This is Part 4 of Jared Anderson’s Brief History of the Bible. For the timeline of the New Testament click here.
The New Testament as we have it did not exist for over three hundred years, though all books were written within a century of Jesus’ death. Paul’s letters were likely the first to be collected, followed by the gospels in the end of the second century. Intriguingly, it seems the first canon was put together by Marcion of Sinope, considered a heretic by the proto- orthodox! (and his New Testament had a radically different character than ours—a version of Luke without chapters 1-2 and a collection of Paul’s letters with all the pro-Judaism elements excised). For most of the writing process, the authors were unaware they were “writing scripture”.
With that perspective, we can go back to the beginning. I have a hunch that though Jesus’ sayings and stories of his deeds were shared during his life, the first words ever written about him were carved by the Romans: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. It is important to distinguish when traditions were shared orally, and when they were put into writing. Literacy was extremely uncommon in the time of the New Testament—as a rule, you could write if it was your job to do so; reading was somewhat more common. Intensifying the unlikelihood of putting traditions about Jesus in writing was the belief that the Kingdom of God was going to return at any moment—why put things in writing when there were people to hear the stories from, and when the End was imminent?
Thus it makes sense that the first letter we have, 1 Thessalonians, addresses concern that members of the community started dying… something obviously unexpected if Paul had to write a letter! But we are getting a bit ahead of ourselves. What was before our first book of the New Testament?
We can only speculate about Christian writings that did not survive. We know that we do not have all of Paul’s letters (1 Cor 5:9 and 7:1 refer to a lost letter). Did he write any to Jews? Did the Jerusalem Church have any written traditions?
We can say something about the earliest Christian writings, however, as they are embedded in our current New Testament. The earliest of these were almost certainly what are called testimonia—collections of passages of Jewish Scriptures that Jesus’ followers understood as referring to him. After Jesus died, his stunned followers would have turned to their scriptures for meaning. Did his death take God by surprise? What meaning could that death have? Why weren’t the Jews accepting him as the Messiah? These collections explain why scriptures such as Psalm 110 or 22 or Isaiah 53 appear in multiple places. These traditions were also incorporated into what was likely the earliest narrative—the story of Jesus’ death, or Passion Narrative. A written account to of Jesus’ death would have been needed for both worship and missionary purposes, so was likely penned early.
The sayings and deeds of Jesus (including miracle stories and an apocalyptic discourse) would have also quickly found their way to papyrus, as well as early hymns to Jesus used in worship (for example, Phil 2:6-11, Rev 11:17-18, 22:17, and the core of John 1:1-18). One of our earliest references to Jesus states that Christians sang hymns to Jesus “as to a God” (Roman governor Pliny to the emperor Trajan in about 112 CE). One of the most important but debated sources in the New Testament is the hypothetical sayings source called “Q” that most scholars believe was used by Matthew and Luke (the alternative is that Luke simply used Matthew). The author of the Fourth Gospel also used sources, such as a “Signs Gospel” and sources for the discourses in the latter part of the work.
Now we move to the books we actually have. As stated above, the letters of Paul (the ones scholars agree were written by him, another topic to pick up later in the course!) are our earliest extant documents. 1 Thessalonians most likely takes pride of place as our earliest complete book, written in 49-50 CE. Paul wrote letters mostly to house churches he founded in order to address concerns. Philemon was written to an individual, and Romans was written to a Church he did not found, explaining his beliefs and approach and asking for assistance. Following 1 Thessalonians came Galatians, Philemon, Philippians and 1-2 Corinthians, written in about 54-58 as Paul traveled. As you will discover in your reading, Philippians and 2 Corinthians are likely composite letters formed out of several Paul wrote (isn’t literary detective work cool?!) and we know of at least one lost letter to the Corinthians. Romans is both Paul’s most careful and latest letter, which is why it has been called his “gospel”.
Of the letters scholars doubt Paul wrote, 2 Timothy has the most chance of being close to Paul—written either by Paul himself or someone who knew him. So that would date to the 60s, either early or late depending on authorship.
Though the gospels have traditions that go back to Jesus (as well as additions and adaptations that do not), Mark was likely the first gospel ever written, in about 69 CE. A close analysis reveals composite elements without the framework you would expect if he were working from an earlier gospel. It is important to note that all gospels were anonymous. Perhaps Mark was prompted to write his gospel to encourage believers to remain faithful until Jesus returned, an event that in his view could happen at any moment. As a teaser, look at Mark 16—the gospel most likely ended at 16:8! Verses 9-20 were added by a later scribe; note how much they sound like the other resurrection narratives and how abrupt the shift from 8-9 is. We will get back to textual criticism in a bit.
Matthew was written sometime around 80-85 CE, Luke shortly after. Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a source—they had an interesting relationship with the earlier gospel, since they revered it enough to use it, but obviously thought they could do better! The existence of the “Q” sayings source hinges on whether Luke knew and used Matthew.
Though separated in current Bibles, Luke-Acts are written by the same author and should be considered together as a two-volume work. Luke is the only gospel to incorporate the first person, suggesting that the author was connected to the events personally. This is not as straightforward as it seems, however, as many scholars conclude that the “we” passages come either from an earlier source or literary convention.
The later epistles are difficult to date, but seem to be responding to developments in Christian history toward the close of the first century and opening of the second. 1 and 2nd Peter were written by different authors, 1 Peter in perhaps 70-90. Colossians, Ephesians, and 2 Thessalonians are called the “Deutero-Paulines”, as their authors claimed Paul’s identity, usually to advocate positions with which he would have disagreed! These were written in the 80s and 90s, as were Hebrews and James. Hebrews does not claim to be written by Paul but was later attributed to him; both Hebrew and James bear affinities with Jewish Christianity (though Hebrews also takes pains to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity to Judaism in every way).
Revelation, though the last book of the New Testament, was not the last book written. It was composted in about 92-96; intriguingly its author John (probably not John Jesus’ disciple) was the only one with Aramaic as a first language.
John is the odd gospel out, with a strikingly different character than Matthew, Mark and Luke. Perhaps most significantly, it is only in John where Jesus is clearly equated with God. John was written toward the end of the first century, around 90-95. It has quite a complex history of composition, with John 21 being added by a different individual. The letters of John were written by someone in the same community and very familiar with the gospel, in around 100.
1 Timothy and Titus, also attributed to Paul, almost certainly were not written by him. Significantly, these books are more negative toward women and presuppose a more structured Church organization than found in Paul’s genuine epistles. They were likely written sometime between 80-100.
Jude was written at the end of the 1st century, and was used as a source for the final book written, 2 Peter. This short book presupposes the apostolic generation is dead, demonstrates awareness of both 1 Peter and Jude, and considers the collection of Paul’s letters to be scripture. As a point of interest, the following books that did not make it into the New Testament were written before 2 Peter: 1 Clement, Shepherd of Hermas, the letters of Ignatius, Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians, and the Didache.
This overview clearly shows how the New Testament is not a book, but rather a complex anthology. We have two more steps to review before we come to the New Testament as we have it now—copying and canonization.
As any introduction to New Testament Criticism explains, we do not have any original manuscript of a New Testament book. We only have copies of copies of copies… We have about 5700 manuscripts of the Greek New Testament in part or whole. That sounds impressive, right? The problem is that the vast majority of those come from after 1000 CE, which means they are all copies of the same earlier manuscripts. From the period during which most variant readings entered the tradition, we have less than ten fragments. And remember, that is total, across all books. Not all books are equally represented… Matthew is attested in 23 papyri (the material of the earliest manuscripts), Mark only 3! Before the time of Constantine in the early 300s, we have a few short of fifty. This tragic shortage is due in significant part to persecution, especially by the Roman emperor Diocletian and his subordinate Galerius, who starting in about 303 tried systematically to eradicate Christianity including confiscating and destroying its texts. What can be done is to examine each point of variation and try to determine which reading is earliest and can explain the others. Also, though there are hundreds of thousands of differences between the manuscripts, “The vast majority of these hundreds of thousands of differences…don’t matter at all” (Ehrman, New Testament: A Historical Introduction, p. 20).
Once again, numbers can be deceiving. Though the vast majority of variants do not matter beyond confirming the fallibility of the scribes, dozens do make a meaningful difference. In fact, the addition, omission, or changing of few words can change the meaning of an entire book. Does the Gospel of Mark contain a resurrection narrative, or not (Mark 16:9-20)? A difference of a few words can shift the portrayal of Jesus—did he really plead, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they are doing” (Luke 23:34), and did he heal the leper with compassion, or anger (Mark 1:41)? Important theological issues are also at stake: Did an angel comfort Jesus in his struggle in Gethsemane (Luke 22:43-44)? Is it hard to enter the kingdom of God if you trust in riches, or just generally? (Mark 10:24). And with the omission of a few phrases, the entire theology of vicarious Atonement can be removed from Luke-Acts (Luke 22:19-20).
With the textual variation in perspective, I will present a brief overview of the transmission of the New Testament.
One of the most fascinating questions of textual criticism is whether we have, among all our thousands upon thousands of variants, the original readings as penned by the authors. Or are the exact, original words forever lost? Evidence such as Church Father quotations suggests the latter to be true, at least to some degree.
For example, scholars have made a strong case that we do not have the original text of the Gospel of Mark, and that it changed even in the ten or fifteen years between when it was written and when Matthew and Luke used it to write their gospels! This makes sense, because every time a text was copied, the scribe would be tempted to correct perceived errors, thereby introducing *new* errors. And these “errors” could be theological—for example, a strong tendency in copying is harmonization, meaning to smooth out differences between similar accounts.
We have too little evidence to understand fully the history of NT transmission. Most of our earlier manuscripts have come from Egypt, but that does not mean they originated there. The arid heat acts as natures preservation chamber, so to assume Egyptian provenance would be like claiming all our food comes from the fridge! A few interesting hints to some sort of authoritative example are that all the manuscripts we know of abbreviate words considered holy in quite a consistent way. You will also be surprised to know that scriptures in book format (called a codex) rather than in scroll form seems to be a Christian innovation! Before Christianity codices were seen as lesser and temporary, like our spiral notebooks. We can do more than speculate, but perhaps early Christian manuscripts were mimicking particularly influential exemplars from Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome or Alexandria.
Our manuscripts attest to several approaches to copying the New Testament books. There was a tradition of very careful copying. This approach could be called academic—keep the copy as close to the exemplar (the manuscript a scribe is copying from) as possible, nothing added or taken away. Our evidence for this careful, scholarly approach to copying is centered in Alexandria, Egypt. With several known exceptions, this textual type seems to be the closest representative of the earliest text.
Another group of manuscripts and variant readings with claim to early origins has been called the “Western” type of text. Perhaps this approach could be called pastoral— incorporate readings not original to the NT books but of theological value, and smooth out differences between similar books such as the gospels.
There is another text type that is between Alexandrian and Western, but describing it in more detail gets really technical so it isn’t important at an introductory level.
The final type of text is important, because it has influenced English Bibles more than any other tradition. This has been called the “Byzantine” text type, and accounts for the vast majority of our approximately 5700 Greek manuscripts. It more than any other text type seems to be the product of deliberate revision, though this revision was a long process.
So, to summarize. Our knowledge of how the early Christian texts were first copied remains a mystery, though it is important to remember how wild and diverse this earliest period was. It is a debated question whether we have the resources to reconstruct the NT autographs, or whether the original text will remain forever lost to us.
The texts that would become the New Testament were being circulated in the late first and early second century among texts that would not make it into the NT. And valued oral tradition was shared alongside these texts. These documents, especially the gospels, were being translated into other languages such as Latin, Syriac, and Coptic. Because these texts did not yet enjoy authoritative, scriptural status, scribes felt justified in “correcting” the text—changing content based on how they felt the texts should read. In this early period, two tendencies emerge—the careful, scholarly approach of what would become the Alexandrian text, and what is known as the “Western” text where words were omitted, rearranged, and even incorporated from other sources to enrich the text. And in addition to these intentional changes, every manuscripts contains numerous careless errors that you would also commit if you copied books by hand.
Starting in the third century we have manuscripts that start attesting to certain forms of textual transmission, and we have regional leaders such as Origen of Alexandria who help us understand what the NT text looked like in different times and locations. The persecutions of Diocletian and Galerius destroyed countless manuscripts, contributing to the scarcity of our early evidence.
What became the Byzantine text type perhaps resulted from efforts to consolidate surviving readings among manuscripts after the legalization of Christianity under Constantine. This approach seems to have come from scribes looking at all available texts and working them into one full, flowing narrative. So for example if there were two different readings in two manuscripts, scribes would combine them into a third. This is called conflation. This was the text type of Constantinople, and was a very pleasing text because it contained the best of all others. Therefore it was this textual type that was copied countless times by medieval monks thus comprises over ninety percent of our surviving manuscripts. This is why it is not enough to say that we should follow a certain reading because most manuscripts contain it.
And for religious purposes, the later texts are satisfactory. It is still worthwhile knowing which readings go back to our earliest evidence, and which were added later. Things get especially interesting when these differing readings change the meaning of passages or even books of the Bible in important ways. And this is why an understanding of textual criticism is worthwhile for every reader of the Bible.
The final step of how the New Testament came to be involves the story of how the current twenty seven books, no more or less, came to be deemed the authoritative New Testament. The term “canon” refers to a definitive, authoritative, and usually closed collection of sacred texts.
Christianity was born with a “Bible in hand” as it were, since Jesus and his followers venerated the Jewish scriptures. It is interesting to note that the canon of the Jewish scriptures was also not set until the end of the first century CE…. The book of Jude quotes from the Assumption of Moses and the Book of Enoch, for example, and the Qumran community had other books besides the current canonical Jewish Scriptures (it is worth noting the New Testament books also allude to the Apocrypha).
First and foremost, however, early Christians appealed to the words of Jesus. Far into the second century, “scripture” always referred to the Jewish scriptures and words of the Lord (Jesus). It is important to appreciate how gradual the coming together of the New Testament was. “The history of the NT canon, then, was a process extending from the composition of Christian literature in the 1st and early 2nd centuries, through the spread, use, and progressive esteem of these writings in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, to the determination of a fixed list of authoritative Christian scripture in the 4th and 5th centuries.” (Harry Gamble, “Canon [New Testament]”, Anchor Bible Dictionary I.853)
Each book that made it in to the New Testament had its original intended audience. Paul certainly had no idea he was writing scripture when he dashed off letters to resolve concerns in modern Asia Minor and Greece! Each gospel writer seems to have written primarily for his respective local community, though the author of Luke presupposes a wider audience.
Smaller collections came together before the NT as a whole… a collection of gospels (sometimes with Acts), a collection of Pauline letters, and a collection of Catholic (general) letters. Those groupings leave out only Revelation, which has its own long canonical history.
The letters of Paul were known as a collection in the early 2nd century (by Ignatius, Polycarp, and the author of 2 Peter). This collection came together likely through a combination of informal exchange between Churches and the efforts of one or more individuals who felt strongly about Paul’s work. They were not quoted from much at all, however, perhaps because of their appropriation by Marcion.
As best we can tell, it was the “heretic” Marcion who compiled the first New Testament! He revered a gospel (a copy of Luke without the first two chapters) and a collection of Paul’s letters (minus the Pastorals and excised of any pro-Jewish elements). He vigorously rejected the Jewish Scriptures (Old Testament). We cannot tell to what degree the orthodox New Testament was a reaction against Marcion’s work, but he must have played some influence.
Oral tradition thrived beside the canonical gospels, and a variety of other gospels were written in the second century, ascribed to Thomas, Philip, Peter, and others. At first a community would only use one Gospel—Mark was used by the communities of Matthew and Luke, who then wrote their own gospels to replace them. And it worked, especially in the case of Matthew, which became by far the most popular account of Jesus’ life. Putting multiple gospel accounts side by side was more problematic than collecting the letters of Paul, since such proximity invited comparisons. This led to either preferring one gospel above the others, or harmonizing them. The most popular harmony was produced by Tatian, who copied almost every word of the four gospels into one united work, his Diatessaron (compiled in about 160-175; sadly no manuscript remains, only influence on later translations). Justin Martyr might also have used a gospel harmony.
The other tendency was to use only one gospel—Irenaeus in about 180 laments that the Jewish Christians prefer Matthew, Marcionites prefer Luke, and the Gnostics use either Mark or John. His vehement insistence that the only obvious approach is to use four gospels rather than one suggests that approach was intended precisely to combat the idiosyncratic interpretations of the single gospels—the unity softens the rough theological edges of each. Modern readers of the NT would be surprised to learn that the Gospel of John was little used by the proto-orthodox, probably because the Gnostics valued it so highly.
The later letters in the New Testament, called the “Catholic Epistles” because they were written to general audiences, were the latest to be gathered into a collection. Only 1 Peter and 1 John were much used in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. James, 2 Peter, 2-3 John, and Jude enjoyed only local popularity until well into the 4th century.
Though Luke and Acts were written as two volumes of the same work, Luke was accepted earlier and more widely than Acts, which only gained importance in the late 2nd century, perhaps because conflicts with other Christian groups increased the need to appeal to a consistent “apostolic tradition”. Revelation was accepted in the West by the 2nd century, but remained controversial in the East for hundreds of years, partly because of debates over Chiliasm/ Millennanialism (the idea of a thousand year reign of Jesus on earth).
Emphasis on canon lists can be misleading in that they give the impression that canonization was a top down process with leaders calling the shots on which books were in and which were out. In reality, these lists mostly confirmed which books were accepted in the writer’s region. The Church historian Eusebius’ classification of the New Testament books in about 325 is tremendously illuminating and illustrates this point.
Eusebius divides the books into three categories: 1) universally acknowledged, 2) disputed but widely read, 3) spurious. Interestingly, James, Jude, 2 Peter, and 2-3 John, which of course eventually made the cut, Eusebius identifies as disputed. Perhaps most interestingly of all, he puts Revelation in BOTH categories 1 and 3! That is, it is widely accepted in some areas (Western Christianity), but rejected in others (the Eastern Church). We can conclude from Eusebius’ survey that most Christians would have some books they read frequently, others they question, and yet others they feel should not be used. Another category would be books that are accepted, but not often consulted! (Acts would be a good example of this).
You will note that he fails to give advice where it is most needed. He does not say, “This book is considered spurious by some but really it should be accepted”; he stops after describing its general standing with the Christian community.
The important fourth-century manuscripts of the New Testament Sinaiticus attests to the diversity of Christian canons—it includes both the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas as official parts of the New Testament!
It was not until yet another century and a half that a Christian leader gives a canonical list that matches our New Testament exactly. The bishop of Alexandria Athanasius writes in 467 an Easter letter to his clergy. After listing the 27 books of the New Testament he writes, “In these alone the teaching of godliness is proclaimed. Let no one add to these; let nothing be taken away from them.” In 397 a meeting of North African leaders approved the current NT canon in Carthage.
In retrospect, it can be seen that the criteria for canonization were:
1) Antiquity: It could not have been written recently (e.g. the vote against the Shepherd of Hermas in the Muritorian Canon)
2) Apostlicity: It had to be associated closely with an apostle (though it is important to note that except for Paul, who wasn’t even one of Jesus’ apostles, this claim doesn’t seem to be confirmed!)
3) Accepted Widely. This seems to have been the most important factor, with letters and councils confirming the status quo, and some liminal books going back and forth until they were widely accepted enough to make it in.
Information found in Jared’s post come from his online courses through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Anyone can take these courses. If you are interested, click here.