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Why Did We Get a New Testament?

In my past couple of posts I’ve talked about how the canon of the Hebrew Bible was formed.  That raises the obvious corollary of how the canon of the New Testament was formed.  Who decided we should have the twenty-seven books we do?  Why these books and not others?  Why were any books chosen at all?  When were these decisions made?  And what criteria were used to make the decisions?

To my surprise, I haven’t talked much about the process on the blog over the years.  So here I will devote two posts to the issue.   I have written at greater length about the matter in several of my books, especially Lost Christianities.  Here is the most direct and to the point discussion that I provide in my textbook The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction.

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THE CANON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT

We are much better informed about the formation of the canon of the New Testament, in no small part because we have the writings of later church fathers who explicitly discuss the matter. We do not have nearly as much information as we would like—as is true for almost every set of historical events from the ancient world—but we have enough to give us a good idea of what motivated Christians to come up with a list of canonical books, what criteria they followed in deciding which books should be included, and how the process or canonization proceeded over the course of time.

Motivating Factors

In considering the formation of the Christian canon, the first and most obvious point to make is that …

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

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Comments

  1. Liam Foley  January 5, 2017

    Hi Dr. Ehrman, in the Christian circles I used to belong to, and still see this from time to time, many of them gloss over or completely ignore the Hebrew Scriptures. The only acceptance it has it seems is to demonstrate that the Law is perfect and no one can keep it and therefore a person needs Christ. are these “New Testament Only” Christians a new phenomenon or was there ever a call for excluding the Hebrew Scriptures (The Old Testament) from the Christian Bible?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 6, 2017

      They’ve been around for a while. I ran in those circles many, many years ago!

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  January 5, 2017

    I’ve noticed many people have the misconception that the NT canon was decided at the Council of Nicea. Where are people getting this misconception, and can it be quashed?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 6, 2017

      Most recently from the DaVinci Code! I think I’ll add the questoin to the Mailbag.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  January 5, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, in regards to 1 Timothy 5:18, here’s a small tidbit of my Words of Jesus Reconstruction Project to whet your appetite:

    Matthew 10:10||Luke 10:6||1 Timothy 5:18
    “Worthy is the worker of his wages.”
    השָׂכִיר כָּשֵׁר השָׂכָר
    ha-sakhir kasher ha-sakhar
    “The wage-laborer deserves [his] wage.”

    This pithy saying is a play on the fact that the Hebrew words for a wage and a wage laborer come from the root sin-khaph-resh שכר, while the word for “is deserving of” (more correctly, that it “is proper for”) comes from the root kaph-shin-resh כשר.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 6, 2017

      Interesting!

    • Hormiga  January 6, 2017

      Interesting indeed. Do you have a site for the Project with more reconstructions?

      • talmoore
        talmoore  January 8, 2017

        I have a google drive spreadsheet consisting of a complete analysis, which I’m not planning to share (unless Dr. Ehrman wants to see it; I’ll share it with him). When it’s done I plan on creating what I’m calling the Urgospel — a reconstruction of a hypothetical original list of Jesus’ sayings that may or may have existed on paper — which will be included as an appendix to my Jesus novel.

  4. tompicard
    tompicard  January 5, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman

    Why do you think there is such a universal interest in ‘defining canon’ and ‘closing canon’ ?

    According to what you wrote several weeks back the Sadducees believed only Torah was inspired by God, as opposed to later Hebrew writings. Other Jews wanted to ‘close the canon’ with only writings prior to about 400 (?) BC.

    In this blog you explain Christian want to ‘close the canon’ with writings of the apostles, and time about 100AD or so.

    A commentator or two to this blog thinks there was a prophet who came around 600 AD, but is sure no true prophet of God could come after that.

    Is there any logical reason that the Abrahamic God that these three religions proclaim belief in would stop speaking to people after a) the Torah? b) after 400BC? c) after 100AD? d) after 600 AD?

    Secondly even assuming the truth and ‘canonicity’ of New Testament, do you think there is a clear case for closing the canon at the Book of Revelations?

    I am not sure whether Jesus, Paul, or other apostles would have been advocates for claiming they, and they alone are qualified to speak the ‘Words’ of God, as opposed to anyone subsequent.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 6, 2017

      In Christian circles it was in order to establish what could be true (and what was not true). Maybe I’ll post on this question! (But as to my opinions about it: for me the question of whether the canon *should* be closed or not is a theological one for Christian believers; since I’m not among them, I don’t think I get a vote!)

    • Kirktrumb59  January 6, 2017

      Same reason Zeus, Athena, Poseidon, Aphrodite, Apollo and Dionysus logically stopped appearing (in disguise, of course) and speaking to mortals after the age of heroes (Heracles, Theseus, Perseus, Jason, Achilles, Odysseus, etc etc etc).

    • Robby  January 7, 2017

      In the Christian circles I ran in the argument was made that the OT and NT Canon was closed based on 2 Tim. 3:16 and Heb. 1:1,2….I always wondered if it was a form of circular reasoning.

      • Bart
        Bart  January 8, 2017

        That’s a rather strange argument! (Especially since we know it’s not true, since no one considered the canon closed for centuries)

        • Robby  January 9, 2017

          I should clarify…Today, the Canon is closed based on those key passages ( and a couple others). In other words, the Koran and the Book of Mormon would not be considered to be included, not only because they don’t hold to standard Christian teachings but because the Canon has since been closed.

          • tompicard
            tompicard  January 9, 2017

            I agree it is a weird argument

            if Paul was was implying in 2 Tim. 3:16, that the canon was closed. then Gospel of John should not be considered canon, since it was probably written after 2 Tim.

            [if the dates of those books, 2 Tim and Gospel of john, aren’t in that chronological order as i think, let me know, but there are probably other examples]

            Moreover, Paul talks about Christian Church members receiving the gifts of prophecy, so i don’t see him as being a likely advocate for the closing of canon.

          • SBrudney091941
            SBrudney091941  January 9, 2017

            When 2 Timothy 3:16 was written, there was no New Testament. So, if the New Testament was formed later on, it too, along with the Koran and Book of Mormon, would not have been included. On the other hand, if it is read strictly literally, then it would mean ALL Scripture, ours or theirs, in the past or in the future, is “God-breathed.”

            Mormons aren’t bothered with this argument. They simply accept the revelation to Joseph Smith.

    • HawksJ  January 8, 2017

      Very well said, tom!

  5. Wilusa  January 5, 2017

    Just a thought: How does the importance of all these writings jibe with the fact that most people were illiterate? I realize they could hear the texts read to them, in conjunction with their gatherings for worship. But how were they gotten to be *interested*? (I certainly wasn’t interested in the Gospel readings I heard during Catholic Masses in my youth. I just thought of “the Gospel” as the part of the service during which you had to stand up!)

    • Bart
      Bart  January 6, 2017

      It’s an important question — I’m thinking about writing a book about it down the line, how at the same time Christians began to emphasize the importance of texts while most of them could not even read them!

      • Rick
        Rick  January 6, 2017

        I am reminded of the scene with Gene Wilder as an Rabbi crossing the Old West in “The Frisco Kid” who, with his Torah, has been captured by Indians. He asks for his Torah back and the chief proclaims to his assembled band “I have read this Torah!” After all the Indians nod approvingly the chief whispers to the Rabbi “couldn’t understand a single word”.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  January 6, 2017

      The common bridge between scripture and the illiterate, for thousands of years, was art. That is one of the reasons there is so much Medieval art that portrays scenes from the Bible, so that illiterate people could experience the narratives without having to reading them. Some art, such as triptychs, even depicted a series of events like a Biblical comic strip. You can almost think of Medieval religious art as the Biblical movies of their day and age.

      • Wilusa  January 9, 2017

        Thanks – that’s very interesting! I’m wondering, now, whether that tradition led to the profusion of statues and wall-images in modern Catholic churches. In the one I had to attend as a child – and probably in most others – there were depictions representing all the “Stations of the Cross.” I think there were 14 of them. Showing things like all Jesus’s “falls,” Veronica wiping his face, and so forth. And near the altar, there was a very large painting(?) that showed him rising from a tomb.

        • talmoore
          talmoore  January 10, 2017

          Yup, that’s the origin. For hundreds of years, the vast majority of Christians couldn’t read the Bible, and the little that was read to them by the clergy was in a language they couldn’t understand (i.e. Latin), so the religious art that surrounded them (stained-glass, triptychs, murals, mosaics, statues, etc.) were ways for the congregation to learn their Bible.

  6. Vatikan  January 5, 2017

    Very interesting read, looking forward to the next one!

  7. TWood
    TWood  January 5, 2017

    I agree with all that… but I also think the Gospels of Peter, Thomas, James, Philip, Mary were “out” for a pretty good reason. Maybe not so much Thomas, but the others were later than the canonical ones, contained some obviously crazy things (e.g. talking crosses), and were mostly pseudonymous (which shows they were trying to gain authority, while the anonymous canonical gospels seemed to be authoritative due to their early place within the historical church… I guess my question is… do you agree that the quality of the four canonical gospels is also part of the equation on why they were included? because I’m not sure it was only due to the proto-orthodox winning the argument… they also seemed to have better quality sources than the proto-heretics, it seems to me… am I way off on this in your view?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 6, 2017

      Things sound less crazy if they are in a canon even if they are just as crazy as things not in the canon. (E.g., the zombies who come out of their tombs in Matthew 27)

      • TWood
        TWood  January 6, 2017

        Yeah… right after I added my comment that Matthean passage stuck in my head as something pretty crazy… I almost mentioned that very things… so your point is well taken and I do agree for the most part… but still… the canonical four… especially Mark… seem to be more embedded into the earlier record than say the gospel of Peter… I think my question is maybe more general… certainly the quality of the writings that were appealed to had a lot to do with why one side won the argument… even now critical scholars today win the argument by pointing out the quality of the seven Pauline letters over his six disputed ones… isn’t there a trace of this in the early disputes too… meaning it was more than just arguing… it was a combination… it was also who had the best manuscripts? The Gospel of Mark is superior to the Gospel of Judas let’s say… Or is that not how it was back then? Was it only about the arguments and their understanding of manuscripts wasn’t sophisticated enough to matter?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 8, 2017

          I don’t think anyone argues that the quality of the writing of the authentic Pauline epistles is *better* than the deutero-Paulines. It’s just different. (And in fact some of the Deutero’s are better Greek). In general I don’t think quality of writing played a role in the formation of the canon. None of the canonical writings is impressive linguistically.

          • TWood
            TWood  January 9, 2017

            Thanks. When I say “quality” I don’t mean linguistically really… I mean in regards to authority or gravitas… I’m having trouble asking this question… I’ll just ask:

            1) In your view, is the gospel of Mark more historically trustworthy than the gospel of Peter?

            2) In your view, is the Galatians more historically trustworthy than 2 Peter?

          • Bart
            Bart  January 10, 2017

            1. Yes; 2. Yes. But I don’t think that means they have more authority or gravitas.

          • Rogers  January 28, 2017

            It’s the power of the passion narratives (the canonical four vs. latter gospels) – it is impactful to a wider spectrum of humanity per our nature (me thinks)

  8. rivercrowman  January 5, 2017

    I have both of your books mentioned in this post, namely “The Bible – A Historical and Literary Introduction” (2014) and “Lost Christianities” (2003). Not much pressure, since I have the references. These days I’m reading through your book “After The New Testament – A Reader in Early Christianity” (1999). That collection will hold me down for quite a while.

  9. toejam  January 5, 2017

    My latest purchase: Philip Wesley Comfort’s “A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament”. I note that Comfort is much more forgiving when it comes to manuscript datings than yourself and others. I went through and checked all his dates against the CSNTM’s website, and he was fairly often 50-75 years earlier (sometimes as much as a century) – meaning he includes sixteen manuscripts as coming from the 2ndC, while the Aland / Metzger / CSNTM school only include four from the 2ndC, with maybe four more as “c.200CE” (i.e. no more than 8 from the 2ndC). My understanding is that paleography is a very imprecise science. What do you make of Comfort’s datings, or Comfort’s scholarship in general?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 6, 2017

      I’m afraid Comfort is not trained in palaeography and is not an expert in it. He is an amateur who has written books that he has managed to publish (in part because he had connections with publishers). You can’t rely on his datings.

  10. silvertime  January 6, 2017

    Even though I accepted for a long time that the bible was the inspired word of God for a long time, and I was the state bible drill champion, I have come to wonder how people hold on to that position. I understand faith, culture, belief, religion, indoctrination, and all of that, however other than the bible itself saying it is, what other evidence is there? Other scriptures, including much older ones have the same claims. Dr. E, Please explain, since you have the special perspective of both sides how educated Christians scholars can make this claim

    • Bart
      Bart  January 8, 2017

      Educated Christian evangelical scholars would say, I would suppose, that since the Bible claims to be God’s word and since there are no significant problems (historical, literary, geographical, scientific, etc.) with it, it should be given the benefit of the doubt.

      • dankoh  January 11, 2017

        And when the significant historical, literary, geographical, scientific, etc. problems are pointed out to them, in detail, what do they say then?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 11, 2017

          They tend to reconcile all the differences and smooth out all the problems.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  January 8, 2017

      When you write “other than the bible itself saying it is [the Word of God],” are you thinking of 2 Timothy 3:16?

  11. Jana  January 6, 2017

    Why such conflict among groups as to held the truth? I get that converts were important yet … Was the motivation also the saving of souls or do we know if there was a financial angle? It reads to me and I easily could be mistaken as power struggles but why? Also, I wonder was it also a necessary for survival amid hostile climates? Do we know?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 8, 2017

      I don’t think there was financial incentive, at least early on. And yes, why do people want power? It happens in every social context!

  12. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  January 7, 2017

    Matthew and Mark refer to two women named Mary that were at the crucifixion. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph. Is Matthew referring to Mary, the mother of Joseph of Arimathea who also had a brother named James or did he mean Mary, the mother of Jesus?

    I find it confusing because of the way Matthew points out Mary as being the “other Mary” and then goes on to write about Joseph of Arimathea.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 8, 2017

      Joseph was a very common name. Nothing in the text suggests that the author is thinking of Joseph of Arimathea.

  13. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  January 7, 2017

    Bart, over and over, some context in the blog motivates me to buy and read How Jesus Became God. A few weeks ago, I ordered the Kindle edition but quickly got a refund when I noticed it had no page numbers. I take notes and want page numbers. Do you know if there is some other version of the e-book that has page numbers?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 8, 2017

      I”m afraid I am blissfully uninformed about such things!

  14. RonaldTaska  January 10, 2017

    “Lost Christianities” is one of my favorite books because it taught me something I did not know, namely that there was a lot of diversity in Christianity even from the start.

  15. YahyaSnow  January 14, 2017

    Dr Ehrman, you wrote:

    “The striking thing is that all of the various Christian groups could back up their claims to represent the “true” interpretation of Christianity because all of them had books that were allegedly written by the apostles of Jesus themselves. And so there were Gospels of Matthew, and John, and Peter, and Thomas, and James, and Philip, and Mary and—and on and on, for a very long way.”

    In your opinion do you think there are many “Gospels” from the 1st century that we have no knowledge of because they are lost or waiting to be found in the future?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 16, 2017

      Yes, I think there probably were other Gospels. I’m not sure how many. Luke himself says there were “many” (Luke 1:1-4)

  16. James Cotter  January 23, 2017

    “one of the most fascinating features of early christianity is that so many different christian teachers and christian groups were saying so many contrary things. it is not just that they said different things. they often said just the opposite things . there is only one god. no there are many gods. the material world is the good creation of a good god. no, it comes from a cosmic disaster in the divine realm. jesus came in the flesh. no, he was totally removed from the flesh. eternal life comes through the redemption of the flesh. no, it comes through escaping the flesh. paul taught these things. no, paul taught those other things. paul was the true apostle. no , paul misunderstood the message of jesus. peter and paul agreed on every theological point. no, they were completely at odds with one another. peter taught that christians were not to follow the jewish law. no, he taught that the jewish law continued to be in force. and on and on and on, would without end. ”

    forged page 218

    okay, does this mean that when jesus is predicting about false teachers misleading people and even the elect then this means that christians put these predictions in jesus’ mouth ?

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