Lecture 03: The Canon and the Text of the New Testament
Course: Understanding the New Testament
Lesson 3 ■ The Canon and the Text of the New Testament
HOW WAS THE OLD TESTAMENT CANON DETERMINED?
This is lecture number three in the New Testament Survey Series. To begin today we want to look at the questions of the canon and the text of the New Testament. As we mentioned in our opening lecture, to speak of the canon of Scripture is to refer to the question of how the specific sixty-six books were chosen that make up the Protestant Bible. Canon is an English word spelled “c-a-n-o-n” not to be confused with the oldfashioned form of warfare, cannon with cannonballs, that is spelled “c-a-n-n-o-n.” Canon with one “n” comes from the Greek kanon, which simply referred to a measuring rod or a form of measurement. In other words the canon of Scripture asks how the various books were measured, or analyzed in order to determine what would be considered uniquely sacred, first among the Jews and then among Christians.
The Protestant Christian conviction concerning the Old Testament simply followed the Jewish belief that was in existence in the time of Christ and the Apostles. The thirty-nine books of the Hebrew Scripture have been taken over by Protestants without any changes. Jews believed that prophesy had ceased with Malachi in the 400s B.C. and that subsequent religious literature written in their midst was potentially useful, but not at the same level of authority as what stage by stage came to be considered their canonical scriptures.
As Roman Catholics emerged as a distinct branch of the Christian world a number of books produced by Jews during the period between the Old and New Testaments were also treated as valuable and eventually in the Middle Ages, at the time of the Protestant Reformation as part of what has been called the Catholic counterreformation, these apocryphal works, or sometimes called the Old Testament Apocrypha were officially accepted as canonical as well. Both Protestants and Catholics, however, with ancient Judaism excluded a large number of additional Jewish writings often known as the Pseudepigrapha from two Greek words that refer to a false ascription of authorship.
HOW WAS THE NEW TESTAMENT CANON DETERMINED?
On the New Testament, which is the focus of this survey series, Protestants and Catholics have agreed on the precise twenty-seven books, which form the New Testament canon.
Why Were Any Books Added to the Old Testament Canon?
It is worth asking the question, however, why did Christians come to believe that any books at all should be added to the canon of Scripture and treated as on a par with the already existing Hebrew Scriptures or what Christians have come to call the Old Testament. Perhaps the most central answer to that question involves the open-ended nature of the Old Testament as a collection of books and the open-ended nature particularly of those prophetic books, which appear towards the end of the Old Testament canon. In more than one occasion Old Testament prophets looked forward to a coming age when a Messiah, a descendant of David would come and liberate his people, when once again Israel would live as a free nation in her land, obeying her laws and thus experiencing God’s blessing and living in peace and prosperity and freedom and safety from her enemies. These promises, Christians believed, were fulfilled, though not always in a literal, materialistic sense, often in a more spiritual sense, in the events surrounding the birth, ministry, death, resurrection, and subsequent sending of the Holy Spirit by Jesus of Nazareth.
It is also worth observing that just as the record of the establishment of the first covenant with Israel at the time of Moses on Mt. Sinai was accompanied by a written
record and revelation, so also it was natural for Christians to expect once they believed that Jesus was the ultimate Messiah and final prophet that brought about the New Covenant prophesied in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 and other places, that a written record and revelation should accompany those events as well.
Jesus himself taught that with his celebration of the Last Supper he was ushering in that new covenant with the blood he would shed on the cross at his crucifixion to come only hours later. And he also prophesied that last night of his life in the upper room in John 14:26 and 15:26 that he would lead his disciples into all truth and also help them to remember everything that had been spoken to them, suggesting that part of the Spirit’s role in the coming decades was to inspire people who had followed Jesus and could attest to the nature of his ministry an account or accounts of his life and reflections on its significance.
Why These Particular 27 Books?
A logical follow-up question to why any new books at all is why these particular twenty-seven books? We already looked in lecture one at something about their different literary forms, but what of their contents? All, of course, were traditions either about the nature of Jesus’ person and work, his teachings and ministry, or immediate developments of that tradition in the first century’s decades.
The specific criteria that seem to have been used to select these twenty-seven were that they were widely accepted, recognized, if you like, by the emerging church of Jesus Christ around that part of the world into which it had spread as uniquely true, inspired, valuable, relevant for Christian thought and life.
Secondly, that they were linked to an apostle either because someone who had direct experience of the risen Lord had written a document or one who was a close follower of such a person. Matthew, John, and Peter were of course among Jesus’ twelve apostles. Paul rightly claimed apostolic authority because of the special resurrection appearance that Jesus granted him on the road to Damascus, and Mark and Luke derived their traditions predominantly, at least initially, from Peter and Paul, respectively, so at least says strong early church tradition. We have already seen how people like James and Jude would have been half brothers of Jesus, not necessarily believers during his earthly life, but certainly eyewitnesses of portions of his life and recipients of resurrection appearances in ways that persuaded them subsequently of the legitimacy of his claims. That leaves only the author of Hebrews, who remains disputed, but both in the ancient and modern worlds debates surrounded whether or not this was Paul or a close companion of Paul and no other candidates were ever seriously suggested.
Finally, we have the criterion of non-contradiction with previous Scripture. In all kinds of ways the New Testament books were seen as appropriate, logical, natural
supplements to, and fulfillments of the Hebrew Scriptures. And despite all kinds of differences in emphasis and the way different accounts are related, ultimately no
contradictions of the kind that would require readers to choose one author instead of another were perceived either among the books eventually assigned to the New
Testament or between those New Testament books and the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures.
What About Those Writings that Were Left Out?
Of course, this leads understandably to the question of what was left out? Are there other books purportedly from Christian circles from the earliest eras of church history that might have been candidates for inclusion in such a canon? If there were within the first century, except possibly for the very last years of the 90s of the first century, then they no longer exist and we do not know about them. So one important answer to this question is that the books that were left out appear, almost without exception, to come from later eras and generations of Christian history in ways that make them less appropriate as founding or foundational documents.
One such group of writings comes from the second century often referred to as the Apostolic Fathers, writers of primarily letters to various Christian communities who
spoke of their own writings in a way that suggested they understood they did not carry the same level of authority as the apostolic writings of the first century. For the most part their theology is orthodox or in keeping with the doctrines of the New Testament, though in a few places they do begin to go in slightly different directions.
A second large category of writings, not to be confused with the Old Testament Apocrypha that Roman Catholics canonized but Protestants do not, is what has been
called the New Testament apocrypha. Although no Christian bodies have ever included these as canonical, there were additional second through fifth-century Gospels, Acts, and Apocalypses like the Book of Revelation and one or two additional letters beyond the era of the Apostolic Fathers, which purported to varying degrees to add to the body of knowledge that we have from the New Testament about the life of Jesus or about the lives of the Apostles who succeeded him. Scholars of most all theological traditions, however, recognize that the lateness of these documents and the patently legendary nature of many of their accounts add little or nothing to our database of historical truth about first-century people and events.
Perhaps the most intriguing group of books not found in the New Testament from the earliest years of the Christian movement are the Gnostic writings. We spoke a little bit about Gnosticism in our second lecture. After World War II, about the same time as the Dead Sea Scrolls were being discovered in Israel, a site in Egypt known as Nag Hammadi yielded a treasure trove of ancient scrolls from pre-Christian up through early Christian times, though again, most of these are second through fifth century in nature and even slightly later. Many of them are quite different from anything we find in the Old or New Testament; long, rambling, esoteric discourses about God’s ways with humanity and elaborate hierarchies of angelic and demonic beings, sometimes supposedly spoken by Jesus privately after his resurrection to a select few of his disciples.
But occasionally and particularly with one of the Gnostic Gospels falsely attributed to the Apostle Thomas, there are sayings that resemble what we find in the four New Testament Gospels as well as others previously unknown to us that could be interpreted in such a way as to be consistent with what the Jesus of the canonical Gospels taught. There are, however, numerous sayings even in the Gospel of Thomas that are clearly gnostic in nature and origin, so even here it seems unlikely that we have, at best, more than a handful of sayings that perhaps add slightly to our knowledge of the historical Jesus.
Why were these three groups of books left out? The simple and short answer is that they did not pass all of the three major requirements for being accepted widely
throughout the Christian world as uniquely relevant, as non-contradictory with previously acknowledged revelation, or as genuinely going back to an apostle or a close
associate of an apostle. In the case of the Gnostic writings, typically all three criteria were failed. In the case of the New Testament apocrypha, sometimes three and often two of the three were not met and while the Apostolic Fathers were not always in any significant way contradictory to previous revelation and in a few instances became very widely known, they failed the test of being linked closely to the apostolic era.
What If We Found New Writings?
It is always interesting to raise the question, what if some spectacular new discovery were to unearth a document that could be proven to be of first-century origin, that beyond any reasonable shadow of a doubt could be linked with or to one of the apostles, and which appeared to have Orthodox Christian teaching and have a certain timelessly relevant nature to it. Realistically, practically speaking, it seems unlikely that even under such conditions would such a document be accepted into the canon and added into it simply because even if it was perceived as potentially widely relevant today, the fact that God had allowed it to disappear and not be used for two-thousand years or so suggests that He did not see it as crucial for His church in each era of human history. So, even if there are no arguments to absolutely prove that the canon of Scripture is closed, that it would be inappropriate to add any additional religious literature to it, practically speaking for all intents and purposes, this is the situation in which we find ourselves.
More theologically decisive perhaps is the Christian conviction that Jesus was God’s final and decisive word for humanity, for our sinful plight, and for the salvation that we therefore found ourselves in need of. Unlike the Old Testament, the New Testament does not look forward to a New Covenant, but only to the return of Christ to usher in Judgment Day and the events that lead us into a new heavens and a new earth after that.
Of course, the Holy Spirit remains active throughout the period in which the church awaits Christ’s Second Coming. Of course, the church receives guidance from the Spirit, sometimes in very dramatic and even supernatural fashion, sometimes much more quietly and gradually, but the vast majority of Christians throughout church history have not believed that such revelation ever merited being put on a par with inspired Scripture and some theologians, to keep this distinction clear, will not call the later work of the Holy Spirit revelation at all, but refer to it with language something like “illumination,” helping us understand and apply Scriptures to countless new eras in human history, but not supplementing theological truth or biblical history in ways that the Old and New Testaments provide us.
IS THE TEXT OF THE NEW TESTAMENT RELIABLE?
The Number of Manuscripts (Copies)
A topic, which naturally goes with the question of the canonization of Scripture, is that of the reliability of the text of Scripture and for the sake of this series, again, we are thinking of the New Testament. Unlike almost all other works from the ancient world we have a plethora of copies of virtually every portion of the New Testament books beginning already with the oldest fragment of a few verses out of the Gospel of John from the first quarter of the second century through to the first complete New Testaments that have been preserved dating to the fourth century A.D., and nearly complete copies of individual books of the New Testament already emerging by the end of the second and the beginning of the third century.
In fact, prior to the invention of the printing press there remain in existence more than 5,700 manuscripts in Greek, whether fragmentary or complete, of part or all of the New Testament that were copied by hand from copies of copies eventually dating back to the originals. Compare this with other works from antiquity where to have even double digits, even ten or more copies of the same document is considered quite fortunate and you can understand why through the meticulous and tedious process of comparing of these various documents we can say that with 99% or greater probability we have the ability to reconstruct what the original writers of the various New Testament books most likely wrote.
The Nature of the Discrepancies
There are, of course, differences among the thousands of copies that exist, the vast majority of which are very minor errors exactly the same kinds that modern-day writers including those who write today with electronic media will make: misspelling a word, accidentally omitting a word or letter or a portion of a word, or repeating all of those things by mistake. Occasionally, deliberate changes were introduced to try to clarify or smooth out something that appeared to be awkward in terms of its style or puzzling in terms of its content or to harmonize seemingly discrepant Gospel parallels.
In modern translations of the Bible footnotes or notes in the margins typically alert readers to the small handful of these many textual variants that actually affect the
meaning of the passage in which they appear in any significant way or would have some bearing on Christian theology. It is important to stress that no Christian doctrine depends only on some disputed text somewhere in the New Testament and, therefore, even if we do not have the original documents that the apostolic writers penned, we have copies that have been preserved with remarkable care in which we can place our trust that we know what, with rare exceptions, the original writers wrote.
Some Longer Disputable Passages
Occasionally, there are variants that affect a longer stretch of text, about a dozen places in the New Testament, where an entire verse or two are affected. One of the most famous of these involves Matthew 6:13 when the Lord’s Prayer had as an appropriate conclusion using language out of Chronicles, the words added to it, “For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, Amen.” Only in two instances are entire stories most likely not to be attributed to the original manuscripts, because they do not appear in the oldest and reliable manuscripts. These stories are the longer ending of Mark, what came to be numbered Mark 16:9-20, and the story about the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53 – 8:11.
The Verse and Chapter References
Verse and chapter references were not added until the middle ages by which time most of the oldest manuscripts had been lost to the European scholars who produced what in their day were considered modern language translations from the original Greek bypassing the Latin versions of the Bible that for a thousand years had been so dominant in the Roman Catholic world. Thus, when an English translation like the King James Version, or Authorized Version, was produced in 1611, scholars doing their very best to produce a highly literal and highly reliable version did not always have access to the oldest and most reliable text, hundreds of which have been rediscovered in the four hundred years or so since that translation was created.
Of course, once additions and translations of the Bible included information and labeled them with chapters and verses new additions of the Bible are very reluctant to remove them altogether, but modern translations very consistently have footnotes or marginal notes explaining that these were not part of the earliest manuscripts, or in some instances they will take the entire passage and put it just in a footnote with such explanation.
Thinking about what was not in the earliest manuscripts gives us a good opportunity also to review that if one were looking at an ancient scroll of one of the books of the New Testament one would see multiple columns of lines of letters run together without spacing between words, without any punctuation marks, again, as we have said without any chapter or verse references, without any paragraph divisions, and all the Greek letters would have been written in capital letters so that there were not even lower case letters to suggest appropriate word divisions.
Certainly there were no titles to books, or sections of books, or footnotes, or pictures, or references cross-referencing one text with another, and so on. All of these have grown up as study helps over the centuries but must not be mistaken for parts of the original forms, which Christians affirm were uniquely inspired.
THE FOUR GOSPELS
Let us turn now turn to an introductory question that will set the stage for our next lecture to move us directly into the contents of the New Testament books themselves. We now focus our attention for a while exclusively on the four Gospels and particularly on the issue of writing a biography of Jesus of Nazareth. We have already eluded in our first lecture to the interesting fact of having four such uniquely authoritative accounts rather than one.
The Similarities and Differences
This in and of itself creates a whole set of interesting issues about the ways in which these four accounts resemble each other and are different from one another. Three of the four Gospels are more similar than different. Matthew, Mark, and Luke reasonably closely parallel books have been produced for centuries called synopses from a Greek word meaning “to look at together” in which Matthew, Mark, and Luke are printed in parallel columns and where the three writers, or even two out of the three, are describing the same episode from Christ’s life, the information is aligned so that one can look horizontally across the columns and see how the Gospel writers either used the same words or different words to describe those events. As a result Matthew and Mark along with Luke are often called the Synoptic Gospels. On the other hand, John is more unlike any of the three Synoptics than like them, quite different in what he includes. How are we to account for this? How do we explain the existence of three reasonably similar accounts of Jesus’ life and one that is quite different? That is one key issue.
Other Early Sources of Information about the Life of Christ
A second key issue, which in some ways creates the opposite problem. Whereas the first issue was created by having a wealth of evidence in the New Testament about Jesus, outside of the New Testament there is comparatively little historical mention. A few Roman historians mention him briefly, the same is true of a few Greeks and the Jewish historian writing in the latter third of the first century A.D., Josephus, goes into somewhat more detail.
But even if we put together all of the information that can be gleamed from about a dozen or so passages among ancient non-Christian writers, all that we learn is that Jesus did exist, that he was a first third of the first century Jew who lived in Israel, who was born out of wedlock, who was a popular teacher, who gathered a number of close followers called disciples who spent considerable time with him, and attracted larger crowds who came and went on various occasions from his ministry. He was known for various countercultural perspectives as over against conventional Jewish wisdom and interpretation of the law.
He was eventually, as a result, arrested by the Jews, convicted by the Romans, executed under the reign of a governor of Judea, the southernmost province of Israel, by the name of Pontius Pilate, and we know from other sources that Pilate himself reigned only from 26 to 36 A.D., so that helps to narrow down the time at which Jesus lived. We also know that his ministry intersected some with the ministry of a man named John who was known for baptizing people in water and calling them to repentance. And finally, we learn from these non-Christian sources that Jesus’ followers believed that he was raised from the dead after his death and, therefore, as had started to be the case during his lifetime, believed to be the Jewish Messiah, the liberator of Israel, and the Savior of all peoples of the world.
Now, I don’t know how you react to that brief summary of information from non-Christian sources. One approach is to marvel at how little we have compared to the rich wealth of detail in the canonical Gospels. But on the other hand this was an age in which history writing and objects for writing biographies were almost always
surrounding kings and queens, other official political rulers and heads of state, major prominent philosophers in a given society, or if religious leaders were discussed they were those who held institutional positions of power and authority.
Jesus qualified under none of these headings and certainly no one in the earliest centuries of Christian history inside or outside of the movement suspected that one day it would grow to be the religion that claimed more followers than any other religion in the world. From that perspective it is perhaps significant that as many references to Jesus appear as do.
Methods for Explaining the Differences
The Traditional Approach
But what about the unity and the diversity among the Gospels? Throughout most of church history Christians have simply put the accounts side by side, sometimes even including John in a Synopsis, though more often than not those sections where John is printed simply will have no parallels in the columns for Matthew, Mark, and Luke and vice versa, and then embarked on the task of harmonizing the accounts assuming that everything that was said in all of the four Gospels Jesus actually did and taught, and doing the best to arrange them into one giant life of Christ in one plausible, chronological sequence that does justice to all of the data on the pages of the New Testament Gospels.
On the one hand this is quite doable; it does not result in any impossible contradictions. On the other hand there are plenty of places were very minor differences in wording or choices of which portions of an event to include or leave out mean that we should not take parallel accounts to be referring to separate events but simply to the same event described in various ways.
But can we say more? The history of the modern period of biblical study beginning at least by the late 1700s and certainly flowering into full bloom by the mid-1800s has proposed a number of much more significant and specific answers to the way in which the Gospels were most likely related.
In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century the area of analysis known as source criticism, criticism when used in biblical studies simply refers to analysis, became extremely popular as people compared in minute detail those places where particularly Matthew, Mark, and Luke did run parallel looking at the exact wording of these texts in the Greek and for a whole host of reasons, that need not detain us here, came to the conviction that Mark was the earliest of the three Synoptic Gospels and that Matthew and Luke each relied on Mark’s text for what they chose to include and their wording of certain portions of those episodes that they chose to include even as Matthew and Luke also relied on various other, now lost, shorter written documents that they incorporated into their texts.
In the twentieth century and particularly in the first half of the twentieth century a related discipline known as form criticism began to develop. It can also be called form history, in which it was recognized that like all of the oral cultures of the ancient Middle East prior to the first short written documents later turned into full-fledged Gospel narratives, the teachings of Jesus and the accounts of his life and death and resurrection would have circulated primarily by word of mouth. And this discipline, which has gone through a number of stages but continues today with all kinds of interesting studies into how oral cultures, even in our world today, pass on sacred traditions primarily by word of mouth.
Although initially somewhat skeptical of the ability of people to pass on large amounts of information accurately over decades has come increasingly to recognize that when this was the sole method of education in a given culture and when traditions were valued enough to be deemed sacred great feats of memory were often cultivated from little on up enabling people to preserve quite accurately those things that they chose to. But many of the passages that do clearly appear in more than one of the Gospels have minor variations of wording in ways that suggest that much more than the copying of the source critics study or the oral tradition analyzed by the form critics was at work.
The Gospel writers were also editors, or to use a bit more technical term, redactors. A discipline of study known as redaction criticism, or we could just call it analysis of the editing of the documents, grew up particularly in the second half of the twentieth century and is still with us. Another way to think of this is to observe how often Matthew and Luke smooth out or explain something awkward or potentially confusing in Mark’s text. Even more commonly they choose specific themes to introduce, to emphasize, because they have different theological points that they want to stress throughout their writings and when we come to looking at each of the Gospels individually we will review a few of these.
In the most recent years of formal biblical study a whole host of additional methods has developed understanding the sociology of the cultures into which the New Testament and in this case specifically the Gospels were written helps account for still more differences. Understanding the literary artistry and the desire to write something that was interesting and attention gaining has spawned considerable study.
Explaining the Uniqueness of John
The other issue that we have to say something briefly about is the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels and John’s Gospel. Although for many years it was assumed that because John was the last and latest to be written he simply did not want to repeat most of what had already appeared one or more times in the Synoptics and hence largely supplemented his predecessors with additional information. This may well be true but it does not go far enough to explain also a large number of theological and stylistic differences. Jesus teaches in very different ways, in very different language, and at times with quite different concepts in John’s Gospel than in the Synoptics, and again, we will return to this issue when we treat the Gospel of John by itself.
But for now it is simply worth observing that this led in the twentieth century to a period of time in which it was assumed that the reason John was so different from the Synoptics was not because he knew them and chose to go in a different direction, but because he did not know them or at least he was not relying on their contents and their wording when he penned his particular document. This too has a measure of truth to it because if one does look at those handful of places where John is parallel to one of the Synoptic Gospels it is very rare for the actual wording of the parallel passages to be the same for more than maybe three or five words at a time and then there is a good chance that of those words one is the word “the” and another is “a” or “an,” in other words, not highly significant words that point to somebody consciously using a source in front of him.
But today the most likely synthesis of the question of why John is the way he is compared to the Synoptics is probably best answered by a mediating perspective
between these two main historic alternatives. John probably did not have copies of Matthew, Mark, or Luke that he owned, that he could refer to. Whether or not he had ever seen them we may never know.
But on the other hand we do know from Acts and the Epistles that there was a consistent pattern of early Christian preaching that taught many details about the life of
Christ and agreed on many aspects of His life that needed to be taught to young converts to the Christian faith. So whether John or anyone to whom he wrote his Gospel had ever seen or heard another Gospel read, they would have known many of the details contained in those Gospels, at the very least through repeated Sundays of Christian preaching, so that John could, if he chose, assume their knowledge of a large part of this information and then go on to other details.
We will pick up all of these threads in our next lecture as we proceed to begin to introduce each of the four Gospels as a book, as a story, as a version of the life of Christ each in its own right.