Chapter 20: The Making of the New Testament
When the latest book of the New Testament had been written, there was still no New Testament. Its books had to be collected and credited with a peculiar authority before the New Testament could be said to exist. What led to this collection and estimate?
For the first Christians the chief authority was Jesus. What he bad taught they accepted as true and binding. Believing that his spirit still spoke in their own hearts, they ascribed the same authority to its inward directions. Men who possessed this spirit in an especial measure, the Christian prophets, sometimes wrote down their revelations, and these came naturally to have the authority of scripture, that is, the authority which the Christian believers attached to the writings of the Old Testament. Jesus’ teaching was at first handed down in the form of tradition; new converts learned it from those who were already Christians, and in turn taught it by word of mouth to those who became believers later. But when gospels were written these began to take the place of this oral handing down, or tradition, of Jesus’ words, and soon the gospel writing and not simply the sayings of Jesus that it contained, came to be regarded as the authority. Authority thus gradually and naturally passed from the words of Jesus, and the thoughts of believers endowed with his spirit, to books embodying these.
Almost from the beginning, too, Christians had held Jesus’ apostles in high esteem. Jesus had committed the continuation of his work to them. Paul, though not one of the Twelve, had by his zeal, devotion, and missionary success, convinced the churches that he too was in a real sense an apostle. His martyrdom gave added weight to the teachings he had left behind in his letters; but it was probably the publication of the Acts with its fine account of Paul that first led to the revival of interest in him and in what he had written to the churches. All the Christian writings that followed Acts show the influence of his collected letters, which in the first years of the second century came to be better and better known among the churches.
In the early years of the second century gifted but erratic Christian teachers began to divide the scattered and unorganized churches into parties or sects. Other Christian teachers, fearful of these schismatic tendencies, opposed these novel views and insisted upon what they considered the true and original Christian belief. In these controversies with heretics, that is, sectarians or schismatics, Christians in general more and more appealed in support of their views to the books and letters which had come down to them from earlier times and which they believed presented Christianity in its true and abiding form. In this way greater emphasis came to be laid upon the letters of Paul, the Gospels, and the Revelation.
The first step toward forming a Christian scripture of which we have any definite knowledge was taken strangely enough by one of these sectarian leaders, a certain Marcion, of Pontus in Asia Minor. He was a well-to-do ship-owner of Sinope. He had become convinced that the God of the Old Testament could not be identified with the loving heavenly Father whom Jesus proclaimed, and so he rejected the Old Testament. Something had of course to be put in its place for purposes of Christian worship and devotion, and Marcion proposed a Christian collection, consisting of the Gospel of Luke and ten letters of Paul. He did not include in this list the letters to Timothy and Titus. He accompanied his list with a work of his own called the Antitheses, in which he sought to show that the God of the Jewish scriptures could not be the God revealed in Jesus. The wide influence of Marcion must have done much to promote the circulation of the letters of Paul, whose interpretation of Christianity he regarded with especial favor. This also doubtless prejudiced many against them.
A few years earlier Christian teachers in Asia put forth the Four Gospels together, perhaps in order to increase the influence of the Gospel of John, which Christians attached to the lifelong use of Matthew or Luke might find easier of acceptance if it were circulated along with the Gospel to which they were accustomed. But it is not until about 185 A.D. that we find anything like our New Testament in use among Christians. By that time a great effort had been made by leading Christians of the non-sectarian type -- who regarded their form of teaching as apostolic -- to unite the individual churches of East and West into one great body, to resist the encroachments of the sects. The basis of this union was the acceptance of a brief form of the Apostles’ Creed, episcopal organization, and a body of Christian scriptures, substantially equivalent to our New Testament. In this way the catholic, that is, the general or universal, church began.
The New Testament, as it soon came to be called, did not displace the Jewish scriptures in the esteem of the church, as Marcion had meant his collection to do. It stood beside the Old Testament, but a little above it, for the Old Testament had now to be interpreted in the light of the New. The books included in the New Testament were appealed to in debate with schismatics as trustworthy records of apostolic belief and practice. They served an even more important purpose in being read from week to week, in the public meetings of the churches, along with the Old Testament scriptures. The Jewish idea that every part of the Old Testament must have an edifying meaning was definitely accepted by early Christians, and was now applied by them to the New Testament as well. This obliged them, as it had the Jews, to interpret their sacred books allegorically, and so the historical meaning of the New Testament books was neglected and obscured, and finally actually forgotten.
As to what should be included in this library of preferred and authoritative Christian writings, there was agreement among the churches in regard to general outlines, but no little diversity of news as to details. All accepted the Four Gospels so familiar to us, and thirteen letters of Paul, including those to Timothy and Titus. The Acts of the Apostles and three or four epistles, one of Peter, one or two of John, and that of Jude, were also generally accepted. Eastern churches, especially that at Alexandria, holding Hebrews to be the work of Paul, put it into their New Testament, but it was nearly two hundred years before Rome and the western churches admitted this. The West, on the other hand, accepted the Revelation of John as early as the middle of the second century, but the East never fully recognized its right to a place in the New Testament. The lesser epistles of John, Peter, and James were variously treated, some accepting them and others refusing to do so. The Syrian church never accepted them all, but in Alexandria and in the West they became at length established as parts of the New Testament, mainly on the strength of their supposed apostolic authorship.
Other books now almost forgotten found places in the New Testament in the third and fourth centuries. One of the oldest Greek manuscripts of the New Testament includes the so-called letters of Clement of Rome, one a letter from the Roman church to that at Corinth, written about the end of the first century, the other a sermon sent seventy years later from Rome to Corinth. Another of these manuscripts contains the Shepherd, a revelation written by a Roman prophet named Hermas, in the early part of the second century, to bring the Roman church and other Christians to genuine and lasting repentance. The so-called Epistle of Barnabas, a curious work of a slightly earlier time, is also included in this old manuscript. These oldest extant copies of the New Testament were made in the fourth and fifth centuries, probably for church use, and show what books were considered scripture in those times in the places where these manuscripts were written.
The list of New Testament books that we know, that is, just the twenty-seven we find in our New Testament today, and no others, first appears in a letter written by Athanasius of Alexandria at Easter in 361 A.D. But long after that time there continued to be some disagreement in different places and among different Christian teachers as to just what books were entitled to be considered the inspired and authoritative Christian writings. This was somewhat less felt than it would be now, because the books of the New Testament were not often all included in a single manuscript. People would have one Greek manuscript containing the Gospels, another containing Paul’s letters, a third containing the Acts and the general epistles -- James, Peter, John, Jude -- and perhaps a fourth, containing the Revelation. It was only when printing was invented that the whole New Testament began to be generally circulated in one volume, in Greek, German, or English.
The value of the New Testament to the Christian church has of course been unmeasurably great. To begin with, the formation of the collection insured the preservation and the lasting influence up on Christian character of the best of the earliest works of Christian instruction and devotion. While the purpose of the makers of the New Testament was not historical, they nevertheless did a great service for Christian history. But the idea of establishing a list of Christian writings which should be exclusively authoritative, put fetters upon the free Christian spirit which could not always remain. Indeed, the New Testament itself included in Galatians the strongest possible assertion of that freedom, and so carried within itself the corrective of the construction which Catholic Christianity put upon it. But though Christians in increasing numbers may no longer attach to it the dogmatic values of the past, they will never cease to prize it for its inspiring and purifying power, and for its simple and moving story of the ministry of Jesus. Historically understood, the New Testament will still kindle in us the spirit which animated the men who wrote it, who aspired to be not the lords of our faith but the helpers of our joy.