Written by John on Wednesday 21/03/07
It's a good question. After all, we are making, and asking others to make, life changing decisions based on 2000 year old texts.
Over 5000 ancient fragments and manuscripts of the NT remain.
The earliest of these was around 130AD (papyrus fragments of John 18). About another 85 papyri exist.
Manuscripts of most of the Gospels, Acts, Paul's letters, Hebrews and Revelations are from 200-250AD
Complete manuscripts of the NT from the 4th and 5th centuries have been preserved.
A few points to note:
The manuscripts are remarkably consistent with only a few minor variations that are small copiest errors.
The volume of manuscript evidence far outweighs that of any other ancient text. For example, Josephus wrote of the Jewish Wars in about 90AD. There is one Latin translation from the 5th century, and Greek copies from the 10th century or later available. There are 10 manuscripts of the Gallic Wars (58-50BC) by Caesar, all later than the 9th century.
How did the 27 books of the NT come to be chosen as the "right ones" (called forming the canon of the NT)?
1. Letters from Bishops Clement (96AD), Ignatius (c.108AD) and Polycarp (c110AD) between them quote and refer to 25 of the 27 books.
2. In addition to the gospels the letters of Paul and other apostles where quickly recognised as valuable - some had been deliberately written for circulating amongst churches.
3. In the second century there arose some heretical movements (mainly Gnostics with beliefs such as the God of the OT being different from that of the NT, Christ's human appearance and suffering where not "real" etc). These groups tended to pick and choose what they wanted from the texts (sound familiar?) and some even wrote "Gospels" to fill in the childhood of Jesus, on add some additional "Acts" of the apostles.
4. Iraneus in about 190AD (who studied under Polycarp who had been a disciple of John) recognised the need to spell out which books were acceptable. This is largely what we recognised today as the NT but with Hebrews, 1&2 Peter, 3John missing. The Shepherd of Hermes was considered OK for private worship, but not public and the Wisdom of Solomon was included.
5. The Wisdom of Solomon was soon dropped, some specific books excluded (incl the Shepherd of Hermes and Revelation of Peter), and James, 2Peter, 2&3 John and Jude debated for a while before they were included by AD350-400.
The early Church followed Jesus lead in recognising the authority of the OT. They recognised the Gospels and most of the NT having similar authority very early on. The disputes were not over what should be included in the canon of the NT so that it would be authoritative, but what is authoritative and therefore should be included.
It was not simply one or two who sat down and made decisions, but a broad consensus over many decades as to what was and what was not authoritative. Some criteria were obvious - it had to be written or sponsored by an apostle, recognized as having orthodox content, and be widely in use in the churches.
Another point to recognise is that these texts survived the many persecutions of the church - in other words they were found to be relevant to the lives and sacrifices of the early Christians.
For those wanting to read some more, FF Bruce's "Documents of the New Testament; Are they reliable?" is a good place to start.