So, there were a lot of letters from apostles floating around in the days of the early Christian church, but there wasn’t general agreement as to which ones were the actual canon of Christianity until around the middle of the second century—and it still wasn’t “official” even then. So, based on that alone, why do we accept the current books of the Bible as being the “right” ones? Couldn’t it just have been a bunch of guys in a religious old boy’s network screwing with us to promote their own power and their own ends? Why should we trust that they picked out the right books to put into what would eventually come to be called the Bible?
Well, here are a few reasons that I think are good ones.
First, let’s handle the Old Testament. Aside from some reordering of certain books and the addition of a couple in the Catholic version of the Bible, the Old Testament is pretty much the Jewish Bible, or Tanakh. Now, there are some things in there that I don’t take 100% literally (I’ll get around to starting my Old Testament series soon), but as far as being the inspired Word of God, I have to accept those books because that’s what Jesus taught from. If it was good enough for Christ, it’s good enough for me, and for the most part early Church leaders didn’t muck around with it, so as far as I’m concerned, it stands strong.
But what about the New Testament? Folks point out rightly that the epistles in there (the letters written to various cities and groups by apostles and others who were setting the foundation for the church) certainly weren’t the only letters out there by church leaders. How can we know that they ones that were picked were the right ones? Folks say it was inspiration from God, but anyone can say that. In general, I think that with opinions flowing and changing, the fact that certain letters stood out and were widely accepted by the mid-second century is probably a pretty good indicator of their resonance and staying power, and thus their inspired nature.
As for the gospels, why only the four “synoptic” gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and none of the others, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Mary? or the Gospel of Binky the Elder, for that matter?
Well, Judas didn’t write the Gospel of Judas—so there’s a big ding right there—and the document seems to be no older than the second century, which puts it well after Jesus’ death, unlike the synoptic ones that have origins much closer to Jesus’ lifetime, written by people who knew Jesus. Basically, it’s a work of fiction in the Gnostic tradition to recast Judas and his role. It might be interesting, but it’s ultimately no different than historical fiction that authors write today. It cannot be trusted.
As for the Gospel of Mary, it isn’t even clear which Mary (Mary Magdalene or Jesus’ mother) is the supposed author. Also, even if it is accurate (and the oldest surviving copy is missing several pages, so there’s no way to figure out what it was supposed to say in its entirety, unlike the synoptic gospels, which have hundreds of copies in multiples languages that can be compared and contrasted to ensure the whole story is there). Besides, this “gospel” isn’t focused on the teachings and life of the adult Jesus, and thus really isn’t a gospel at all. Again, interesting reading, and perhaps not fiction, but also not suitable for advancing the great commission.
As for the Gospel of Thomas, it’s not clear enough whether it was written anywhere near as close to Jesus’ lifetime as were the synoptic gospels, nor whether it was actually penned by the apostle Thomas. The stark ways in which is departs from the synoptic gospels in terms of philosophy and theology make it too likely to have been a heretical work and not something truly in the spirit of God’s new covenant with humans.
In general, though, looking at the whole Bible, what strikes me is this: In at least three gatherings of big muckity-mucks of the church in the years 393, 397 and 419, they all agreed to keep the books in the Bible as they were, which mirrored an Easter letter in 367 by the Bishop of Alexandria that listed the books of the Bible that should be considered canon. So, why don’t I hold to the old boy’s network conspiracy theory, even though it was an old boy’s network meeting each time? Because if I were among a bunch of guys and we were trying to figure out how to control people through religion, I would probably be trying to slip in some newer stuff (Hell, it worked for John Smith when he invented what would become the Mormon church and bilked everyone into believing his ridiculous new gospel of Jesus).
I mean, really. The general population way back then, the rank-and-file believers—they weren’t educated, and they don’t know how to read. So, if you’re the church leaders, why not declare that some of your writings, or those of earlier church leaders whom you agree with, are divinely inspired? Who’s going to challenge you on this? No one. And presto!…the Bible becomes your tool of control and propaganda. All you have to do is find some good stuff that someone else had already written, or write your own stuff (sufficiently in line with established doctrine so as to not be suspect, but spun to suit your needs) and make it canon.
The fact that they didn’t suggests to me that they were trying very hard to make sure they chose writings that were from divinely inspired people who lived during the time that Jesus was alive. Yes, a lot of these bishops and popes and shit from those old days were bastards. A lot of them were power-hungry, greedy, deviant freaks. But not all of them. And clearly, even those that did have personal agendas drew the line at messing with God’s word, which at least says their religious and spiritual aims were on target (in this case, at least), if not their worldly activities and goals.