The Expository Files

 How the Writings Became Scripture


The New Testament was not written all at once. It was written over a period of years. A great deal of the things Paul wrote is Scripture, but not everything he wrote is (i.e. an earlier letter he had sent to Corinth; I CORINTHIANS 5:9). Some of what he wrote never made it into the pages of the New Testament. No doubt the same thing could be said about other writers of portions of the New Testament. And other early Christians also wrote things of a religious nature which never made it into the New Testament. And in fact, some pretenders even wrote some things as if they were Paul,  Peter, Thomas, Andrew or some other notable disciple. So how did writings come to be recognized as Scripture and when the New Testament was compiled wound up being a part of it, while others failed the test? Who actually made the decisions? Did they make it during the first century or much later? Did they just guess or flip a coin? Of course not!

"But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy spirit spoke from God." (II PETER 1:20,21). What does the word "Scripture" mean? The Greek word (graphe) occurs about 50 times in the New Testament and always refers to the written record of the utterances of God. This includes writings that make up both the Old and New Testaments.

The English word "canon" (Greek: kanon) came to mean standard or rule. When one speaks of the canon of Scripture he is referring to those writings that met the standard and are regarded as being legitimate and authoritative and therefore have been included in the Bible.

The Word Delivered
"For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you..." (I CORINTHIANS 11:23). The writers of the New Testament wrote by inspiration. They wrote things as given to them by direct revelation from God (II TIMOTHY 3:16,17). Scripture is not a result of guesswork but rather Divine plan and action. When one rejects the teachings of the Bible, he has rejected God Himself.

God told the writers of the Bible what to say and when to say it. Regarding the New Testament, there are actually eight human agents through whom Jesus revealed His New Covenant by the written word. They are Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, Peter and Jude. While God also revealed His will through the spoken word (through both apostles and prophets), He did not cause it all to be written down in permanent form. What He did  cause to be written is adequate for our spiritual needs and guidance. It is complete, and is referred to as Scripture.

We now have a pretty good idea concerning the approximate dates of writing for most of the New Testament. Refer to the chart on the back for these dates and other information.

Instant Scripture
"And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching..." (ACTS 2:42). These writings did not become Scripture because years later some scholars got together and decided to bestow that honor upon them. They were Scripture before the ink was dry. The writings were accepted as Scripture immediately by the church. There was no gradual evolving to it at all, as some liberal theologians suggest today. The only things  gradual about it was the spread of the copies of the initial documents to the ancient world and later the compiling of the writings into one book. The apostle Paul quotes Luke's gospel in 65 A.D. and refers to it as Scripture (compare I TIMOTHY 5:18 with LUKE 10:7) and Peter refers to Paul's writings as Scripture (II PETER 3:16).

The liberal theologians try to diminish from the importance of following the Bible today by saying these writings were regarded as just plain letters by the church in the first century and that it wasn't until the second and third century that they mistakenly became regarded as authoritative Scripture. So,  we do not really have to obey the doctrines of the Bible, they say, as long as we get the proper loving spirit and the general goodness it promotes. These verses, and others, show that they are wrong, that these writings were regarded as authoritative Scriptures of God from the time they were written.

Promise, Providence and Canonicity
"...But the word of the Lord abides forever. And this is the word which was preached to you." (I PETER 1:25). God was and is determined that His word will not be destroyed! It will never be overthrown or obliterated, though many dark forces have tried in the past and others continue to this day. During the first three centuries of the existence of the New Testament Scriptures, countless efforts were made by the enemies of God to eradicate Christianity from the earth. For example, Diocletian, emperor of Rome, decreed in 305 A.D. that all Christian literature be destroyed throughout the world. It was thought that if the Scriptures could be destroyed, then the new faith would fail. That is probably true, for there can be no faith apart from the word (ROMANS 10:17). But God would not permit it to happen. Only Divine intervention can explain why the most powerful and cruel civil, military and religious forces that the world could muster failed in their efforts, as did cultural and social pressures. Even opponents from within the church itself failed to corrupt the Scriptures which the Lord had given to His people.

When early Christians received a new Scripture from one of the eight writers, they would make copies to send on to other Christians in other localities, who in turn would do the same. In fact, they were told to follow this procedure (see COLOSSIANS 4:16; I THESSALONIANS 5:27 for examples). These writings were already being circulated and accepted as Scripture when early Christians decided to gather them all into one  compilation. This compilation came to be known as the canon of Scripture. While it is true that some tried to get other writings included, and a few others complained that they did not want some included that were, the issue of what belonged in the Bible had already been settled. Writings were refused a place that were not written by either an apostle or someone approved by an apostle, since Jesus had promised to reveal all His truth through these apostles. It was rather easy to tell forgeries from the genuine, due to glaring mistakes and inconsistencies.

The history of the Bible certainly shows the care, on both God's part as well as the parts of faithful and courageous men and women, that went into its formation and preservation. "...we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God's message, you accepted it not as the word of men , but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you." (I THESSALONIANS 2:13).

By Jon W. Quinn
From Expository Files 10.4; April 2003