When Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, wrote his 39th Festal Letter in the year 367CE, this marked the first early Christian Church leader to write down in any formal way exactly which documents should be included in the New Testament that we now recognize. He was not the first person to propose the idea that there should be a canon, but he was the first one to name all of the ones (books) that we now recognize.
The NT contains four types of documents:
1. Gospel – this is a narrative of the life of Jesus, and the canon has four of them.
2. Acts – think of this as a history of the early church. In the case of the Acts we have in the canon, it records the handoff of the leadership of the Christian church from Peter to Paul, and then tries to provide an account for Paul’s missionary work.
3. Epistles – these are nothing more than letters written by one Christian and sent to another Christian or group of Christians. In the NT, the first 13 epistles are purportedly written by Paul although only seven of them are generally regarded as authentic. The rest of the epistles are written by other early christians, and scholars debate the identity of the authors.
4. Revelation – this is a prophecy. The last book in the NT is called Revelation, but scholars refer to it as the Revelation of John in order to distinguish it from other Revelations that are not included in the canon.
[Note: some folks might consider Hebrews to be a Sermon rather than an Epistle]
There is something fascinating that people who have not looked into the academic work surrounding the NT may not know, and that is that the 27 documents we have are *not* the only 27 documents written by early christians. There are in fact dozens and dozens of others that were written by christians but were never widely accepted as authoritative. We have other gospels, we have other acts, we have other epistles, we even have other revelations…but those texts are not considered reliable or inspired. Contemplate that for a moment. Why would Bishop Athanasius pick the four gospels that we recognize today, but exclude all of the others? The answer is because he likely favored the message and teaching of the four he chose. Because they represented the version of Christianity he thought was most correct. But how would he know they were genuinely authentic? How could he know? The key takeaway here is that we know for a fact that early christians were making up stories about Jesus, and since we know that’s true (and we know that Athanasius knew it was true) then how do we really know that what we see in the canonical gospel narratives is reliable?
In an earlier blog post I talked about the idea of eyewitnesses and explained how there really isn’t any intellectually defensible way to conclude that any of the four canonical gospels could possibly have been written by an eyewitness, so we can dispense with that. This leads us to the need to consider the texts more carefully.
There is very broad agreement that of the four gospels we have in the canon that Mark was written first, sometime around the year 70. Simply by reading the texts we can see clearly that Matthew and Luke drew heavily on Mark’s account to such a great degree that nearly half of Matthew and nearly half of Luke are *word-for-word* copies of Mark. Because the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are all based on a single source (Mark) we can only really consider this to be one narrative. That leaves us with John, which was written much later, and which shows a clear pattern of the myth of Jesus growing over time. Because John comes so much later, and because it shows a much more advanced christology, I think we can safely conclude that it is a a theological source rather than a historical one.
So when we boil all of that down, here’s what we find. The earliest record of anything about Jesus’s life comes from Mark, and we’re left with no way to reliably determine whether Mark made any of it up. If we look at all of the non-canonical gospels, we have to admit that early Christians were definitely making stuff up, which can only leave us with a question mark, for Mark (that was a cute pun, did you see what I did there?). For us to think that we know anything at all about a historical Jesus forces us to admit such a heavy reliance on Mark that if he did make anything up then we may have no real facts about Jesus’s life and teachings at all.