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Deciding on Which Books Should Be in the New Testament

I am in the midst of a thread in which I explain why it is puzzling that the Apocalypse of Peter did not make it into the New Testament, when the book of 2 Peter did.   So far I have talked about both books, as well as the Gospel of Peter, another Petrine book that did not “make it.”  Now I need to explain how church fathers decided which books would be accepted as official scripture and which not.  I’ve dealt with the issue on the blog several times over the years, the first time being in response to a question on the matter I received some six years ago.  What I said then is what I would still say now!  Here it is:

QUESTION:

I just read Jesus, Interrupted … and have now seen that you have written quite a few books and articles. I am particularly interested in how the books of the New Testament were chosen and why/how the others were not. Can you recommend a good read for this?

 

RESPONSE:

Ah, this is one of the BIG questions of early Christian studies! I have been interested in it for over 35 years. My first PhD seminar in graduate school was devoted to just this question, and I started thinking about it years even before that!

I do address the question in several of my books. As you know from having just read Jesus Interrupted, I devote a good chunk of chapter 6 to it; in particular it is the overarching subject of Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (that book is my long version of the answer!).

There are lots of other books worth reading on the topic.  These are my two favorite:   (1) For a very informative, reliable, and helpful nuts-and-bolts account …

The rest of this post is for blog members only.  If you’re not a member of the blog, now’s the best time in the history of the human race for you to join!  It won’t take much time or money, and every dime you pay (about five of them a week) goes to help those in need.  So why not?

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How Christianity Grew and Grew

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Comments

  1. SkepticsRUs  November 21, 2018

    The orthodoxy criteria strikes me as somewhat circular. What is considered orthodox affects what is accepted into the canon and what is accepted into the canon affects what is considered orthodox.

  2. doug  November 21, 2018

    Thank you Bart for your blog. It’s a breath of fresh air to read something written by a person who tries to honestly use the evidence and logic to reach conclusions, rather than people who start with their conclusions and then cherry-pick the evidence, ignore the evidence they don’t like, and twist the evidence in order to support their conclusions.

  3. forthfading  November 21, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Do you have an opinion why Matthew would have been assigned a Gospel? It seems to me he would be the least likely candidate since he was remembered as a tax collector, aside from Judas!

    Thanks and happy Thanksgiving

    • Bart
      Bart  November 22, 2018

      Ah, but he was repentant. And maybe they thought he was particularly literate?

      • nichael  November 22, 2018

        Just as a footnote, there was a medieval legend that Matthew was in fact illiterate.

        For example, Caravaggio painted a series of paintings focused on St Matthew for the Contarelli Chapel.

        One of the studies for this series, “Saint Matthew and the Angel”, depicts the (illiterate) Matthew writing his gospel, his hand being guided by an Angel:
        http://www.caravaggio.org/saint-matthew-and-the-angel.jsp

        (This version of the painting was rejected by his patrons, and it was replaced by the painting known as “The Inpiration of St Matthew”:
        http://www.caravaggio.org/inspiration-of-saint-matthew.jsp. )

        I’m certainly not suggesting there is any historical basis for this legend, nor does this tell us anything about the reason folks in the early centuries used for deciding to include “Matthew” in the canon. But I’ve always thought this was an interesting story.

      • Rick
        Rick  November 22, 2018

        Literate because he was a tax collector? But, really how much “literacy” was needed to be a Tax Collector? Presumably a tax collector for the Romans? Enough Latin to record names places and amounts and a corresponding ability at rudimentary math…counting. Add to that likely the ability to bully.Hardly literacy in Koine Greek!

        I’m sure there are other reasons to doubt Mathews authorship… maybe the question should be why didn’t the Church Fathers question?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 23, 2018

          Almost none, I think. Banging on doors demanding money doesn’t require an education.

  4. fishician  November 21, 2018

    Happy Thanksgiving! Seems like orthodoxy was most important since they felt free to assign apostolic authorship to writings that agreed with their theology. But then, Paul seems to be the only apostle who actually wrote anything, so they had to make such assignments if there were to be any gospels at all.

    • Rick
      Rick  November 22, 2018

      I think you may have answered my question above!

  5. brenmcg  November 22, 2018

    “and so the anonymous four Gospels that were accepted were assigned to important figures: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John”

    theres a difference between something being written anonymously and something not mentioning the author in the text.

    to say the four gospels were written anonymously suggests they were found on a park bench and for a hundred years had no names attached to them.

    but theres no evidence to suggest the authors of the four gospels were ever not said to be mattew, mark,luke,john

    • Bart
      Bart  November 22, 2018

      The term “anonymous” when involving literary texts, technically means that the author does not indicate his or her name.

      • brenmcg  November 23, 2018

        Yes but you suggest they were assigned names of important figures because they were anonymous – do you not need a theory for why the original authors name was lost? People would have known originally who wrote them

        • Bart
          Bart  November 23, 2018

          The authors *chose* to remain anonymous. Original readers *may* have known the authors, but it’s not always clear. But if someone knows who the author of an anonymous work was, the work is *still* anonymous. The term “anonymous” applies to what is revealed in the writing by the author, not to what others might know about the author.

  6. brenmcg  November 22, 2018

    “and so the anonymous four Gospels that were accepted were assigned to important figures: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John”

    but mark and luke werent important figures – if the gospels were just assigned important names a hundred years later they would have picked peter and paul.

    and matthew was a tax collector – which is very bad choice for someone to write your first account of jesus’s life.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 22, 2018

      There were lots and lots of important people to whom Gospels could be assigned, not just one or two! (And plenty of works were assigned to Peter and Paul, of course)

      • brenmcg  November 23, 2018

        Yes should said peter and paul would be more likely to be picked – but the point is mark and luke arent important figures, theyre names add no authenticity to the texts

        • Bart
          Bart  November 23, 2018

          I disagree. They were very important figures in some circles of early Christianity.

      • Iskander Robertson  November 23, 2018

        Quote:
        Did you ever notice the names Christians of the 2nd century and afterwardascribed to the apocryphal works? Thomas, Andrew, Nicodemus, Bartholomew “Acts of Matthias”…neither the bible nor history say much about these figures either, yet for some reason the Christians who created these lies apparently thought ascribing them to such names would increase their popularity. Consider that perhaps history doesn’t tell you how awesome Matthew, Mark and Luke really were.

        End quote

        Thoughts?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 25, 2018

          Just because they don’t appear much in the Bible doesn’t mean they were not widely known by early Christians. Not *everyone* wanted to assign their works to Peter or Paul. Otherwise there would be nothing but Peters and Pauls, and no one would trust the *next* one.

    • godspell  November 22, 2018

      There were only a very small number of people in Jesus’ original circle. Each and every one of them would be considered vitally important by later Christians. There are all kinds of later legends around Joseph of Arimathea, who is very briefly mentioned in the gospels, and was certainly not a close follower of Jesus. (If he existed at all.)

      There are actual writings of Paul that have survived. There is a great deal of information about both him and Peter, of varying degrees of credibility. Meaning that if you want to attribute something to one of them, people are going to ask “Why didn’t we have this already?”

      Why did Robert Graves write several books from the perspective of the Emperor Claudius, who most people were at best marginally aware of, when he could have picked one of the really famous charismatic emperors (several of whom appear in his books)? Because it’s easier to build a literary work around a lesser known figure. It lends credibility, and people will be interested precisely because they know so little about this person. A much better way to depict past events through the eyes of a witness to them–somebody less involved in what’s going on, but known to have been present for much of it, and acquainted with most or all of the principal players.

  7. brenmcg  November 22, 2018

    Does 3) and 4) imply that the orthodox view was the widespread view and heterodox views shouldnt be described as “challenging” orthodoxy?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 22, 2018

      It means that everyone defined their own views as orthodox and “other” views ass heterodox.

      • brenmcg  November 23, 2018

        But would you say orthodoxy was overwhelming the orthodoxy rather than one of many small factions which won out?

      • Lactantius  November 26, 2018

        “ass heterodox” Ha!

  8. caesar  November 22, 2018

    Was there a criteria of not including stuff that’s just too bizarre? I know there’s crazy stuff in the NT but the one with the talking cross makes the NT books seem pretty normal.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 22, 2018

      Usually the debates were over theological appropriateness rather than sheer craziness. There are some very strange bits of the NT as well (the zombies who come out of their tombs in Matthew 27 or the shadow of Peter healing the sick in Acts, etc.)

  9. Lev
    Lev  November 22, 2018

    That’s a really useful summary of the criteria, and it got me thinking about why 1 Clement didn’t make the cut.

    In Church tradition, Clement was an associate of Apostles and his letter to the Corinthians in the 1st century. I understand this letter was used by proto-Orthodox churches. Do you know why it was not included in the canon?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 22, 2018

      Partly because the books doesn’t claim to be written by Clement; though there were some church leaders who thought it belonged. Part of the problem, though, was that the book seems to presuppose a time *after* the apostles had passed off the scene.

  10. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  November 22, 2018

    This makes me think even more that the wild punishments in The Apocalypse of Peter was at least part of the reason it wasn’t accepted into the canon. 2 Peter talks about destruction but not punishment. A new heaven and a new earth don’t seem to technically fit but maybe theologically it was still okay.

  11. Telling
    Telling  November 22, 2018

    Bart,

    I’m interested in the Letter of James because some historians believe it is a legitimate letter and this would shine a light on Peter, being that James, as I understand, was in Peter’s Jerusalem group. It is also said to be hostile to Paul.

    In your book Forged you say James brother of Jesus is almost certainly the intended author of the letter but he almost certainly is not the actual author. Your first point seems well supported (the author was intended to be James brother of Jesus). Do you believe the Letter of James is hostile to Paul? And do you believe that James actually was hostile to Paul? And do you see this letter as shedding some light on Peter’s post-Crucifixion thinking? And, if I may, do you know of any legitimate source for investigating Peter’s post-Crucifixion thinking? Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 23, 2018

      I think it is definitely hostile toward a certain form of Pauline thought, but not to Paul himself (whom the author does not know). And no, I don’t think it helps us know much about what Peter was thinking (there are no ties to Peter in the letter)

  12. pmwslc  November 23, 2018

    Was it much of a problem for the church fathers to determine accurately which of the books actually went back to the ‘original decades of the Christian church’? Do you think they got that right?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 23, 2018

      They got *some* of it right, definitely! But they didn’t have research methods comparable to ours, or data bases, or other ways of establishing chronology

  13. AstaKask  November 24, 2018

    The real expert on how the Gospels were selected is, of course, Dan Brown. :o)

  14. JohnKesler  November 26, 2018

    Do you think that any of the canonical-Gospel authors knew any of Paul’s letters or teachings? Why or why not?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 27, 2018

      They may have been aware of Paul’s teachings/ideas: Mark seems to embrace a Pauline view of Jesus’ death, and Matthew seems to be arguing *against* a Pauline understanding of the Law. But they give no indications that they had read any of his letters (at least the ones we have) — interestingly, not even Luke!

  15. Judaswasjames  December 4, 2018

    I thought the canon was supposedly written under divine inspiration. If no one knows who wrote lots of the books, how can it be claimed that the Bible is divine?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2018

      You’d need to ask a theologian! My view is that it’s not; but I’m not a Christian theologian.

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