Though it may not be so evident in the terminology, when we discuss the Canon of Scripture, we discuss about the books that have the right to be included in the Bible, about those that have been identified as having been inspired by the Holy Spirit.
I will treat the matter in a very simple way. This may upset the reader looking for scientific evidence. But I sincerely believe that the matter is pretty easy, strictly speaking, from a Christian perspective.
As far as the Old Testament is concerned, Jesus himself sealed with his words the Hebrew Canon of Scriptures of his days. He quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures and fulfilled what was written in them concerning the promised Messiah – whom he was.
Jesus also sanctioned the classical Jewish division of the Old Testament into Law, Prophets and Psalms, which included the very same books we find in our Bibles today.
Luke 24:44: “Then He said to them, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.”
The Old Testament is very often quoted in the New. Its authority was essential in order to prove that Jesus was the Messiah. The Lord himself mentions Moses, Daniel, David, as he regularly quotes from the Scriptures. When he was tempted in the desert, for example. In the Synagogue, reading the prophet Isaiah, written centuries before, he openly confirmed that that Scripture was authentic prophecy and that the same was being fulfilled in him.
The Hebrew Canon was recognized by Christians.
Concerning the second division of our Bibles, the New Testament, the way to treat the matter is entirely different. Things are much more simple, from a certain perspective. But, more difficult if considered from another.
When Christianity saw its rise, it had to confront itself with the Greek thought which was still dominating the intellectual world of the time. It was not easy for the early Church.
First of all, the authentic witness of the true apostles had to be preserved and received, while false prophets rose everywhere to threaten the purity of the Gospel message.
“To the angel of the church of Ephesus write,`These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands: “I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars;” (Revelation 2:1-2)
Many so called gospels and other false writings circulated during the early Church period. It was not an easy task to isolate and identify the true from the false, especially since there was no central authority and the heretics were very active and prolific in the production of false accounts to substantiate their lies.
Luke himself wrote: “Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.” (Luke 1:1-4)
Luke’s main worry was to be historically faithful. So he diligently searched authoritative and reliable sources. This made his writing trustworthy and his account historically accurate. His Greek mind made his Gospel very popular among the non-Jewish believers.
“And we have sent with him (Titus) the brother (Luke) whose praise is in the gospel throughout all the churches.” (2 Corinzi 8:18)
This passage of Scripture is not so complicated if it is understood for what it actually says – which is that Luke was famous in the early Church because he was the author of his Gospel account. Since it is widely believed that the third Gospel could have not been written so early, translations try to adjust the meaning of this phrase to say otherwise. But the simple truth is that in this passage we have first-hand evidence that, contrarily to what some scholars may think today from behind their desks and on their comfortable chairs, two-thousand years later, we have here evidence in support of an early composition of Luke’s Gospel.
Paul was very careful, adding signs in his letters that would confirm their authenticity.
“The salutation of Paul with my own hand, which is a sign in every epistle; so I write.” (2 Thessalonians 3:17)
“The salutation with my own hand– Paul’s.” (1 Corinthians 16:21)
“This salutation by my own hand– Paul. Remember my chains. Grace be with you. Amen.” (Colossians 4:18)
The letters of Paul were read in the all the churches. So, those who received a copy of an epistle of Paul would diligently make sure that the other churches got it too.
“I charge you by the Lord that this epistle be read to all the holy brethren.” (1 Thessalonians 5:27)
In his second letter, the apostle Peter mentions Paul’s writings. “ … and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation– as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.” (2 Peter 3:15-16)
In the words of Peter we understand about the intellectual and spiritual battle going on in the late first century church called to literally tell between true and false apostles.
The Lord himself revealed to Peter that he would soon die. Nothing was more important for the apostle than to make sure that the pure, authentic report of the eye witnesses should be preserved after his departure. He writes:
“For this reason I will not be negligent to remind you always of these things, though you know and are established in the present truth. Yes, I think it is right, as long as I am in this tent, to stir you up by reminding you, knowing that shortly I must put off my tent, just as our Lord Jesus Christ showed me.
Moreover I will be careful to ensure that you always have a reminder of these things after my decease.
For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” (2 Peter 1:12-16)
The early Church was well aware of the authority of the apostles and of their teachings. It was necessary to preserve such witness from those who attempted to twist the pure doctrine both twisting the interpretation of the Scriptures or producing false gospel accounts, false epistles, etc.
In conclusion, the care and efforts of the first century Church was all to identify and keep the true apostolic witness, discarding the lies of heretics.
It might hurt the scientific mind of today, but we must face it: only the early Church had the means to successfully preserve the true, pure Christian doctrine. It was done in a magnificent way, through the assistance of the Holy Spirit, delivering to the future generations the New Testament.
To determine which book has or doesn’t have the right to be in our Bibles, is not given to the Church of today. This was done by the early Church.
Great scholars come up with interesting or sophisticated theories, but they cannot have first hand, direct access to persons and documents available in the first century. A very simply but convincing demonstration of this is the fact that there are many theories, continually revised according to the new historical, archeological, linguistic discoveries, but the New Testament is still there unshaken in its powerful, accessible, Spirit-filled accounts to change the life of millions who study its pages.
A recent discovery had a particular international echo. The so called Gospel of Judas (so it is entitled) was unearthed in the ’70s in Egypt, preserved in a late III century Coptic manuscript. Its text and translation was published later and at a certain time it seemed like the hidden truth of the Gospel had at last been recovered. This “gospel” was known to the early Church. It was one of the many writings produced by the late first century and the second century heretics belonging to the various sects generally defined as Gnostics. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon in the second century, spoke about this writing in his monumental five-books book against Gnosticism. The early church knew about this and the many other false, unreliable writings adulterating the purity of the apostolic doctrine and condemned them to oblivion.
The interest of scholars is understandable. We recover a piece of history with this finding. No-one denies. But the value of its witness has been overestimated only for commercial purposes. If anyone believes that this Gospel shades light on details of the Christian faith that had been hidden by the Orthodox, they are completely wrong. This anonymous writing, falsely self-attributing its authorship to Judas, provides no true new historical or religious information. The same would apply to all the many false heretical writings circulating in the first centuries of the Christian era.
The Canon of the New Testament is the one we find in our Bibles and with all due respect for those who do not entirely agree, no-one ever produced any evidence that any of those 27 books should not be considered the Word of God or that any other book was wrongly excluded from this authoritative and precious collection.
The four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles and the book of Revelation have all the right to be in our Bibles right after the Old Testament, be called the New Testament and Word of God.
Old and New Testament together, are the Revelation, the Holy Scriptures which witness to the Truth of the Gospel we need to believe in order to be saved and all the teachings we need “that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:17)