Grace Theological Journal 8.2 (Spring 1967) 22-26

          Copyright © 1967 by Grace Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.




                                               HOMER A. KENT, JR.

                                       Dean, Grace Theological Seminary


            Thousands of new books flood the current market each year. Behind each

one is an author or publisher with an idea, a story, a message, a motive. After hours

of writing, rewriting and editing, the book goes onto the market--perhaps to flourish

for a time and then fade, or to hide in the ranks of obscurity, or, in a few cases, to

 become a best seller.


            But behind the New Testament, which completes the world's best seller of all

time, lies a unique story of a Book written not only by the hand of men, but by the

hand of God--a Book which speaks with an authority unknown to other books and

which is as up-to-date today as when it was written two thousand years ago.


            How was the New Testament written? Why was it written? When? And how

can we, be sure it is authoritative from beginning to end? These are questions every

Christian ought to be able to answer.


            The first of the New Testament documents did not appear until about fifteen

years after the death of our Lord. As long as Jesus lived on earth His followers felt

no need for any new written documents. The Old Testament was their Scripture.

It had been fully accepted by Jesus. Its teachings were amplified by His ministry

and, in many instances, its prophecies were dramatically fulfilled by incidents in His life.


            Even in the opening years of the apostolic era after Christ's ascension there was

no immediate need for new sacred literature. Those who first proclaimed the good news

of salvation by the death and resurrection of Christ had known Jesus personally. They

had seen His miracles, had heard His teachings and were announcing this message in a

 land where Jesus Himself had been widely known. There was no call for a verification

of these facts by appealing to documents. But as the first century moved toward its

midpoint and beyond, death claimed more and more of the eyewitnesses. Now the

demand for written records of the life of Christ began to grow, and this demand was

being supplied from many sources (cf. Luke 1:1). Confusion was certain to result

unless some authoritative documents could be secured.


            In the light of this situation the twenty-seven books that now make up

our New Testament began to appear. James and Galatians seem to have been

 among the earliest -- perhaps around


The above article appeared first in Moody Monthly, February, 1966, and is

used here by permission.







HOW WE GOT OUR NEW TESTAMENT                            23


A.D. 45-50. Almost all were written within the first thirty years after the death and

resurrection of Christ, although the Gospel of John and Revelation did not appear until

somewhere around A.D. 90.


            Eight or nine different men contributed to the New Testament. Four of them were

apostles (Matthew, John, Peter, Paul). Two were half-brothers of Jesus James, Jude).

One was a Gentile and the second largest contributor in bulk to the New Testament

(Luke, writer of Luke and Acts). Another was Mark, a companion of Peter and at

 various times an assistant to Paul, although he was not personally an apostle. The

 identity of one author is uncertain, although many in the early church accepted the

 epistle as Paul's (Epistle to the Hebrews).


            From a mechanical standpoint, the making of a book in those times bore little

resemblance to the perfected publishing techniques of today. Papyrus was the usual

writing material of the first three centuries of the Christian era, and it is most likely

that the original manuscripts of the various New Testament books took this form.

The Inner bark of the papyrus plant was split, with strips laid side by side and

then a second layer placed crosswise upon them. These were moistened with

water or glue, pressed and dried. Sheets were glued side by side and then rolled

into the well-known scroll. A later development was the codex, in which the

sheets were stacked and then sewed along the left edge, producing a form much

like the modern book.


            Did the New Testament writers know they were writing sacred Scriptures?

It is commonly stated especially by liberal critics, that the writers were conscious

only of specific local needs and did not suppose that they were writing for all

Christians, nor that their writings possessed the same sacred character as the

Old Testament. These critics say that the sacredness of the documents was a

much later concept imposed by a grateful church.


Such statements usually reflect an inadequate view of Biblical inspiration.

In addition they ignore the testimony of the documents themselves.


Paul indicates that Luke's Gospel was regarded as Scripture, to be cited

with the same authority as the Old Testament. In I Timothy 5:18 he cites as

"scripture" both Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7. This is all the more

significant when we realize that Paul wrote his comment probably no more

than five years after the writing of Luke.


 Peter also refers to Paul's epistles as "scripture" and even suggests a

collection of Paul's epistles (II Pet. 3:15, 16) in existence. It is clear that the

recognition of certain New Testament writings as inspired Scripture was

not a gradual process but was understood well within the lifetime of the writers.


It also seems clear that the writers themselves possessed an awareness

that they were spokesmen for God a direct sense: "Which things we speak. .

.in the words. ..Which the Holy Ghost teacheth" (I Cor. 2: 13). "For this we

 say unto you by the word of the Lord” (I Thess. 4: 15). Permeating their

writings is an inner conviction that these documents are authoritative for the

church because God Himself is their source.

                               GRACE  JOURNAL                                       24


As the Christian era progressed it was inevitable that a variety of literature

would soon appear. Much of this Christian writing was entirely orthodox. But some

was issued to promote special interests of heretical groups. Many of these documents

were well-intentioned but factually inaccurate. Luke's Gospel (1:1-4) implies that the

large body of literature on the life of Christ which was circulating in his day was

fragmentary. Sooner or later the wheat would have to be distinguished from the chaff.

The problem came into sharp focus when the heretic Marcion around A.D. 140

promulgated a list of only eleven books as Scripture (ten letters of Paul, and an

edited Luke).


The church has applied the term "canon" to the list of books which are recognized

Scripture. The word itself means a straight rod, or reed, and developed the meaning of a

"ruler." As applied to the New Testament, it came to designate those particular books

which were recognized as providing the norms and standards for the church and thus

were to be regarded as authoritative Scripture.


Who decided which books belonged to the canon? Many have the idea that the

 church or its leaders took some official action which accorded canonical status to our

twenty -seven books. However, the earliest decree of any church council regarding the

complete canon was made at the Council of Hippo in A. D. 393 (and was repeated by

 the third Council of Carthage in A. D. 397).


The wording of this resolution is significant: "Besides the canonical. Scriptures,

nothing shall be read in the church under the title of 'divine writings.' The canonical

 books are. …”(both Old and New Testament books are listed). Now it is clear that

this council did not in any sense create the canon. Rather, the statement assumes

that the canon already existed and was recognized, and the council merely confirmed

the prevailing opinion of the churches. This conciliar decree made no innovation.


Nearly three hundred years before the Council of Hippo, Clement of Rome

wrote a letter to the church in Corinth, A.D. 96. In it he frequently cited the canonical

writings of Paul, Matthew and perhaps some others to reinforce his argument. It is

 important to note that he shows no like concern for any writings other than our

New Testament books, even though there were such in existence. The tenor of Clement's

writing shows his recognition of one series of books which was valued similarly to the

 Old Testament.


 In A.D. 367 Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, listed as canonical books the some

twenty seven which we know. Yet his list was not a new pronouncement. Thus prior to

any official council, the church was well aware of a canon of Scripture.


We must conclude that recognition of the canon was the experience of the church

 as a whole, virtually from the time of the writers and their first readers. The same

Spirit who inspired the writers also quickened the sensitivity of the readers to recognize

 a unique authority attached to this particular series of books.


How did the church recognize the canon? It is true theologically that only those

writings which were inspired of God were to be regarded as Scripture. But how was

 this feature to detected? It seems assured from the records of early church leaders

that apostolic authority

HOW WE GOT OUR NEW TESTAMENT                            25


was the chief criterion. Those New Testament books written by men who were not apostles

were accorded apostolic authority because their authors were companions of the apostles.

Mark was regarded as Peter's protege, Luke as Paul's associate, James and Jude as members

of the apostolic circle at Jerusalem.


That apostolic authority was a valid test is assured from the statements of Christ

  Himself who said to the Twelve: "But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the

  Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your

  remembrance, whatsoever I have said to you" (John 14:26). "Ye also shall bear witness,

  because ye have been with me from the beginning" (John 15:27). "Howbeit when he, the

  Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth. ..and he will show you things to

  come" (John 16:13).


Other tests of canonicity were sometimes appealed to, such as the use of the books

 in all geographical areas of the church. The criterion was especially helpful for such writings

as Philemon and II and III John. Whether a book was spiritually edifying and consistent in

doctrine with the Old Testament and other New Testament writings were also factors



By the end of the fourth century there was no further debate over the limits of the

canon in the Western church. In the East a few books were still debated for another century,

 but eventually all major segments of the church agreed on our twenty-seven books.


Some may ask whether we possess the true text of the New Testament, granted that

 the twenty-seven books are the right ones. This is a problem because none of the autographs

still exist and all handcopied documents are subject to errors from human frailty.


The materials for ascertaining the actual text are found in three sources. First, and most

important are the Greek manuscripts which contain the New Testament in the language in

which it was written. There are over four thousand of these, some of them fragmentary,

but many containing the entire New Testament. The oldest one of all is Papyrus 52, a

scrap two and a half by three and a half inches containing a portion of John 18:31-33,

37-38, and dated around A. D. 125.


 A second source of information is found in the translations of the text which

were made early in the Christian era and are thus a reflection of what the Greek text was

like very early in its existence. The versions most helpful are the Latin, the Syriac and

the Coptic. The scholar must always be alert when considering evidence from the

versions whether the variant reading is only a free translation or actually reflects a

different Greek text.


The third source is found in the writings of the ancient Church Fathers who

often quoted New Testament passages in their writings. Thus we are given information

as to what kind of text was current in a certain part of the church and at a given time.

One must beware, however, of quotations which have been rather loosely rendered,

perhaps from a faulty memory.

GRACE JOURNAL                                                    26


When the evidence from the above sources is compared, a grouping into families

is possible. Scholars today have been able to distinguish four or five text-types by this

method. Alexandrian, Western, Byzantine, Syriac and perhaps Caesar are recognized

by scholars generally as being distinct enough to warrant such classification. Almost

all Biblical scholars today conclude that the Alexandrian family represents the most

accurate text because of its great age, and because such manuscripts of this family as

 codices Vaticanus and, Sinaiticus show signs of a high proportion of correct readings

and originate in a part of the world which was noted for its textual studies.


Although it would probably be going too far to suggest that one group of

manuscripts alone is to be relied upon, it is not without significance that the more

 recent finds among the papyri support the general conclusions noted above. For

example, the recently discovered Papyrus 75, a codex of Luke and John dated A.D.

175-225, has a text very similar to Codex Vaticanus. It is the oldest known copy

of Luke.


 It should be recognized that the vast majority of variants in the manuscripts

 have to do with such things as spelling differences, word order and other minor

matters. With the wealth of documentary evidence at our disposal for determining

the true text, biblical scholars are in much better position than are textual scholars

of any other ancient literature. It is highly unlikely that the true text has been lost

at any point. The places in the text that may be subject to some remaining doubt

are exceedingly few (Westcott and Hort computed them as one-tenth one percent

of the whole).


Even the differences among the major text-types are primarily concerned

with minutiae. To illustrate, the difference between Byzantine and Alexandrian

families is reflected by the difference between the King James Version and the

American Standard Version. Yet Christians recognize that the real substance of

the text is not endangered by either version.


Christians today are the possessors of a New Testament that has a remarkable

history. It was promised by Christ, who said He would empower the apostles to be

His witnesses. It was written at a time when the Koine Greek language, the international

 language of the Roman Empire, was virtually worldwide. And it has been

preserved in thousands of manuscripts to assure us that we have the very

words that Christ desired for His believers.



This material is cited with gracious permission from:

            Grace Theological Seminary

            200 Seminary Dr.

            Winona Lake,  IN   46590

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