How We Got the New Tes­ta­ment : His­toric­i­ty of Its Canonization

Mohd Elfie Nieshaem Juferi

Three hun­dred years after the time of Jesus(P), there were many dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the Gospel sto­ry and the teach­ings of Jesus(P).[1] Then, as now, no one was quite cer­tain who wrote them, or when or where they were writ­ten. The teach­ings of the Chris­t­ian Church varies from one area to anoth­er. Dif­fer­ent sects of Chris­tian­i­ty evolved around these dif­fer­ent teach­ings and there arose a need to decide on a uni­form, uni­fied code on which to base future Chris­t­ian doctrine.

Bruce Met­zger also com­ments regard­ing the devel­op­ment of the can­on­iza­tion of the cur­rent New Tes­ta­ment, that

For ear­ly Jew­ish Chris­tians the Bible con­sist­ed of the Old Tes­ta­ment and some Jew­ish apoc­ryphal lit­er­a­ture. Along with this writ­ten author­i­ty went tra­di­tions, chiefly oral, of say­ings attrib­uted to Jesus. On the oth­er hand, authors who belonged to the Hel­lenis­tic Wing’ of the Church refer more fre­quent­ly to writ­ings that lat­er came to be includ­ed in the New Tes­ta­ment. At the same time, how­ev­er, they very rarely regard­ed such doc­u­ments as Scrip­ture’.

Fur­ther­more, there was as yet no con­cep­tion of the duty of exact quo­ta­tion from books that were not yet in the full sense canon­i­cal. Con­se­quent­ly, it is some­times exceed­ing­ly dif­fi­cult to ascer­tain which New Tes­ta­ment books were known to ear­ly Chris­t­ian writ­ers ; our evi­dence does not become clear until the end of sec­ond century.[2]

In oth­er words, there was no spe­cif­ic canon’ of the New Tes­ta­ment known to the ear­ly Chris­tians. The canon’ that we pos­sess today was a late devel­op­ment. Fur­ther­more, even those who adhere to the doc­u­ments that form the canon’ of the New Tes­ta­ment today does not regard them as Scrip­ture”.

In the year 325 C.E., it was agreed that rep­re­sen­ta­tives from sev­er­al dif­fer­ent sects of Chris­tian­i­ty would have a meet­ing and each would bring with them the writ­ings upon which they were bas­ing their teach­ings. Some com­pro­mise ver­sion of Chris­t­ian teach­ings would have to be agreed upon for the Chris­t­ian church to grow as a unit, as each sep­a­rate sect spread dif­fer­ent ver­sions of belief. The meet­ing called the Coun­cil of Nicea was held in Nicea, Turkey and the dis­putes among all those call­ing them­selves Chris­tians were intense. The dis­putes were not only about the points of Chris­t­ian doc­trine, but also about which of these many writ­ings were authen­tic. In one let­ter from Fauste to St. Augus­tine, Fauste says

It is thus that your pre­de­ces­sors have insert­ed in the scrip­tures of our Lord many things, which, although they car­ry His name agree not with His doc­trines. This is not sur­pris­ing, since that we have often proved that these things have not been writ­ten by Him­self, nor by his apos­tles, but that for the greater part they are found­ed upon tales, upon vague reports and put togeth­er by I know not what, half-Jews, but with lit­tle agree­ment between them, and which they have nev­er­the­less pub­lished under the names of the Apos­tles of our Lord, and have thus attrib­uted to them their own errors and their lies.[3]

Bart Ehrman informs us that the can­on­iza­tion of the New Tes­ta­ment was influ­enced and sup­port­ed by the Emper­or Con­stan­tine of the Roman Empire.

The Roman empire was a pagan empire, how­ev­er, it was the dom­i­nant super­pow­er” of the time. Any­one who could enlist its aid would have an uncon­quer­able ally at their side and would them­selves be unde­feat­able. On the Roman side, Emper­or Con­stan­tine was great­ly trou­bled by the swelling ranks of his Chris­t­ian sub­jects and the great divi­sion among their ranks which did not bode well for the con­tin­ued sta­bil­i­ty of his empire.

Most of these fringe sects now began to fade into insignif­i­cance and the mat­ter was now left between those who believed in the Uni­ty of God and those who believed in a Trin­i­ty.” The Roman empire’s sup­port fluc­tu­at­ed between these two groups for a long time until the Trini­tar­i­an’s final­ly gained the upper hand and all but wiped the Uni­tar­i­ans off the face of the earth. Over the next cen­turies they slow­ly select­ed and col­lect­ed the tru­ly inspired” gospels into one vol­ume which lat­er became the New Tes­ta­ment.” They burned all oth­er gospels. Many sweep­ing cam­paigns of Inqui­si­tion” were launched. Every­one found pos­sess­ing any of these false” Gospels was put to death and his Gospel burned.

The clas­si­cal under­stand­ing of the rela­tion­ship of ortho­doxy and heresy met a dev­as­tat­ing chal­lenge in 1934 with the pub­li­ca­tion of Wal­ter Bauer’s Rechtgl?ubigkeit und Ket­zerei im ?ltesten Chris­ten­tum, pos­si­bly the most sig­nif­i­cant book on ear­ly Chris­tian­i­ty writ­ten in mod­ern times. Bauer argued that the ear­ly Chris­t­ian church in fact did not com­prise a sin­gle ortho­doxy from which emerged a vari­ety of com­pet­ing hereti­cal minori­ties. Instead, ear­ly Chris­tian­i­ty embod­ied a num­ber of diver­gent forms, no one of which rep­re­sent­ed the clear and pow­er­ful major­i­ty of believ­ers against all oth­ers. In some regions, what was lat­er to be termed heresy’ was in fact the orig­i­nal and only form of Chris­tian­i­ty. In oth­er regions, views lat­er deemed hereti­cal coex­ist­ed with views that would come to be embraced by the church as a whole, with most believ­ers not draw­ing hard and fast lines in demar­ca­tion between the com­pet­ing views. To this extent, ortho­doxy,’ in the sense of a uni­fied group advo­cat­ing an apos­tolic doc­trine accept­ed by the major­i­ty of Chris­tians every­where, did not exist in the sec­ond and third cen­turies. Nor was heresy’ sec­on­dar­i­ly derived from an orig­i­nal teach­ing through an infu­sion of Jew­ish ideas or pagan philosophy.

Beliefs that were, at lat­er times, embraced as ortho­doxy and con­demned as heresy were in fact com­pet­ing inter­pre­ta­tions of Chris­tian­i­ty, one of which even­tu­al­ly (but not ini­tial­ly) acquired dom­i­na­tion because of sin­gu­lar his­tor­i­cal and social forces. Only when one social group had exert­ed itself suf­fi­cient­ly over the rest of Chris­ten­dom did a major­i­ty’ opin­ion emerge ; only then did the right belief’ rep­re­sent the view of the Chris­t­ian church at large.[4]

The text of the New Tes­ta­ment devel­oped freely for quite some time depend­ing upon the whims and fan­cies of Chris­tians. As Kurt and Bar­bara Aland tells us

Until the begin­ning of the fourth cen­tu­ry the text of the New Tes­ta­ment devel­oped freely. It was the liv­ing text” in the Greek lit­er­ary tra­di­tion, unlike the text of the Hebrew Old Tes­ta­ment, which was sub­ject to strict con­trols because (in the ori­en­tal tra­di­tion) the con­so­nan­tal text was holy. And the New Tes­ta­ment text con­tin­ued to be a liv­ing text” as long as it remained a man­u­script tra­di­tion, even when the Byzan­tine church mold­ed it to the pro­crustean bed of the stan­dard and offi­cial­ly pre­scribed text. Even for lat­er scribes, for exam­ple, the par­al­lel pas­sages of the Gospels were so famil­iar that they would adapt the text of one Gospel to that of anoth­er. They also felt them­selves free to make cor­rec­tions in the text, improv­ing it by their own stan­dard of cor­rect­ness, whether gram­mat­i­cal­ly, styl­is­ti­cal­ly, or more sub­stan­tive­ly. This was all the more true of the ear­ly peri­od, when the text had not been attained canon­i­cal sta­tus, espe­cial­ly in the ear­li­est peri­od when Chris­tians con­sid­ered them­selves to be filled with the Spir­it. As a con­se­quence the text of the ear­ly peri­od was many-faceted, and each man­u­script had its own pecu­liar character.[5]

In face of all the evi­dences, we still can­not see the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the claim of the Chris­t­ian mis­sion­ar­ies that the New Tes­ta­ment is whol­ly the inerrant” word of God.


[1] Isaac Asi­mov, Asi­mov’s Guide to the Bible : The Old and New Tes­ta­ments (New York : Avenue Books, 1981)

[2] Bruce M Met­zger, The Canon Of The New Tes­ta­ment : Its Ori­gin, Sig­nif­i­cance & Devel­op­ment (Claren­don Press, Oxford, 1997)

[3] Thomas Paine, The Age of Rea­son (New York, Prometheus Press, 1984)

[4] Bart Ehrman, The Ortho­dox Cor­rup­tion of Scrip­ture, p. 7

[5] Aland & Aland, The Text Of The New Tes­ta­ment, p. 69

Appen­dix : Caus­es of Errors In the Trans­mis­sion of the New Testament

Bruce M. Met­zger has out­lined the caus­es of error in the trans­mis­sion of the text of the New Tes­ta­ment, in a sep­a­rate chap­ter of his book, The Text of The New Tes­ta­ment (Oxford, The Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1964). He has broad­ly divid­ed such errors into two cat­e­gories : (a) Unin­ten­tion­al Changes, and (b) Inten­tion­al Changes. A sum­ma­ry of the unin­ten­tion­al changes he men­tions, follows.

Errors Aris­ing from Faulty Eye­sight : This maybe of any one of dif­fer­ent natures. For exam­ple, a scribe with such a prob­lem, found it dif­fi­cult to dis­tin­guish between Greek let­ters that resem­ble one anoth­er ; this was espe­cial­ly the case where the pre­vi­ous copy­ist had not writ­ten with care. Then, there can be a prob­lem of jump­ing from one line to oth­er and there­by omit­ting a line or a few lines, if both the lines end­ed or began with sim­i­lar words.

Errors Aris­ing from Faulty Hear­ing : Such prob­lem can espe­cial­ly arise when the scribe is mak­ing a copy from dic­ta­tion. A scribe is more prone to this prob­lem in the case of two or more words with the same pronunciation.

Errors of the Mind : This cat­e­go­ry of errors seem to have arisen dur­ing the par­tic­u­lar instance when the copy­ist was hold­ing a sen­tence or a phrase in his mind, whether after look­ing at the pre­vi­ous copy, if the copy was made by look­ing at a pre­vi­ous copy, or after hear­ing the sen­tence, if the copy was made from dic­ta­tion. This error can result in a num­ber of vari­a­tions in the text. For exam­ple, the copy­ist may unin­ten­tion­al­ly sub­sti­tute a word with a syn­ony­mous word. The sequence of words may be unin­ten­tion­al­ly altered. The let­ters of a word may be so trans­port­ed that caus­es a dif­fer­ent word to be writ­ten in the copy being so made. The pas­sage being so writ­ten may be replaced in the mind of the scribe with a sim­i­lar pas­sage that is bet­ter known to the scribe.

Errors of Judge­ment : Such errors may arise when a scribe mis­takes some words writ­ten on the mar­gin of a pre­vi­ous­ly writ­ten man­u­script to be part of the text being writ­ten. (pp. 186 – 195

A sum­ma­ry of the unin­ten­tion­al changes, the author men­tions, is give below :

Changes Involv­ing Spelling and Gram­mar : The scribe may, with a motive of cor­rec­tion, change or alter the spelling of a word or the sequence of words in a sentence.

Har­monis­tic Cor­rup­tions : Since the monks nor­mal­ly knew por­tions of the Scrip­tures by heart, they tend­ed to make changes in the text to har­mo­nize dis­cor­dant par­al­lels or quotations.

Addi­tion of Nat­ur­al Com­ple­ments and Sim­i­lar Adjuncts : Where the scribe thought a phrase to be miss­ing a few words that, in his opin­ion, should have been there, he added such words as he thought were obvi­ous­ly miss­ing and were meant to be there.

Clear­ing up His­tor­i­cal and Geo­graph­i­cal Dif­fi­cul­ties : The scribes who were aware of a par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal or geo­graph­i­cal ref­er­ence being made in the text and found that ref­er­ence to be incor­rect in some way, tend­ed to cor­rect such reference.

Con­fla­tion of Read­ings : When the same pas­sage was giv­en dif­fer­ent­ly in dif­fer­ent man­u­scripts most scribes incor­po­rat­ed both read­ings in the new copy which they were writing.

Alter­ations made because of Doc­tri­nal Con­sid­er­a­tions : When the words of the man­u­script which was used as a source dif­fered from or negat­ed the doc­trine to which the scribe ascribed him­self, he was tempt­ed to alter the words in a way that pre­vent­ed the par­tic­u­lar doc­trine from los­ing its ground.

Addi­tion of Mis­cel­la­neous Details : Some scribes had the ten­den­cy of adding details to some event that was referred to in the text. (pp. 195 – 206)

The author has giv­en a num­ber of exam­ples under each sub-cat­e­go­ry of these changes.Endmark







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