The following post is a chapter from Short Answers to Big Questions about God, the Bible, and Christianity, co-authored by Dr. Clinton E. Arnold (Dean of Talbot School of Theology) and his son, Jeff Arnold. This book was published by Baker Books and can be purchased here. You can view another chapter from this book here.
A few years ago, the National Geographic Society announced the discovery of a lost gospel called the Gospel of Judas. Every major news outlet covered this event, with some hailing it as the discovery of the century. The Society then aired a television special on the Friday before Easter telling the story of this great find and discussing its significance. This discovery raised many questions for people, but especially two of a critical nature for the Christian faith: (1) why were some books left out of the Bible (like the Gospel of Judas), and (2) should we consider including other books in the Bible?
The Gospel of Judas was a great discovery, but it was not a big surprise. The famous second-century church leader Irenaeus actually mentions this so-called gospel in his book, Against All Heresies. The Gospel of Judas was not written in Greek (as every New Testament book), but in an Egyptian language known as Coptic. It was also composed after the New Testament was written. More importantly, it was part of a collection of documents belonging to another religion called gnosticism. The gnostics looked down on physical life and taught a belief in two gods—the Creator God that we know about through Genesis 1, but also a secret, hidden, unknown god that exists in the kingdom of light. It is this unknown god that gnosticism claims to reveal. At the heart of the Gospel of Judas is a revelation of this unknown god.
The Problem of People Wanting to Add to the Bible
Irenaeus explicitly said that the gnostics wrote many different gospels and books, but he, along with all other church leaders of the second through fourth centuries, regarded them as grossly inaccurate and harmful in what they taught. He warned, “They adduce an unspeakable number of apocryphal and spurious writings, which they themselves have forged, to bewilder the minds of foolish men, and of such as are ignorant of the Scriptures of truth.” It is from this religion—a religion that is quite different from Christianity—that so many spiritual books were written that are now sometimes referred to as “the lost books of the Bible.” Although it may be rather obvious that the Gospel of Judas should not be part of the Bible, what about other books?
At various points in the history of the church, individuals have emerged who have challenged what books should be in the Bible—either by wanting to eliminate some or to add others. The important point here is that the churches already knew what the books of the Bible were; these were the ones they were already using in their teaching and worship. These books had just not been officially recognized.
The Problem of People Wanting to Take Books Out of the Bible
One of the earliest challenges to the commonly recognized collection of books that the churches were using as Scripture came from a man named Marcion. He was a wealthy and prominent church leader who lived in the early second century AD in a coastal city of northern Asia Minor (today this is in the country of Turkey). He was passionate about the writings of the apostle Paul but had a very skewed idea of what they taught. Ultimately, he advocated that only ten letters of the apostle Paul should be accepted as Scripture as well as the Gospel of Luke; all others should be rejected (including the Old Testament). Because of his wealth and influence, the churches of the Mediterranean world had to respond. This challenge became a huge motivation for the churches to declare formally and publicly what books they had already been using as Scripture.
The Early Church’s Recognition of God’s Word
So, as early as the second century AD, the church began developing the concept of the canon of Scripture to distinguish those books that were regarded as inspired by God and thus carried divine authority. The term comes from Greek where it commonly meant a “rule” or a “standard” and came to be applied to the standard books that made up the Bible. The eminent Princeton scholar Bruce Metzger noted that Marcion’s challenge was “accelerating the process of fixing the Church’s canon, a process that had already begun in the first half of the second century.”
By the time of Jesus, the thirty-nine books that constituted the Hebrew Bible (what we call the Old Testament) were widely recognized within Judaism as the Bible. Because of that, Jesus could cite from various books of the Old Testament by simply referring to them as a coherent and unified whole called “the Scriptures” (see, for example, Matt. 21:42; 22:29; 26:54, 56).
As for the twenty-seven books that we know as the New Testament, these were formally recognized as the canon of Scripture in the second through the fourth centuries. The apostle Peter himself referred to the letters of Paul as “Scripture” (2 Pet. 3:15–16). In one of the earliest church documents written after the final New Testament book was completed, the Gospel of Mark is cited as “Scripture” (2 Clement 2:4). The earliest church leaders regularly quote passages from the various New Testament documents giving them authority as divine revelation in a way that distinguishes them from any other writings.
It is important to realize, though, that from the moment the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were written, they were copied and circulated throughout the extent of the world where churches had been planted—Israel, Syria, Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece, Italy, and elsewhere. They began to be used regularly by the churches for teaching, worship, and devotion. The same can be said about the collection of the letters of Paul, Peter, James, Jude, and John as well as the letter to the Hebrews and the book of Revelation. They were rapidly copied, distributed to the churches, and in constant use as documents that were inspired by God and essential for the growth and nurture of believers. Wherever churches had been planted, believers were reading and using these documents as the revealed Word of God.
What this means is that there was no one individual who privately made a decision regarding what should be in the Bible. Or, similarly, there was no group of individuals who made such a decision and then imposed their decree upon all of the churches. In fact, the process happened in precisely the opposite manner. The gatherings of church leaders who produced official lists of New Testament books were formally recognizing what the churches all over the world had already recognized and were using as the inspired and authoritative Scriptures. As Metzger notes, “The Church did not create the canon, but came to recognize, accept, and confirm the self-authenticating quality of certain documents.”
How the Church Recognized What Was Scripture
The influence of the Holy Spirit in the hearts and minds of the early Christians was the primary factor influencing what particular documents the individual churches began to use as inspired and authoritative Scripture. But there were also some objective and rational standards:
(1) Apostolic origin (from the Apostles). From the very beginning, Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). Originally, their teaching was spread orally, but once this teaching was written down, churches obtained copies of these documents as soon as they could and used them as the very Word of God for their beliefs and practice. (2) Orthodoxy. The churches rejected out of hand any document that did not conform to the collection of essential teachings that all of the churches accepted. (3) Usage. In the third and fourth centuries, no book was regarded as Scripture unless it had been widely used by the churches from the beginning. Of course, this latter standard rules out the possibility that any document can or should be added to the Bible now.
So, when it comes to considering whether a newly discovered document like the Gospel of Judas should be made part of the Bible, it fails on every ground. Although it claims to be from Judas (one of the Twelve), there are good historical reasons for concluding that it did not (not least of which is that Judas hung himself shortly after he betrayed Jesus, who was then crucified; Matt. 27:5). Furthermore, the teaching of this book is gnostic and contradicts most essential Christian doctrines. And, finally, it was never used by the church and was actually condemned.
There are no other books that should be considered as part of the Bible. Even if, theoretically, an authentic letter from the apostle Paul should be discovered, as awesome as such a discovery might be, we would not consider making it part of the Bible. It was simply not used by all the churches over time.
What we currently possess in our Bibles is the completed canon of Scripture. It is exactly as God intended it and is the living, active, and powerful Word of God.
This post is an excerpt from Clinton E. Arnold and Jeff Arnold, Short Answers to Big Questions about God, the Bible & Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015).