A fourth shocking discovery was this: the Bible didn’t come rolling off the presses as a single volume.
When we walk into Barnes and Noble, there are scores of Bibles. You just have to figure out which one to buy. It’s easy to assume that it’s always been that way.
So it’s a bit of a jolt when you first realize the obvious: that the Bible is a collection of “books,” and someone had to organize that collection. When you begin digging, you realize that there isn’t a formal recognition of the 27 books of the NT (these 27 and no others) until the fourth century. It was the church that was deciding which gospels and letters should be included in the canon and which ones shouldn’t.
Some of the books we cherish — Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, Revelation, for instance — had a hard time finding their place. As an example of why this happened, the early church struggled with not knowing who even wrote Hebrews. Also, a few other books were accepted by some but rejected by others and did not finally make it into the Christian canon.
(For an account of the forming of our biblical canon, you can begin at Wikipedia. To go indepth, a book like Bruce Metzger’s The Canon of the New Testament. I’d also recommend that you get ahold of the wonderful book God’s Holy Fire, written by Ken Cukrowski, Mark Hamilton, and James Thompson, all biblical scholars teaching at ACU.)
For many years, the gospel message was passed on orally. People told the story of Jesus and of the early church as they had witnessed it or as they had heard it from witnesses. There were likely three decades between the death/resurrection of Jesus and the appearance of the first gospel.
As the gospels and letters were written, they were eventually shared between churches. (Keep in mind there were no printing presses, and you couldn’t just cut, paste, and forward!)
Then, our brothers and sisters had to decide which gospels and letters had the ring of authority about them. Which actually came from the apostles? Which ones had spoken with an authoritative voice?
Some people would prefer not to think about this. It’s so much easier to just imagine that all 39 books of the OT came together, followed centuries later by the 27 books of the NT. Then you’d feel more justified with all of the cross-referencing and proof-texting.
So what do we do with this?
Here’s, again, where my statement of faith comes. I obviously can’t force anyone to believe this. But I have trust in the working of the Spirit of God through the people of God. I have confidence that God was working among the churches as they debated, prayed, and sought to discern which gospels/letters were “in” and which were “out.”
To build on that, I like these words from N. T. Wright (in the brilliant new book The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture): “But canonization was never simply a matter of a choice of particular books on a ‘who’s in, who’s out’ basis. It was a matter of setting out the larger story, the narrative framework, which makes sense of and brings order to God’s world and God’s people. . . . It was the canonical scriptures that sustained the early church in its energetic mission and its commitment, startling to the watching pagan world, to a radical holiness.”
More in this little series later, but I want to end today with this prayer that Wright says has been prayed in his church for centuries:
Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning, grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life which thou hast given us in thy Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.