In April of 2006, amid much media fanfare and not a little scholarly giddiness, The National Geo-graphic Society unveiled to the world a long-lost Gnostic gospel, The Gospel of Judas. “This is big. A lot of people are going to be upset,” one scholar excitedly predicted. “This changes the history of early Christianity,” pronounced another (Andrew Cockburn, “The Judas Gospel,” National Geographic, May 2006, p. 91). Now, two years later, about all that has changed regarding early Christianity are the bank accounts of those historians who have written books on the gospel of Judas. Already the new-yet-old gospel is all but forgotten by most Christians, who perhaps came to see its promotion as just another “Easter surprise” intended to throw Christians into a tizzy. Instead, the scholarly community is in its own tizzy at the moment, arguing about how the document should be translated and interpreted. In the meantime, the church need not hold its collective breath about the impact the gospel of Judas (in any translation) is likely to have on the faith. Still, its appearance does raise anew in the minds of Christians the legitimate question of how the twenty-seven books of our New Testament (NT) became “the New Testament.”
Picking up any of a number of recent works on the NT canon, one is likely to find the author seeking the roots of the NT canon somewhere in the needs of the early church. One says it was the battle against heresy that prompted the church to find some authoritative texts on which to take its stand. Another points to the catechetical and liturgical need for new scriptures to nourish the spiritual life of the church. Another looks to Constantine the Great’s campaign to unify the empire, which allegedly required an agreed-upon set of scriptures as an essential tool to promote concord. These all, and more, may have played limited roles in bringing about the church’s agreement on the contents of the NT. But the ultimate foundations for the existence of a NT canon must be sought not in any of these historical exigencies, but in the gracious purpose of a self-revealing God whose word carries His own divine authority.
The grounds for new covenant Scriptures
Throughout the course of God’s dealings with humanity, word-revelation has accompanied His redemptive acts in history. God’s confrontation of Adam and Eve after their sin, His covenant with Abraham, His dramatic redemption of Israel from Egypt, His establishment of the Israelite monarchy, His judgment in exile, and then His restoration — all were attended by new revelation from God to His people. Just so, when the promised Messiah came to redeem His people, a new and generous outpouring of divine revelation naturally followed (2 Tim. 1:8–11; Titus 1:1–3).
Prophetic passages such as Isaiah 2:2-3; 49:6 and Psalm 2:8, indeed, predicted a time when the light of God’s grace would be proclaimed to all nations. Jesus Christ, though He was the light of the world (John 8:12; 12:46), never in His adult life left the land of Palestine. He did bring light to the nations, of course, but it was through chosen apostles, whom He commissioned to be His authoritative representatives (Matt. 10:40: “Whoever receives you receives me”). These men were specially endowed by the Holy Spirit to “remember” Jesus’ words and works (John 14:26; 16:13–14) and to bear witness to Him “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8, see Matt. 28:19–20; Luke 24:48; John 17:14, 20).
That this witness would eventuate in a new collection of written Scriptures — Gospels, apostolic history, letters, and prophecy — complementing the books of the old covenant follows naturally both from the pattern of God’s redemptive work in the past (mentioned above) and from the actual writing ministry of some of Jesus’ apostles and their associates in the accomplishment of their commission.
The recognition of new covenant Scriptures
Christians confess that, as God’s Word to mankind, “God-breathed” Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16) is self-attesting, and thus the canon may be said to be self-establishing. Yet history records that for centuries there were variations in local church practice and disagreements among churches and theologians about several books of the New Testament. When one thinks about it, such variations should not be so surprising, given that the process of recognition involved more than two dozen books that came into being over a period of perhaps fifty years, circulating unsystematically to churches as they were springing up in widely diffused parts of the Roman Empire.
To complicate matters, many documents were produced in the course of the early centuries that in some way paralleled or imitated NT books, some gaining considerable popularity in certain quarters. A fair number of “gospels,” “acts” of certain apostles, a few forged letters of Paul, and several apocalypses (writings that describe the coming judgment of God) all sprung up over time. These were written for various purposes. Not all were intended as “rivals” to the more accepted books; some seem to have been written for edification or even entertainment. Two of the most talked-about ancient “alternatives” today are the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Judas. Are we to think that these were widely read and trusted gospels that “just missed the cut”? Hardly.
Thomas is a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus, some of which are obviously based on Jesus’ words contained in the canonical Gospels, but many others are from unknown sources. Some of these sayings portray a very different Jesus, assume a very different theology, and breathe a very different spirit from what one finds in the canonical Gospels. Only three early church fathers mention this gospel, and all in a negative way, as something self-evidently heretical. While one may assume that somebody liked the book, the church at large never heard the authentic voice of Jesus in it.
The Gospel of Judas is clearly a Gnostic gospel, and it is even more radical. It was likely written around the middle of the second century. It contains no historically reliable information about Jesus but can give one a good idea of the kind of esoteric, Gnostic mythology that frustrated Christians. Only one early orthodox writer, Irenaeus, mentions this gospel, only to condemn it.
Perhaps more interesting is what happened with the so-called Diatessaron, compiled by a man named Tatian in about AD 172. The Diatessaron was one of the first “harmonies” of the four Gospels ever produced. The Syriac version of this harmony was the first form of the Gospels known in some Syriac-speaking areas where churches were started, and it served for quite some time as their only gospel.
By the end of the second century, however, a “core” collection of NT books — twenty-one of the twenty-seven — was generally recognized among the churches: four Gospels, Acts, 13 epistles of Paul, 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation. Hebrews was widely known but questioned in Rome because of questions about its authorship. By sometime in the third century, collections of all seven of the “catholic epistles” were circulating, and known to most of the churches. Revelation, apparently accepted everywhere at first, fell under criticism in the third century, some finding it hard to interpret in line with the rest of the NT.
In the year 367, the Alexandrian bishop Athanasius in his annual Easter letter gave a list of the NT books that comprised, with no reservations, all twenty-seven, while naming several others as useful for catechizing but not as scriptural. Other fourth-century lists essentially concurred, though often not precisely. Three African synods, at Hippo Regius in 393 and at Carthage in 397 and 419, and the influential African bishop, Augustine, affirmed the twenty-seven-book canon. It was enshrined in Jerome’s Latin translation, the Vulgate, which became the normative Bible for the Western church, even while some Eastern churches lagged in their recognition of certain books for more than another century.
It is important to realize that in all its deliberations about the books that make up the canon of Scripture, the church did not sovereignly “determine” or “choose” the books it most preferred. It saw itself as empowered only to receive what God had provided, in books handed down from the apostles and their immediate companions. “Apostolicity,” “antiquity,” and “orthodoxy,” are not criteria by which the church autonomously judged which documents it wanted, but qualities the church recognizes in the voice of its Savior. Likewise, “liturgical use” and “church consensus” are reflections of the testimony of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church.
Bruce Metzger, one of the last century’s leading scholars of the New Testament canon, observed, “neither individuals nor councils created the canon; instead they came to recognize and acknowledge the self-authenticating quality of these writings, which imposed themselves as canonical upon the church” (The New Testament, Its Background, Growth and Content, third ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), p. 318). William Barclay put it more succinctly: “It is the simple truth to say that the New Testament books became canonical because no one could stop them doing so.” And this, in the end, is because Jesus’ sheep do hear His voice.
It has often been said that one of the best ways to assure oneself of the canonicity of the New Testament writings is to read some of their rivals. In this sense, we can only welcome the discovery of more writings like the Gospel of Judas. Though most of us could do without the fanfare.