Who Chose What to Include in the Bible?
I have a question about the bible we read today:
I know that all of the word is inspired by God, but why do we read the bible that was decided by catholic priests, what and what was not important to include? There are various manuscripts that I believe "did not make the cut" (I think), so why do we not read that extended version today? Some people answer, "well because it was too ridiculous to include" or "it did not make sense"... But it was inspired by God, was it not? And did he not say in Revelation that we are "neither to add nor take away" from the word of God. What is the entire word of God?
Is it what "they" said it was, with their political, religious and, their cultural influences playing a factor? I mean, those elements had to be included because it was all they knew at the time...right?
Feel free to answer what makes sense.
Thank You for reading,
Thanks so much for writing and asking this important question. The issue of what books should or should not be included in the Bible is one that comes up quite often. It has become even more prominent since Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code became an enormously popular book.
Although billed as a work of fiction, The Da Vinci Code contains a very real attack on historic Christianity. At the front of the book, Brown trumpets this bold claim:
All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.
Unfortunately, Brown is neither a historian nor a scholar, so when digging into the content of the book, we incur error after error. "So error-laden is The Da Vinci Code" Sandra Miesel writes "that the educated reader actually applauds those rare occasions where Brown stumbles (despite himself) into the truth. (1)
I. The Concept of Inspiration
The reason I bring up Brown and his mega-bestseller is that it is one of the most recent public charges against the authenticity of the Biblical texts. In the book Brown writes that the earliest gospels were expunged at the command of Constantine in 325 A.D. in order to protect his political position. The characters in Brown's novel assert that texts like the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdala are the earlier and more historical elements of Jesus' life, but were declared not to be Scripture because they usurped a male-dominated church hierarchy.
So, among other things, The Da Vinci Code begs the question "was there some type of objective criteria for classifying certain writings as inspired Scripture and others not?" Well, let me first point out that how we phrase the question is important. All of the early church, beginning with the apostles, maintained that one does not declare a writing to be the word of God, but one recognizes that the word of God has been given and we should therefore treat it appropriately. This is a crucial difference.
2 Timothy 3:16 is a primary example of this viewpoint. There, the Apostle Paul writes, "All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." The word "inspired" (theopneustos) literally translates to "God breathed"). This is a powerful use of language and is used to convey the fact that "God is the ultimate source and original cause of biblical truth". (2)
Inspiration also carries the idea that the Spirit of God moved the biblical authors in a specific way to communicate a specific message. This concept is known as prophetic agency. Although today many people associate the term "prophet" to mean someone who can foresee future events, the primary biblical concept of a prophet is simply someone who speaks God's words to the people in His place. The apostle Peter sums this idea up nicely when he writes, "No prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (2 Peter 2:21).
Realize, the authors of the books of the Bible were not robots - there is no "automatic writing" or any such thing. Each used words and expressions that he felt were the most clear and accurate, relying on the Holy Spirit to empower him to properly communicate exactly what God was intending to convey. Because God used different people with different ways of speaking to compose His word, we can see reflections of those different characteristics in the Scriptures. Like a painter would use different brushes to compose a painting, each having its own purpose and nature, God used different prophets with their own personalities, vocabularies, and styles to perfectly produce His desired communication.
II. Recognizing What Is Inspired
Since we know what classifies as Scripture (God-breathed words through a prophetic agency), we must now turn our attention to understanding how the church fathers identified documents that held such qualities. Since the Old Testament and the New Testament are separated by over 400 years and have different histories, their recognition as Scripture has different facets.
A. The Old Testament as Inspired
The Old Testament books were widely recognized as Scriptural well before Jesus' day. In fact, Jesus in two places authenticates the Old Testament we have as complete when He stated, "all things must needs be fulfilled, which are written in the Law of Moses, and the prophets, and the Psalms concerning me" (Luke 24:44). Here, Jesus refers to the Old Testament as it was divided in first century Israel, and he claims they are the prophetic words of God concerning Him. He also references the Old Testament when in Matthew 23:35 He uses the phrase "from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah". Jesus refers here to martyrs whose killings were recorded in the first and last books of the Hebrew canon. By doing so, He authenticates the Old Testament as the total collection of Scripture to that point and it therefore holds authority as God's word.
Indeed, one of the hallmarks of Scripture is the authoritative nature they hold. Most of the Old Testament books are prophetic in nature. The familiar refrain "Thus saith the Lord" demonstrates that these are meant to be taken as the words of God. When the children of Israel received a message from a prophet, they recognized its authority and its value in instruction and guidance. The Old Testament is the compilation of those writings.
Of course, there were also false prophets in Old Testament times. However, Deuteronomy 18:22 lays out a litmus test to check and see whether pronouncements that claimed to be prophetic were in fact from God - if the prophecies given didn't actually come true, then they should be rejected and the prophet was considered not reliable.
B. The New Testament as Inspired
Similarly, the New Testament also rests on prophetic authority - primarily delivered through the apostles. The apostles were the foundation of church teachings and were hand-picked by Jesus Himself. They were the surest link to Christ and they therefore were the main source of authentication of what should be considered Scripture.
The early church fathers understood the concept of prophetic authority very well. They recognized that the apostles were given authority from Christ and one of the key identifiers of a writing as Scripture was the fact that it either came from an apostle, such as the letters of Paul and the Gospel of John, or it had a close connection with the apostles, such as the works by Luke or Mark. Basically, if a document couldn't be identified as having a real connection with the apostles, that book could not be considered scriptural. Milton Fisher, in writing about principles used in determining canonicity by the early church notes that "apostolic authorship or approval became recognized as the only sure standard for identifying God's revelation. Even within the Scripture record, first-century prophets were subordinate to apostolic authority. (See, for example, 1 Cor. 14:29-30; Eph. 4:11.)" (3)
As we pointed out above, Jesus' view of the Old Testament was very high - but it was not an uncommon view at that time. So, when the apostle Peter states in his epistle that Paul's writings are on the same level as the writings of the Old Testament prophets (ref.2 Pet. 3:15-16), he's making a very bold and serious claim. But Peter did hold Paul's writings equally with the Old Testament, so sure was he that they were the words of God.
Finally, since the New Testament testifies to the life and ministry of Jesus, we can rely on it as Scripture. As scholar F.F. Bruce notes, "[Jesus] Himself was the Word of God incarnate. The written record of His words must therefore inevitably receive a meed of veneration at least equal to that accorded the Old Testament oracles." (4) Dr. Bruce also notes that Jesus promised His disciples that they would, after His departure, receive the Holy Spirit and "'He shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you. ... He shall guide you into all the truth...and He shall declare unto you the things that are to come' (John 14:26;16:13). (5)
Because the Spirit is directly communicating truth through the apostles, the New Testament documents also possess the qualifications of inspiration and prophetic agency. The apostles themselves recognized this, as Paul encouraged the recipients of his letters to circulate them to other churches for learning. The churches would then make copies of these letters to refer to at a later date. Thus, the New Testament was assembled very early - within one hundred years of the documents' writing.
In fact, all the books of the NT were referred to by the church fathers in their writings as authoritative by the mid second century. We have references to various NT texts by Polycarp (c AD 150), Justin Martyr (c. AD 140), Irenaeus (c.AD 170), and lists of documents that should be considered Scripture starting with the Muratorian Canon (AD 170). (6)
III. The Scriptures and Nicea
Taking all of this into account, we can quickly see that the assertions in The Da Vinci Code are ridiculous. The character Teabing, the book's historical expert, asserts that the gospels weren't chosen until the fourth century - and then they were picked to advance a political agenda. Sandra Meisel summarizes the ludicrousness of this assertion by writing, "Christ wasn't considered divine until the Council of Nicea voted him so in 325 at the behest of the emperor. Then Constantine-a lifelong sun worshipper-ordered all older scriptural texts destroyed, which is why no complete set of Gospels predates the fourth century. Christians somehow failed to notice the sudden and drastic change in their doctrine." (7)
Indeed, there was no council called to sort through a bunch of writings and accept some but dismiss others because they did or did not conform to some political agenda. Nothing could be further from the truth. At Nicea, the New Testament canon had been pretty well established for over a century. The church historian Eusebius lists the books as authentic in his Church History volume III, chapters 3 to 25.
History shows that the early church had a fairly consistent method of recognizing what writings were authoritative and they would then copy and distribute them for teaching, correction, moral guidance and a better understanding of God and His desires. We have the prophetic words of the Old Testament authors, we have the apostolic approval of the New Testament authors, and we have the testimony of the risen Jesus.
I hope this has helped in understanding why the Bible holds the place of authority and reverence in the Christian church as it does. I plan on extending this discussion in another article, one looking at some of the other evidences for the inspiration of the Biblical texts. Until then, God bless.
1 Miesel, Sandra "Dismantling The Da Vinci
Crisis Magazine, September 2003
- A prime example of this how Brown gets even the most obvious facts wrong - he misdates the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the origin of the word Jehovah, and even how those in the arts community refer to Leonardo (da Vinci refers to the town of his origin, it is not his surname.)
2. Geisler, Norman and William Nix, From God to Us: How We
Got Our Bible
Moody Press, Chicago 1974 p.13
3. Fisher, Milton "The Canon of the New Testament"
from The Origin of the Bible
Phillip Wesley Comfort, ed. Tyndale house Pub. Wheaton, Ill 1992 p.74
4. Bruce, F.F. The Books and the Parchments
Pickering & Inglis, Ltd. London, 1953 p.104
5. Ibid p.103
6. See several sources listed in Milton Fisher's article "The Canon of the New Testament". Also, From God to Us (Geisler & Nix; cited above) has a great chart on the citations of text by the early church fathers on page 109.
7. Meisel, Ibid.