen Jewish books written between 400 BC and 50 AD, or between the Old Testament and New Testament. While the Apocrypha have long been recognized as not authoritative, they still cause confusion for Christians even in our modern era. For example, Catholic Bibles include the Apocrypha at the end of the Old Testament section, whereas most Bibles in the Protestant tradition do not. This alone is enough to cause significant head-scratching and to raise the issue of whether or not these books should be considered more seriously.
There are a few reasons that the Apocrypha are not considered canon. The first is that the Jewish authors of the Apocrypha implicitly acknowledge that these writings are not to be considered Scripture. In Maccabees 14:41, the author writes:
“The Jews and their priests have resolved that Simon should be their leader and high priest forever until a trustworthy prophet should arise.”
This is strikingly different from the writing we see in the Old Testament books of the major prophets, such as Isaiah or Ezekiel. Here, the author of Maccabees (writing in about 100 BC) is saying that there is currently no prophet living who has a direct line of communication with God. The authority of prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel comes from the fact that God is acknowledged to be speaking through them – we don’t get this in Maccabees.
In addition to statements like this, the Apocrypha are riddled with contradictions. The Book of Wisdom tells us that God created the world out of existing matter, whereas the Book of Genesis (the oldest and most precious of all Jewish literary traditions) clearly states that God created the world out of pre-existing matter. The Book of Judith describes Nebuchadnezzar as king of Assyria, when he was really the king of Babylon. The errors in the Apocrypha are theological as well as historical.
One last note on the Apocrypha before we move on. The Jews themselves have never accepted the Apocrypha as Scripture, stemming from almost as soon as these books started to appear. The Babylonian Talmud tells us:
“After the latter prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi had died, the Holy Spirit departed from Israel.”
The books of the Apocrypha, then, which were written after Malachi, were not guided by the Holy Spirit and were not to be considered Scripture. No Jewish canon from the past two millennia includes the Apocrypha. From the outset, they have never been considered to be in the theological class of the books of the Old Testament.
This still leaves us the fact that Catholic Bibles usually include the Apocrypha. In short, as St. Jerome assembled the Latin Vulgate Bible in 404 AD, he included the Apocrypha but made sure to note that they were not canon and were “not for establishing the authority of the doctrines of the Church.” Essentially, Jerome recognized that these books were not Scripture but that they contained some helpful and interesting theological content. Over a thousand years later, the Catholic Church declared that the Apocrypha actually were canon at the Council of Trent. We can easily see that this was a direct response to the Protestant Reformers of that era, who unanimously rejected the Apocrypha. It also demonstrates a unique example of an attempted addition to The Bible for political reasons, and how such an addition hasn’t stood the test of time. Does your church preach the Apocrypha? Mine doesn’t, and neither do most Christians churches whether they are Catholic or Protestant.
The New Testament
Which now brings us to the New Testament. The reason I just expended so many words on the Old Testament is so you can start to understand that this process has always been fairly organic. There isn’t one central bureaucracy picking and choosing what is considered Scripture. Of the existing books that are in consideration to be included, it is generally the ones that pass the sniff test that make the cut. Does the book make sense in the broader tradition of Jewish or Christian theology? Is it in line with what we know of God from the Torah? Is it accurate historically? Has it been already acknowledged as authoritative by the wider audience of the faith? These are all questions that played into the final assembly of The Bible as we know it today. The men who made the final decisions weren’t looking to do so in an attempt to bolster their authority or raise the status of the Church. They were doing their best to judge which books passed the sniff test and could continue to pass that sniff test for generations of Christians until the return of Christ.
In our discussion of the New Testament, we should start with the Gospels. The earliest Christians interpreted Christ’s words to mean that his return could occur at any moment, perhaps even within their own lifetimes. This widely held belief led them to eschew written documentation in favor of oral traditions. However, once eyewitnesses to Christ’s life and the first Church leaders began to die, the early Christians recognized the important of recording the life and teachings of Christ. From this development, we get the four Gospels.
These Gospels were likely all written between 60-100 AD, and as early as 130 AD we see early Christian scholar Justin Martyr referring to these four Gospels as the authoritative documents on Christ’s life. In his Apology, he refers to the four “memoirs which are called gospels.” Interestingly, he quotes extensively from the four Gospels in his own writings, suggesting that both himself and the early Christian communities of the time widely viewed these four Gospels as authoritative. Justin also refers to the four Gospels as being read in churches “alongside the writings of the prophets,” which is a reference to the Old Testament. The implication here is that the four Gospels hold the same theological weight as the prophetic books of the Old Testament, which were unanimously considered to be Scripture.
Paul & Marks of Canonicity
Throughout this article so far, we’ve indirectly hit on the agreed upon “marks of canonicity” several times. I think at this point it may be helpful to list them, as they ultimately determined the acceptance of books into the New Testament:
- Was the book written by a prophet of God?
- Was the writer confirmed by acts of God?
- Does the message tell the truth of God?
- Did it come with the power of God?
- Was it accepted by God’s people?
To delve a bit deeper into this concept, I think it might be useful to examine Paul’s letters, also known as the Epistles. These constitute a bulk of the New Testament, and were written by the apostle Paul about fifteen years after the death of Christ. He was writing to various new Christian communities all over the Mediterranean, resolving disputes among them and clarifying the precepts of Christian life. The most well-known of these letters is probably Romans, written to the fledgling Christian church in Rome.
Was the book written by a prophet of God? Yes – Paul had direct contact with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, and was instructed by Christ throughout his life. Immediately after the Damascus road experience, Paul is blind and is sitting in a house in the Jewish quarter of Damascus. Ananias of Damascus, a disciple of Jesus, arrives and reveals that he was told in a vision that Paul is to be the mouthpiece of Christ on Earth. Here, we get Paul’s authority as a prophet of God, so that box is checked.
Was the writer confirmed by acts of God? To spread the Christian message, Jesus granted select apostles the ability to perform miracles. These miracles generally came in the form of healing the sick or escaping from confinement in awe-inspiring ways. We get both of these from Paul, who we see perform miracles throughout Acts.
Does the message tell the truth of God? Truth can’t contradict itself, so any new addition to Scripture must agree with other books of Scripture. Paul was one of the greatest scholars of the Old Testament that perhaps ever lived, and was able to explain the message of Christ in the context of the Old Testament writings while also demonstrating conclusively that the visions of the great prophets had been fulfilled in Christ.
Did it come with the power of God? When Ananias arrives in the house in Damascus and finds Paul blind and in a state of shock, he mentions that Paul has been filled with the Holy Spirit. By his life and actions, Paul became known and accepted in all of the early Christian communities as a man who had been chosen by God to spread the message of Christ.
Was it accepted by God’s people? This is perhaps the most important. As Christianity spread, early Christians would gather together to worship and learn about Jesus as Messiah. The apostles, such as Paul, were men who had known Jesus during his life or who had experienced an interaction with the risen Christ. This gave them a considerable degree of authority, along with the fact that they seemed to all have such a crystal-clear idea of who Jesus was and what he meant to the world so soon after his death. The letters of Paul were immediately accepted by the communities to whom he wrote. These letters were copied and shared extensively.
The Alternate Gospels
The last point I would like to address is concerning some of the “alternate Gospels” popularized in recent years by movies and books like “The Da Vinci Code.” Some of the more famous of these books are the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. Similar to the Apocrypha’s relationship to the books of the Old Testament, these alternate Gospels were written long after the canonical Gospels and were almost immediately recognized by the Christians of their time to be spurious. For example, the Gospel of Thomas is a book that purports to contain 114 sayings attributed to Jesus. Not only do these sayings continually contradict what we have in the canonical Gospels, the surviving manuscripts of the Gospel of Thomas have been dated to 150 AD at the absolute earliest. This is almost a century after the Gospel of Mark and well over a century after the events in question (those of Christ’s life). Eusebius, a fourth century Christian historian, rejected the Gospel of Thomas as fiction, as have Christian scholars for centuries.
In short, the books that we currently have in The Bible represent the concept of “cream rising to the top.” Throughout historian, Jews and Christians alike have been able to recognize Scripture and distinguish it fairly easily from non-Scripture. I hope this answered the question thoroughly, tune in next week for more.