Establishing the Text of the New Testament


by Wayne S. Walker

     The previous two articles in this series discussed the four major sources that are used by scholars to determine the exact text of the New Testament. They are the manuscripts (which include papyri, uncials, miniscules, and lectionaries), ancient versions, and patristic quotations. But exactly how do we go about establishing which books belong in the New Testament, and what should we think regarding various writings of those days which some claim should be part of the New Testament? Also, why are there variant readings in the different manuscripts, and what effect do they have on the reliability of the text?

     Bible scholars have established four tests to determine if a book belongs in the New Testament canon. Apostolicity means that a book was written by an apostle or a prophet so closely associated with the apostles as to imply apostolic authority (Ephesians 3:5, 2 Peter 3:2). Geuniness means that the book must actually be from the person for whom authorship is claimed. Authenticity means that a book must be a record of actual facts or truth and not contradictory to other revealed truth. And testimony refers to the fact that it can be attested to by early Christians, ancient versions, and even so-called church councils.

     There have been many attempts through the years at canonization, i.e., listing the books that should be part of the New Testament. The Muratorian fragment is a list, made in Rome around A.D. 170, of "received" books. It omits Hebrews, 1 and 2 Peter, and James, and was found at Milan in 1740. The Council of Laodicea in A.D. 393 established the New Testament as we have it. Sometimes it is claimed that this council determined the canon of the New Testament. That is not true. It merely accepted and endorsed those books which were already generally recognized and received as inspired writings of the New Testament.

     Sometimes a question is asked about the disputed or doubtful books. Many of the earliest lists do not include Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, and Jude. We can be quite sure that they were received as inspired scriptures by those to whom they were sent from the very first. The hesitancy on the part of others to accept them may be due to several reasons. One is the slow communication of those days. Not all churches received these letters at the same time. Another reason is persecution which kept many books from circulating freely. A third reason is the carefulness of early Christians against impostors. However, the fact that the Council of Loadicea officially endorsed all 27 of the books of the New Testament that we have today indicates that they passed the tests of canonicity when examined by people who lived at a time when they had access to the information needed to determine their apostolicity, genuinneness, authenticity, and testimony.

     Another question that is often asked concerns other writings of those early years which some have suggested ought to be included in the canon. There are some 23 spurious gospels, acts, and epistles, called "pseudopigrapha," claiming to be inspired, such as the "Gospel of Thomas" and others which are sometimes called "The Lost Books of the Bible." However, when compared to the books that are universally accepted and measured by their standard, these are clearly fictitious and hence frauds. These spurious writings are not to be confused with the writings of many early Christians (some of which are inlcuded in the Ante-Nicene Fathers) which do not claim inspiration, but which some have nonetheless thought should have been included too.

     One other question about establishing the text of the New Testament is, "What about all the variant readings in the manuscripts?" Since there are some 7,000 plus manuscripts available, it is inevitable that there would be variations in them. Some will make a very big deal about all the many variations between manuscripts, but it is important to know that the majority of them amount to no more than the failing to dot an "i" or to cross a "t," or the difference between color and colour. Dr. F. J. A. Hort, one of the pre-eminent Bible textual scholars of the 1800’s, said, "The words in our opinion still subject to doubt can hardly amount to more than than a thousandth part of the whole New Testament" (quoted by Ferrell Jenkins in Introduction to Christian Evidences). All these substantial variant readings in the New Testament would fill up no more than a normal page of a regular sized book. And even at that, no important doctrine or fact of the scripture is involved in them.

     As a result of this overwhelming evidence, we can rest assured that just as the Hebrew people had everything that God chose to reveal to them in the Old Testament preserved through the centuries for our learning, so we have everything that God has seen fit to reveal to us in the New Testament which has survived for nearly 2,000 years. God’s promise to us is that, "The word of the Lord endures forever…" (1 Peter 1:25). And in this word, we can be confident that we have "…all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue" (2 Peter 1:3). (—taken from With All Boldness; June, 1999; Vol. 9, No. 6; p. 22)


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