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How Did We Get The 27 Books of the New Testament?

This now is a continuation of my projected longer blog post that will serve as an Introduction to the New Testament (possibly around 5000 – 6000 words or so).  In the first section I discussed the layout and structure of the New Testament; in the second I gave brief descriptions of each of the twenty-seven books.  In this one (spread out over two posts) I deal with the question of how we actually got it: how was it collected together into a “book” and how was it transmitted to us over the centuries?

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How Did We Get The New Testament?

The New Testament did not drop from the sky one day a few years after the death of Jesus.  It was written over a number of years by a number of authors with a number of different purposes, interests, and perspectives.  But how did we actually get it?  That is, who decided on these particular twenty-seven early Christian writings, rather than others?  When did they decide?  And on what grounds?

Moreover, how did these books come down to us?  How were they preserved and circulated during all those centuries before the invention of printing?  Can we be certain that the books we read today are actually identical to the ones their authors produced?

 

The Canon of the New Testament

The word “canon” comes from a Greek term for a straight edge, used either to measure or to draw a straight line (like a yard stick).  The word eventually came to refer to any authoritative collection of books – and so today we can talk about the canon of Shakespeare.  The canon of the New Testament would be the twenty-seven books that made it into the Christian scripture, as a second part of the Christian Bible (along with the 39-book canon of the Old Testament).

Religions in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds did not as a rule have “Bibles” – that is, books that provided authoritative guidance into what to believe and how to live.  The only real exception was Judaism.   But since Jesus and his followers were Jews, the earliest Christians already had a canon of Scripture, even if there was no universal agreement at the time (among either Jews or Christians) which books should be counted as the “Jewish Bible” (though virtually everyone agreed on the Pentateuch and prophets).

Christians themselves wrote books early on, within decades of Jesus’ death.  And already in the first century some of these book were ascribed the same authority as the books of the Jewish Bible – just as Jesus’ own teachings were seen to be authoritative words from God.   The problem was that …

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Introduction to the Manuscripts of the New Testament
The Gospel of Thomas and the Other Gospels

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    jeffmd90  November 18, 2019

    There’s no time to change their mind, the canon’s closed, and you’ve been left behind.

  2. Avatar
    Tempo1936  November 18, 2019

    A fundamentalist preacher at a mega Church uses humor to reconcile discrepancies in John’s gospel.
    This Sunday John 20:6-13 was explained. When Peter went into the tomb there were no angels but when Mary went in there were two angels. The pastor said the angels had left the tomb to get Jesus some clothes which they likely took from the gardener who is now naked. This got a big laugh and no one was bothered by seemly irrelevant treatment of the scriptures. Maybe this is the new approach to an old problem.

    • Avatar
      jhbaker731  November 21, 2019

      Yes that’s one of the things that always made me know I was on the right track…because the default is to try and make you feel stupid that you don’t believe the way they do…when it’s just the opposite.

  3. Avatar
    AstaKask  November 18, 2019

    I just read through your book “God’s Problem”, about suffering. So the Apocalyptic view indicates that God has turned over the world to his enemies, but one day it will be redeemed. Does any of the Apocalypticists touch on *why* God would do such a thing? Seems gravely irresponsible to me.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 19, 2019

      Usually it is either because of the fall of the angels or because of the sin of humans. Some of his beings rebelled and God let them get on with it, leading to the current mess.

  4. Avatar
    arallyr137  November 18, 2019

    Can you say any more about the methods church leaders used to evaluate the books’ worthiness for inclusion, especially regarding the first two criteria above (ancient and written by an apostle)?

    Clearly historical critical methods were not yet developed. But can the process of assessment they used tell us anything about how they thought about things, what did they consider important, what views did they have about their intended audience?

  5. Avatar
    lutherh  November 18, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, considering the bias toward ancient work, what do you think would be the response from Christians if a new, somehow verifiably authentic letter of Paul or some other early apostolic figure were discovered? Which denominations might respond differently? What about whether it concurred with or diverged from existing doctrine? Any thoughts VERY welcome. To me, this concept is probably as fascinating as any other related to the history of Christianity.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 19, 2019

      They would almost certainly consider it a letter to be studies and appreciated, but not to be Scripture — since, for them, God decided which books should be included long ago.

  6. Avatar
    cmdenton47  November 18, 2019

    Isn’t the truth that Gutenburg made the final decision?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 19, 2019

      Interesting idea, but no, there were hand-written Bibles with all 27 books long before Gutenberg.

  7. Avatar
    veritas  November 19, 2019

    Interesting history.I was always taught, the Council of Nicea was the time when the Bible was canonized.You say it was decided by general consensus not a vote.What is the difference?Consensus as in raising your hand vs writing your preference on paper.Also,was the deity of God also part of this final canon?I have read that Arius was one of the opposers of the Trinity and thus was forced out.In theology though,it doesn’t mean he was wrong,the majority went against him,proving Athanasius was more convincing.Sorry,I guess there is 3 questions.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 19, 2019

      A vote is where you have a show of hands, or a ballot, or some official procedure. Consensus is when everyone just pretty much agrees. In a criminal case, the public at large may pretty much have an opinion of guilt or innocense (consensus) but that’s different from the vote of a jury. Or, say, a Supreme Court ruling.

    • Avatar
      veritas  November 19, 2019

      I meant to say,was the deity of Jesus in question among the church leaders during this process?Wasn’t Athanasius a proponent of Trinitarian belief and opposed Arianism circulation of that time?

      • Bart
        Bart  November 21, 2019

        It wasn’t a question of whether Jesus was divine or not. It was a question of: In what *sense* is he God. Arius had one view; Athanasius (who was too young to be a major player at the time) had a different one. You may want to see my discussion in How jesus Became God.

  8. Avatar
    Gron49  November 19, 2019

    You had mentioned that a criterion to be included as scripture necessitated that the author be “(b) really written by an apostle or by someone they authorized (Mark was thought to be Peter’s secretary; Luke was said to be Paul’s companion).” My perplexity on this issue stems from the fact that Paul never knew the man Jesus, and could not have been used as a source for Luke to write his book. Luke had to look elsewhere to get his stories, in that Paul would have had nothing to offer. So then, how does Luke’s relationship with Paul give him the bonafides to author a gospel about the life of Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2019

      Yup, exactly! My sense is that those naming the Gospels wanted two of the disciples and then the acounts authorized by the two leading apostles of the earliest church, Peter and Paul. Even though, you’re right, it doesn’t make much sense for it to be Luke/Paul. BUT Luke does emphasize he did his homework, based ultimately on eyewitness reports. So that was considered good enough.

  9. Avatar
    Brand3000  November 21, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I read somewhere that 1 Clem. came close to making the cut, and that if the NT had 1 more book, that probably would have been it, is this true? Were Ignatius’ writings ever considered, or too late? Anything else that almost made it?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2019

      Ignatius no. 1 Clement was considered scripture by *some* church leaders. But so was 2 Clement, Barnabas, The Shepherd, the Apocalypse of Peter, and so on.

  10. Avatar
    Thespologian  November 21, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, though much of this information is familiar to me, I can’t quite remember what you have mentioned in your many posts is thought to be the earliest New Testament. Could you restate that please?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2019

      I’m not sure what you’re asking. What do you mean by “the earliest NT”?

      • Avatar
        Thespologian  November 21, 2019

        Following Athanasius’ list of 27 books and its formal canonization, would there not have been a bible shortly thereafter, i.e. Codex Vaticanus? Maybe there’s a sophomoric element to this question going over heads — or maybe I should have said bible instead of NT.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 22, 2019

          OK, so you mean the “earliest codex that contains all 27 books”? I suppose that would be Codex Sinaiticus (which, though, also includes two other books that didn’t make it in), also around 350-370 CE or so.

  11. Avatar
    Mannster  November 23, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, I’m curious when the idea of inerrant scripture came into being? My faith background believes that the bible is inerrant and all words are “God breathed.” Did the early church fathers not see the discrepancies and contradictions that we see now?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 26, 2019

      Yes, many of them did recognize contradictions; but it was a debated matter even there. The strict doctrine of inerrancy came into being at the end of the 19th century.

  12. Avatar
    cristianp  November 28, 2019

    As I think the Church as such did not strictly edit the canonical gospels, but these were transmitted, starting in the year 200 especially in a multitude of manuscripts, local, from diverse backgrounds – Asia Minor, North Africa, especially Alexandria, Rome— with an amount of about 550,000 variants, belonging to some 5000 manuscripts (which were copied from the end of the second century to the sixteenth century). Even so, there is currently no kind of “super canon”, you just have to see the differences between Catholic Christianity, Protestant, Orthodox, Ethiopian, and so on. Therefore I do not believe that Christianity should be considered as a singular phenomenon, but rather in the plural. In Spanish we would say CRISTIANISMOS

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