How Were the New Testament Scriptures Compiled?

by Jan Shrader

How was the New Testament Scriptures Compiled?

One day I was visiting with a friend who was raised in church, but a bit of a skeptic. He asked me, “Jan, did you know that it took the church four hundred years to determine which books should be considered scripture?”

“I did know that!” I spoke. “But do you know why I hate this historic fact?”

Then he said, “No! Why do you hate this ‘historic fact’?”

“Because hardly anyone who quotes this bit of history wants to tell you why the church waited four hundred years to meet and discuss what was scripture?” I answered him. “Floating this truth without telling the ‘why’ leaves out the best part of the story and can even be deceptive.”

By 120 AD all of the New Testament books were written. But the first Christian synod to determine which books should be included in the cannon and which ones should be rejected wasn’t until 393 AD. If we don’t know our church history these dates might at first appear suspicious.

For the first four hundred years after Jesus’ death Christians were systematically persecuted throughout the Roman Empire, and this menacing danger lasted until Emperor Constantine. Because believers were being hunted down, arrested and literally thrown to the lions in coliseums for sport, it was not prudent for Christian leaders to travel and meet openly. Constantine on his death bed made it legal to practice Christianity within the empire in 337 AD. But it took a while for this safe word to spread.

Under these years of persecution, when professing faith in Christ was risky, these courageous martyrs went to their death praying, like Jesus, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Their emboldened spirits haunted their tormentors, and eventually changed the heart of an entire empire.

Persecution and martyrdom, then, is the reason that Christian elders did not meet earlier to discuss what books should be included and excluded from the New Testament Cannon. With that background let’s look at how the New Testament was written.

All Scripture is God breathed.
The oldest books in the New Testament were the letters written by the Apostle Paul. His epistles were written to encourage individuals and the young churches that he had established as a missionary. We don’t know if he had a sense that he was writing scripture, but he did know he was teaching truths the church needed to hear. Paul’s letter to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:16 said,

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” ESV

All scripture is God breathed. This is a very important statement. God wrote the scriptures. I can imagine that these attendees at the early synods then were looking for God’s breath in every manuscript they considered.

It might surprise modern Bible students to learn that in the beginning the early church showed little
interest in creating a written record of Jesus’ life and ministry. 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 says,

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.” ESV

These five hundred eyewitnesses believed that Jesus’ second coming would be in days or weeks, not months or years. So, they devoted themselves to evangelism and missions, not the recording of Jesus’ words.

Many scholars now believe the first letter Paul wrote was to the churches in Galatia. If you compare the book of Galatians with the book of Romans, you will notice they share the same two-part outline.

First, Paul explains who we are in Christ. Before Christ it was impossible for us in our strength to please a holy God. But, now because of the power of Jesus’ blood sacrifice believers are forgiven, declared righteous, and reborn with a new spiritual nature. It is trust in this declared righteousness that enables us to love like Jesus loved. Just as salvation was by faith alone, our future spiritual growth and progress is only possible when we trust God’s work. Our old self effort tried to transform us from the outside in, but God’s eternal life will now change us from the inside out. Paul is emphasizing in this first section that even the strength to live for God comes from God, not our efforts.

In the second part of Paul’s outline, we see how we should now love because we have undergone such a radical spiritual transformation. If Paul was only articulating some moral code, he would still have been teaching the law.

If we compare the New Testament books of Galatians and Romans, we notice that the arguments Paul made to the Galatians are more crudely stated and at times are even inflammatory. In the book of Romans, Paul’s identical outline is employed, but is stated with more maturity and gentleness. Scholars believe Paul taught the same message wherever he journeyed and with time he refined his major teaching points. By the time he penned his letter to the Romans Paul’s persuasion skills were notably eloquent.

Not every letter written by the early church leaders were considered Scripture.

Interestingly, we do not have all the epistles that were written to the early churches. For example, we see in Colossians 4:15-16, Paul says this:

“Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and Nympha and the church in her house. And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.” ESV

Paul wrote a letter to the church in Laodicea that we don’t have and if you read 1 and 2 Corinthians you will notice that there were four books written to the church in Corinth. We only have the 2nd and 4th letter to the church in Corinth. We don’t know why these letters were not preserved or considered God’s word by the early church, but just because an Apostle penned a letter to a church it did not mean that epistle was considered scripture.

All Scripture reveals the personality of the writer.

When you analyze the different books of the New Testament you will see that while God breathed his inspiration into each writer, he also allowed each writer’s personality to shine through their words. The people who penned the Word of God were not robots that just received dictation. For example, in the gospels we see that different aspects of Jesus’ ministry intrigued each writer in unique ways.

It was only after many of these five hundred eyewitnesses of the resurrection started dying that the young church began embracing the need to record the life and words of Jesus. The first person to be inspired to do this was John Mark.

Today most scholars suspect that the first gospel written was the Gospel of Mark. We believe this because Matthew’s gospel includes 97% of Mark’s words and Luke’s includes 88% of Mark’s words from his gospel. So, by analyzing the content of each gospel there is strong evidence Mark was written first.

John Mark the author of Mark was an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry, but was probably only an older child or teenager at the time of Christ. Later as a young man, probably in his early twenties, John Mark was invited to go on a missionary journey with his cousin Barnabas and the Apostle Paul. We don’t know why he abandoned Paul and Barnabas on their first journey, but he did and returned to Jerusalem.

When it came time to plan their second missionary trip Barnabas again wanted to take young John Mark, but Paul was against it. Such an argument arose between them that Paul and Barnabas split and went on two separate missionary trips.

It is fascinating to study Paul’s opposition to John Mark. It wasn’t long before this incident, when the same Barnabas had defended Paul before the church elders in Jerusalem, who feared he was still plotting to kill Christians. Even though the Apostle Paul wrote large sections of the New Testament, and as a missionary moved with holy boldness, his attitude toward John Mark feels unmerciful. Fortunately, Barnabas was a Christ follower who believed in second chances.

With time John Mark’s faith did mature and he was inspired to write the first gospel. Look at Mark 14:51-52. Here is a passage where Mark may have written himself into his narrative. This event happened on the night Jesus was betrayed.

“And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.” ESV

This episode does not appear in any other of the gospels.

We do not know which of the next two gospels were written first Matthew or Luke. They were probably both written about the same time. Matthew the author of the gospel of Matthew was one of the original twelve Apostles and was definitely an eyewitness to the resurrection. Before he met Jesus there is evidence Matthew didn’t value his Jewish heritage because he had become a Roman tax collector. First century Jews often viewed tax collectors as being in cohorts with Rome’s occupation. Maybe money was his first love, but after meeting Jesus everything changed.

When Matthew begins penning his account of Jesus’ life, he wanted to portray Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. With his emphasis on Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies Matthew’s gospel makes a perfect transitional book from the Old Testament to the New Testament scriptures.

Luke is the only gospel writer who was not a witness of the resurrection. He is also the most educated of all the gospels writers. His Greek vocabulary and grammar usage are complex and considered more difficult to translate. Luke was a doctor by profession and a gentile convert. He intended his gospel to be the first book in a two-part set and his second book was the book of Acts. With these two volumes Luke would write the largest part of the New Testament.

Even though Luke was not an eyewitness, his Gospel is full of eyewitness’ testimonies. He either interviewed Mary the mother of Jesus or spoke with close family relatives. Without Luke we wouldn’t have the birth records of John the Baptist or of Jesus. Luke’s gospel has been called the feminist Gospel because he highlights the women and children who came in contact with Jesus. He also, emphasizes the prayer life of Jesus.’ He was a traveling companion of the Apostle Paul and includes himself in the “we” narratives of the book of Acts.

Look at Luke 1:1-4 to see what he intended.

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all the things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. ESV

John the author of the Gospel of John was probably the last gospel writer. He most likely had a copy of Matthew, Mark and Luke in his possession when he began writing. His gospel’s tone is very different than the other authors. He includes many stories and teaching that the others neglected to include. You can almost hear him saying, “You guys left out the good stuff!” As an Apostle he was an eyewitness to Jesus’ resurrection and refers to himself personally throughout his book as “The disciple that Jesus’ loved”. With his writing, John paints compelling word pictures of Christ like “the Living Water,” “the Bread of Life,” “the Lamb of God,” and “the Light of the World.”

John gives us his purpose in John 20:30-31:

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book, but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” ESV

When we investigate the lives of those whom God chose to write the New Testament, we see that they were a group of imperfect and flawed individuals. We come away more impressed with God’s ability to use them, than their righteousness. John Mark was an early failure as a missionary and Matthew betrayed his countryman by becoming a tax collector for Rome. The Apostle Paul persecuted the early church and sought to kill them before he had a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus.

What events might make someone feel disqualified in our day to speak for Jesus?

Our stories matter. Just like the early church, our life experiences, and the circumstances God has used to draw us to himself are unique. No two testimonies of redemption are exactly alike. Unfortunately, when we withhold our story, we are withholding the glory of God that is uniquely ours to give. So, like the early church let us be emboldened, and not be hindered by our past mistakes. Let’s make ourselves available to God and embrace with confidence the breath of God found in his word, so we can share our own legendary tales.

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