How the Scriptures Were Chosen


The rationale behind the choice of the scriptures was, first and foremost, authenticity. This was true of both the New and the Old Testaments. There were many spurious tracts and these had to culled out. A large volume of literature, especially Gnostic* works, were springing up like weeds, not only complicating the choices, but adding a sense of urgency to the task of identifying those that were authentically apostolic.

*Gnosticism is a form of mysticism where knowledge itself is the god. According to that belief, one elevated himself to proximity with the divine through study and scholastic understanding; passing through stages of perfection as a person's knowledge increased. Gnosticism's premise was that closeness to God was limited only to the select few who could attain it intellectually; and that, only through long and protracted study. This differed diametrically to Jesus who taught that those closest to God were the poor and simple, and that they were justified by faith alone. Gnosticism was elitist. A modern similarity can be found in the precepts of L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology.



The decision about which books the Old Testament should keep or discard as sacred was complicated by the fact that scholars had to deal with two lines of scripture, Greek and Hebrew. In the end, Christianity chose the Greek and the Jews chose the Hebrew. Since the Greek Old Testament had more books in it than the Hebrew, controversy has raged over Christianity's decision ever since.

With both sets of books (New Testament and Old Testament), there was a grey area where the job of selecting canon became more difficult. When the Jews officially codified their Old Testament at Jamnia around 90 A.D., even the Book of Ezekiel was suspect. According to the Talmud, it was saved only at the last hour by a bribe of precious oil.

Ultimately, the Jewish Rabbi's drew the line on the basis of language alone, culling out everything that was not first-authored in Hebrew. There is some reason to believe that this was a frontal assault on Christianity because all of its known books were first-authored in Greek. So, in effect, the Jewish decision stripped the Christian documents of their claim to divinity (as far as the Rabbi's were concerned).

At the time of Jesus, about 100 years before Jamnia, the Old Testament existed only as scrolls of books. These were kept at the Jerusalem Temple. The synagogues, however, used Targums (like Catechisms) that were written in the language of the Judaeans (Aramaic). These consisted of scriptural quotations and explanations.

A Jewish adminstration in Jerusalem about 300 B.C., wished to address the problem of the Jewish exiles (Jews living dispersed around the world). Very few spoke Aramaic and almost none understood Hebrew. They read and spoke the language of the lands they were living in, and virtually all understood Koine Greek, the ancient world's language of commerce. So the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem authorized the translation of the Hebrew scrolls into Greek. According to one report, seventy Jewish scholars were sent from Jerusalem to Alexandria Egypt (then the ancient world's greatest library) to complete this work.

What came out of that effort was the Greek Bible. Published about 275 B.C., it was very popular, and, according to the Talmud, hung side by side with the Hebrew in the Jerusalem Temple at the time of Christ. Fragments of the Greek scriptures were also found at Qumran (as a part of the Dead Sea Scrolls).

It was the Greek Old Testament that the Apostles and early Christians used because it was in the language of the dispersion. As everyone knows, Vespasian and Titus conquered Jerusalem in 70 A.D., burned down Herod's Temple and exiled the Jewish dissidents and populations, scattering them throughout the Roman empire. This began the Diaspora, a dispersion that has lasted for almost 2000 years. As the Jews departed the Holy Land, the Christians went with them to spread the Gospel to the churches and synagogues of the world. That is why Peter and Paul and the other disciples all ended up in Rome, and why the western church became headquartered there. It was all a part of the Diaspora, i.e., the exile to "Babylon".

When the Rabbi's made their decision regarding the codification of the Hebrew Old Testament, they outlawed the Greek Old Testament. That action nullified the Old Testament scriptures which were being used by the Christian proseltyzers, closing to them any contact they might of otherwise had with the world's Hebrew synagogues. Furthermore, most Christian scholars in the early Church disagreed with the decisions made at Jamnia, rejecting them outright. The entire Christian Church continued using the Greek Old Testament.

What was apparent to Christian scholars was the grey area that surrounded part of the books being considered. Some were obviously fanciful, and a few had been written during the Christian era. Roman scholars felt those had to be eliminated. That is why the Catholic (Roman) Old Testament differs from the Greek. Early Christian scholars kept what they felt were authentic books, but eliminated those they felt didn't measure up to intense scholastic or spiritual scrutiny. Their decisions were backed up by Origin and the Church scholars that later followed him. As far as the Greek-written (apocryphal) works included in these decisions are concerned, the results and reasons surrounding their choices can be found on our web page, "apocrypha.htm".

All these books were assigned by the Roman church to a category in which their true canonical nature remained somewhat in question, but, like the Greeks, the lay people of the Roman church considered them true scripture and used them as such.

The Old Testament remained unchanged until Martin Luther appeared in 1519 or so. He discarded the Greek Old Testament and replaced it with the Hebrew version (they used the Jamnia rescension). The Apocryphal Old Testament books he gathered together and placed in his Bible between the New and Old Testaments. It was at this point that the Roman Church finally decided to agree with the Greek Church in canonizing the Greek-written works. Most of the apocryphal books chosen were written by dedicated Jews 100 to 200 years before the birth of Christ.


Authenticity was so important to those selecting which books were sacred enough to qualify as scripture, the newer works were barely considered. Instead the arguments centered on which included books in the list should be removed from it. In the end, none were and the New Testament was codified just as you see it today.

Because of the threat of the Gnostics, all writings of the era came under intense scrutiny. The wildly popular grey area books like Clement, Barnabus or Shepard of Hermas were never considered canon by the early writers. The questionable books were those among the chosen themselves. James, Jude, 2nd Peter and Revelation. One or two even questioned Hebrews and John's last two letters. Most of the New Testament books seem to have been defined close to 100 A.D. The impeccable scholar Origin who compiled his list about 95 years later excluded James and Jude but kept as scripture all the rest. About 100 years after that, the rest of the important New Testament scholars appeared and most of them agreed with the present canon as well. The only exception was the Book of Revelation. Four of the eleven church scholars had reservations about this document.

As far as the apocryphal books of the New Testament were concerned, none were chosen as scripture. The closest work was First Clement. It was written about 90 AD by the Bishop of Rome and was eliminated from contention only narrowly. One reason, it contained a prophecy stating that "across the impassable ocean other worlds" existed. Another passage refers to the mythical Phoenix bird as if it were real. Despite the books early authorship and impeccable message, those references were considered too fanciful and the work was rejected as true scripture.

The question of authenticity as far as New Testament scripture is concerned can be found, not in scholarship but in Christ Himself. He told His disciples:

"I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: Whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven." (Mt.16:19).

"scripture cannot be rejected". (Jn.10:35).

Jesus took the keys of the kingdom out of the hands of the Jewish high priest and gave them to Peter, and through him, the Apostolic body. Nothing could be more "bound on earth" than the scripture they chose. With Christ's announcement that heaven would bind itself to their choices, it becomes a case-closed situation. The same cannot be said for Jamnia, however, because those decision occurred after the replacement of authority had already taken place. Christian binding appears exclusive. And once bound, Jesus said, scripture cannot be rejected.

In the New Testament, now divinely bound, is contained a chapter in the Book of Acts that unbinds the Hebrew covenant, nullifying the Old Testament that governed it. Because that, too, is bound in scripture, their decision in that regard cannot be rejected.

Where Martin Luther fits into this scenario is a matter of speculation. Did he have authority to switch Old Testaments 1400 years after the Christian fathers had codified it? Fortunantely, with the Old Testament it isn't that serious. If you eliminate all of the questionable books, the only thing lost are prophecies anyway and there are enough of those even in the Hebrew books alone to prove Jesus true.

Of greater concern, the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Mormons have each changed the wording of certain passages in the New Testament. Do new versions of scripture come under the same blanket of binding covered by Christ's directive? Almost all Christian scholars say no. They remain universally agreed that no one has authority to change the ancient canon of the New Testament. Their thinking is that what the early Church fathers bound in the beginning cannot be altered. This is why all churches return to the original Greek manuscripts when upgrading translations of their scriptures into modern tongues.

The situation with the Old Testament is far less critical. It was dissolved as a legal and binding document on Christians by Peter and Paul and the Twelve Apostles. See Acts 15. They unanimously agreed that from the day of their decision forward, the Old Testament had no authority to lay down rules for Christians outside of those defined by the New Testament. For that reason, the Old Testament is now, for Christians, a book of prophecy and history only. That applies equally to its Apocryphal works.

The rules of the Old Testament have greater meaning to non-believers. Everyone not baptised remains under its declarations and obligations. Gentiles remain gentiles and pagans remain pagans. And everyone, pagan and Hebrew alike, are legally bound to live under the condemnation of a Law that contains no provisions for mercy or salvation. It is a death sentence, and can only be reversed by Christ through the process of being baptised out of the Law and into His mercy and offer of salvation from God.

This does not mean that in Christianity the Old Testament has no meaning. Its words, centered as they are on ancient prophecy, are invaluable towards proving whether Jesus is true or not (Acts 17:11-12). This certainty is absolute in terms of both Testaments. We can take enormous surety in the knowledge that the selection process was so rigid, culling out books, even of impeccable stature. It guarantees that the credentials of the remaining works are authentic. Add to that the dogmatic assurance by Christ that God will back the New Testament to the letter, its own inerrancy becomes indisputable.




See also:

1. The Apocrypha

2. Decision of the First Jerusalem Council

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