Every Christmas season there is an increase in the number of people who ask me about Jesus and the Bible. This is partly because Christmas brings a non-church going crowd into church and it is partly because hurts, stresses and anxieties have a way of increasing in this season.
One of the most common questions I am asked goes something like this: “Can we really trust the books in the Bible? I mean, they weren’t even compiled until the fourth century.”
This is a great question with some historical accuracy and I’d love to take a stab at answering it. I also want to thank an old professor, Dr. Michael Kruger*, who has greatly influenced the way I think about this.
When exactly did the canon come to be?
By canon, I simply mean the list of authoritative books in our Bible. The hard part about this question is that it could be asking three different things. So let me break them up like this…
1) Canon as a final list
If by canon you mean the final list of New Testament books affirmed by the whole church in a way that basically ends the canon discussion, then yes, the fourth century is pretty much when that happened.
But, there is this idea out there (made popular by The DaVinci Code) that it wasn’t until the fourth century that we had this canon. There are scholars like Walter Bauer who say that everything before the fourth century was a theological mess and the theological camp who won the fight got to pick the books they wanted. Enter our New Testament canon.
There is one huge problem with this argument though: the canon had already been functioning for centuries.
2) Canon in function
Now we are asking a different question: not when was the canon finalized, but when did it begin to function as a canon in early Christianity?
While there was some messiness, the canon had functioned as an almost complete set since at least the early second century. We are certain that by the mid-100’s 22 of the 27 books were being used in every corner of the Roman Empire. That set of 22 included the four gospels (yes, only these four) and all of Paul’s writings. So whatever you think about 2 Peter and 3rd John, Christian doctrine is absolutely set at this point.
But that is 100 years after they were supposedly written. Can we trust that list?
Yes. We have almost identical lists of books from Irenaeus in Lyon in 180 AD, Clement of Alexandria about 175 AD and the Muratorian fragment in Italy from 170 AD. Think about it, almost unanimous agreement in France, Italy and Egypt by 180 AD. For that kind of agreement to happen across that distance, these books must have been functioning as canon well before. Not nearly as messy as some suggest.
It’s also interesting to know that the church father Irenaeus, who penned one of these canonical lists, was mentored by Polykarp who was trained by the Apostle John himself in Ephesus. That’s a direct line from Ireneaus to Jesus!
I grew up hearing about World War II from my Grandfather who fought in Europe. I now tell my children some of his stories and show them the Nazi swords and guns I have inherited. Could someone trust the information my kids are receiving? I mean, we are talking about something that happened 80 years ago! Absolutely, we can trust these stories. And I’m just relaying oral tradition. John was handing down written accounts.
But why would there be any disagreement at all if it’s God’s book?
The real question is why wouldn’t there be disagreement? There were false teachers, unbelievers and power hungry men in the early church. They were in the minority, but they were there so of course there was disagreement.
There were also whole groups of non-Christian sects like the Marcionites, Arians, Docetists and Gnostics arguing for a whole other religion and they somehow get lumped into mainstream Christianity. What if we said that Christians today don’t agree on the New Testament books because Mormons have a different set? No one does that because Mormons are not Christians. So why would we make the same claim about the early church?
To assume that this process would be without any disagreement along the way is a naive assumption even for a divine book.
But how do we know that the books being listed by people like Irenaeus contain the same information that our books do today? Because we have them.
Considering the era, we would be thrilled to have copies from the 9th or 10th century. Books fall apart, are lost, thrown away and burned. They are incredibly hard to preserve. But we have copies from the 2nd and 3rd century! Over 60 of them from all over the Roman Empire that contain the same information. Here is one example of a Greek copy of John from 175 AD.
So, why do we have so many more copies of the New Testament in the early years than any other book? Because at a very early stage, they were viewed as Scripture and mass produced as a canon with impeccable care.
Do you know what books we don’t have many (if any) of? Those ‘other’ gospels Bauer writes so much about. In fact, in all the copies we have of early books being put together in canon form, not one time is a single gospel other than our four included. Not one time!
We have more early copies of the New Testament than we have qualified people to translate them. There boxes of texts from archeological digs still waiting to be translated. Every year new copies of the New Testament from the first few centuries are discovered, translated and published. So, why don’t we hear about it? Because the writings in them are the same as all the others. These finds continually validate the claims we make about the Bible and for many, that’s not news worthy.
3) Canon written
Here is the third way of asking the question: When did the canon come to be? When it was written by men close to Jesus as they were inspired by the Holy Spirit in the first century. This is one reason (and just one of many) we can trust what we read today.
This Christmas, pick up the Bible, read it for yourself and see if it doesn’t affect you. Reason and history aren’t going to change lives. But God, through His Word, can. Are you willing to try?
*If you want to read more on the NT canon, I highly suggest Dr. Kruger’s website.