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Who wrote the books of the Bible, and how can we be confident that we have the right ones? We look at how the early Christians accepted the books that now form our New Testament. In addition, we discuss some of the useful letters and books enjoyed by the early churches, but were never considered as part of the Bible—as well as those from the heretics that were discarded by the churches.
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If the Bible really is what it claims to be — the final and authoritative revelation from God — it is essential that we should be certain that in the sixty-six books that make up its pages we have exactly what God intended to be there, no more and no less.
It is commonplace today, among atheists, Muslims and an unthinking and gullible public, to suggest that we have all the wrong books in the Bible or that it was a mere lottery which ones eventually entered the ‘canon’, or collection of books. In this third book in the series we examine the question of how the collection of books came into existence; a collection that would be divine in its authorship, fixed in its number, and final in its authority. Where did the idea of collecting the books together come from?
In order to answer this, we begin with the Jews and their Bible. This is the easy part, because there was never any serious disagreement among the Jews about which books belonged in their Hebrew Scriptures and which should be rejected. The Jewish ‘Bible’ is exactly the same as our Old Testament. They numbered and arranged the books differently, but the same books are there, and no others. But what about the Apocrypha? Chapter 2 of this third book in the series examines carefully the growth of the collected books of our Bible, and why the Apocrypha was never part of this.
Because the Jews believed that God had given them their Scriptures as a record of the history of their nation, and much else besides, it would be natural for the early Christians to expect the life of their Lord and Savior to be recorded also. All the evidence, and we mean all, points to the completion of the four Gospels long before the end of the first century. In addition, the letters of the apostles were eagerly read, copied, and shared among the churches. Slowly, as the various books were gathered together, a New Testament ‘canon’, or collection, was formed. Significantly, although the early church leaders after the apostles quoted frequently and extensively from the letters of the apostles, they always made it clear that these alone, unlike their own writing, carried divine authority.
However, if we have twenty-seven books in our New Testament, do we really know who wrote them? Could some of them have been written by anyone other than those whose names are there in the greetings, or that have been traditionally given to them? This is not a difficult subject, because the evidence in most cases is overwhelmingly simple. Unfortunately, critical minds that refuse to accept the plain evidence are reluctant to let go their flimsy theories. For this reason, chapter 6 of this book considers the evidence for the authorship of each of the New Testament books.
After the time of the apostles, the early church leaders, were also writing to the young Christian churches, sometimes while they themselves were on the way to martyrdom. Many wrote encouraging and challenging letters: like Clement of Rome who had to re-run some of the problems Paul faced in his own letters to the Christians at Corinth — a church that had slipped back into its old ways of squabbling and disunity. Ignatius of Antioch wrote seven beautiful pastoral letters to various churches on his way to martyrdom in Rome. For his part, Irenaeus of Lyons penned a mammoth five volume rebuttal of heretical views to guard the churches against error. Not all Christians today will have time to read the voluminous writing of these early Christian leaders, so in chapter 7 there is an overview of the quality of their writing.
By contrast, under the heading ‘A library of lies’, some of the heretical writing from the literature known as ‘pseudepigrapha’ is introduced. This is important because a little knowledge of this material, which is often bizarre and always heretical, is sufficient to show how valuable by contrast are the Gospels and letters of the apostles. For a Christian to know something of the heretical Gnostics and others, and their foolish attempts to supplement the biblical Scriptures, is to be armed against the criticisms of those who try to undermine the true books of the New Testament. Much of it is the ‘hollow and deceptive philosophy’ (Colossians 2:8) which Paul refers to.
By the close of the fourth century, Christianity had been established under the Emperor Constantine as the official religion of the Roman Empire. The good news of this was tarnished by the slow growth of the church in Rome wielding an unspiritual power across Western Europe. This resulted, especially throughout Britain, in the Bible becoming a closed book to anyone except those who had the ability and authority to read the Latin translation. A Bible in English was unknown for the next one thousand years and when it was, the fires of martyrdom began. This is where our fourth book begins.
Brian Edwards is a Christian minister, author, lecturer, and teacher based in the United Kingdom. His twenty books include historical biographies, Christian theologies, and apologetics. His wider ministry includes preaching and lecturing in the UK and abroad.