**How did the ancient church know what to consider Scripture?**
SERIES INTRO: Have the right narrator and ominous music and anything can sound scandalous. Recently, I watched several episodes of the History Channel’s Bible Secrets Revealed TV show. It was amusing but troubling at the same time since these sort of sensationalist shows aren’t about history or education, but preying on people’s lack of knowledge. The sort of one-sided, half-information thrown around on these TV shows is sure to resurface. So, here are some quick responses to some questions that might arise from such quality TV programing.
How do we know the right books are included in Bible?
Often skeptics and TV shows like Bible Secrets Revealed make a big deal about other ancient writings not in the Bible that include Jewish or Christian themes or may even include biblical characteristics or people. Often the mistaken idea they’re promoting is that these written works are just as worthy of being Scripture but the church excluded them for some unscrupulous reason.
My question is, Why does everything have to be a conspiracy? (The obvious answer: scandals sell.) The truth is usually much less scandalous (and exciting).
Think of it this way: If I write a story involving Adam, Eve, Moses, Paul, and the angel Gabriel, and I even include some Christianity-themed lessons in it, does that mean it’s Scripture? Of course not! Likewise, just because an ancient piece of writing has biblical elements, it does not immediately make it Scripture worthy of the Bible.
It also should be noted, some of these works not included in the Bible teach flat-out heresy, but others may still be considered faithful books that teach biblical truths, but this still doesn’t make them Scripture. They may be great reads for historical or religious insight (or just for quality entertainment), and, as I said, they may even include a lot of godly truth. But they’re still not scripture, any more than works by, say, C.S. Lewis, John Piper, or Tim Keller are scripture. All 3 men are godly men who are wise in the Lord, and reading their books will benefit you, but their writings still do not hold the authority of Scripture.
So, why were some ancient writings considered Scripture and others not?
THE NEW TESTAMENT
There are primary 3 requirements a written work must meet in order to be considered New Testament Scripture:
1. Apostolic Authority
First: Is the work written by an apostle of Jesus or by someone closely associated with an apostle of Jesus? For example, John and Matthew were apostles of Jesus, but Mark was a disciple of the Apostle Peter, and Luke was a close companion of the Apostle Paul.
If a work was written long after the time period when the apostles lived, then it obviously cannot be closely related to an apostle. No book in the New Testament is more than two persons removed from Jesus; thus, if the writer was not an eyewitness himself, he recorded the teachings of an eyewitness.
Universal & Orthodox
Next: Is the work universal and orthodox? Do the teachings of the work apply to the whole Christian church, not just to specific sects or denominations (or cults)? And are the teachings in line with traditional beliefs as given by Jesus and the apostles?
For example, many of the Gnostic Gospels taught things that were contradictory to the four earliest Gospels and the letters of Paul, which are the earliest Christian writings. The Gnostic Gospels were also written long after the apostles lived, so they obviously don’t have apostolic authority. (More about the Gnostic Gospels below.)
Likewise, failure to meet these simple standards is one of the reasons (among many) that current, traditional Christian churches consider, for instance, the Book of Mormon heresy.
To give another example, the only reason the TV show Bible Secrets Revealed gives for the ancient work The Protoevangelium of James not being included in the New Testament is that the work focuses on Mary, so it would have to be placed before the Gospels in the New Testament and it would take too much time for a reader to get to Jesus!
This is an absurd assumption! Even the TV show tells us that The Protoevangelium of James was written 100 years after the life of James. This alone would exclude it from being written by an apostle or during the time of the apostles. Further, the teachings aren’t in line with the undisputed works of the New Testament, such as the 4 Gospels and the majority of Paul’s letters.
Interesting to note, we do have a book in the New Testament that meets the requirements for Scripture that was written by James, the brother of Jesus.
THE OLD TESTAMENT
Why are the “hundreds” of other ancient Hebrew manuscripts not included in the Old Testament, like The Life of Adam and Eve and The Book of Jubilees?
The Old Testament was written so long ago, it’s hard to know the exact details, but various prophets of God – like Moses, David, Solomon, and Isaiah – wrote the books of the Old Testament. If the ancient Jews recognized a certain book to be Scripture, they must’ve had good reason, such as the writer was a prophet. The Old Testament itself gives us insight on how they recognized prophets:
“But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my [God’s] name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.” (Deuteronomy 18:20-22)
There is no evidence from Old Testament times – or any other times – of any other Hebrew works being considered as authoritative and sacred like the books included in the Old Testament. Some books that are in the Old Testament were disputed, but the major works never were. Further, no other books were ever considered to be worthy of placement into the Old Testament canon by the Jews.
Based on the evidence, the only works ever considered to be worthy of inclusion in the Old Testament are in the Old Testament. Further, Jesus and the New Testament writers only refer to works found in our present Old Testament specifically as Scripture.
Forgery = Pseudepigrapha
Why is Enoch 1 not considered part of the biblical canon, but it’s part of the Ethiopian Orthodox church’s canon?
The ancient writing called Enoch 1 is what is called an Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, a work attributed to an ancient Old Testament patriarch or important figure who lived long before the work was written. Thus, it’s a forgery and the author is unknown. Interestingly, Jude, in his letter in the New Testament, does quote 1 Enoch, but he doesn’t call it Scripture. Further, there’s no evidence that the Jews ever considered Enoch 1 Scripture.
Thus, it appears the Ethiopian church is incorrect in including Enoch 1 in their Bible.
1 Enoch and other Pseudepigraphaical works are useful in some ways, but they’re still not to be considered on the same level of authority as Scripture. Other Pseudepigraphaical works, as well as the Apocrypha, have never been considered sacred, divine scripture by the Jews.
The Apocrypha is comprised of Old Testament works (written in Greek) that are included in the Roman Catholic Bible and Eastern Orthodox Bible but not in the Protestant or Jewish Bibles. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church didn’t make the Apocrypha officially part of their Bible until 1546 in response to the Protestant Reformation.
New Testament Forgeries
Why is the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which is written by Jesus’ brother, not included in the New Testament, but the letters of James and Jude, other writings by Jesus’ brothers, are in the New Testament? Is it only because the Infancy Gospel of Thomas has “scandalous” stories about Jesus, which the church did not want people to know?
Bible Secrets Revealed makes it sound like the only reason the church didn’t include the Infancy Gospel of Thomas in the New Testament is because it has “scandalous” information in it, but notice that the show also dates the writing of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas in 125 AD. This late date alone is the problem and a “deal-breaker” of whether the Infancy Gospel of Thomas should be in the New Testament or not.
All of the New Testament was written by the end of the First Century – by at least 100 AD. The Gospel of John is widely considered the last Gospel of the New Testament to be written, sometime around 95 AD. Since the Infancy Gospel of Thomas was written around 125 AD, it was written too long after the events to be considered a candidate for inclusion in the New Testament.
Eyewitnesses or close associates of eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry wrote the four Gospels included in the New Testament. If the Infancy Gospel of Thomas was written in 125 AD, it wasn’t written when those who knew Jesus Christ were still alive. Therefore, Jesus’ brother Thomas couldn’t have written it.
The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is another pseudepigraphic writing, because it falsely claims its writer is a key figure in Jewish/Christian history. It’s also considered a Gnostic Gospel. Gnostics mixed pagan philosophy with Christian beliefs. They believed the physical world was evil, so God couldn’t have come in the flesh.
Along with the late dates of origin for the Gnostic Gospels, their contents alone illustrate these so-called gospels didn’t belong with the traditional teachings of Christianity. Finally, no Gnostic document was ever considered worthy for inclusion in the New Testament.
One Last Important Point
Finally, it must be pointed out that the biblical truths given by the prophets and apostles were confirmed by godly signs and miracles. To explore this further, two of my earlier articles may help:
Other articles in this series:
SOURCE & RECOMMENDED: