How we got the Bible
Because some may doubt the reliability of the Bible, it is important to say just a few words about its use as the source for information about Jesus. The reason for this is that some would suggest that the church’s image of Jesus is the result of a perception of faith and not historical reality. The writings that we now consider to be the New Testament were penned several years after Jesus. They were not officially collected as an approved Canon for almost 400 years. Could it be that the church may have altered the copies to represent the Jesus they wanted to portray? While it is true that there is a gap between the historical Jesus and the first writings and that no original documents exist today, this does not have to lead to the conclusion that the church altered the stories about Jesus.
Check out the workbook that details the Development of the Canon of the Bible.
To understand the impact of this, please review the following timeline. This draws a distinction between the Historical (real person) Jesus and the Historian’s Jesus (Perceived from church teachings) The link below will open a PowerPoint that will give a brief overview of this idea. Notice that in the Gospel accounts, there is a gap of 18 years. There is also a gap in the first 12 years. So, only the birth, a trip to Jerusalem, and the last three years of Jesus life are included in the Gospels, with the earliest (possibly Matthew or Mark were written as early as 50-60 ad, although, this would be very conservative. Next, notice that the earliest written copies do not show up in history until around 150 ad. Additionally, the more complete copies are from circa 250. Note that I am saying copies as we have no originals. Also, these are copies with edits. In case you are starting to have some doubts about the scriptures, don’t. I’ll explain this in just a moment. For now, I am just trying to show that much of our perception of Jesus may be from the teachings rather than strictly from the Gospel accounts.
The Early Transmission of the NT
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The position of the truthfulness of the writings can be easily demonstrated in the fact that the multiple copies that were being made and distributed were coming from very different and distant places. Alexandria in Egypt, Rome, and Syria were the centers of Christian growth. It was from these locations that separate families of texts originated. When these copies are examined, it becomes very obvious that they share a very high percentage of similarity. The similarity would indicate that the multiple sources were drawing on a single textual base, providing one story about Jesus. Even when we consider the differences between the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) (1), we do not find different stories. For instance, we don’t find some text prophesying that another prophet, such as Mohammed, would appear after Jesus. If such a text did appear that made such prophecies, how is it that it disappeared without a trace! “Poof, it’s gone” (2). The Christian stands secure in the fact that there has always been a consistent textual base from which our existing New Testament canon has been formed.
Development of the Canon
Another consideration regarding the source is to consider how it developed. According to our best scholarship, all the books contained in our New Testament were written by 100 ad. There was no official collection for approximately 250 years. However, there were multiple texts being distributed and used in the church. As early as the 2nd century, broadly typical lists included the 4 Gospels, Acts, all 13 of Paul’s writings, 1 Peter, 1, 2 John, and Revelation. By the time Origen died in 254 ad, he had comprised a list composed of three categories. They were the confessed books that were pretty much accepted as canonical by all or most of the church. This list included the books listed above with the exception that 2nd John was not included. Those books spoken against or doubted were Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2, 3 John, and Jude. By the middle of the 3rd century, some churches were already using the 27 book canon though others were not sure yet about all of the general epistles. However, the Orthodox Church was pretty much in agreement on what was excluded. It would take a few more years before most would agree on the full list. Finally, in his Easter letter in 367 ad, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria used the word Canon to describe the list of accepted books, which included the names of the 27 books and only the 27 books that we have in our current New Testament. This canon was confirmed by the Synods of Hippo Regius in North Africa in 393 and Carthage in 397 ad. At first, the 27 book canon was not accepted by the whole church but certainly paved the way for a church-wide acceptance of the New Testament canon as we have it today.
Check out this free PowerPoint on "How we got the Bible"
(1) The term Synoptic means to view beside. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are very similar, many times having the same text. A good resource to study is Robert Stein’s Studying the Synoptic Gospels (Grand Rapid, MI:
Baker Academic, 2001).
(2) James White, “The Early Transmission of the NT,” Alpha and Omega Ministries, 30 January 2008.
(3) Gamble, Harry. The New Testament Canon: It’s Making and Meaning,
Guides to Biblical Scholarship, (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 71.
Last update: 19 October 2018