20110819-093743.jpg This next to last post on defending the resurrection will deal with how the Bible was put together. It’s primary value will be in offering a framework for understanding how the scriptures went from a collection of manuscripts that had been copied and distributed globally to the Bible that we use today. This information may also prove useful when dealing with those who suggest that the church suppressed Gospel texts because they weren’t happy with the messages they contained. A quick survey of the process for selecting the books of the Bible will reveal the problem with this accusation.

The transition begins with a church council meeting in 140 AD. Leaders from churches all over the ancient world gathered in order to address the various issues facing the church of the day. These councils took place from the early days of the church when the book of Acts records meetings between Paul and some of the apostles over matters like the conversion of Gentiles. This particular council was attended by a man named Marcion, who brought with him the first canon of Scripture. (Canon means collection of books that are considered to be authoritative.) Marcion’s canon consisted of a heavily edited copy of the Book of Luke and edited versions of some of Paul’s Epistles, excluding the pastorals. Marcion assembled his canon based on his own teachings. The council took issue with the liberties Marcion took with the texts and his decision to identify books as authoritative of his own accord. Marcion was excommunicated and his teachings rejected as heretical. The good that came from Marcion’s canon was that it put the church in a position where it deemed it necessary to identify which books were scripture and which were not.

Rather than simply choosing books arbitrarily, the church leaders came up with a criteria for identifying texts. This way, the books selected as authoritative were selected based on merit rather than “this is what I want to be true.” The criteria were:

1. Apostolic authorship.
2. Universal acceptance within the congregations.
3. Consistency in teaching.

Apostolic authorship: All books that were eventually included in the canon needed to have sprung from the pen of an apostle or be directly connected to an apostle. Apostles were guys that knew Jesus personally, saw him teach or saw him resurrected. If apostolic authorship of a book was not certain, it was typically not included. There is the one exception to this in Hebrews, which many attributed to Paul, but there was not total certainty. However, its strength in the two other criteria put it over the edge in consideration. This is important because there were books that were in circulation that were rejected because their authors were not apostles. For example, some of the books of the early church fathers were not included because they weren’t written by apostles. The Gospel of Thomas was proven to be a forgery. The author was excommunicated and the book was not included in the canon. Most of the books that skeptics point to as suppressed Gospels fall into this category. The fancy theology word for this is pseudoepigraphical. It means written under a fake name. It is frequently alleged that this was a common practice in the ancient world and that the early church fathers simply looked the other way and included books of dubious origin. Any examination of the historical record of the forming of the canon will demonstrate the falsehood of such accusations. The early church fathers were resolute in their desire to preserve the teachings of the apostles.

Wide Acceptance: This criteria resulted from the manner in which documents were distributed in the early church. For more on the method of distribution, read part 5 of this series. The distribution of texts kept the church honest in the respect that the books were harder to alter effectively and pointed to the text’s reflection of the teaching received. Further, the more widespread the documents, the more likely that they had been around for a while, since books were relatively hard to distribute quickly. Further, it removed subjectivity from the equation. With Marcion, the books were selected based on his personal theology. If this were the case, one man would be the determiner of what is and is not authoritative. With this criteria, the entire church made the decision.

Consistency of teaching: With this standard, the church determined that the canon ought to reflect a logical and coherent set of teachings. If a text did not reflect the teaching in the canon, it was not included in the canon. The main idea behind this standard is that a teaching cannot be “true” and “not true” at the same time. If two books contradict each other, one must be false. Consistency of teaching involved comparing the teaching in question to the larger collection.

A quick word ought to be devoted to the role of the Holy Spirit in the process. Consistency of teaching and wide acceptance standards assume the Holy Spirit’s involvement in the process of forming the canon. The assumption is that the Holy Spirit spread the texts that were scriptural and that the Spirit’s teachings would be consistent. This leading of the Spirit reflects a disciplined and educated approach to the Spirit’s leading. They did not simply go with their gut feeling and assume it was the Spirit.

The process of researching and determining the canon of scripture was not instant. The early church fathers spent 200ish years researching and studying before closing the canon. The origination of the texts was tracked down, the books were compared for coherence and the collections of the eastern and western churches were evaluated against each other. Some books, like Jude, spread in their acceptance and were eventually included.

Though the canon was essentially closed in the 4th century AD, there were some ongoing arguments regarding a few of the books. For example, during the reformation some Bibles excluded the book of James because it was thought to promote works-based salvation. Accusations of a mindless following of the Bible don’t accurately reflect history.

It is important to note that early church leaders did a great service to the church by carefully evaluating the books of the Bible in this manner. It has resulted in the Bible being freed from some of the difficulties inherent in the looser handling of texts that has surfaced in other faiths. Further, it provides modern day believers an assurance that they stand on solid ground.