Where Did The New Testament Come From?

The contemporary “New Testament” comprises twenty-seven books: the four canonical gospels; the addendum to Luke called “Acts;” the twenty-one letters of the apostles (primarily letters attributed to Paul but also letters attributed to James, Peter, and John) and the Revelation of John. Many of these writings are believed to have been written prior to AD 120, though the authorship and authenticity of these writings have long been the subject of speculation.

In the early days of “the way,” Christian literature attributed to the apostles circulated widely among the faithful, particularly the Pauline letters. Judea, a frustrated and enslaved region of the Roman Empire, was already a region filled with the “people of the book” who were accustomed to reading from a sacred literary canon. At the time, there was near constant tumult among the Jewish peoples who longed to be out from under the oppressive and hedonistic yoke of Rome. Amidst this milieu, a variety of Rabbinical teachers arose, one of which was Jesus (whose name in Aramaic more closely resembles “Joshua”). He was born at a time when hope for a Jewish messiah was strong –people longed for one who could lead Judea out of its present turmoil and institute a revival of the regime of David and Solomon. The Jewish elders, who often appeared hypocritical and subservient, worked in concert with the Roman governors in the uneasy task of ruling the region. Together, they sent many Jewish revolutionaries to their deaths for heresy and insubordination. After Jesus’s death around AD 30, the Jewish revolts continued with many preachers proclaiming to be messianic figures, like Simon Bar Kokhba or Simon the “sorcerer” who is referenced in Acts.

However Rome’s occupation of Judea brought new technologies to the people of Judea –like the expansion of the written word which became available for more people, as well as libraries, and a mail delivery system which allowed the ability to deliver letters across vast distances. Thus a new group, in-part reminiscent of Hellenistic mystery cults and in-part inspired by Jewish messianism, arose and took hold. Various writings of Jesus were documented approximately one generation or two after his death and the crux of the message (or “good news”) in the Gospels is that Jesus is superior to other divine claimants because he managed to overcome corporeal death (Jesus’s death can be read as an inversion of the death of Socrates found in the classical writings of Plato and Xenophon). The Christian theological narrative continues the eschatology found in the book of Isaiah, by declaring that Jesus will one day return to earth in stunning apocalyptic redemption for all.

Like most divine writings which have come down to us from antiquity, the early Christian texts must be approached with a degree of respect for the sacred. Their origins are mysterious, and the teaching eludes us. Clement, the early father of Christianity who is rumored to have been a follower of Peter, referenced several “words of Jesus” that were written down and certain letters by Paul. Clement is today considered one of the apostolic fathers of the church along with Polycarp and Ignatius — the latter two of whom are rumored to be followers of John the Apostle. At this time there were varying written accounts of Jesus likely available – a “Sayings Gospel” and a “Signs Gospel” which formed the basis of the narratives for the canonical gospels.

The first compendium of Christian writings comes from Marcion of Sinope, a controversial figure in the history of Christian theology. He was a ship merchant, and he regarded Paul as the only true apostle of Jesus, though Paul never actually met Jesus, and Marcion believed that the God of the “Old Testament” is an entirely different and inferior deity to Jesus. Marcion was denounced as a heretic by other church founders, including Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian. Marcion was also excommunicated. He wrote a “Gospel of Our Lord” –which was a rewriting of Luke but without any reference to the Hebrew scriptures. Marcion’s thesis was that Christians should develop an entirely new canon, separate from the Jewish scriptures, based solely on Luke and Paul. He also collected the “Evangelikon” and the “Apostolikon” to form an early New Testament canon which included: Matthew, Mark, Luke (Marcion’s version), John followed by Galatians, and Pauline epistles to the Corinthians, Romans, Thessalonians, Colossians, Philippians, Philemon, and now lost letter from Paul to the Laodiceans. Despite being denounced as a heretic, Marcion’s list forced early Christianity to face the question of which texts were to considered authentic. Marcion’s radical theology came to be known as “Marcionism.”

Putting Marcion aside, Justin Martyr referenced the “memoirs of the apostles” somewhere around AD 145, and he cited several Pauline letters. Thus, by the 2nd century there was a fairly established tradition of which writings were to be considered authoritative. Then, a man named Tatian was converted to Christianity by Justin Martyr who traveled to Syria to build the church. In doing so, he created his own gospel by weaving together elements of the four canonical gospels, which he called Diatessaron (or “Harmony through the Four”). This gospel became the basis for the Syriac Church.

A somewhat loosely defined set of four gospels was alluded to later by Ireneaus of Lyons around AD 180. Irenaeus was originally from present-day Turkey where as a young man he supposedly heard the preaching of Polycarp, the last living connection to the apostles of Jesus (Polycarp was a disciple of John the Evangelist). Irenaeus then went to preach in present-day Southern France. He argued vociferously against heretical doctrines (like the Gnostic texts) and he was adamant that only four gospels were legitimate, though there were many varying gospels at the time, with Matthew being the most popular. Irenaeus is the earliest person to attest to the Gospel of John being, in fact, written by John the Apostle, and the Gospel of Luke being written by Luke, the companion of Paul. Irenaeus seems to reject certain apocryphal texts as illegitimate, such as 1 Clement (then known as the letter to the Corinthians), Polycarp’s Epistle, and the Shepherd of Hermas.

Over 150 years later, Origen, the now-famous theologian and Bishop of Alexandria, used the same corpus of writings as Irenaeus when detailing which books were to considered to canon, however disagreements persisted regarding the final texts of the New Testament: Hebrews, James, 1st and 2nd Peter, 2nd and 3rd John, Jude, and Revelation. Over the next several hundred years the canon was gradually finalized with the help of the orthodox regime of the papacy.

The Muratorian Fragment is another important piece of early Christian literature that has come down to us via a badly damaged Latin translation of an early Greek list of authoritative Christian texts. The surviving version is a Latin list that was bound in the 7th or 8th century and it was discovered at Columbanus’s Monastary in Italy in the 18th century. This fragment references many of the books in the present-day canon, however it also includes the Shepherd of Hermas, though the document requests that it not be read in Church as it was written closer to the “present-day” and is not accepted as apostolic. The text also references an Apocalypse of Peter book as well as a Wisdom of Solomon book.

Clement seems to have accepted any text that came down to him as Christian, including apocryphal and Gnostic texts like: Barnabas, Didache, 1 Clement, Revelation of Peter, Shepherd of Hermas, and the Gospel According to the Hebrews –a now lost account of Jesus’s divinity. In addition, Clement references: the Gospel of the Egyptians, Preaching of Peter, Traditions of Matthias, Sybilline Oracles, and the Oral Gospel.

Not long after Clement, writing around AD 330, Eusebius, the early Christian historiographer, listed the current canon in its mostly recognizable form, while acknowledging many controversies surrounding the authorship of 2nd Peter, Epistles of James and Jude, and 2nd and 3rd John. For Catholic Christians, these texts were made authoritative and canonical in AD 382 at the Council of Rome and again at the Council of Trent in 1545. For Orthodox Christians, these texts were canonized in AD 692 at the Second Council of Trullan. For the Church of England, these texts were made authoritative in 1563 with the Thirty-Nine articles. For Calvinists, these texts were made authoritative in 1647 with the Westminster Confession of Faith.

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