How the New Testament was created

By  Doug Archer, Catholic Register Special
  • October 6, 2006

 Catholics the world over are familiar with the New Testament, that portion of the Bible that speaks of a new covenant with God as represented through the life and death of Jesus. But the selection and acceptance of the writings that make up the New Testament formed a complex and highly controversial process that was still being debated within the church 400 years after the birth of Christ.

Composed of 27 books, the New Testament is believed to have been written by eight different authors, four of whom are numbered among the Apostles (Matthew, John, Paul and Peter) and four among their immediate disciples (Mark, Luke, James and Jude). And far from being written all at once, these books were compiled over a 50- to 100-year span during the first and second centuries.

Nor are the writings within the New Testament ordered chronologically. Rather, they have been arranged in a narrative pattern that lays out the history of Christ and the doctrine of Christianity. The Gospels, particularly those of Matthew, Mark and Luke (referred to as the Synoptic Gospels, meaning "viewed together" because they have a common perspective on Jesus) tell of the life of Christ and His teachings. The Gospels are followed by the Acts of the Apostles, which detail the work of Jesus' followers in spreading the Christian faith, and then by the letters and epistles of St. Paul, which teach the meaning of the faith. Following these are letters from Peter, James and Jude. Finally, the last book, Revelation, prophesizes about the culmination of God's divine purpose.

But biblical scholars hold there were hundreds of Christian writings in the first and second centuries A.D. Many were controversial; some were later denounced as heresy. There is little evidence, however, that the first two or three generations of Christian communities experienced any need to develop what would later be called the New Testament. It wasn't until the middle of the second century that a movement began within the church to identify those writings considered to be divinely inspired Scripture — and then only in reaction to the teachings of an individual who would ultimately be condemned as a heretic.

His name was Marcion. A wealthy merchant and ship builder from Asia Minor, Marcion challenged Christian beliefs by proposing that the God of the Old Testament was not the same God as the Father of Jesus Christ. The first was the creator of the world; the second the redeemer of humanity. He further maintained that the only sacred texts that led to the God of salvation were the letters of Paul and the Gospel of Luke — and these only after he had significantly edited them. By drawing a boundary around the works of Paul and Luke, Marcion introduced the notion of a Christian canon — that is, a standard for what should be included within the collection of accepted Christian scriptures.

Marcion's controversial teachings and his choice of a highly selective canon forced the early Church Fathers into action. They expelled him in 144 and began the work of identifying those writings considered to be authoritative witnesses to the Christian faith. In this respect, Marcion was instrumental in the development of the Christian Bible. But pressure on the church to develop a canon did not end with Marcion.

In the late second century a Christian sect known as Gnostics emerged with their own twist on the New Testament canon. The Gnostics believed they had a special knowledge of Christ discerned through profound spiritual insight. They began producing new gospels and revelations, claiming that their writings had authoritative status as sacred texts because they were based on direct spiritual insight into Jesus Christ.

The church countered Marcion and the Gnostics by claiming that Christian religious authority was derived not from special insights but from an historical lineage that could be traced back to Christ's Apostles. While other factors, such as the acceptance of writings by the church at large, came into play in determining the books that would make up the New Testament, a key criteria was whether or not the work was deemed to be written by an apostle or close contemporary — in other words, an eyewitness to the earliest beginnings of the church.

The precept seemed simple enough, but it would take another 200 years of controversy before the New Testament as Catholics now know it would be set in place.

One reason for this delay was the considerable disagreement within the church over which books could claim apostolic authorship. In the end, when it came to the New Testament the term apostle was not restricted to Christ's 12 closest companions during His time on earth. St. Paul, for example, was not an eyewitness to Jesus' ministry but was acknowledged as an apostle through the contact he had with Peter, James and the other Jerusalem disciples and his recognition as an apostle in Acts (14:14). Mark and Luke were not numbered with the Twelve either, but their writings were eventually accepted as authoritative because they had been commissioned by Peter and Paul respectively.

Over time agreement was reached on the main content of the canon, but the devil was in the detail. The Christian historian Eusebius captured it well in the fourth century when he wrote that there were three categories of Christian writings: The undisputed works; the disputed works; and the completely absurd and impious works. The middle category was the problem.

Bishops in the East and the West differed in their opinions regarding the authorship of Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews. The suitability of Revelation was questioned, given that in the third and fourth centuries it was being interpreted in a variety of ways the church considered heretical. And whether or not to include the writings of James and Jude was long argued as these works were not widely known in the early church.

Finally, in the year 367, a bishop named Athanasius, who helped write the Nicene Creed in 325 and would later be recognized as a saint, brought the debate to a head. In an Easter letter written to his congregations he captured the general consensus that had been emerging within the church concerning the canon. This consensus was supported by influential theologians of the day, such as St. Augustine and St. Jerome, and was finally endorsed under Pope Damascus I in a gathering of Church Fathers in Rome in 382. The Decree of Damascus listed the 27 books — and their order — that make up the Catholic canon and declared these as the "new and eternal testament."

For the next millennium, the New Testament remained essentially unchallenged. But in the 16th century, Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation, attempted to remove the books of James, Jude, Hebrews and Revelation because he believed they ran counter to certain doctrines that came to be associated with the Protestant churches. In response to the challenge of Luther and other reformers, the Council of Trent reaffirmed in the mid-1500s the 27 books that constitute the New Testament Scripture of the Catholic Church.

(Archer is a freelance writer in Port Elgin, Ont.)

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