Bruce Metzger

Who decided which books to include in the New Testament, when, and why?

Who decided which books to include in the New Testament, when, and why?

The Religion Guy observes that with “fake news” all over the news it’s wise to be aware of fake history.

Consider Dan Brown’s influential pop novel “The DaVinci Code.” Though the plot is fiction, readers may assume the book provides reliable historical background. Experts say that’s misleading, and one example is Brown’s version of how the New Testament came to be.

That’s a timely question due to an important new technical work on the subject, “The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity” by Edmon Gallagher and John Meade. “Canon” refers to recognized scriptures. Oxford University Press published this collection of ancient texts and analysis in Britain this month, with U.S. release due in January.

(The following relies on “The Formation of the New Testament” (1965) by Robert M. Grant of the University of Chicago, and “The Canon of the New Testament” (1987) by Bruce M. Metzger of Princeton Theological Seminary, and covers only the New Testament, not the canon of the Hebrew Bible a.k.a. Old Testament.)

Brown is correct that many texts about Jesus were circulating during Christianity’s first few centuries, so decisions had to be made about which were authentic and recognized as scripture. Many Christian folk don’t realize how complex the process was.

By Brown’s account, the Roman Emperor Constantine was the power-broker who picked only Matthew, Mark, Luke and John out of some 80 Gospels in contention. Actually what Constantine did in A.D. 331 was commission Bishop Eusebius to have copyists produce 50 new copies of the Greek canon to replace Scriptures that had been destroyed during Rome’s previous anti-Christian purge. The 80 count is exaggerated, and most rejected writings did not resemble the genre of the favored four, which were not chosen by the emperor but church authorities.

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Why were some verses removed from the New Testament?

Why were some verses removed from the New Testament?

CASSANDRA’S QUESTION:

I’m just shocked by the information I just received about the N.I.V. Bible, that many verses of the Scriptures have been removed. So I’m searching for a reliable version of the Bible to study from. Any suggestions?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The Guy reassures Cassandra, who’s been reading the Bible for 21 years, that well-qualified translators produced the many modern English editions on the market, and that includes her New International Version. Inevitably, translators will make different word choices and most of these variations are unimportant. But she’s correct that the N.I.V. and most other recent Bible editions omit certain verses that are familiar from the revered “King James Version” authorized by the British monarchy 404 years ago. The following discussion assumes Cassandra is concerned mainly about the New Testament, not the Old Testament.

Why we get the specific wordings in today’s Bibles involves a specialty known as “textual criticism,” which analyzes all available materials to render the Scriptures as closely as possible to the original writings. The Religion Guy relies especially upon “The Text of the New Testament” by the late Bruce M. Metzger of Princeton Theological Seminary. Cassandra should know that Metzger (1914-2007) was not only a top expert in these technicalities but a judicious one and known for strong faith in the Bible’s reliability and authority.

Metzger noted that only one manuscript survived of the first six books of the “Annals” by Tacitus, an important history of the Roman Empire, and it was copied nine centuries after the original writing. By contrast, far closer to the 1st Century originals we have some 50 ancient manuscripts of the entire New Testament and 5,000 or so partial texts and fragments. The earliest is the celebrated P52 papyrus with verses from John’s Gospel, that was written in early or mid-2nd Century Egypt.

Such rich resources greatly authenticate the New Testament.

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