How We Got the New Testament

New Testament Manuscript (610x351)This is our pastor’s newsletter article for April, 2015.  It follows last month’s article, “How We Got the Old Testament,” which you can read by clicking here.


The Early Church

Last month, we looked at how we got the Old Testament.  The Church met in council to state which books were Scripture because three traditions had developed, one of which held that the books of what we call the “Apocrypha” did not belong in the Bible.  In 397 AD, at Carthage (geographically in Tunisia today), the Church rejected that view and affirmed that all the books of the Septuagint, the Greek language Bible of Jesus, His Apostles, and the early Church, was the Old Testament.  Those books would be today’s Protestant Old Testament including the Apocrypha.

But the Church also had to deal with issues related to what books belonged in the New Testament.  And so, at that same council at Carthage in 397 AD, the Church also listed what books made up the New Testament.  (There is the question of why the Church waited so late.  Part of it was because for much of the time before then, Christianity was illegal and so could not meet in such councils.  Second, the infighting about understanding Jesus in His divinity and humanity needed to be resolved.)

Early in the Church, the books that we all recognize as the “New Testament” were not universally agreed on in all places.  Like the Old Testament, there were books that some thought should not be in the New Testament.  This was for various reasons.  Some doubted that a particular book was of apostolic origin.  Now, why was that important?  It was because Jesus specifically promised to the Apostles, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of everything that I have told you” (John 14:26).

And so the Church discussed, “Should James be in the New Testament?  He was Jesus’ stepbrother, not an Apostle?”  Or, “Who’s the author of Hebrews?  It theologically sounds likes Paul, but it’s not his Greek.  Paul wasn’t that good in writing Greek.”

These disputed books, which some contended that shouldn’t be in Scripture or should be treated as a second-tier book were: Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2-3 John, Jude, and Revelation.  Like the Old-Testament Apocrypha, some in the early Church considered these books to be Scripture, but not canon.  (Here’s what the difference is: A canonical book of Scripture is a book from which we may use to make or create doctrine.  A non-canonical book is one from which we may only use to affirm the doctrines that the canonical books have in them.)

Others doubted a book because of its content.  And so some said, “We know the Apostle John wrote Revelation.  But it has a lot of wacky stuff in it!”  Revelation then had much discussion, even though it made almost every list of what books should be in the New Testament before the Council of Carthage met in 397 AD.

And to make it even more complicated, there was the discussion about what to do with the books that everyone knew an Apostle didn’t write, even indirectly.  For instance, the Church used a document called the Didache, which was used to teach adult Gentile converts coming into (then) an ethnically Jewish church.  What should we do with that?  What about the Shepherd of Hermas, which was an apocalyptic book like Revelation?

Looking at the various New-Testament book lists that existed before the Council of Carthage, this is what we find.  Nine lists floated around cataloging the different books of the New Testament.  The boxes below show how many of those lists considered a book as New-Testament Scripture.  The “Rejected” columns are those books that didn’t “make the final cut” to become part of the New Testament.  The “On Some” or “On 9 Lists” show the books that did “make the cut.”


April 15, How We Got the New Testament Graphic


The Old Testament was easy.  We inherited the books of the Septuagint as our Old Testament, and the Council of Carthage simply affirmed that.  (Note: Rabbinical Judaism in the mid-2nd century rejected the Septuagint, including the books of the Apocrypha.  This was, in part, because they believed that Christians were too successful in converting Jews to become Christians using the Septuagint.)

Unlike the Old Testament, the Church had no such inherited collection of books for the New Testament.  Thus, at Carthage, the Church used several criteria to determine if a book should be in the New Testament.  One was if a book had an Apostle as the author.  This even included an Apostle being behind the text, even if he may not have written it.  Many of Paul’s epistles, in part, were this way.  He usually used a pastor as a scribe who also helped write the epistle.  Luke was a Gentile convert, a physician.  Yet, his Gospel and the book of Acts are his compilation of research, writing down what he learned from the Apostles.  Mark was not an Apostle, but his Gospel is considered the “Gospel according to St. Peter.”

Another criterion was catholicity.  Did a particular book teach the catholic faith, that is, the faith the Church universally believed, taught, and confessed from the beginning?  But it was more than that: was a particular book read and preached on widely throughout the Church, not just in one geographical area?

Using those criteria, the Council of Carthage declared what the books of the New Testament were.  Fortunately, we haven’t had any movements within the Church that successfully removed some books like we have had with the Old Testament.



Worth noting is what Luther did in his German translation of the Bible.  Since he knew he didn’t have the authority to remove any books, he included all the books of the Old Testament and the New Testament.  But for the books he didn’t like, he separated them from the others into a separate, unnumbered appendix, one for each testament.

With the Old Testament, Luther separated the books of the Apocrypha, which to this day has “stuck,” which Protestants later removed altogether.  For the New Testament, Luther also separated James, Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation into its own, unnumbered appendix.

And if that wasn’t enough, Luther then wrote what he thought of a book in his preface.  What Luther did was to accept a book as part of the Bible.  But in his preface, he clearly shared his opinion of a particular book.  This is part of what he wrote about James:

But this James does nothing more than drive to the law and to its works.  Besides, he throws things together so chaotically that it seems to me he must have been some good, pious man, who took a few sayings from the disciples of the Apostles and thus tossed them off on paper.  Or it may perhaps have been written by someone on the basis of his preaching.  He calls the law a “law of liberty,” though Paul calls it a law of slavery, of wrath, of death, and of sin.

For Revelation, Luther wrote, “My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book.  For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it.”  For Luther to say that Christ is not is the book of Revelation is not true.

What is different today is how we use the books of the Bible.  Lutherans historically and traditionally did not have a “flat view” of Scripture.  We preferred some books over others for creating and making doctrine (books that are canon and scripture); we used others only to affirm doctrine (books that are scripture but not canon).  Going back to the Old Testament, the Church has always had such an approach to the Scriptures.

I am thankful that what Luther did to the New Testament did not “stick.”  All the books are still Scripture, despite his opinions.  I am also thankful that Luther was a good churchman, knowing that he didn’t have the authority to remove any books of the Bible, no matter what he thought of them.

That’s the sordid, but also beautiful history of how we got the New Testament.