Why These Books of the Bible?

In Dan Brown’s book The DaVinci Code, one of the characters, Lee Teabing, challenges the Bible’s composition with the following statement:

“The Bible is a product of man, my dear. Not of God. The Bible did not fall magically from the clouds. Man created it as a historical record of tumultuous times, and it has evolved through countless translations, additions and revisions. History has never had a definitive version of the book… More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John among them… The fundamental irony of Christianity! The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan emperor Constantine the Great” (Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code, p312-313).

While this has cast doubt on the Bible for some people, it’s made zero impact biblical scholarship, because biblical scholars recognise it as the fiction that it is. First of all, while the Bible is a product of man in that it was written by men, this doesn’t rule out the Christian view that it was written by God through men (verbal inspiration). Secondly, it hasn’t evolved through countless translations, additions or revisions. It was certainly written over time, but we have thousands of copies of the original manuscripts.

Thirdly, the Bible as we know it today was not collated by Constantine, not by any stretch of the imagination. Constantine presided over the council of Nicaea, but the council itself didn’t decide which books would be included in the Bible, they merely placed their rubber stamp (one of many throughout church history) onto the list of books that were unanimously considered to be ‘Scripture’ by every single Christian church at the time.

However, for all of Dan Brown’s fictitious claims, he does raise an important question: why did the churches view some books as Scripture but not others? For the Old Testament canon, the answer is very straightforward: Jesus constantly referred to the set of books that we now know as the Old Testament, as ‘Scripture’ (Matthew 21:42; 22:29; 26:54; Mark 12:10; 12:24; 14:49; Luke 4:21; 24:27; 24:45; John 5:39; 7:38; 10:35; 13:18; 17:12). These books were written and collated into the set of Jewish Scriptures hundreds of years before Jesus’ time on earth.

In the end, the Bible’s claim to theological truth depends wholly on the person and work of Christ. If Jesus really rose from the dead, then we simply have to listen to what he says about God, and what he says is God’s word in Scripture. On the question of the Old Testament canon, Jesus refers to the books in the Old Testament as Scripture. On the question of the New Testament canon, the basis upon which the early church recognised the texts written by the apostles and their scribes as Scripture, comes from Jesus’ words in John 16:

“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you” (John 16:12-15).

Speaking to his apostles, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit “will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). If Jesus is correct, then what the apostles’ wrote about God is theological truth. Here we have a basis for the criterion known as ‘apostolicity’ (being written by an apostle or one of their scribes, e.g. Peter’s scribe Mark, or Paul’s scribe Luke), coming from Christ himself. As Timothy Ward observes:

“In this teaching [John 16:12-15] Jesus is anticipating the future communication, through the faithful and obedient work of the Holy Spirit, of words that come from him and have their ultimate origin in the Father, to the original apostolic community… This teaching from Christ provides warrant from within the Gospels for the early church’s practice of making ‘apostolicity’ (whether in authorship or source) a vital criterion in the recognition of certain writings as Scripture and others as not” (Timothy Ward, Words of Life, p49).

This was the consistent criterion that the church used for recognising Scripture: the theological texts written by Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles. This criterion is not only attested to in the New Testament (2 Peter 3:2), but also in a host of early extant Christian writings as well, e.g. 1 Clement (1 Clement 42:1-2), Ignatius (Magnesians 7:1; Letter to the Romans 4:4), Justin Martyr (First Apology 39), and Irenaeus (Against Heresies 3.1.1). Dan Brown is right in that the four gospel accounts in the Bible were selected among many, but he fails to state the reason why: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the primary sources about Jesus’ life, all other ‘gospels’ are later secondary sources.

The collection of books that were included in the Bible were not done so arbitrarily, they were recognised as Scripture because of Jesus’ claim that the Old Testament is God’s word, and because of his commission of the apostles to write the New Testament (which is, by definition, the primary sources about Jesus’ life and teaching). No one ‘decided’ that the books of the Bible were God’s word, they were unanimously recognised as such by the early church. As Michael Kruger notes:

“If the apostles were viewed as the mouthpiece of Christ, and it was believed that they wrote down that apostolic message in books, then those books would be received as the very words of Christ himself. Such writings would not have to wait until second, third, or fourth-century ecclesiastical decisions to be viewed as authoritative – instead they would be viewed as authoritative from the very start. For this reason, a written New Testament was not something the church formally “decided” to have at some later date, but was instead the natural outworking of the early church’s view of the function of the apostles” (Michael Kruger, The Question of Canon, p70).

If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then the biblical authors’ claim to theological truth can be dismissed just as easily as everyone else who claims to speak on God’s behalf. But if Jesus actually rose from the dead, then we simply have to take seriously his claims about God, and about God’s word to us, which Jesus identifies as the writings of the Old Testament prophets, and the New Testament apostles whom Jesus sends (the word apostle meaning ‘sent one’) into the world with the gospel. While popular culture frequently casts doubt on the composition of the Bible, the historical evidence of Jesus and the early church, points directly to the Bible that we have today.

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