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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?


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



  1. MohammedFawzi
    MohammedFawzi  April 17, 2020

    Aha .. Okey Dr Bart
    In this case Dr Bart ; can we assume the Following probabilities?
    1/ Jesus was Literate .
    2/ Jesus knew how to read .
    3/ Jesus was Iliterate but he had a Teacher / Teachers .
    4/ Jesus was Illiterate but He memorized The Scriptures by a Teacher/ Teachers .
    So Dr Bart which probability do you consider according to your opinion ?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 19, 2020

      I don’t see the difference between #’s 1-3. They may all be right. The big question is what you mean by literate. It could mean an enormous range of things.

      • MohammedFawzi
        MohammedFawzi  April 19, 2020

        Dr Bart ..
        By Literate I mean ; knowing how to read and write at the same time

        • Bart
          Bart  April 20, 2020

          OK, got it. Reading literacy is different from writing literacy. In teh ancient world these two skills were not taught at the same time, the way they are for almost all of us. (Though it still often applies today: I can read German and French but cannot compose sentences in them to any great extent.) And there are enormous levels of both. Some people can trace letters but not compose a sentence; some can compose sentences but not correction; some can compose sentences correction but cannot write well; some can write well but could never write a book. And on and on and on. Same in the ancient world. My view is that Jesus could not write *at all* in any sense, but that he *may* have been able to read some Hebrew. But there simply isn’t enough evidence to be sure.

          • MohammedFawzi
            MohammedFawzi  April 20, 2020

            Well received ..Thank you very much Dr Bart

  2. MohammedFawzi
    MohammedFawzi  April 20, 2020

    Dr Bart ..
    What’s the difference between Koine and Attic greek ?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 21, 2020

      Koine was teh common form of Greek used around the Mediterranean after the conquests of Alexander the Great; in very basic terms it is a simpler, less literary form of the language, more the kind of Greek spoken by regular ole folk instead of high-browed literary Greek of the upper classes.

      • MohammedFawzi
        MohammedFawzi  April 21, 2020

        Ok Dr Bart ..
        So in a simple words Dr Bart , can we say that the Koine is The Daughter of the Attic Greek ? Or is it independent of it ?
        And do both of them use Diacritics in the Writing ?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 22, 2020

          Daughter. And they did not have accents/breathing marks/ etc. when originally written.

          • MohammedFawzi
            MohammedFawzi  April 22, 2020

            Ok Thanks Dr Bart ..
            Dr Bart.. have you ever thought of Recreating a Line /Lines of a Transmission/ Transmissions of a Gospel / Gospels / Epistle / Epistles * Experimentally * in order to show how the Text/Texts Get changed and corrupt

          • Bart
            Bart  April 24, 2020

            Oh yes, it’s been an ambition int he discipline for centuries. My dissertation was related to it. The problem is that stemmata among existing mss cannot be drawn because, ironically, there are so many of them that cross-pollination and contamination makes any actual genealogical lines literally impossible to sketch.

  3. MohammedFawzi
    MohammedFawzi  April 24, 2020

    Ah okey .. Thank you Dr Bart

  4. MohammedFawzi
    MohammedFawzi  April 26, 2020

    Dr Bart ..
    To whom Jesus was referring by the Son of Man ? And do we find this figure outside the New Testament ? Like in the Apocrypha for example?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 27, 2020

      Very long story. Historically, he was referring to the coming judge of the earth, as narrated in Daniel 7; his followers thought he was referring to himself, and so wrote his words as found inthe Gospels so that ie there *does* refer to himself.

      • MohammedFawzi
        MohammedFawzi  May 3, 2020

        Dr Bart ..
        Are you open to discuss what other Religions got to say about the Judeo-Christian Scriptures ?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 4, 2020

          I’m not against it in principle, depending on how it is framed. But the blog focuses on the *historical* understanding of early Christianity, not on the truth of its religious claims. The opposition to Christianity by those of other religions is often not relevant hen talking about the *history* of early Christinity and the NT, any more than the fervent *support* of Christianity (i.e., it’s truth claims) is. That is, this blog is not about which religion is better. Luckily, there are lot so other internet sites where people of different religious persuasions can explain why their particular religion is superior to tohers.

          • MohammedFawzi
            MohammedFawzi  May 4, 2020

            Thanks Dr Bart .. well understood ..
            Dr Bart ..
            Is there difference between the Grec prefix:
            παρά and πάρα ?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 5, 2020

            The second is not a prefix but a shortened form for παρειμι; it occurs starting in Homer, but does not appear in the NT.

          • MohammedFawzi
            MohammedFawzi  May 5, 2020

            Thanks Dr Bart ..
            And what παρειμι means literally ?
            Worth mentioning Dr Bart that when I ‘ve put the word πάρα in Google translate I got the following result :
            υπερ-, παρα
            Is it a mistranslation?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 6, 2020

            Yes, they are referring to the preposition, not to the shortened form of παρειμι, which is a verb that means “to be present” or “to be there”; you won’t find it in the NT so it probably isn’t relevant to what you’re intereset in. If you’re reading Homer’s Odyssey, though, you have to know it!

          • MohammedFawzi
            MohammedFawzi  May 6, 2020

            Dr Bart .. I really appreciate your patience .. and excuse me for being persistent..
            Are you saying that πάρα is a preposition which means ” Over ” ?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 8, 2020

            No, I’m not. παρά is the preoposition. πάρα is a verb. It depends where the accent occurs.

          • MohammedFawzi
            MohammedFawzi  May 8, 2020

            Thank you very much Dr Bart

          • MohammedFawzi
            MohammedFawzi  May 24, 2020

            Dr Bart .. What do you think about the concept of *PROPHECIES * ? Do they have any significance? If yes what is the criterion of a Fulfilled Prophecy?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 25, 2020

            Do you mean “predictions” in the Old Testament that Jesus “fulfilled”? My sense is that the writers of the Gospels who told us their stories about Jesus wrote them in such a way as to *show* that he fulfilled prophecy, but to do that they had to pass on legendary materials that are not historical (e.g., that he was born in Bethlehem, to a virgin, and was descended directly from King David, etc.)

          • MohammedFawzi
            MohammedFawzi  May 29, 2020

            Dr Bart ..
            Is there any possibility that when Josephus wrote about Jesus , in fact He used Paul’s writings as source of informations ?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 31, 2020

            No, not really.

  5. Avatar
    R0bby  June 5, 2020

    Hello Dr. Ehrman,

    Can you shed some light on how scraps of manuscripts eventually became whole books. For example, if P52 is the oldest fragment and subsequent fragments were found over a period of years, when was the entire book pieced together? Moreover, how significant is the time span from P52 to the next fragment, etc… In other words, was it 100 years from P52 to the last fragment? I know you can’t provide answers to every book in this post, but can you point me to a piece of literature where this information is exhaustively explored and chronicled? I look forward to your reply and thank you for your time.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2020

      The fragments came from whole books, not the other way around. The books were worn out of existence, damaged, thrown away, and eaten by worms and destroyed by the elements until there was only some scraps left. P52 is traditionally dated to the early second century (that is, that’s when the book that it was originally part of was probably made), but some scholars have come to doubt that it is that early. We do start getting more fragments around 200 — some very extensive ones (chunks of entire books). Our first “entire book” manuscripts are from around the middle of the fourth century.

      • Avatar
        R0bby  June 8, 2020

        Thanks Dr. Ehrman,

        Were these entire books from the 4th century greek manuscripts? Also, manuscripts 400 years removed from the original authors takes on a whole new level of absurdity that argues against changes along the way. Lastly do you have any books that can academically walk me through the dating and discovery of the New Testament manuscripts? Thanks again Dr. Ehrman.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 9, 2020

          Yes, they are fourth century manuscripts. The best place to start is my book Misquoting Jesus (which is about the manuscripts that have been handed down, despite the title!)

  6. MohammedFawzi
    MohammedFawzi  July 3, 2020

    Dr Bart ..
    What is the use of the concept of Gematria ? And was it used in the NT?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 5, 2020

      Ah , that deserves a post of its own! I’ll put it on my list of things to blog about.

  7. MohammedFawzi
    MohammedFawzi  August 2, 2020

    Dr Bart ..
    What main language The Historical Jesus was preaching in ?

  8. MohammedFawzi
    MohammedFawzi  August 4, 2020

    Dr Bart ..
    How would you answer this question:
    Does The Triune God have a Son ?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 4, 2020

      How would I answer it personally? My personal belief is that there is no God so there cannot be a Triune God and that Triune God that does not exist cannot have a son!

      • MohammedFawzi
        MohammedFawzi  August 4, 2020

        Yeah Dr Bart I already knew your personal belief regarding God and Religion.
        I meant Biblically or Scholarly

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