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Compilation of the New Testament

Appendix: Compilation of the New Testament

In the presentation of these lessons detailed information has been given regarding when, why, and how the various books comprising the New Testament were written. Thus far, however, no attempt has been made to explain how the New Testament itself came into being. In order to make the lessons complete, it seems appropriate that a brief account of the compilation of the New Testament should now be given. Since this compilation was a gradual process, it will be well to outline the various steps which brought us the New Testament as we have it today.

Summary of Materials

It should be recognized that in the early days of the Christian church there was no thought of a New Testament. The early Christians had their "living witnesses" to recount the sayings and activities of Jesus, and they also had several letters (or Epistles) written by Paul and others. For Scripture they had the Septuagint (Greek) translation of the Old Testament, passages from which were read at their regular worship services. The above-mentioned Epistles were carefully copied, and shared among the Christian groups. Following the departure of the Apostles, the written Gospels appeared, and were circulated among the Christian groups. Certain preferences regarding these Gospels could be noted: The Jewish groups favored Matthew's Gospel, while the Greek groups read mainly from Luke's Gospel. John's Gospel came later, and was intended mainly for mature Christians. Certain other writings were also in circulation.

The First Great Awakening

While we have very few facts on record it seems clear that, shortly after the passing of the Apostles, something of tremendous importance happened within the Christian church. How or when it happened cannot be definitely stated, but this we know: At a comparatively early period, the Christian Church awoke to the realization that it had in its custody a quantity of sacred literature equal to, if not surpassing in importance and inspiration, anything contained in the Old Testament. Possibly this awakening was gradual, and only by degrees did the church become aware of the priceless treasure it possessed. Perhaps some of the early church leaders noted the statement, given in Paul's writings, that "All scripture is inspired by God" (II Tim. 3:16). Thus far they had applied the term Scripture only to the writings in the Old Testament. But then the thought arose: If such a statement applies to the Old Testament writings, does it not also apply to the documents now in possession of the Christian church? If the prophets of old were inspired, are not these later prophets—the Apostles of the Lord—likewise inspired by God? Should not their writings be held in equal veneration? Furthermore (and this is important to note) the Christian church at that time was becoming predominantly Gentile. Thus far, the only sacred writings recognized were the Hebrew Scriptures; but it now appeared that the early church was ready for a Bible of its own. All the materials were at hand, waiting only for recognition and compilation.

Gathering Documents: The "Canon"

Following the first "great awakening," questions arose regarding which documents were to be included in the new Christian Bible. What was to be the rule, or standard, for such selection? Quite early, three distinct categories were recognized.

First: The writings of the Apostles. The fact that by this time most, if not all, of the Apostles had passed would add value to their writings, and these documents would be highly esteemed.

Second: Writings definitely endorsed by the Apostles. This would include the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of Luke, probably The Epistle to the Hebrews, and Revelation.

Third: The non-apostolic writings. Most of these really belong to a later period, but some bear the names of Apostles, or persons closely associated with them. Thus, we have the "Epistle of Barnabas," "Acts of Peter," "Second Peter," and so on. Possibiy the attachment of Paul's name to Hebrews originated in an effort to have this notable Epistle included in the New Testament.

This brings us to the subject of New Testament "canon." The word canon, as here used, refers to the rule, authority, or standard that governs the recognition or rejection of writings as Scripture. Apparently the rule applied, in the compilation of the New Testament, was this: Only those documents actually written by the Apostles, or definitely endorsed by them, were to be included in the New Testament. All others were to be excluded. In the actual working out of things, this rule raised a further question: How could it be determined that these writings were actually the work of the Apostles, or endorsed by them? The Apostles had passed on, and no definite proofs were forthcoming. Some of the documents were readily accepted by all Christians, others were promptly rejected; but there were some which remained on the borderline for a lengthy period. Thus the formation of the New Testament proved to be a gradual process, with popular favor becoming the final factor in determining its contents.

Milestones of Progress

In the development of the New Testament there are several indications of progress, as follows:

(A) The Muratorian Fragment. This mutilated document came to light in the Ambrosian Library in Milan, and dates back to (possibly) A.D. 170. This fragment is particularly valuable for our present study, since it contains a list of New Testament Books, as they were received and honored by the Church at that time. It is thought that the list began with Mark and Matthew—but unfortunately, that part of the fragment is missing. Luke, however, is mentioned third, followed by John. Then follow Acts, and thirteen Epistles of Paul. The writer states that Philemon, Titus, and Timothy are personal letters, but held in high esteem in the Church. The Epistle of Jude and two letters under the name of John are also mentioned. The writer also makes reference to the Revelation of John and a "Revelation of Peter"—but indicates that some doubt exists regarding the latter. While this fragment cannot be regarded as conclusive evidence, it does indicate at least that a "Scripture consciousness" was developing in the early church.

(B) Testimony of Early Church Writers. Space does not permit more than mere mention of outstanding names, such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Rome, Clement of Alexandria, Iremaeus of Lyons, and Tertullian of Carthage. These writers quoted from many of the New Testament books in such a way as to indicate that those books were then regarded as Scripture. A few differences, or omissions, shew that the canon was not entirely settled in their days. However, enough is mentioned to show that the New Testament was well on the way to completion.

(C) Contribution of Constantine: In the year A.D. 331 the Emperor Constantine sent a letter to Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, instructing him to prepare fifty copies of the "Divine Scriptures," to be sent as a royal present to the Christian Churches of Constantinople and district. Many trained scribes were employed in this important project. It is fortunate that one (and possibly two) of these early Bibles have come down to us. The one having the greatest historical value—so far as the New Testament is concerned—was discovered by Professor Tichendoff around the middle of the last century. This has been identified as one of the copies of Scripture prepared by Eusebius in A.D. 331. Professor Tichendoff presented this ancient Bible to the Russian Emperor, but following the Russian revolution it was sold to the British Museum. The interesting feature is that this ancient copy of the Scriptures contains all the New Testament Books exactly as we have them today. The Vatican Manuscript, which is thought to belong to the group produced by Eusebius, is not very helpful in our present study, since all the pages following Hebrews are missing. It should be noted further that in A.D. 365, Archbishop Athenasius sent forth a Pastoral Letter in which he gives a full list of the New Testament Books, coinciding exactly with our New Testament of today.

(D) Church Councils: The story of the various church councils and their decisions rightly belongs to church history, and thus constitutes a separate study. However, these councils merely ratified what had already been decided. The New Testament attained its supreme position because of its intrinsic worth, and not from any seal of ecclesiastical approval. Perhaps it should be mentioned that the Synod of Carthage, held in A.D. 397, when Augustine was present, gave its sanction to a complete list of New Testament Books, just as we have them today. Christians recognized that through the New Testament—and the ministry and words of Jesus Christ recorded therein—they were brought into a realization of God as their Creator and Father.

5. The Second Great Awakening

At its beginning, the New Testament was written in Greek, mainly because Greek was the common language throughout the world at that time. This one-language idea came about through an edict from Alexander the Great, when the Macedonians ruled the world. Even in later Roman times, Greek still continued as the common language, with Latin used on official documents. Toward the close of the fourth century, Jerome translated the New Testament into Latin. But eventually both Greek and Latin ceased to be used by the people, and Christianity spread to many parts of the world where people spoke only their own languages. However, the church councils had decreed that the Scriptures (including the New Testament) must be regarded as mystical, and sealed in ancient language. Consequently the New Testament could be read only by the priests, and it became a closed book for the people.

With the Renaissance came what may be termed a "second great awakening" in regard to the New Testament. Several inspired Christian leaders stated a principle, and a question: "The New Testament was originally written in the common language of the people, and so read by them. Why not give the people the Scriptures in their own language once again?" The thought was that if people had the New Testament in their own language, they would read and understand the divine message, and profit thereby. Thus began the great work of translating the Scriptures. This translation work gave rise to much opposition, and many consecrated workers lost their lives in the effort. Nevertheless, the work was successful, as is evidenced by our ready access to the Scriptures today. Some names connected with the work of translation should be listed:

  • John Wycliffe, 1330-80
  • WilliamTyndale, 1525
  • Martin Luther (German translation)
  • Hugo Caro, 1238. (Divided the various books of the Bible into chapters, and the chapters into paragraphs.)
  • Robert Stephenos 1551. (Divided chapters intoverses, as still used in King James Version.)
  • King James I, 1611. (Commissioned several bishops to revise the translation of William Tyndale, producing what is now known as the King James, or Authorized, Version.)

A few modern translations should also be mentioned:

  • The Revised Version (England), 1886
  • American Standard Version (United States), 1901
  • Revised Standard Version, 1946
  • Several other translations, using modern speech, are well worthy of careful study, such as Moffatt, Goodspeed, New Century Bible, New English Bible, and many others.

Some words found near the close of John's Gospel clearly indicate the main purpose of the New Testament:

"These are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name" (John 20:31 A.V.).