February 14, 2021 - Canon

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Who chose the books of the Bible? And what got left out, and why? Contrary to the claims of The Da Vinci Code, there was no top-down decree or official vote on the books of either the OT or NT. Deciding which books were God’s word was a grassroots effort, a process that took place over time, a process where we can see the hand of God at work.

The term canon means “measuring rod.” We use the term canon to refer to which books are the authority for the faith of Jews and Christians. There’s 2 ways we can tell which books people believed to be authoritative. One way is by popular usage: which books keep getting used or quoted as the word of God. The other way is when people make official lists, which at least give us the opinions of the people who made the lists. A lot of this information can be found in my book, The Historical Jesus and the Historical Joseph Smith.

For the OT, Christians accepted the Jewish canon, and the Jews were in pretty solid agreement on which books they believed to be God’s word. The Pharisees and the Dead Sea Scroll writers used to yell and scream at each other, but they never argued about which books belonged in the Bible. The Pharisees themselves were not quite sure about Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon, but they agreed on all the others. The Greek OT adds the books which we call the Apocrypha, but you don’t hear Jews back then quoting these other books as Scripture. In 90 AD, the Jewish historian Josephus expresses the opinion that the canon was closed after the Persian period (400 BC), because after that there were no more prophets. Josephus is also the first guy to give us a list of books, which is identical to our list; he says these are the books that were kept in the official collection in the Temple (before the Temple was destroyed). In 180 AD, a Jewish Christian named Melito gives us the same list that Josephus had.

The consensus around 180 AD about the NT canon (as we see in a list called the Muratorian Canon) was very close to what appears on our lists from the late 300’s (the lists in the late 300’s are where we get the list we have today). If anything, the early church before 300 AD leaned toward leaving out books that we have included. A lot of early writers never quote James or 2 Peter. The list from 180 AD leaves out Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, and 3 John, plus (surprisingly enough) it includes the Apocalypse of Peter (although the writer says some will not allow that book to be read in church).

So, how did the early church decide what books could be trusted? For instance, how did they narrow it down to our 4 Gospels and no others? We owe a tremendous debt to Christians who lived around 70-100 AD. They were the ones who could still remember what Jesus said and did, so they were in the position to know which books told the truth about Jesus.

The early church used 4 criteria to determine what belonged in their Bible: 1. Is the book apostolic – did it come from an apostle or someone close to the apostles who preached the same message? 2. Antiquity (is it old enough to really go back to the apostles?). 3. Orthodoxy (does it fit with what we already know is true about Jesus?). 4. Usage (is everybody quoting it?). How do we know if what was popular was true? We only know through the decisions of believers who were in a position to know. (Luke was probably a major player in collecting these books.) Early believers like Luke looked for books that gave us the best access to Jesus. They did that while the memory of the apostolic age was still alive. They gave us the 4 Gospels we have today.

Notice that the 4 Gospels are anonymous (there’s no “Written by So & So” in the Gospels themselves – these books didn’t need titles to prove that they were apostolic), while the fake books relied on name recognition, which still failed to win acceptance for Peter and Thomas. An apostolic name on the label was no substitute for content; if the content is junk, so is the name on the label. Pseudonymity (writing under false names) was a unique issue for Christians. Other religions didn’t care who wrote their books, but Christians cared, because who wrote the book impacted whether it was apostolic. If a book claims to have been written by Peter or Paul, but it wasn’t, it’s not apostolic. It is no secret that many scholars today claim that 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus were not written by Paul, and that 2 Peter was not written by Peter. I believe they were, and I believe it makes a difference. The early church was not gullible. They were s-l-o-w to accept 2 Peter as genuine, and many did not accept the Epistle to the Hebrews on the grounds that they did not believe it was written by Paul. But Hebrews never claims to be written by Paul. I believe (like Luther did) that it was written by Apollos of Alexandria, a guy who hung out with Paul and preached the same message.

So if we had locked in the NT canon around 200 AD, not all the books we have today would have made the cut. But early believers were unanimous in rejecting almost all of the books that never made it into our Bibles. This was not a top-down decree from some ruler or council. It was a grassroots effort, a process over time in which the whole group participated.

So who got cut out of the NT by the earliest believers, and why? There are 2 categories of books that did not make the cut. The first category is the books that were considered to be false teaching or heretical, which includes the so-called Gnostic writings. These include the Gospel of Peter (where Jesus stomps out of his tomb with his head in the clouds), the Gospel of Thomas, the “Infancy Gospels,” the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Philip, and the second Apocalypse of Peter. By the way, the Gnostic writings were not suppressed, as Bart Ehrman and Dan Brown would have you believe. The content of these books has been an open secret for over 1,800 years. Early Christians would yell, “Bad book! And here’s what it says!” So when 46 Gnostic books were unearthed at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, we found that the early church was telling us the truth about these books that they allegedly suppressed.

So Bart Ehrman is wrong when he claims that the Gnostics were victims. He thinks the early church probably had what we would call heretical beliefs, and that we “won,” not because we were right, but because we had the muscle to stomp out our competitors. No, the Gnostics were not oppressed underdogs; they were elitists. Both the Gnostics and the orthodox would have rejected the idea that both of them could be right. And nobody was in the position to force one conclusion or the other down anyone’s throats. Grassroots believers decided that the Gnostic books were bogus as a source of truth about Jesus.

So what was wrong with these books, then? The Gnostics believed that the material world was evil. They believed there were 2 gods: the evil creator God of the OT, and the NT god of sweetness and light. Marcion (150 AD) was one of the first famous teachers of this heresy, although Gnosticism was already well under way at the end of the 1st century, if not earlier. Marcion and the Gnostics threw out the whole OT, and Marcion did a chop job on the NT as well, leaving only a mutilated copy of Luke, and 7 letters of Paul with everything Jewish cut out of them. The Gnostics believed that Jesus was just a ghost. He appeared to be human, but he was not part of the material world. The Gnostics believed they had secret teachings of Jesus to help them rise above the material world. In earlier books, like the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas, the weird teachings are comparatively mild, but as time went on (past 200 AD), Gnostic teaching got more complicated. The Jesus of the Infancy Gospels is a holy terror who pronounces fatal curses on any playmate who crosses him up. In the so-called Acts of John, Jesus never left footprints. In the 2nd Apocalypse of Peter, the speaker sees someone nailed to the cross, and someone above the cross, glad and laughing; the one who is glad and laughing above the cross is supposed to be the living Jesus, and the one on the cross is just a substitute. The point is that Christians could tell this was a very different Jesus than the one found in the books they could trust.

The other books that didn’t make the cut were good books that just came along too late to meet the publication deadline. These books show us what the early church really believed. There is nothing off-base or bizarre in them, but there is also nothing essential in them that is not already found in the Bible, and the authors are not apostles who lived in Jesus’ day. So the guy who wrote the list in 180 AD says that the Shepherd of Hermas is a good book, but it’s too recent to be an authority for their faith. Other such books include 1-2 Clement, the letters of Ignatius, Barnabas, and the Didache, all written from 95-130 AD. Interestingly, when the emperor Constantine ordered 50 official copies of the Bible to be made, most of them included one or two of these books like the Shepherd of Hermas or 1 Clement or the Didache. But notice: none of the Gnostic books ever circulates together with any of the books in our Bible.

The Didache (95 AD) is the book I would most like to add to my Bible. It is the earliest summary of Christian teaching. It specifically condemns a list of sins including fornication, child molestation, witchcraft, astrology, abortion, and infanticide. Chapter 7 gives us the earliest description of how to baptize, including sprinkling if necessary, it tells us to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, and to pray Lord’s Prayer 3X per day. Chapters 11-12 tell how to identify a false prophet, and how to provide for God’s servants and for the poor. And Chapter 16 contains a summary of what they believed about the end times.

Ignatius writes his letters in route to his martyrdom in Rome in 110 AD. While we need to honor Ignatius for being faithful unto death, he does sometimes sound a little too eager to be martyred; he says that if the wild beasts don’t hurry up and eat him, he will force them to. Ignatius also tends to be a control freak; he says, “You must not engage in any activity apart from the bishop…The one who does anything behind the bishop’s back serves the devil.” But Ignatius clearly condemns those who do not confess that Jesus bore flesh and that he did not truly suffer on the cross, but only appeared to do so, which proves that this heresy was alive and well at the time he is writing.

The Shepherd of Hermas is an ancient Pilgrim’s Progress. It is the first time we hear the teaching that if a believer falls into sin, they only get 1 chance to repent, and the next time they sin, they’re lost. Making a slightly different point, 2 Clement says that the potter can’t fix the clay after it’s put into the kiln – “So too with us. While we are still in the world, we should repent from our whole heart…while there is still time for repentance. For after we leave the world we will no longer be able to make confession or repent in that place.”

What about books the Bible quotes that we no longer have, such as the Book of the Wars of the Lord, or the book of Jasher, or the many sources quoted in Kings and Chronicles? Are we missing out on some lost volumes of inspired Scripture? I would say, God has already given us the gold nuggets we needed from those books. If we needed more, God would have given us more. The Bible gives us quotes from Enoch and Epimenides (the guy who said “Cretans are always liars”). We have those books. See for yourself: they are not inspired.

We’ve talked about whether there are any missing books that belong in God’s word. But are there any missing words of Jesus out there that did not make it into book form? If it were not for Paul quoting Jesus in the book of Acts, we might have never known that Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” So are there other isolated sound bites from Jesus out there that we may have missed? There are isolated sayings in the Gospel of Thomas that look interesting, such as the line where Jesus says, “Woe to the Pharisees, for they are like a dog sleeping in the manger of oxen, for neither does he eat nor does he let the oxen eat.” I can also imagine Jesus saying, “It is impossible to mount 2 horses or stretch 2 bows” (at the same time). Less likely is the supposed saying of Jesus that if circumcision were beneficial, “their father would beget them already circumcised from their mother.” If Jesus had really said that, it would have solved the debate about that subject in the early church.

Jerome quotes a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to James. James says he’s going to fast until Jesus rises from the dead, then Jesus appears to him and says, “My brother, eat your bread, for the Son of Man is risen from among them that sleep.” I find this interesting but unlikely: James is unlikely to have believed in advance that Jesus would rise from the dead. Another unlikely but interesting quote by Jerome is a scene where Jesus objects to being baptized by John, where Jesus supposedly says, “How have I sinned, that I should go and be baptized by him, unless perhaps this very thing I have said is a sin of ignorance?”

Many of these sayings are quoted by several early writers, such as the line “Be approved money-changers.” It’s quoted at least 4 times by early church writers, but what does it mean? What Jesus seems to mean is that a good money-changer can tell a genuine coin from a fake one, so followers of Jesus need to be able to recognize false teaching when they hear it.

The Gospel of the Ebionites, written for a Jewish branch of the church, gives us an interesting line: “I came to destroy the sacrifices, and if ye will not cease from sacrificing, the wrath of God will not cease from you.” While Jesus did come to make sacrifice no longer necessary, wouldn’t the Jews have thrown a fit if Jesus had taught this on earth?

Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 840 seems to be a page from one of the widely-quoted lost books like the Gospel According to the Egyptians. In this fragment, Jesus rebukes a priest in the Temple. The priest asks, Who gave you permission to come in here without bathing? Jesus answers that he has bathed in the pool of David and has put on clean clothes, but then Jesus accuses the priest of bathing himself in water used by dogs, swine, and prostitutes.

The Egerton Fragment seems to be a jigsaw-puzzle full of bits from several Gospels that we already have. Jesus meets some lawyers who say, “We know well that God spoke to Moses, but you, we don’t know where you come from.” They advise that Jesus be stoned, but Jesus escapes. Jesus then heals a leper who says he caught leprosy from other lepers at an inn. Another group asks him, “Master Jesus, we know that you come from God, for the things you do testify above all the prophets. Tell us therefore: Is it lawful to render unto kings that which pertains to their rule?” Jesus answers, “Why call me Master with your mouth, when you don’t hear what I say?” Then he says, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.”

But all of these texts are far less likely to have been genuine words of Jesus than John’s account of the woman caught in adultery, which was probably not an original part of John, but which was almost certainly a genuine episode from the life of Jesus.

Which raises a point: None of these left-out sayings gives us anything we really needed to know about Jesus that we don’t already have in the canonical Gospels. Whereas, without the story of the woman caught in adultery, we would be missing a truly golden nugget from the life of Jesus. If that story was never found in our Bibles, and we dug it up from some Egyptian garbage dump, we would want to add it to our Bibles. Or what about Jesus’ line, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”? That line is preserved in very few copies of Luke, but if it wasn’t there and we found it somewhere else, we would want to add it to our Bibles. Theoretically, if we found an un-doubtable new word from Jesus, I would add it to my Bible. But realistically speaking, we are not going to find any such word that adds any information that we really need to know about Jesus. God has already given us all we need to know in the books of today’s Biblical canon. Nothing plain or precious has been left out.

Next time on Biblical Words and World, we’ll be talking about: How do we know that the Bible has been translated correctly?