In the Christian Churches of early Christianity there simply wasn’t an Old Testament, New Testament, or Bible when Christ arose, or even later when Paul died. These books, these collections of sacred writings developed over centuries. The Law and the Prophets were scrolls that were widely read in these times. There were epistles, mainly by Paul, that were disseminated after they were written. The gospels weren’t written and disseminated until decades after the day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2. There were also many other letters, gospels, and other writings that were shared among the believers as time passed. The Shepherd of Hermas, probably written very early in the second century, was very popular. And there were other writings that were shared among the early believers like the Gospel of Barnabus that were suspect either in their theology or origin.
What was there before all these “New Testament” writings were compiled into the modern Bible was the original Apostles’ teaching after Christ arose and for decades that was passed around. While whatever writings were available in different locales were passed around, the oral witness of many disciples remembering what they had been taught was also instrumental in spreading the Word.
After the original apostles died there were arguments over which writings were to be included in the list of acceptable books. There is nothing to indicate that at this point the Christian community believed that any of these writings were the actual word of God on a par with the writings of the Old Testament prophets (although remember that people’s opinions are not the scriptural test for the validity of scripture – prophets discern whether words are from the Lord or not [1 Cor 14:29,37]). Nevertheless, in early Christianity, the writings that were written or authorized by the original apostles were solely given the highest credibility. They were trustworthy documents even if they were not on a par with the Law and the Prophets to them. What made them acceptable was their apostolic origin solely because they were either written by apostles or the apostles authorized the men that did.
The development of the canon was actually in response to a heretic that rejected a lot of what is today accepted as scripture.
Marcion (85 A.D.) was a man who declared certain books in what is now called the New Testament to be on the level of the Old Testament. However, Marcion was considered a heretic because Marcion distinguished between the God of the New Testament and the God of the Old Testament declaring the latter to be harsh and unloving. Marcion’s New Testament list only included the gospel of Luke and the church epistles of Paul and Philemon, and he disregarded all the rest. Marcion started a cult based on his teachings that lasted for centuries.
After Marcion other Christian leaders responded as to which books were authentic. The four gospels that we know, Acts, and the epistles of Romans through Philemon along with 1 Peter and 1 John were considered authentic. That was the earliest “canon” although not technically a canon because it was not declared church law as that is what canonization is technically about. The free dictionary defines canon, in regards to the church as “The canon law is a body of Roman ecclesiastical law, relative to such matters as that church either has or pretends to have the proper jurisdiction over:” There is nothing in that process that says that a prophet has declared that something is of the Lord which is the scriptural mandate for determining something as the word of God.
The other books were disputed as inauthentic. Irenaeus, writing about 130 A.D., disputed Hebrews, James, 2nd Peter, 2 John, 3rd John, Jude, and Revelation. Origen, writing about 185 A.D., included Hebrews as valid, but disputed James, 2nd Peter, 2 John, 3rd John, Jude, and Revelation. That means that in the first couple of centuries after Christ those books were not considered what we call “biblical.” Athanasius, writing around 367 A.D., includes all the New Testament books now in the Protestant canon. The books we have now were formally “canonized” in the late fourth century.i
Origen’s comments on the authenticity of the New Testament writings point directly at authorship by the Apostles as key to their acceptance.ii In fact, when he discusses Hebrews he says, “Again, it will be obvious that the ideas of the epistle are admirable, and not inferior to any of the books acknowledged to be apostolic.” This is a clear reference to the standard of acceptance being of apostolic origin.
As you can see, some of the earliest Christian writers disputed many of the books that are now accepted not only as authentic and acceptable to the faith, but today as the God-authored “word of God”.
What Does This Mean
It means that original Christians had a much different sense of scripture than we did. It also means that later Christians decided what was scripture in an unscriptural way. All evidence points to the recognition of the law and the prophets as the only books considered scripture in Christ’s time. It means that immediately after the apostles some Christians viewed acceptable “New Testament” documents as being of apostolic, human authorship. It means that doctrines that are based on disputed books are suspect.
The epistles themselves make declarations directly related to this subject. The great apostle Paul was given to administer in the Church age to the Gentiles as Peter was to the Jews.
But on the contrary, seeing that I have been entrusted with the gospel of the uncircumcision, as Peter to the circumcision; for He working in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision also worked in me to the nations. (Gal 2:7-8 MKJV)
They also state that they, the epistles, contain the word of God.
And for this cause we thank God without ceasing, that when you received the Word of hearing, of God, you welcomed it as the Word of God, not as a word of men, but as it is, truly the Word of God, which also effectually works in you who believe. (1Th 2:13 MKJV)
And, the same apostle writes that we are to follow the traditions that he and the other apostles set up, “either by word or by letter”.
So then, brothers, stand firm, and hold the traditions which you were taught by us, whether by word, or by letter. (2Th 2:15 WEB)
Thousands of years later what we have now are the letters, the epistles, and we have the comforter that can guide us concerning the truth.
However when he, the Spirit of truth, has come, he will guide you into all truth, for he will not speak from himself; but whatever he hears, he will speak. He will declare to you things that are coming. (Joh 16:13 WEB)
These verses, then, establish the epistles of Romans through Philemon along with 1 Peter and 1 John were as authentic writings declaring the word of God to us. They are scripture. Hebrews, James, 2nd Peter, 2 John, 3rd John, Jude, and Revelation are not as firmly established.
Remember we looked in an earlier article, Simple Doctrine, how so many of the doctrines of today didn’t exist in original Christianity. This helps explain why. Remember, original Christians weren’t analytical. They weren’t as interested in the meanings of words, or systematic theologies, as we are.
We will explore the implications of the disputed books later. But for now, we must just acknowledge that original Christianity did not accept all the books that are in the current versions of the bible.
ii. Here are the comments from The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius Pamphilus (vi, xxvi):
“As I have understood from tradition, respecting the four Gospels, which are the only undisputed ones in the whole Church of God throughout the world. The first is written according to Matthew the same that was once a publican, but afterwards an apostle of Jesus Christ, who having published it for the Jewish converts, wrote it in the Hebrew. The second is according to Mark, who composed it as Peter explained to him, whom he also acknowledges as his son in his General epistle, saying, ‘the elect church in Babylon salutes you, as also Mark my son.’ And the third, according to Luke, the gospel commended by Paul, which was written for the converts from the Gentiles; and last of all the Gospel according to John.” And in the fifth book of his Commentaries on John, the same author writes as follows: “but he being well suited to be a minister of the New Testament, Paul, I mean a minister not of the letter, but of the spirit; who, after spreading the gospel from Jerusalem and the country round about as far as Illyricum, did not even write to all the churches to which he preached, but even to those to whom he wrote he only sent a few lines.
But Peter, upon whom the Church of Christ is built, against which the gates of hell shall not prevail, has left one epistle undisputed. Suppose, also, the second was left by him, for on this there is some doubt. What shall we say of him who reclined upon the breast of Jesus, I mean John? who has left one gospel, in which he confesses that he could write so many that the whole world could not contain them. He also wrote the Apocalypse, commanded as he was, to conceal, and not to write the voices of the seven thunders. He has also left an epistle consisting of a very few lines; suppose, also that a second and third is from him, for not all agree that they are genuine, but both together did not contain a hundred lines.”
To these remarks he also adds the following observation on the epistle to the Hebrews, in his homilies on the same: “the style of the epistle with the title, ‘To The Hebrews,’ has not that vulgarity of diction which belongs to the apostle, who confesses that he is but common in speech, that is, in his phraseology. But that this epistle is more purer Greek in the composition of its phrases, everyone will confess who is able to discern the difference of style. Again, it will be obvious that the ideas of the epistle are admirable, and not inferior to any of the books acknowledged to be apostolic. Everyone will confess the truth of this, who attentively reads the apostles writings.” To these he afterwords again adds: “but I would say, that the thoughts are the apostles, but the diction and phraseology belong to someone who has recorded what the apostle said, and as one who noted down at his leisure what his master dictated. If, then, any church considers this epistle as coming from Paul, let it be commended for this, for neither did those ancient men delivered as such without cause. But who it was that really wrote that Epistle, God only knows. The account, however, that has been current before us is, according to some, that Clement, who was Bishop of Rome, wrote the epistle; according to others, that it was written by Luke, who wrote the gospel and the acts.” But let this suffice on these subjects.
(c) 2009-2023 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved. last revised 9/8/2023