A favorite charge brought by some “scholars” and atheists is that the New Testament is not reliable because it was assembled hundreds of years after the birth of Christianity at the third Synod of Carthage in 397 AD. They further claim that by then, politics and power struggles had more to do with the selection of New Testament books than reliable theology. As such, certain books were “deemed” Holy Scripture and other, more accurate books (e.g. the Gospel of Thomas) were cast away and banned.
Therefore, they assert, Christian practice and doctrine today look very different from the early church and from what Jesus intended. This claim cuts to the very core of Christianity. Does the New Testament accurately reflect Jesus’ teachings or is it merely a collection of the most politically expedient books that happened to “win out” at the time? Let’s take a look.
A Brief History of the Canon
During the initial birth and development of Christianity, there was no need for a formal canon since Jesus’ apostles and direct disciples were alive and teaching. It wasn’t until roughly 20 years after Christ’s death that the earliest Christian writings, in the form of apostolic letters (epistles) to various churches, began to circulate. They were followed 15-20 years later by the first written gospel accounts. The epistles were typically written to address specific congregational issues or correct doctrinal errors while the gospels were written to ensure accurate histories were available and to combat false accounts. However, as stated earlier, since many of the apostles were still alive and teaching throughout this period, there was little need for a formal collection and canonization of works.
As time passed and the church continued to grow, the need for a formal canon increased. This need was driven by multiple factors. First, the church became more geographically dispersed, so a common set of teachings was needed to ensure consistent and correct doctrine. Secondly, as the apostles invariably began to die, there was an increased need to preserve their teachings to counter false beliefs. Finally, since Christianity was a persecuted religion from its inception, there was a need to determine which writings were truly sacred so they could be protected.
While some debate existed within the early church as to which books should be considered scripture, there was much more agreement. Each of the 27 books of the New Testament was recognized as authoritative by one or more early church leaders and they were referenced repeatedly. In fact, all but eleven verses of the entire New Testament were quoted by church leaders over 100 years before the Synod of Carthage. In addition, multiple “unofficial” canons, that closely matched the New Testament, were in use 150-200 years before the Synod as well. Clearly the selection of books was not as debated or delayed as some would have us believe.
Books Evaluated for the Canon
As the early church began to see writings proliferate and recognize the need to differentiate between authoritative and non-authoritative works, they relied on several basic tests. First, the works had to be written by an apostle or family member of Jesus, or a close associate of one. Secondly, the writings had to be consistent doctrinally with other known authoritative works. Finally, there had to be agreement among local churches that they were reliable and trustworthy. Using these basic rules, writings began to naturally fall into one of four groups.
Homologoumena: Books Accepted by Everyone
The vast majority of the New Testament books were accepted as authoritative immediately and their pedigrees were never in question. Twenty of the twenty-seven New Testament books fall in this category, were supported by all of the early church leaders, and were included in virtually every major canon and translation of the early church. This group includes all four gospels, Acts, Paul’s epistles, and 1 Peter, and 1 John.
Pseudepigrapha: Books Rejected by Almost Everyone
By the second and third centuries, hundreds of other supposed gospels, epistles, and writings had appeared, but their use was primarily limited to various cultic groups. They never enjoyed broad acceptance from Christians or support from early church leaders. Many of them were clear frauds since they claimed to have been authored by apostles but did not appear until the second century or later. Others were rejected because they contained doctrinal errors that were clearly at odds with Jesus’ teachings. Examples include the rise of the Gnostic and Docetic heresies in the second century. Gnostics believed that matter was innately evil and Jesus was therefore only a spirit being, not an actual person. Docetists made a similar mistake in that they accepted Jesus’ divinity but denied His humanity. Since these belief systems arose approximately 100 years after the birth of Christianity, and conflicted with clear Christian doctrine, these works were rightly rejected or ignored.
A favorite within the pseudepigrapha of those seeking to discredit the New Testament is the Gospel of Thomas. This book is not an actual gospel but is a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus. Because the book is very vague about Jesus’ divinity and does not mention his crucifixion, resurrection, or messianic claims, it is often used as “proof” that the early church did not believe Jesus was divine.
However, the case for the Gospel of Thomas’ credibility is very weak. First, there is debate about when it was written. Some claim, based primarily on writing style and genre, it is from the first century. Others feel it was written in the second century since the earliest fragments are dated to that period, it seems to have Gnostic influences, and no early church leaders mention it until the third century (interestingly, they all reject it). If the later date is correct, it is a clear forgery since the apostle Thomas was dead by that time.
Further, the Gospel of Thomas was rejected because much of the sayings it attributes to Jesus either conflict with the accepted gospels or are just plain bizarre. One example (saying 114) is that Jesus seems to state that women need to become men in order to be saved! That statement is totally at odds with the known teachings of Jesus, and people at the time knew it. Clearly, the Gospel of Thomas does not belong in the Bible. Those who claim otherwise either have little understanding of the book or are simply trying to discredit the New Testament by any means necessary.
Antilegomena: Books Disputed by Some
Seven books in the New Testament canon (Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation) were questioned by some of the early church leaders and did not gain full acceptance until as late as the fourth century. However, many early church leaders did accept these works and one of the primary causes of debate was simply lack of awareness for certain books because of geographic dispersion.
Hebrews: Hebrews was widely accepted in the Eastern church, but initially questioned in the West because the author is anonymous. Paul was generally considered the author, but other suggestions include Luke, Apollos, Barnabas, or Clement of Rome. Once the Western church accepted Paul as the author, Hebrews was considered canonical.
James: James was debated initially due to the West questioning its authorship and the perceived conflict with Paul’s writings on the role of works in salvation. Once the West became comfortable with James as its author and the apparent conflict with Paul’s writings was resolved, James was fully accepted.
2 Peter: 2 Peter was initially debated because stylistic differences versus 1 Peter called its authorship into question. But 2 Peter has been dated to Peter’s time and its doctrines are consistent with his writings, so the stylistic differences are assumed to be from the use of a scribe.
2 and 3 John: These epistles were initially questioned by some because of their limited circulation and questions about their authorship. However, the writing style is similar to 1 John and other early church leaders considered them authentic (including Polycarp, a disciple of John), so they were eventually accepted.
Jude: Jude was questioned by some because it references the Old Testament pseudepigraphal Book of Enoch. However, Jude was accepted by many early church leaders and others eventually recognized that referencing a quote from the Book of Enoch is not the same as endorsing it completely.
Revelation: Revelation was broadly accepted by early church leaders, but when third century heretical groups began misusing it to justify their doctrines, it was called into question. Once this confusion was cleared up in the fourth century, Revelation was again accepted.
Apocrypha: Books Accepted by Some
The New Testament Apocrypha includes books such as The Epistle of Pseudo-Barnabas, the Didache, and the Apocalypse of Peter. These books gained limited acceptance as scripture for a limited time, but were never broadly considered canonical. Most of them are consistent with Christian teaching and doctrine and have educational, ethical, or devotional value. But they were typically not accepted as scripture because authorship could not be firmly established or they were written by second century church leaders (such as Polycarp and Ignatius) instead of apostles.
There is small nugget of truth to the assertion that the New Testament canon was not finalized until almost 400 AD. However, that small nugget of truth is blown so far out of proportion, with key facts left out, that it becomes a near-total falsehood. Each of the 27 books of the New Testament were recognized as scripture and used within the church from early times. The books of the New Testament canon were not “selected” by politically-minded church leaders in some closed-door, midnight session, in which they deviously censored books they didn’t like. Rather, the canon evolved based on the writings that the earliest church members knew to be authentic. Critics must understand that the Synod of Carthage did not create the New Testament canon. It simply recognized the canon that had already been in use for hundreds of years.