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How We Got the New Testament (and not some other books!)

Many people (most people?) don’t realize that the collection of the books into the New Testament did not take a year or two.  It was *centuries* before there was any widespread agreement about which books to include and which to exclude (why include the Gospel of John but not the Gospel of Thomas?  Why include the Apocalypse of John but not the Apocalypse of Peter?).

Yesterday I started to explain how it all happened.  In this post I finish the task, by explaining the grounds on which the decisions were made and something of the historical process involved.  I’ve always thought this topic was unusually interesting – it was my first passion in my graduate school days (and the first topic I ever wrote a scholarly article on).

Again, this discussion is taken from my Introduction to the Bible, published a couple of years ago.


The Criteria Used

The “orthodox” church fathers who decided on the shape and content of the canon applied several criteria to determine whether a book should be included or not. Four criteria were especially important.

  1. Antiquity. A book had to go back to the very beginning of the Christian movement or it could not be accepted. If a really good and important book that was fully informed and “true” were written, say, last year, that would not be good enough for it be part of Scripture. The canon of Scripture …THE REST OF THIS POST IS FOR MEMBERS ONLY.  If you don’t belong yet, NOW is your chance!!  Join!  It won’t cost much, and every penny goes to help those in need!
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    Did the Council of Nicaea Take Away Reincarnation and Give us the Bible?
    Why Did We Get a New Testament?



  1. Avatar
    cchen326  January 6, 2017

    How would the early Church try to ascertain that a book went back to the early Christians? I assume the methods such as hand writing analysis and papyrus dating were not even thought of or capable at that time.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 8, 2017

      They relied on traditions about authorship, passed on by word of mouth.

      • Avatar
        Barryb  April 2, 2020

        hello Bart. to me personally it seems like they did a rather good job of selecting the books. maybe i don’t agree with the Gospel of John being in the bible.
        iam curious about your opinion on the selected books.
        do you think that they did well? and would you have liked to see some other books in the bible? or some of them excluded?
        (thanks for your books, iam reading a lot of them during the Corono virus, get’s me through the day😉)

        • Bart
          Bart  April 3, 2020

          The problem is that we don’t know what other books were produced int he first century, so we don’t know what else was on offer. I think 1 Timothy has done a lot of harm in the world, but I very much like all the books as objects of study.

  2. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  January 6, 2017

    My understanding is that critical NT scholars only consider some of the NT canonical books to be helpful for developing a picture of the historical Jesus. And, with the exception of the Gospel of Thomas (and maybe a couple of others?), none of the non-canonical books are helpful in determining the historical Jesus. Is this correct?

    If this is correct, can Orthodoxy claim that at least it includes almost all the “right” books for determining the historical Jesus – even if maybe they included some of the “wrong” ones too.

    And do these “right” books support a claim that the Orthodox understanding of Jesus is closer to the historical Jesus than any of those other understandings of Jesus (eg, Marcionite, Gnostic, Docetic, Ebionite, etc.) over which Orthodoxy ultimately prevailed?

    • Avatar
      clipper9422@yahoo.com  January 7, 2017

      Add-on to 2nd paragraph: Did the supporters of any of the “heretical” views of Jesus utilize any of the NT canonical books, eg, the canonical gospels, that are helpful in determining the historical Jesus? (Now that I think of it Marcion used Paul which is a little bit helpful in relation to the historical Jesus.)

    • Bart
      Bart  January 8, 2017

      Yes, that’s correct. The reason is that the NT Gospels are our earliest ones. So they did manage to get those in at least! But unfortunately there were probably even earlier Gospels that somehow got lost (e.g., Q; and Luke says there were “many” who had written Gospels before him).

      It’s striking that all these other groups could, and did, appeal to the canonical Gospels in support of their own views just as much as the orthodox did.

      • Avatar
        Tony  January 8, 2017

        What are your thoughts on the notion that all Gospels are derived from only a single source: Mark (or a proto – Mark).

        Certainly Matthew and Luke seem to support that theory and John sticks to the basic storyline, but introduces a different Christology.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 9, 2017

          Matthew and Luke certainly used Mark as one of their sources, but they derive from *other* sources as well; and I don’t think anyone can say that John “derived” from Mark. There’s a big question of whether its author had actually ever even read any of the Synoptics.

          • Avatar
            Tony  January 9, 2017

            There are too many identical specifics between John and Luke to be accidental. Manfred Lang’s in “Johannes und die Synoptiker” identifies the redaction of Luke in the Gospel of John. Crossan, in chapter 10 of “the Power of Parable” sees John as writing a counter to the Synoptics.

            Many scholars believe John had the Synoptics available to him andt actually used them. Therefore, although John used great literary creativity, his Gospel ultimately derives from Mark

          • Bart
            Bart  January 10, 2017

            Yup, that’s the debate!

  3. Avatar
    Wilusa  January 6, 2017

    I wonder if you can explain this: Catholics (at least in my experience) use the terms “apostle” and “disciple” in exactly the *opposite* way from the way you and, I assume, most other Christians do. Catholics refer to Jesus’s twelve companions as Apostles, and also Paul (a sort of “honorary” Apostle!). All the others you’d call “apostles,” Catholics call “disciples.” I realize your usage makes more sense, in terms of the literal meanings of the words. But when and how did the Catholics “get it wrong”?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 8, 2017

      Well, I’d say they do and they don’t. No one, I think, would call Judas Iscariot an apostle would they? Or would they? The word “apostle” simply means “one who has been sent” — i.e., on a mission. The word “disciple” means a learner or follower. That would obviously apply to anyone who considered themselves a follower of Jesus, so the confusion is understandable. (i.e., most anyone could be a follower but very few were sent by Christ on a mission)

      • Avatar
        Tony  January 8, 2017

        I’m sure you wanted to clarify that Paul never uses the term, or concept, of “disciple”.

        Disciples only show up in the Gospels.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 9, 2017

          It hadn’t occurred to me to clarify, but thanks! (“Disciples” do show up in Acts as well)

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  January 9, 2017

        I think that until recently, I *would* have considered Judas Iscariot an “Apostle”! Because I (and possibly many Catholics) didn’t know the word’s literal meaning. I understood it as referring to any of the group you’d call “the Twelve” – and, for some mysterious reason, to Paul.

      • Avatar
        Eric  January 13, 2017

        I first encountered Bart through the Great Courses Programs. I also enjoyed programs (courses) on linguistics and the history of the English language.

        A striking item in one of those courses was that “knight” was pronounced, in Old English, as Ka-Nisht or something similar.

        Its connection here is that apparently the word for one of Jesus’ disciples in Old English was something pronounced (remember, these were audio courses) “Layrning ka-nisht” (Learning Knight)

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  January 6, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, I see that The Shepherd of Hermas was quite popular amongst early Christians, but it never made it into the final canon. How many Christians today would have heard of Hermas, let alone read it? If we were to ask 100 Christians today what the Shepherd of Hermas was, do you think even one person would know?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 8, 2017

      Depends which 100. 🙂 But no, it is not read — not even that much by scholars. In case you haven’t read it, it’s long for an early Christian text, the longest from early times (say, the first 100 years of Xn writings).

      • talmoore
        talmoore  January 8, 2017

        I’ve started reading Hermas a couple times, and each time I fell asleep four or five pages in. I got the impression it’s like a combination of Enoch and Song of Song.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 9, 2017

          Actually, the beginning is the most scintillating part! But it’s a fascinating and important book in its way. But it sure is long (and repetitive in places).

  5. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  January 6, 2017

    Did the Orthodox who determined the NT canon have any kind of theory of divine inspiration that the selected books were somehow “written” by the Holy Spirit and therefore true or without error in a special sense? Or did they rely more on the fact that the NT canon was thought to be written by eyewitnesses of Jesus and so were directly inspired by him rather than the Holy Spirit?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 8, 2017

      They certainly thought they were inspired by God (the Holy Spirit) and “true.” But they didn’t use the modern categories of “inerrancy.”

  6. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  January 6, 2017

    I can’t help but wonder whether the early Orthodox church really thought the NT canon was completely true and without error. No doubt the church considered it sacred and a true “source” or “raw material” for right belief but not always or necessarily true in any simple or literal or clear way. Rather the church saw the canon more as an extremely important part – but not the sole part – of a much broader tradition of faith that had been handed down since the time of Jesus. And that the tradition as a whole – and not the canon by itself – was what governed the faith of the church. And perhaps the canon was thought to contain quite a bit of mystery and allegory which provided room for interpretation to make the canon better conform to the broader faith tradition.

  7. Avatar
    Jana  January 6, 2017

    It’s astounding that seemingly none of those who were debating and deciding which writings were canonical considered too that for example the apostles Matthew Mark Luke and John were themselves illiterate. Therefore, they could not have written the texts. (Frankly, this makes my head spin 🙂

  8. Avatar
    wostraub  January 6, 2017

    Thank you for this interesting overview into how the NT came into being.

    In several of your books you talk about a number of criteria that modern historians use to judge the veracity of various biblical sayings and stories. Did Athanasius or any of the early church fathers use any similar criteria in selecting the NT books other than the four you outlined? They all seem subjective and not very logical, if I can use that term. Were the concepts of literary logic and rationality simply unknown to them?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 8, 2017

      No, those criteria are modern: the ancients used other ones. But these people certainly were rational and applied logic, even if they have other ways of looking at things.

  9. TWood
    TWood  January 7, 2017

    But isn’t it true that, at least in a sense, there was never a canon until Trent? The regional Hippo and Carthage weren’t universal… and Chrysostom seems to have held to a 22 book canon… I think Metzger said that at least (based on the books Chrysostom quoted from)… and the Peshitta had the same 22 books until after the fifth century or so… and Luther had an antilegomena a millennium later… which Trent was, at least in part, a response to… as far as I know Trent was the first universal (catholic) “ruling” on the current canon… and it includes the apocrypha which mainline protestants don’t accept even now… so doesn’t it seem like a suggested canon existed since the fourth century that the majority (but not all) accepted… and that it didn’t actually exist until the 16th century… and even then it was really limited to papists? I consider myself to be a “non-papist/non-mainline protestant Christian”… and I certainly don’t see 2 Peter as being equal to Romans for example… far from it… I find my kind of view on the canon to be in the tradition of the earliest Christians’ view… just curious on your thoughts on this… thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  January 8, 2017

      There was certainly a canon! You don’t need a vote of bishops for there to be a canon (any more than you need a vote of English professors to decide on the canon of Shakespeare).

      • TWood
        TWood  January 9, 2017

        Yes, I get that, but from the days of Marcion until even today the canon was and is disputed… I understand there was a canon before Trent… and a large majority agreed on the 27 NT books since the 4th century… but isn’t it true that it wasn’t until Trent that the RCC made it official? and that the Protestants to this day reject the RCC’s deuterocanonical books? Even the LXX canon differed from the MT canon… and the other stuff I mentioned I think is all accurate (Peshitta’s 22, Chrysostom’s 22, Eusebius shows disagreement around that time too)—isn’t all that true? I’m just asking if there was ever a universally undisputed canon? If so, when? The canon seems to vary depending on the various groups… meaning there always was (and still is) multiple canons rather than a single canon. Is that not correct?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 10, 2017

          Yes, RCC made it official at Trent and a big part of the dispute was over what Protestants prefer to think of as the Apocrypha.

  10. Avatar
    Rwpostle6844  January 7, 2017

    Bart, In your view, why was the gospel of Mark (and later the other three gospels) written by who ever wrote it. Apparently there were no first hand sources of material other than maybe Q and no people available who knew Jesus directly to draw upon. Why write about an unknown from an almost unknown place? Was it to present a counter opinion to the Jewish faith that the writer(s) felt had gone astray? Or was it a counter opinion to the writings of Paul (who never met Jesus either)?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 8, 2017

      It’s a very long story — too long for a comment here. But the very short version is that Mark was a Christian living in a Christian community and he produced his Gospel so his fellow Christians would have a written account of Jesus’ life and death to explain how he could be the messiah and in what sense he was the messiah and why, if he was the messiah, he got crucified.

  11. Avatar
    GWB51  January 7, 2017

    Do we know (or suspect) that church leaders like Athanasius knew that many of the books they were including in the canon did not meet their criteria of Apostolicity? If I understand this correctly, the gospels shouldn’t be in the New Testament. I have to believe this gives your evangelical students some serious heartburn.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 8, 2017

      No, they thought just the opposite, that these books absolutely were written by apostles.

  12. Avatar
    jonfoulkes  January 8, 2017

    Hi Bart, are there any views from scholars as to why the earlier accounts were lost? That’s assuming there was more earlier material than what was compiled together into the Gospels we have.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2017

      I suppose it is usually thought that these earlier books simply weren’t used very extensively and came to be out-classed by the Gospels that were more popular in the Christian churches. Too bad though! We’d love to find some of them….

  13. Avatar
    madi22  January 9, 2017

    Bart, is there any evidence that Jesus’s apostles (as the bible claims) actually existed? Considering they may have been illiterate to begin with, and our only originals are written by well educated Greeks?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2017

      Well, Paul knew them and writes about it, so that’s pretty good evidence! (I don’t think you can discount Paul’s views because they were later made into part of the New Testament. He was just writing letters — he didn’t know he was writing the Bible!)

      • Avatar
        madi22  January 11, 2017

        So as a scholar even though its been copied numerously over time its still classified as accurate? Are there any other non biblical sources that back up Paul’s accounts? As a historian are the apostles a historical fact? You’ve mentioned previously some books have been forged or labeled as written by someone who never wrote it, this is what begs me to ask the question?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 11, 2017

          If there are differences in our manuscripts that does not mean that what the author wrote was wrong. But yes, no one doubts that there were historical apostles.

  14. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  January 9, 2017

    1) Is it likely that the pastorals had not been written when Marcion assembled his Christian Bible? Do you think they may have been written to refute Marcion?
    2) Are there any mss. extant of Marcion’s version of Luke? Is there an English translation? What was missing of the version of Luke we have?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 10, 2017

      1. I think Marcion just had never heard of them; 2. Nope. Definitely missing: chs. 1-2. But maybe Luke originally didn’t have chs. 1-2. I’ve posted on this issue before: search for Marcion.

  15. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 10, 2017

    Excellent review. Thanks

  16. Avatar
    sleonard  January 12, 2017

    Does criteria #4 about a book having to be in-line with Orthodoxy explain any (many?) of the changes that we know were made to the books of the NT? That in order for a book to be accepted, it had to be “tweaked” to get rid of problem passages?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2017

      That’s the thesis of my book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture.

  17. Avatar
    Theonedue  January 19, 2017

    Do you believe that Jesus and his apostles were exorcists (they thought they were people who could cast our demons from others)?

    Do you believe, historically speaking, that after the apostles started to preach the resurrection they believed that every teaching and interpretation they gave concerning Jesus and the OT were the only true interpretation and that they were divinely inspired by God like they thought the scribes of the OT were?

    Do you think the apostles bestowed their office on bishops and other church leaders at that time in a way that correlates to what Roman Catholic’s teach insofar as sacred scripture and tradition go, or do you think the apostles thought their office was unique and was to end with them like Protestants believe?

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