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Making Sense of the Gap between the Writing of the NT and Its Compilation

Photo of Brett SeyboldBrett Seybold | Bio

Brett Seybold

Brett Seybold and his wife Heather served as missionaries in Germany for a decade. He is now currently working on his PhD at Liberty University where his focus is Jesus and the post Christian mindset while specifically highlighting skeptics' inability to get rid of the Biblical portrait of Jesus. Brett has just launched KAPOL (Kontakt Apologetics) which is a sub mission of Kontakt Mission. It is a non-denominational, European-based missions network and movement. His mission includes interviewing skeptics apologetically across Western Europe specifically the French, English and German areas and to use speaking engagements internationally in churches, campus ministries, camps and more to help plant seeds and help churches get their non-believers and skeptics more curious about Jesus. Brett's international apologetics YouTube channel is called KAPOL Kontakt Apologetics.

The 27 books of the New Testament were all written sometime in the 1st century AD. But when were all these 27 books first compiled into what we now call the New Testament? That’s a different question entirely.

Were all 27 books compiled together in the 1st Century, when the books were written? No. How about the 2nd or 3rd century (i.e., the 100s or 200s)? Nope. The first time we see a list of all 27 books is in the year AD 367, in a letter by Church theologian Athanasius.

It was at the Councils of Carthage (AD 397 and 419) when the church officially ratified all 27 books as Scripture.

That’s well over 300 years after Jesus. That’s a long gap between Jesus and the church’s recognition of the official collection of 27 books. Is that gap bad news for a Bible believer?

Not really. Well before the 300’s, we have indicators that these books are inspired writings meant to comprise our New Testament.

Q: Why expect an early book?

First of all, we need to recognize that most 1st century Christians didn’t own their own personal Bible; many were likely illiterate. But this didn’t mean that these Christians were ignorant of the apostles’ teachings. Early churches had received the oral teachings of the apostles, handed down from Jesus Christ himself.

We shouldn’t underestimate the authority of these oral teachings within the 1st century. The letters from apostles often directed believers to such oral teachings already present in these congregations (e.g., the creeds we read about in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 and Philippians 2:6-11).

We also shouldn’t anachronistically read our present-day dependence on the written text into the 1st century. The Early Fathers recognized a living apostolic voice speaking down into the 2nd century. For example, Eusebius quoted Papius (AD c. 60-c. 130) as saying,

“If, then, any one who had attended on the elders came, I asked minutely after their sayings — what Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the Lord’s disciples: which things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I imagined that what was to be got from books was not so profitable to me as what came from the living and abiding voice.”

The point is that we shouldn’t feel surprised or lose confidence when we realize that 1st century Christians had no written, compiled New Testament as we know it. They clearly had access to the apostles’ authoritative teachings.

Q: Do the writings give clues that they are Scripture?

Are there indicators within the New Testament books themselves that we should see them as inspired Scripture? And, even more fundamentally, can we use Scripture to determine what counts as Scripture?

Here we might ask what other standard would be more appropriate to use?

If the events, teachings, and overall message of the Bible are inspired by God and historically accurate, then what other earthly standard could presumably judge them? Michael Kruger argues,

“After all, if the canon bears the very authority of God, to what other standard could it appeal to justify itself?”[1]

This doesn’t mean we avoid comparing Scripture with other ancient literature, history, and archaeology; in fact, this is often the type of work theologians, apologists, and historians engage in.

When we look within the New Testament books themselves, do we see indicators that the writers believed these books to be Scripture?

Several verses reveal an inter-textual web of apostolic authority, for example:
  • Paul quotes Luke 10:7 in 1 Timothy 5:18, “For the worker is worthy of his wage”, referring to it as “Scripture.”
  • In 2 Peter 3:16, Peter refers to Paul’s letters in the same category with “the rest of the Scriptures.”
  • In Colossians 4:16, the believers at Colossae and at Laodicea were to swap and read each other’s epistles as authoritative (leading some to postulate an unknown letter to the Laodiceans, while others suggest it was some other NT letter such as Ephesians).
  • In 2 Thessalonians 2:15, Paul says, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.”

In the next article, we will look more closely at the assumption that a late recognition of all 27 books by the whole church should make us trust those 27 books less.

[1] Michael J. Kruger, Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 89.