The Bible Fell from the Sky!

Okay, first I want to say that I go to the Bible for my inspiration, my understanding of Jesus, my understanding of the Spirit and the father, for my authority, and so on. Period. No question. Scripture tells me about the Spirit and character of Jesus. That said, I try to also understand that the character and Spirit of Jesus is not Scripture. We must realize the nuance between the Spirit of someone and the letter of someone. Jesus is the Word and the Truth, the bible has words and truth (and, in context, is noncontradictory from an eastern understanding of storytelling). The bottom line is that Jesus and his Spirit are my ultimate authority, inspiration, and clarification.

Many Christians unwittingly assume that the New Testament Bible just fell out of the sky in the first century, and we are supposed to be able to lay our bias, experience, intelligence, ignorance, and opinions aside perfectly to find the true pattern for Christianity therein (OT Canon will be mentioned in a future article).

To be fair, I’m speaking sarcastically to make a point. I don’t think that most Christians literally think the KJV Bible (or any other version) was magically placed in Christian hands in the first century. However, the way we think about and use the Bible suggests that we may believe that assertion on some subconscious level.  

So, What Do We Do with this Book?

Well, first, we need to recognize that it is not a book but a collection/library of books in one canon. Second, we need to recognize that the Bible (the New Testament) never claims that it is the Bible or that there will be a Bible. It never says for us to have a collection of books and letters from the Apostles and their writers. Third, we need to acknowledge that the “Word” of God is Jesus Himself, not Scripture (John 1:1-2, 14; 5:39). Fourth, we should understand that, as far as I can recall, every time the word “Scripture” is used in the New Testament, it is in reference to the Old Testament, besides when Peter mentions Paul’s writings (2 Peter 3:16). But the Greek word simply means writing or documents. It does not necessarily mean sacred text. The words “Bible” or “canon” or “New Testament” or “library” were not mentioned in the context of the Holy Bible as we see it today. Fifth, writing was incredibly expensive in the first century. For example, some experts suggest that it would have cost close to $2,500 in today’s U.S. dollar to write the book of Romans alone in the first century. Sixth, experts say that only 30% of males and 10% of females could read in the first century (even then, they were not necessarily able to write). And even today, 10% of men and 20% of women worldwide cannot read. Several who can read have very poor reading comprehension ability. Seventh, Christianity, and thus its writings, were illegal until 313 AD. Eighth, books were not mass-produced until 1455 AD (much closer to our time than Christ’s time on Earth). Ninth, for much of the Christian age, it was illegal for laypeople (non-professionals) to have their own Bible. Tenth, the full Bible was not printed in English until 1535 AD, and there are still 2,000 languages (representing 300 million people – almost the population of the USA) in which the Bible has not been translated.

It is a modern American privilege to have a Bible, to have it in your language, to have it in a place where it is legal, to have your own copy, to have it received affordably, to have the ability to read and write, and to have tools to do detailed language studies on the Bible that previously only professionals could do (and it took them much much longer to do it). I appreciate the reverence for the Bible that the Christians mentioned in the first paragraphs have. They love their Bibles! I love mine too, and I respect it and cherish it more than ever before. But we need to understand what it is and what it isn’t. We need to know where it came from. The Bible is a tool I believe we are blessed with by God. However, the Bible is not God. The trinity is not “Father, Son, and Holy Bible,” It is “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The Bible is inspired by God and through the Spirit, but it is not God. It was written by humans and has human elements. It was written for us but not to us. Context determines the meaning. We hear one side of the phone call for much of the New Testament because most of the New Testament was written to particular churches at particular times and in their particular context and culture.

Okay, then How Did We Get it?

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I’ve known people personally and virtually who have said that they reject the Bible because it wasn’t written until 300 years after the Apostles (382-405 AD, depending on how you define the canon). More often, however, people who criticize the New Testament will admit that the books in Scripture were written before the fourth century but that church and empire politics played a role in what books were considered valid enough to put in what we call the Bible.

In a sense, I am sympathetic with the skeptics. Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire in 313, and the first council of Nicaea was in 325. We have a record of a handful of church leadership councils before then (starting with the Apostles in 50 AD, at Jerusalem, in Acts 15). However, Nicaea was the first known council in legalized fashion, and Emperor Constantine attended the meeting. That doesn’t sit well with me. I know the legalization of Christianity and the emperor’s presence doesn’t necessitate foul play, but it does make it much more likely to open a big door for corruption (even among well-intentioned people). I love reading church history, but it is difficult for me to look seriously and trustfully at councils after the legalization of Christianity, 300+ years removed from true authority (Jesus), and in the pocket of the emperor.

The writers in the time period between the Apostles (New Testament) and the council of Nicaea (and the legalization of Christianity) are called the Apostolic Fathers (because they knew or were connected to the Apostles and/or those who were close to them) and the Ante-Nicene Fathers (which means before the Nicene council). These writers were still human, still biased, imperfect, still uninspired in the same way as the Apostles (or us), but they are extremely close to and connected with the Apostles. Therefore, we can have some level of trust when they say things, ESPECIALLY if they agree on something (because they disagree a lot and they are silent on a lot of issues as well). I think that anyone filled with the Spirit is inspired by the Spirit in some way. That said, I do think there is a special sense in which the Apostles knew Jesus and had a special message. Jesus told them specifically that the Spirit would lead them to all truth, give them the keys to the Kingdom, and guide them to loosen and bound whatever is necessary. Jesus told them specifically that His work and message would be spread and preserved by their leadership. So, most of the canon books/letters (with a couple of exceptions we will get to) were written by the Apostles or by someone directed by the Apostles. The Fathers were not Apostles, but they can give us a good idea what the first century Christians saw as legitimate Scripture.

So, the question I have is, did the “Fathers” between the Apostles and the Nicene period say anything about inspired, holy, revered books/letters that were written by the Apostles or those they delegated to? Did they say anything about potential forgeries? What books were considered special, and what books were considered equal to the letters they would write (or something we would write)? There is much that could be said about this subject and many others based on what we have talked about so far, but I want to end this article by answering the questions above. I’m not going to be exhaustive. For example, the Apostolic Fathers mention several New Testament letters but no list of letters. However, I plan to mention the first few times we see a Bible (or list of letters) that looks like ours before it was officially accepted by the emperor and the post-Nicene church leaders. I do want to say one more thing before I do that, though. Just because the following Fathers mention these books/letters well after the time of the Apostles does not mean that the letters were not accepted before they mentioned them in their writings. The letters were mentioned in such a way that strongly implies that the canon was widely agreed upon before the time they mentioned the letters by name in their own writings. We don’t likely have every letter written about the church in that time period, and it is not likely that everyone could write or afford to write what the church believed in that time period. We are blessed to have what we have to give context to our faith!

The Earliest Mention of the New Testament Books!

  1. The Muratorian Fragment (around 170 AD) is not a “Church Father” or even a complete book. However, it gives us a Latin list of the letters/books widely accepted at the time as inspired by the hand or delegation of the Apostles. Furthermore, it warned against some forgeries like the Apocalypse of Peter, Paul to Laodicea, and Paul to the Alexandrians.

The books mentioned as inspired in this fragment are: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1st Thessalonians, 2nd Thessalonians, 1st Timothy, 2nd Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Jude, 1st John, 2nd John, Revelation.

It was Missing: Hebrews, James, 1st Peter, 2nd Peter, 3rd John

  • Irenaeus wrote a list of books as well (Against Heresies, 180 AD). He was an Ante-Nicene Father who knew the Apostolic Father, Polycarp. He mentioned the writings of The Shepherd of Hermas and potentially alluded to a couple of other non-canonized 2nd century works, but he made it clear that they were not directly inspired in the same way as the canon was.

The Books mentioned as inspired in his writings are: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1st Thessalonians, 2nd Thessalonians, 1st Timothy, 2nd Timothy, Titus, 1st Peter, 1st John, 2nd John, Revelation.

It was Missing: Some say he might have passively mentioned Hebrews, James, 2nd Peter. He did not mention Jude, Philemon, or 3rd John

  • Hippolytus wrote a list in 215 AD. He was a student and friend of Irenaeus. He quotes from The Shepherd of Hermas. He listed 24 of the 27 books in the New Testament as sacred Scripture.

The Books mentioned as inspired in his writings are: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1st Thessalonians, 2nd Thessalonians, 1st Timothy, 2nd Timothy, Titus, Philemon, 1st Peter, 1st John, 2nd John, Revelation.

It was Missing: He did not seem to look at Hebrews as inspired. This makes sense because we don’t know who wrote it. Some believed it was Paul, but we aren’t sure. It doesn’t contradict the rest of the Scripture, but it is still worth noting that the author is unknown. He did not mention James, 3rd John, Jude, and 2nd Peter.

  • Origen, around the same time period (220 AD) wrote his list. He was fascinating. Roughly 300 years after his death, there was a very politically motivated council that condemned some of his views (or alleged views) as heretical. They claimed that he believed the Devil would go to heaven, that souls preexisted, and that it is good to castrate oneself. In reality, he denied that Satan would be reconciled, his conversation about preexistence was a thought experiment, and, according to his teaching, he did not take a literalist view of the Sermon on the Mount at all. He did not influence people to castrate themselves, and it was unlikely that he did it himself unless it happened when he was young. Eusebius, an early historian, can be a bit inconsistent about what he calls history here and other places (so can Irenaeus and Ignatius, but that’s a different story). Origen was a Christian Universalist and believed that, after a purifying fire and a confession of commitment to Christ, all would ultimately be saved. He was the leader of the Alexandrian School (as was his mentor, Clement, before him, who also was a universalist. Oh, and the Apostle’s Creed councilman and former of our understanding of the trinity, Gregory, was a universalist as well). Origen was the most prolific ancient writer. This same man was the first to list all 27 books of our New Testament. He did so by categorizing the books/letters by acceptance, accepted but questionable authorship, and false or uninspired.

The Books mentioned as inspired and accepted in his writings are: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1st Thessalonians, 2nd Thessalonians, 1st Timothy, 2nd Timothy, Titus, Philemon, 1st Peter, 1st John, Revelation.

Letters he mentioned as potentially inspired with questionable authorship: Hebrews, James, 3rd John, Jude, 2nd John, and 2nd Peter. Also, the Gospel of Hebrews, Didache, The Shepherd of Hermas, Barnabas,

  • Eusebius lived from 260-340. So, he lived through Christian legalization and the first council of Nicaea. I do not consider him to always be reliable. However, he is human and likely did the best he knew how. He used Origen’s categories.

The Books mentioned as inspired and accepted in his writings are: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1st Thessalonians, 2nd Thessalonians, 1st Timothy, 2nd Timothy, Titus, Philemon, 1st Peter, 1st John, Revelation.

Letters he mentioned as potentially inspired with questionable authorship: Hebrews, James, 3rd John, Jude, 2nd John, and 2nd Peter. Also, the Gospel of Hebrews, Didache, The Shepherd of Hermas, Barnabas, Epistle of Barnabas, Acts of Paul, Apocalypse of Peter. Anything else was considered fake to him.

So What?

Roughly 40-60 years after Eusebius, the canon was accepted and collected as an official unit. But, as you can see, it was realized less than 100 years after the Apostles. Furthermore, many of these books/letters are mentioned passively by the Apostolic Fathers as well. We should strive for a balance between Scripture and authority because we will always miss a portion of the cultural context. We should also find the balance between church history and Scripture. Scripture has been mostly agreed upon since the beginning. However, we should also remember that the true creed, the true example, the true authority, and the true Word of God is Jesus the Christ. Grant Scripture respect and reverence, but also remember that, for most of history, patterns could not be found in Scripture because Scripture was rarely found. The pattern has always been, the pattern is, and the pattern always will be Jesus. Let us be guided by the inspiration of the Spirit within us and be transformed into the image of the Word of God! Scripture guides us to Jesus and shows us the Spirit’s inspiration, but we word God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit! – Jesse