Determination of the canon.
Under CANON we understand the books of the Bible that we as Christians regard as truly God inspired and therefore considered as Word of God. The word CANON comes the Greek meaning “measure stick” or “Ruler”
In the beginning of the Christian Era, the first readers, scribes as well as translators of the documents of the New Testament had not seen the New Testament documents as word of God. To them only the Old Testament was word of God, especially the Greek translation in common use, called the Septuagint, (LXX). The canon of the Old Testament had also not yet been determined. What we today accept as the New Testament, had been to them only documents of the apostles and other believers explaining the Christian faith. To them only the Old Testament was “word of God”. Therefore alterations and “corrections” that they deemed necessary were made in the documents of the New Testament.
Spelling mistakes, geographical corrections as well as names of towns or other places could be “corrected” with relative ease, because it was not handled with the respect held for the word of God. Though this explains many of the differences between manuscripts, it is usually of less importance. Was the name of the town where Jesus healed the demon-possessed man who stayed in the graves, Gergesene, or Gadara, or Gerasene? (Compare Mat.8:28, Mk.5:1 and Luke 8:26) What ever the name of the town, not does not make any difference to the authenticity of the healing that took place. We will look into deliberate alterations at a later stage. It is important that we understand why such alterations could easily be made in the documents of the New Testament. We can truly thank God that He protected the transportation of His word through the centuries to enable us to compile a text with virtually total certainty of every word of the original autographs. In the same time and especially during later years, many other people wrote their own stories. Some of these documents have great value and correspond to a great extend with the New Testament concerning content and inclination. But they really do not add any new knowledge or insight that need to be added to the New Testament. On the other hand, many of the stories and “miracles” recorded are of such a nature that they cannot be accepted as authentic. Often these writers tried to add value to their writings by distributing it in the name of one or the other apostle. Such a document is called a pseudepigrapha. In 2Thes.2:2 Paul warns ”not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us …“ Right from the beginning there were false teachers, that operated from within the churches. (Acts 19:11-16, Phil.1:15-17, 1John 4:1-6) The leaders in the early church continually weighed and evaluated the different documents. In this way they determined which could be accepted as canon for the Christian life. The 27 books of the New Testament as we know it, had first been mentioned by Athanasius in 367 A.D. as canon in his Easter Letter.
The other writings form the apocrypha of the New Testament, some being written as late as 600 A.D. The question the early church had to face, was to decide which of all the documents written could be regarded as canon? Except for Revelation, no one of our New Testament documents was written by direct order of God. God did not commission from heaven some people to write down his word. He did not dictate to anybody. And yet, the believers had to seriously consider every document and make a decision. The apostles and Paul preached directly from the Old Testament, but then explained how this was applicable to Jesus. (Acts 2:14-36, Acts 7:2-53, Acts 8:35 etc.) Early in the second century Justin the martyr mentioned that during the services on Sundays, the “writings of the apostles” were read alongside with the “prophets” (Old Testament). Over some time, after careful study and debating, the church leaders realized that some writings gave an exact account of the life of Jesus and his teachings as well as sound Christian doctrine. We cannot doubt the direct involvement of the Holy Spirit in these actions, like the acknowledgement given by the apostles themselves in Acts 15:28: ” It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” Discerning which documents could be deemed rule or canon was done under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and by sound reasoning and prayer. They accepted the explanation of the faith by the apostles and Paul as guideline. Nothing more as needed. They realized that the other writings contained some serious misinterpretations of the truth. In this way the believers themselves accepted some writings and rejected others. Some documents were set aside from the beginning as apocrypha. Many of these survived as interesting literature and were also copied and duplicated. Some of the more important apocrypha were copied in the same codex with the rest of the Bible, but usually put at the end. Every denomination decided on its own canon. That is why the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox and the Coptic Church in Africa accept different books in their canon. The protestant churches accept only the 27 books of the New Testament as their canon. Even Martin Luther had a problem with some books like Hebrews, James, Judas and the Revelation. The first official meeting to decide which books the Roman Catholic Church would accept as their canon, was the Synod of Hippo in 393 A.D. They accepted the 27 books we know as the New Testament and the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament. One of the main criteria for the New Testament was that it should have been written by an apostle. This rule almost caused Hebrews to be left out. Luckily the Synod accepted though by mistake, that Paul had been the author, and it was included. Nobody knows who really had been its author, but according to linguistic criteria like language, style and choice of words, it could most certainly not have been Paul. Further evidence is the way its arguments are discussed. We can thank the Lord that this valuable book did not get left out of the canon. The 27 books of the New Testament are accepted by all ChristianChurches, though some add a few books accepted by us as apocrypha, like the “Didache”, the gospel of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas.
Bear in mind with how much reverence the Church Fathers weighed every document to establish what God really wanted us to know. Should we not with equal reverence establish what had been altered by mistake or even intentionally, and then discard it?