Ok, so, the History channel quite regularly has these specials about the “lost” books of the Bible. You’ve probably seen them or heard of them. There are a TON of them. They usually come on right before Ancient Aliens and right after Finding Bigfoot or something, but that’s neither here nor there.
So Archeologists have found over 20 Gospels, 15 prophetic books, and almost 50 other texts that talk about Jesus. That’s A LOT. Right? This kind of makes you wonder… why do we only have 4 Gospels in our Bibles? Why does our New Testament only have 27 books instead of 85? Who got to decide which were in and which were out? What do these books say? Why is it that no one really talks about them? Why do we have Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and not Mary, Judas, Thomas, and Peter?
It should also be noted that there are some significant disagreements between the content of these other books and the books that we have in our New Testament. So if these books were included in the New Testament, Christianity might have looked very different than what we see now. For instance, in the Gospel of Peter, Jesus never dies. That is quite a bit different. It’s like the M. Night Shyamalan Gospel, with a huge plot twist at the end.
In the Gospel of Judas, it says that Judas didn’t actually betray Jesus, but Jesus put him up to it. These little disagreements are all over the place. So it really seems like there was something going on behind the scenes here where the books that didn’t line up got pushed out or suppressed right? The nail that sticks out gets hammered. The squeaky wheel gets the oil. So the books that we have in Scripture must just be the ones that agreed and the only reason we don’t have these other books is because the people in positions of power could decide what was in the Bible and what was out. The stuff that they agreed with got thrown out. Right?
Well, that thesis certainly sounds pretty compelling, and there are a lot of people who have bought in to the idea. But before we get too carried away and start jumping to conclusions, lets take a look at just how the Bible came to be what it is. What does it mean to have a “canon” and how does a book go about getting “canonized”? A lot of evangelical Christians seem to think that the Holy Bible just descended out of heaven, and there it was. On the 8th day, God created the King James Bible. Right? Well that’s just not how it happened.
People like to talk about the early church being an oral tradition. That’s only partially true. The early church consisted of Jews. Most of the apostles were Jews, and Jews were undeniably a people of the Book. They were a people that read the Torah, the Law and the prophets. The Old Testament was already a huge part of the culture, and it was already considered to be the Word of God. So the idea of a Bible is not foreign to these people at all.
Even some of the most skeptical academics date Paul’s letters in the late 40’s and 50’s, and the Gospels in the 80’s and 90’s. Even Bart Ehrman (who is no friend of Orthodox Christianity) attests to this. The question is, when did they become the Bible, when did people start referring to them as the Word of God? The best way to figure this out is to look at the writings of the earliest Christians we can.
Now, the writings of Clement of Rome are very interesting to us. He wrote his first letter to the Corinthians in 95/96 A.D. This is first century material, which is incredible. He tells them to “Take up the epistle of the blessed Paul the Apostle” Just before that he says “So then Christ is from God, and the apostles are from Christ. Both, therefore came of the will of God in good order.” So he is referring to the works of Paul here as the Word of God. And he is saying to to people who were probably alive when Paul wrote his letters. In another letter he refers to the Gospels (Matthew and Mark specifically) as the Word of God.
Ignatius of Antioch is another very early Christian thinker who wrote around 110 A.D. He refers to the Gospel of Matthew and John as the Word of God, as well as Paul’s letters.
Polycarp of Smyrna wrote before 150 A.D. and he used a ton of NT literature, most specifically he referred to Ephesians as the Word of God.
One thing that they all had in common was that they made sure to distinguish their authority from the Apostles authority. They were basically saying, we are different from the apostles. What they wrote and what we are writing is NOT the same thing.
Another thing that we see from very early on is this idea of a fourfold Gospel. There is no evidence at all for a 5th Gospel and this idea can be traced back as early as 150 A.D. We see in the writings of Ireneaus (an early Church Father) that he thinks that there can be only 4 Gospels. He says “It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For since there are four zones of the world, in which we live, and four principle winds… it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side… For the cherubim too were four faced, and their faces were images of the dispensation of the Son of God.” Now the argument seems kind of goofy, but it is very insightful. He is saying that there are 4 gospels, no more no less. And he is saying it in the first half of the second century.
Irenaus’ New Testament consisted of (at least) 4 Gospels 13 letters of Paul, 1 Peter, 1-2 John, Revelation, maybe 2 Peter, 3 John, and Hebrews. We also have some really early manuscripts (which were copies of scripture) from the early third century that have the 4 Gospels together in one book. Then we have some even earlier ones from the mid to late century that have Luke and John together and another with Matthew and Luke together from the early 2nd century.
One of the biggest evidences that we have is “The Muratorian Fragment” which gives a list discussing sacred writings. It includes the 4 Gospels, Acts, 13 letters of Paul, 2-3 letters of John, Jude, and Revelation. It also includes a list of disputed books (some of which are on our list of “lost books”) including Wisdom of Solomon, Apocalypse of Peter, and epistle to laodiceans. It is very significant because it’s almost a complete list of our New Testament books from very early on, some date it as early as the beginning of the 2nd century. It shows that the Early church was conscious of a closed canon less than 100 years after the last book was written. By the time we get to a guy named Origen in about 240 A.D. we have a list of 27 NT books that matches exactly the NT that we have today.
With this in mind, it’s probably better to think of what happened in the 4th century as a crystallization of the Bible books rather than an establishment of them. They were really saying “this is what everyone has been saying, but now we’re saying it definitively, these are our books.” So really, the overwhelming use and importance of these books served to form the core of our NT in the 2nd century, and there was really no time when Christians did not treat the writings that would become the New Testament as Scripture.