Have you ever wondered how the Bible came about? Or asked the question why trust the Bible?
These are just some of the questions people are faced with when they start to look at the history of the bible.
In this article, James Glass answers some of the toughest questions about the Bible.
Debunking The Da Vinci Code
Dan Brown’s 2003 novel, The Da Vinci Code, certainly caused a stir on its release. A similar reaction followed the release of the film three years later.
Although a work of fiction, The Da Vinci Code’s presentation of the Church, the Roman Catholic Church in particular, proved highly controversial, especially since Brown seemed to believe his fiction was fact.
The leaders of the early Church were penned as the main play ers in a huge conspiracy to cover uncomfortable truths about Christ and the lost history of early Christianity.
The book and the movie were panned by many critics, both literary and historical.
Tony Robinson, broadcaster and actor, narrated a documentary that demolished the central claims of the novel. People as diverse as Stephen Fry and Salman Rushdie dismissed both novel and film in the most un compromising terms.
One would think that with such stern critics, ‘Da Vinci Code’ type historical recon struction would never see the light of day again. That, however, has not proved to be the case.
Why trust the Bible: How the 66 books that make up the Bible came about
An area where this kind of thinking lingers, is in the way that some think about the canon of Scripture and how it came together. In fact, even Christians who can see through the falsity of the claims of The Da Vinci Code, sometimes resort to a Dan Brown-type narrative when it comes to explaining how the 66 books that make up the Bible came to be accepted as the Word of God.
Put in simple terms, the story goes something like this: there were all these sacred texts circulating in the early Church, along with alternative ‘gospels’ like The Gospel of Thomas – which, of course, isn’t a gospel at all.
The leaders of the Church realised that they needed to decide what was legitimate and what was not. So they convened a council and the result was the Bible as we have it today.
The problem with that kind of understanding is immediately obvious. It leaves the Church open to the charge that the Bible was nothing more than a propaganda tool created by its leaders.
The 27 books of the New Testament are particularly vulnerable to this charge. If this line of argument is accepted, it could be maintained that the books of the New Testament as we have them today were retained by the Church because they served the political agenda of the Church’s leadership.
Furthermore, it is sometimes claimed that certain other texts were rejected even though they accurately, perhaps more accurately, preserved the teaching of Jesus and biographi cal details about his life. The claim is that these texts were rejected primarily because they challenged the official version of the Christian faith promoted by the Church.
In reality the acceptance of the 27 books that make up the canon of the New Testament (canon comes from the Greek word kanon meaning ‘rule’ or ‘standard’), is not quite so straightforward as described in the preceding paragraph.
In short, the Church came to recognise as God’s Word the books that we now call the Bible, rather than producing the Bible and then declaring it to be God’s Word. So, how did that process develop? And why trust the Bible?
The Jewish Scriptures
First of all, it is worth noting that the early Church accepted the Jewish Scriptures, or what we call the Old Testament, as Scripture. Not that the acceptance of those Scriptures went uncontested. Marcion (85-160 AD), promoted the view that the Old Testament was incompatible with the gospel, especially the teachings of Paul, and should therefore be rejected.
He was excommunicated in 144 but continued to promote his belief that Christians should make a complete break with the Hebrew Bible.
Conflict and false teaching
It is worth mentioning Marcion because his case highlights one of the factors that helped produce the canon of Scripture: responding to false teaching.
When teachings became popular that undermined the gospel, the Church found itself forced to define what it believed and, as in Marcion’s case, those books which it believed constituted the divinely-inspired Scriptures.
Distinguishing marks of Scripture
Texts that claimed scriptural authority in the early Church effectively had to pass four tests: apostolicity, orthodoxy, antiquity and ecclesiastical usage.
Was the text the product of an apostle or someone within the apostolic circle? All of the 27 books in the New Testament are either written by an apostle or someone who was within the apostolic circle. Luke, James and Jude (the Lord’s brothers) are in this latter category.
Did the teaching of the particular text conform to apostolic teaching? If not, it was not considered Scripture.
Did the particular text emerge in the apostolic era? Some influential works were rejected as Scripture, such as The Shepherd
of Hermas and the Didache, partly because they did not have their roots in the apostolic era.
A final test was whether the text was used throughout the Church in its teaching and worship.
All of these factors helped to determine what was genuinely Scripture and what was simply edifying Christian literature, or even heretical literature.
Factors that shaped the canon of Scripture
Having seen the factors that helped to distinguish what was Scripture from what was not, we can now briefly consider how those works came to-
gether in what we call the canon of Scripture or the 27 books of the New Testament.
In their introduction to the New Testament, the authors of The Lion And The Lamb list five factors in the formation of the New Testament canon.
Persecution caused the Churchto begin to consider which writings in circulation it regarded as inspired. Coming under pressure in its earlier years from Jewish and Roman authorities, this new spiritual movement
was to some extent forced to think about the significance and importance, or lack thereof, of those texts which found a place in the ministry and worship of the churches.
This was most certainly the case in 303 AD when the emperor Diocletian ordered that Christians turn over their sacred writings to the authorities who would burn them. (Incidentally, the fact that the authorities knew what texts they were looking for suggests that the canon was already recognised.)
The need to recognise authoritative writings
The need to acknowledge what writings were authoritative also contributed to the development of the canon of Scripture. When you think of it, the question of the authority status of any given text is fairly crucial for a movement claiming to be built on a divine revelation.
Which writings should be believed and obeyed as God’s Word? Which should be thought of as providing doctrinal or devotional insight
but not on a par with Scripture? Why trust the Bible?
Those kinds of questions are absolutely crucial if you want to preserve and promote common belief.
The prophetic nature of Scripture
Some of the writings commended themselves because of their prophetic nature. This presumably could work on two levels. On one level the witness
of the Spirit who inspired the text was felt when some of the writings were heard or read.
That might sound very subjective, but if large numbers of people in churches in disparate parts of the empire felt similarly about the same writings when read or heard, then perhaps something more than just preference was in operation.
And if, as the early Christians believed, and we continue to believe, the same Holy Spirit who lived in them had inspired the Scriptures, one would expect to be able to recognise what was God’s Word and what was not.
And certain texts were prophetic at another level. For example, Jesus had predicted the fall of Jerusalem in Matthew 24. After 70 AD, that Scripture had been fulfilled in the most unmistakable manner.
As in the case of Marcion, heretical challenges to the faith were another contributing factor in the development and recognition of the canon. The
three major heretical challenges were Marcionism, Montanism and Gnosticism. I have already briefly described the challenge of Marcion’s teaching to the faith of the church.
Montanism was an extreme prophetic movement. No doubt some aspects of it there were well intentioned, and it possibly began as a reaction to a more
moralistic, intellectual kind of faith. It ended up, however, in serious error.
Gnosticism is probably the one alternative to orthodox Christianity that has received the most coverage in recent years. Dan Brown has played
an important part in that. Once you venture into the terri tory of lost gospels and stories about Jesus not recorded in the gospels as we have them in the New Testament, you are into the land of Gnosticism.
Much has been made of the Gospel of Thomas. It is some times claimed that this is a real gospel that has been suppressed by the Church and substituted with literature that was more in line with the agenda of the Church leaders of the day.
This kind of narrative is speculation at best, sensationalism at worst. There is nothing to back up the claim that the so-called Gospel of Thomas
and other gnostic gospels are the real thing. You might not realise it, but there is only one complete manuscript for the Gospel of Thomas. One! We
have thousands for the rest of the New Testament.
As the Church began to reach out to peoples and cultures all over and beyond the Roman Empire, it became necessary to translate the Scriptures into
the languages spoken in these places. For example, in the early part of the second century, Syriac and Latin translations of the New Testament Scriptures were produced. Obviously, the Church needed to have writings recognised and accepted as Scripture in order to reproduce its most important texts in other languages.
These five factors helped bring together the New Testament as we have it today. This is only a small part of the background to the formation of the New Testament. There is a lot of coverage of the development and recognition of the canon in the fathers and theologians of the early Church. There is also early evidence for various collections and an early canon.
However, the above is a good place to start when asking why trust the Bible and thinking about how we came to accept the New Testament as we have it today.
• James Glass leads Glasgow Elim Church and sits on Elim’s National Leadership Team
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