I received the following questions from an e-mailer regarding the origin of Scripture and thought that an overview might be helpful to anyone who may occasionally read my blog. This is a very concise summary of these issues and should only serve as a primer for the study of bibliology. I am painting with very broad strokes here.
Here is a helpful site for further study of technical issues regarding the Scripture:
- Why are the books that are in the Bible in it?
- Why are some books not included?
- Who decided all of this?
- Why does the Catholic Bible have extra books?
- Where do the Dead Sea Scrolls fit into everything, did we find anything NEW with them?
Why are the books that are in the Bible in it?
The theological answer to this involves some degree of circular reasoning. Why are the particular books which are found in the Bible included in the Scriptures? Because they are inspired by God and profitable for teaching, correction, etc. (2 Timothy 3:16). How do we know that these particular books are inspired by God? Because they are in the Bible.
The historical answer (which is subject to the theological) is based upon the initial criteria for the canon (the word “canon” is derived from the Greek word meaning “measure” or “rule”) which were as follows (taken from a final exam that I wrote for a class on the history of doctrine):
“The criteria for inclusion of books within the canon were primarily four. First, books must have had some manner of apostolic heritage. In order to be considered, only those books which were attributed directly to an apostle, or a person closely associated with or mentored by an apostle were included. Matthew was a disciple/apostle and thus his writings were included; Paul was an apostle and thus his writings were included; Luke was a close associate of Paul; James was the brother of Jesus and a bishop in the Jerusalem church; etc. Second, working from the included base of the Old Testament since Christianity arose from the seedbed of Judaism, only those books which complemented and expounded upon the Old Testament shadows were considered. If a book contradicted the Old Testament it was excluded from consideration. Third, books must be universally recognized, not merely being useful in certain demographical or geographical contexts. Finally, the gospels in particular must be centered upon the bloody and gory crucifixion of Christ Jesus. Books which did not meet each of these criteria were therefore not included in the conversation, which really was a series of monologues during most of the early church period.
Why are some books not included?
Again, first reason is circular. Theologically, some books were not included because they were not inspired.
Historically they were not included because they do not meet listed criteria above. This was no conspiracy like Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code would have us believe. Rather, all of the “Gnostic gospels” (the “gospel” of Thomas, the “gospel” of Judas, etc.) clearly contradicted the very gospel which was proclaimed by all the apostles (and Galatians 1:6-9 speaks very candidly about the danger of promoting that which was/is contrary to that which was proclaimed by the apostles). BTW, “gnosticism” was a sect which perverted the picture of Christ by introducing a number of dualisms. They taught that the material world was evil while the immaterial or spiritual world was good. Such a disdain for the physical world led to a denial of the incarnation and subsequent denial of the atonement.
Furthermore, these Gnostic texts were all written in the 2nd century whereas our Scriptures (New Testament) were all written in the 1st century. The Gnostic gospels were therefore written a generation or two after the death of the last apostle (John) and thus we can confidently say that they were not authored by the supposed authors (Thomas and Judas were both dead well before either supposed “gospel” was written). In addition, these text do not center on the cross of Christ (remember that the atonement is neglected because it was foolishness to the gnostic mind to conceive of a God incarnate suffering in the flesh) as most of them present Jesus as a spirit being who merely possessed a human body, but was not truly human and did not truly die for our sins. Obviously, since this is an attack on the heart of the gospel, church fathers easily recognized that these books were not the product of men inspired by God. (By the way, you can see John writing against early forms of Gnosticism in 1 John – showing that the apostles were clearly opposed to what was themes which were developing in parts of the church as perversions of Orthodoxy).
Who decided all of this?
There was rather general consensus throughout the early Church on most books of the Bible. There was some debate as far as the authorship of Hebrews and a couple of other issues like that, but we have fairly consistent consensus. No ecumenical council met specifically in order to decide the canon (until the Reformation – though various councils which were called for other purposes did comment on the issue of canonicity). Rather, as the individual letters moved throughout the empire, more people accepted them as authentic. We have to remember that each letter was written individually and therefore it is highly unlikely that anyone would have possessed each and every book of the Bible until well into the 2nd century. Once again, this is no conspiracy, just the nature of writing in those days. They didn’t have printing presses so the task was laborious, not to mention quite expensive. Plus, the average person could not write and maybe had some elementary ability to read, but certainly not much. It was very much an oral culture. BTW, we have quotations and allusions to most if not all of the books of the Bible by church fathers by the early 3rd century.
Why does the Catholic Bible have extra books?
They have the exact same New Testament. Nothing is different there. The issue is the apocryphal books of the Old Testament. The Roman Catholic Church includes those books which were written during the intertestamental period. Early church fathers recognized that these books were “helpful” but not “inspired” and always included this distinction when listing them. However, some Catholic doctrines (like purgatory) receive some level of support within the apocryphal books and therefore the Reformation-age Catholic church in particular officially declared the books to be in the canon in order to protect certain doctrines.
Where do the Dead Sea Scrolls fit into everything, did we find anything NEW with them?
The Dead Sea Scrolls were a very important find for critical analysis of the text, but didn’t really offer anything novel. Rather, before the discovery of the scrolls, our earliest authentic copies of the Old Testament were from the 9th century. Some of the scrolls found at Qumran were from the 2nd century B.C. Given that the text was almost exactly the same as our later copies, we can have great confidence in the scribal copying process of the past. Therefore, the Dead Sea Scrolls are very important for biblical studies as a witness to our previously held beliefs regarding the validity of the extant texts.