Yesterday we began a review of Kenneth Bailey’s Interpreting the Bible DVD by looking at the idea of inspiration and looking at the origins of the Old Testament. Today we visit the origins of the New Testament.
Each of the gospels is believed to have been written in the last half of the first century. By the beginning of the second century, the gospels were considered to have unique authority among the Christian community. They were added to the Hebrew Scriptures as authoritative. Other books were seen to have varying degrees of authority as well.
The issue of which books were to be considered authoritative was brought to a head by controversial teachings of a man named Marcian (c. 140 C.E.). Marcian believed that the god of the Hebrews was different from the god of the Christians. Bailey points out that Marcian believed that only Luke was authoritative among the gospels. He included various edited writings of Paul. He eliminated the entire Old Testament. Church leaders rejected Macian’s teaching but the controversy put pressure on the Church to think about what books did carry authority. By the end of the second century the books attributed to Paul were considered authoritative.
Other books were still being debated as late as the fourth century, especially 2 and 3 John, 2 Peter, Jude, Revelation, and Hebrews. The first statement we find listing our present 27 books of the New Testament was made in by Athanasius in 367 C.E., in which he observes that there was general consensus that these were the authoritative books. Thus, it wasn’t until more than three centuries after Christ that the New Testament scriptures came to be recognized as such.
But what does it mean to say that these books have authority? Bailey writes that early in the process the Church asked, “What are the books the apostles have passed down to us?” Notice this is not the same as asking "Which books did the apostles write?" The question was one of apostolic endorsement and determining which ones have broad acceptance across the Church community. Furthermore, the driving agenda was not “What can we include?” but “What can we throw out?” Bailey suggests these were the driving questions for at least the first 250 years after Christ.
Late in the process, the Church began to ask “What did the apostles write?” Luke was okay because he supposedly got his information from Paul, but questions of authorship began to creep into the picture. Along with this, questions of inspiration began to emerge as well. But as you can see, if the earlier question is the driving issue, then authorship becomes irrelevant.
Bailey goes on to point out that the Church does not give the books of scripture their authority. Rather the Church surrenders to the authority of scripture. Imagine a thief holds you up with a gun. You don’t give the gun its authority. You surrender to its authority and hand over your wallet.
The books of the New Testament have authority because they spoke to the hearts of early Christians across a broad range of communities (just as they do today.) There was no rush to create an authoritative list. Over time, the authenticity of the books made themselves known to the Christian community. Rather than imposing a list of official books in the fourth century, the fourth century can be seen as the culmination of a slow brew process.
Next we will look at the origins of the gospel of Luke, one of the few books of the Bible that explicitly states how it came to be.