CH101 - The First Century

The Primitive Church - 30 - 100 AD
The New Testament Canon, Part 2

The New Testament Canon, Part 2
Many Christian scholars disagree with the theory that the sayings of Jesus were initially transmitted in an oral tradition. The concern is that this would threaten the integrity of his message, and thus threaten the validity of the gospel tradition. This section of how the NT was formed is more problematic and it should be remembered that the task for the historian is to present the evidence as objectively as possible, always acknowledging that we are working with theories of events that happened 2,000 years ago for which we do not have ALL the evidence.

Probably as early as the late 40's the oral traditions that carried the words of Jesus began to be put into writing. This probably happened in order to protect the integrity of the message, to keep only 'authoritative' sayings intact. The Nag Hammadi texts seem to shed light on this phase of the gospel development. The Nag Hammadi Library, is a collection of thirteen ancient codices containing over fifty texts, discovered in the Egyptian desert in 1945, sealed in a large clay jar. The story of this discovery is the stuff of an adventure novel and can be found in summary form online at - the full story is found in the introduction of The Nag Hammadi Library in English by James Robinson (pp.22-24, rev.ed., HarperCollins Paperback, New York-1990).

Within the Nag Hammadi texts was a Gospel of Thomas which appears to be nothing more than a collection of 'sayings' and stories, not written with any recognizable chronological or thematic order. Some of the sayings are almost identical parallels found in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) - Saying 9, for example is the parable of the sower. Yet others are not only different, but bizarre. Just one example will serve to make the point and keep this discussion moving forward:

Jesus said, "This heaven will pass away, and the one above it will pass away. The dead are not alive, and the living will not die. In the days when you consumed what is dead, you made it what is alive. When you come to dwell in the light, what will you do? On the day when you were one you became two. But when you become two, what will you do?"
-  The Gospel of Thomas, saying 11

It is likely that the early leaders began to hear odd sayings like this one and determined that an authoritative set of sayings needed to be recorded. Most scholars believe that Mark's gospel was the first of the four NT gospels written, followed by Matthew and Luke. The dates given vary widely from the early 60's (for Mark) into the 80's (for Luke). The difficulty with dating comes from the fact that early writers, like Paul for example, do not quote from any of the four gospels. Clear quotations do not begin to appear until the early second century. Even more liberal scholars would not suggest a second century date for the synoptic gospels, thus the lack of quotations are attributed to a slow pace for copying and circulating these documents. Papyrus does not become widely and commonly used outside the Egyptian region until the second century...and that is where our discussion of the NT canon will pick up.

Go to -  The New Testament Canon, Part 3
Download the paper, How the New Testament Canon was Formed

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