The Reliability of the New Testament: Canon
by: Jon Stoddard | Jordan Valley Church
Two months ago I wrote an article on the reliability of the New Testament text. In this newsletter I want to share some of the reasons why we can have confidence that the books of the New Testament are the ones God intended us to have.
One common objection I hear is that we can’t trust our Bibles because the New Testament was the result of a power struggle between various theological factions. Thus, the New Testament we have is not a pure representation of early Christianity, but a selective account designed to promote a particular agenda. In this newsletter I want to give you five reasons why the 27 books that make up the New Testament are the correct ones.
These are the earliest letters
While there are a number of other early Christian letters, and some claim to be written by apostles, the ones in our bibles are the earliest letters we have. The 27 books of our New Testament have all been dated to the first century. While some have argued for a first century dating of other early Christian letters, the consensus is that the books that make up our New Testament are the earliest letters we know of.
Some New Testament books quote other New Testament books as Scripture
The most obvious example of this is in 2 Peter 3:15-16, where Peter refers to Paul’s letters (Romans, Ephesians, etc.) as Scripture.
Another, more subtle example of this is in 1 Timothy 5:18 which says, “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle the ox while it treads out the grain’ and ‘the laborer deserves his wages.’” Here Paul cites two examples of Scripture. The first comes from Deuteronomy 25:4, but the second quote is from Luke 10:7. Here Paul implies the Gospel of Luke is Scripture just like Deuteronomy is.
We see early examples of the formation of a canon
The Muratorian Fragment is a seventh century document that contains a list of New Testament books that was originally published in the late second century. In it are twenty-one of our New Testament books. Hebrews, James, First and Second Peter are not listed; Second and Third John may be included, but it’s not clear. This shows that much of the New Testament Canon was settled early on.
It is notable that this list was originally published before the major councils and creeds of the fourth century. This is important because, while some argue the councils decided which books to include, they were largely already agreed upon well beforehand.
Additionally, the author the fragment states The Shepherd of Hermas (an early writing that some argue should be part of the Bible) should not be considered part of the canon because it was written recently. What does he mean by “recent”? Well, The Shepherd of Hermas is probably from the mid-late second century. Thus we see further evidence that the New Testament books are the earliest Christian letters.
Some New Testament books were (and continue to be) disputed. Martin Luther famously did not think the book of James was Scripture. But even if you removed the controversial books from the canon, you would not lose any of the essential elements of the Christian message.
The Church quickly moved from scrolls to books
During the New Testament era, books were starting to replace scrolls. This matters in the discussion of canon, because a scroll has no official ending. When you reach the end of the scroll, you just start a new one. But a book has a definitive end. You have to decide what parts to bind in the book. What is notable is that we see a rapid adaptation to books among early Christians. We have have many bound Bibles with the same books as ours; where early Bibles do include other books, they are often at the end, implying they were in a separate category from the traditional New Testament books. One example of this is the Codex Sinaiticus, which is the oldest complete copy of the New Testament we have. You can view it online here.
Many of the other possible NT Books are clearly contradictory in their message
While there are other gospels and early letters, simply reading these books shows the content of their message does not fit with what we know about Jesus and the Apostles. Here are a few examples (all freely available online if you wish to read more of them):
Gospel of Thomas: In Logion 114 it says, “Simon Peter said to them: Let Mariham go out from among us, for women are not worthy of life. Jesus said: Look, I will lead her that I may make her male, in order that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
Gospel of Peter: It features a walking and talking cross and a giant Jesus who is so tall, when he stands up his head reaches above the clouds.
Infancy Gospel of Thomas: Gives us an account of Jesus as a child. In one instance a young Jesus has made a small puddle of water to play in and some another kid comes and mess up the puddle. Jesus gets upset at the kid and uses his power to wither him up like an old tree.
Acts of Paul & Thecla: In it Paul baptises a lion. The letter is set during Paul’s first missionary journey, but was soon found to be fictitious. The author of it was deposed of his ministry. This shows the early church was concerned with the propagation of misleading or deceitful writings.
A helpful resource if you want to look into this further is Michel Kruger’s website. Contrary to what some claim today, there never was an official proclamation by those in power to say, “These are the official books of the New Testament.” Instead we see a widespread consensus built from the ground up to ratify the New Testament as we know it. This shows that the New Testament developed because of certain qualities about the books themselves. Things like their early date, their authorship (things Christians in the first and second centuries would be able to ascertain better than we) were widely noticed and led to their acceptance as Scripture.
But there is another aspect to this as well. In John 10:27 Jesus says, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” The early Christians (and we as well) heard Jesus’ voice in these books. We call this the self-authenticating nature of Scripture. While this can seem like a subjective measure (and it’s why we should also look at the historic evidence), we shouldn't diminish what Jesus himself says about his people hearing his voice.