Questions of Faith [The Canon]

QUESTION: "Could you explain the canonization process? I understand why the Gnostic gospels weren't included, that one is easy. But what about the extra books that the Catholic Church includes. And in the book of Jude, the writer quotes from an apocryphal text, as does Paul in a few places; does this mean those books should be trusted as inspired?" This seems to be a good place to start. Basically, how did the Bible become the Bible? By the way, the term "canonization" (use only one "n" in the word or your talking about the instrument of destruction) is derived from a word that 4th century church leader Athanasius used in reference to the completed books of the New Testament.

We don't have any original manuscripts from the Bible. Yes, we have numerous copies that date over thousands of years, but we don't have anything written by Paul or the apostles. The earliest scrap from the New Testament is a tiny piece of scroll from the gospel of John 18 which dates to 125 A.D. Still, we have multiple manuscript copies with unparalleled consistency that shows that scribes faithfully copied the texts as accurately as possible.

Conservative Christians hold that the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) were written from the time of Moses (approximately 1400B.C.) until after the exiles were allowed to return to Palestine from Babylon (about 400 B.C.) Soon thereafter, Alexander the Great conquered much of the known world, uniting many people groups under the cultural banner of Hellenism. After his death, his generals split up the territory, and a family known as the Ptolemies ruled over Egypt. The key city there was Alexandria, a place where a large contingency of Jews lived. Depending on your take on history (here mythology seems to intermingle with reality) the Old Testament was translated into Greek for inclusion in the great library of the city.

This translation was known as the "Septuagint," derived from the word "seventy" (seen in your Bible notes as the "LXX"). In determining the contents, the traditional books we now consider as the Old Testament were included, in addition to several books known as the Apocrypha (meaning "hidden"). Primarily wisdom literature, these books differ from the others because they were penned in the Greek language; the established O.T. was written in Hebrew and some limited Aramaic.

After the fall of Jerusalem in 70A.D., the Jewish communal center transitioned from Jerusalem to Jamnia. A nineteenth century scholar suggested there must have been a rabbinical council here to cement the Jewish canon. Whether or not this occurred is debatable. Still, by this time the Jews are using those traditional 39 books of the Old Testament. While there are references to the Apocrypha, they are not held in the same esteem as the other books.

When it comes to the New Testament, the contents of these books were written in the first century A.D. While we'll touch on these "Gnostic" books later, understand that there was widespread agreement of the authenticity of these books with decades of their writing. Although there were many different gospels written in those first two centuries (perhaps you've heard of the Gnostic Gospels of Thomas, Mary, and Judas) the four that we currently have were asserted to be true by early church father Irenaeus by 160 A.D. By the early 200's, the church leader Origen was using the 27 books we use today. When Jerome was translating his Latin version of the Bible, he did not believe the Apocrypha was be inspired, but was later directed by the bishop of Rome to include those books in his translation. Over 1,000 years later, when Luther translated the Bible, he placed these Apocrypha books between the Old and New Testaments, explaining why they're sometimes called "Intertestamental Books."*

In the fourth and fifth centuries, the Christian Church held various councils that finally affirmed these books. Since then (especially in the last 150 years) there have been debates about the validity of these books, but I would offer that the collective weight of history speaks to their truth. The church (and the Jews before them) has maintained them as holy for thousands of years. This is not a definitive argument, but cannot be ignored.

As far as the Apocrypha being inspired, it's a continual source of argument. These books must be held up to the others in the Hebrew Scriptures, and their historicity and presence are not as cemented as well as the other 39. As our questioner notes, there are instances where it seems the Apocrypha is quoted in the New Testament. There is much argument over whether or not these are actual quotes from the Apocrypha or just similarities. Yet even if there are Apocrypha quotes in the N.T., we know that the apostle Paul repeatedly quoted popular culture/pagan literature to make a point. So just because it's in there doesn't validate it as inspired.

In the end I'd offer that even if the Apocrypha was inspired, there is no instruction written within them that we can't find in the traditional 66 books. These books that we hang on to have been meticulously maintained over centuries. I'll gladly hitch my wagon to them.

*Another Luther/Bible tidbit: it was he who ordered the New Testament as we view them today. He believed the stories of Jesus to be most important and had doubts about books from Hebrews through Revelation and put them at the end of the New Testament. Even though Luther had doubts, he knew he couldn't remove them entirely; the weight of history was against him.

Questions of Faith [An Introduction]

I have this good friend who has supported my ministry for years. He's a great Christian man and makes full effort to live a faithful Christian life. He called me up on the phone a couple of weeks ago and said he was struggling with his faith. He wasn't really wrestling with HOW HE SHOULD LIVE (morality), rather, he was concerned with WHAT TO BELIEVE. When you decide to follow Jesus and connect with a Christian community, you're usually surrounded by people who have figured out how to deal with these troubling aspects of faith. There are a few ways people deal with these questions of faith: Some people brush questions aside and don't deal with them at all; these people choose to accept ignorance, going with the flow and reasoning that millions of believers can't possibly be wrong. Other people immerse themselves in a quest for truth and are indiscriminate of the data they're examining. This group can be easily swayed to dismiss Christianity all-together; in fact, many a liberal biblical scholar were reared in simplistic, ultra-conservative faith communities and finally rejected faith as a result of deeper studies. Then there are those people struggling with skepticism who honestly and humbly seek to discover answers to their questions. These people tend to consult clergy for help with these questions and, unfortunately, this can actually prove to be detrimental. You see, many ministers adhere to the earlier described "go-with-the-flow" philosophy and haven't really felt the need to explore the deeper issues themselves. These ministers usually suggest that you just read your Bible more, pray more, go to church more, and God will strengthen your faith.

But there are answers out there, and clergy ought to be able to help reveal these answers. I am by no means an expert in the field of apologetics (the defense of the Christian faith), but I know that some of you share the same questions that my friend has. And while you might not read an entire book on these subjects, you might be able to digest what I write here on my website. So over the next few weeks, I'm going to answer my friend's questions here on the blog. The majority of them concern the biblical text, but if others emerge, I'll go ahead and take a stab at them. The point of the exercise is that we believers to continue to ask difficult questions and diligently seek those answers.

And all of this is not to say that Christianity is fully dependent on empirical evidence (proven facts). In the end, what we have is faith. I believe God gives us enough to keep us going, but there are still holes that must be filled by the individual.

Still, we have questions . . .