In the early 1800s, Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon as “another” testament of Jesus Christ. In the mid 1500s, the Roman Catholic Church declared the writings of the “Apocrypha” to be on par with the rest of inspired Scripture. In the 600s, Muslims touted the Quran as the final, superior addition to God’s holy writings. And in the 200s, the Gnostics added dozens of mystical and mythical documents to their “Scriptures.”
Why don’t Christians believe that the additions of the Mormons, the Catholics, the Muslims, or the Gnostics belong in our Bibles?
The Real Bible vs. “Bible Wannabes”
During the early years of the Christian church many “Bible wannabes” competed for acceptance. Titles like the Gospel of Thomas, the Apocryphon of John, the Gospel of Truth, and the recently discovered Gospel of Judas all presented different portrayals of Christ and different versions of Christianity. Why aren’t some of these “rejected” writings found in our New Testament? More importantly, how did the early Christians choose the books we have in our Bibles?
The fictional historians in The Da Vinci Code suggest that a council of bishops at Nicaea in AD 325 voted on these particular books out of hundreds of worthy competitors. And some real historians today say church leaders selected New Testament books that protected their authority and rejected those that challenged it. Clearly, understanding the truth about the authentic Scripture versus “Bible Wannabes” will help strengthen our confidence that the Bible we hold in our hands contains only the books that belong . . . and none that don’t.
For the earliest Christians, “Scripture” consisted of the Old Testament books as we have them in our Bibles today. However, the collection of the New Testament writings took some time. How did this occur? How did the early Christians know which books were Bible-worthy and which were Bible wannabes? How can we trust their judgment in this matter?
Scripture in the Early Church
The fact is that the authority of any New Testament writing was dependent upon whether or not it came from the pen of a true apostle or prophet. Other writings could be true, beneficial, and edifying . . . but not inspired and inerrant. But how would they know whether a book or letter had been written by an apostle or prophet? In the same way you and I can tell whether a letter we receive is from a close friend or from a total stranger---Christians knew which books were authentic because they knew the authors. Almost immediately these writings began to be copied and passed around to other churches. From the start, churches used these writings for instruction and worship. So for most New Testament books there was little question about whether or not they were authoritative for the faith and practice of the churches.
But wouldn’t later generations lose their certainty about those writings and be fooled by Bible wannabes? No, the Christian churches would still know which writings were true and which were false. Let me illustrate. In the archives of Scofield Memorial Church in Dallas, Texas, you can find hand-written notes from C. I. Scofield himself that are over one hundred years old. How do we know these documents are authentic? Because the church knows they are authentic—they are documents that have always belonged to the church. While outsiders may know nothing of their existence, these writings have been part of that church’s legacy from the beginning, and there is no question about what they are or who wrote them. So if some scholar studying the life and teachings of C. I. Scofield wanted to collect all of that pastor’s miscellaneous writings, the local community where he served for several years would be able to provide the documents and vouch for their authenticity.
The same was true of most New Testament books. For example, around AD 95 the apostle John may have handed a copy of his fourth gospel over to Onesimus, pastor of the church in Ephesus, who then sent copies to Polycarp in nearby Smyrna around AD 100, who then gave a copy to his student Irenaeus around 150, and so on. At no time would these believers question whether or not John wrote this book. Eventually, remote Christians in other churches and regions would also come to accept the gospel of John as they researched its history, examined its content, and corresponded with other churches.
Even when we hear about “disputed” books that took a little longer for all the churches to accept (or reject), we should actually be encouraged by this news rather than discouraged. Why? Because this prudence indicates that the early church leaders were extremely cautious regarding writings about which they were uncertain. They diligently investigated these writings to discover the truth before they reached universal agreement on what was to be accepted as true Scripture.
The Whole Bible and Nothing More
Although the majority of our New Testament books were collected and used together throughout the churches by about AD 200, the final, official affirmation of our present New Testament occurred at the Council of Carthage in AD 397. This council did not vote on these books from among dozens of competing “candidates” for Scripture; rather, it acknowledged the writings that Christians all over the world had already accepted by that time—and have received ever since.
Around AD 177, Irenaeus of Lyons, a student of John’s disciple Polycarp, warned Christians about some Gnostic heretics who “adduce an unspeakable number of apocryphal and spurious writings, which they themselves have forged, to bewilder the minds of foolish men, and of such as are ignorant of the Scriptures of truth” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.20.1). Irenaeus clearly limited the authentic gospels to four: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and noted that some heretics accepted one gospel but reject others, or they tried to pass off their own fictions as fact. He wrote, “It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are” (3.11.8).
Irenaeus also mentioned several Gnostic writings that were being passed around in his day. Some of these were found in 1945 at Nag Hammadi, Egypt. With reference to the followers of the Gnostic teacher Valentinus, Irenaeus wrote, “Indeed, they have arrived at such a pitch of audacity, as to entitle their comparatively recent writing ‘the Gospel of Truth,’ though it agrees in nothing with the Gospels of the Apostles, so that they have really no Gospel which is not full of blasphemy” (Against Heresies 3.11.9). And in April 2006, the National Geographic Society will be publishing an English translation of the recently discovered Gospel of Judas. However, Irenaeus referred to this false gospel as a writing of the Cainites, who claimed that Judas Iscariot, “knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas” (Against Heresies 1.31.1). We learn from the writings of the early church father Irenaeus that heretics have always tried to add to or take away from the authentic writings of the apostles and prophets. Today these ancient forgeries may tell us what early heretics believed, but they give us no reliable information about Jesus, nor do they have any spiritual value for true Christians.
So do the Book of Mormon, the Apocrypha, the Quran, and the Gnostic gospels belong in our Bibles? No! We can be confident that, by the wisdom and providence of God, the early church made sure the book we trust as inspired Scripture contains the whole Bible and nothing more.
If you’re interested in learning more about the issue of the origins of our New Testament, we suggest the following resources.
Beckwith, Roger T. The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and Its Background in Early Judaism. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1986. (intermediate)
Bock, Darrell L. The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth behind Alternative Christianities. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2006. (intermediate)
Bruce, F. F. The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1988. (intermediate)
Carson, D. A. and John D. Woodbridge, eds. Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon. Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock, 2005. (intermediate/advanced)
Geisler, Norman, ed. Inerrancy. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980. (intermediate)
Lutzer, Erwin W. Seven Reasons Why You Can Trust the Bible. Chicago: Moody, 1998. (beginner)
Radmacher, Earl D. Can We Trust the Bible? Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1979. (beginner/intermediate)