The present age is supremely interested in origins. Not until we have traced the genesis and earliest unfolding of an institution or an idea or a literature do we feel that we really understand and appreciate it. Familiarity with that which is noble breeds not contempt but reverence, and intelligent devotion. Acquaintance with the origin and history of a book is essential to its true interpretation. Therefore it is fortunate that modern discovery and research have thrown so much light upon the origin of both the Old and the New Testaments.
[Sidenote: The growing recognition that the natural is divine]
Equally fortunate is it that we are also learning to appreciate the sublimity and divinity of the natural. The universe and organic life are no less wonderful and awe-inspiring because, distinguishing some of the natural laws that govern their evolution, we have abandoned the grotesque theories held by primitive men. Similarly we do not to-day demand, as did our forefathers, a supernatural origin for our sacred books before we are ready to revere and obey their commands. With greater insight we now can heartily sing, "God moves in a natural way his wonders to perform." Our ability to trace the historical influences through which he brought into being and shaped the two Testaments and gave them their present position in the life of humanity does not in a thoughtful mind obscure, but rather reveals the more clearly, their divine origin and authority.
[Sidenote: Value of the comparative study of the origin of both Testaments]
Through contemporary writings and the results of modern biblical research it is possible to study definitely the origin of the various New Testament books and to follow the different stages in their growth into a canon. This familiar chapter in the history of the Bible is richly suggestive, because of the clear light which it sheds upon the more complex and obscure genesis and later development of the Old Testament. It will be profitable, therefore, to review it in outline, not only because of its own importance, but also as an introduction to the study of the influences that produced the older Scriptures; for almost every fact that will be noted in connection with the origin and literary history of the New has its close analogy in the growth of the Old Testament.
[Sidenote: The threefold grouping of the New Testament books]
We find that as they are at present arranged, the books of the New Testament are divided into three distinct classes. The first group includes the historical books: the Gospels and Acts; the second, the Epistles -- the longer, like the letters to the Romans and Corinthians, being placed first and the shorter at the end; while the third group contains but one book, known as the Apocalypse or Revelation. The general arrangement is clearly according to subject-matter, not according to date of authorship; the order of the groups represent different stages in the process of canonization.
[Sidenote: Why the Gospels are not the earliest]
Their position as well as the themes which they treat suggest that the Gospels were the first to be written. It is, however, a self-evident fact that a book was not written -- at least not in antiquity, when the making of books was both laborious and expensive -- unless a real need for it was felt. If we go back, and live for a moment in imagination among the band of followers which Jesus left behind at his death, we see clearly that while the early Christian Church was limited to Palestine, and a large company of disciples, who had often themselves seen and heard the Christ, lived to tell by word of mouth the story of his life and teachings, no one desired a written record. It is not surprising, therefore, that the oldest books in the New Testament are not the Gospels. The exigencies of time and space and the burning zeal of the apostles for the churches of their planting apparently produced the earliest Christian writings.
[Sidenote: Origin of the earliest epistles]
In his second missionary journey Paul preached for a time at Thessalonica, winning to faith in the Christ a small mixed company of Jews and proselyte Greeks. His success aroused the bitter opposition of the narrower Jews, who raised a mob and drove him from the city before his work was completed. But the seed which he had planted continued to grow. Naturally he was eager to return to the infant church. Twice he planned to visit it, but was prevented. In his intense desire to help the brave Christians of Thessalonica, he sent Timothy to inquire regarding their welfare and to encourage them. When about 50 A.D. Timothy reported to Paul at Corinth, the apostle wrote at once to the little church at Thessalonica a letter of commendation, encouragement, and counsel, which we know to-day as First Thessalonians and which is probably one of the oldest writings in our New Testament, Galatians perhaps being the earliest.
[Sidenote: Paul's later epistles]
Another letter (II Thess.) soon followed, giving more detailed advice. As the field of Paul's activity broadened, he was obliged more and more to depend upon letters, since he could not in person visit the churches which he had planted. Questions of doctrine as well as of practice which perplexed the different churches were treated in these epistles. To certain of his assistants, like Timothy, he wrote dealing with their personal problems. Frankly, forcibly, and feelingly Paul poured out in these letters the wealth of his personal and soul life. They reveal his faith in the making as well as his mature teachings. Since he was dealing with definite conditions in the communities to which he wrote, his letters are also invaluable contemporary records of the growth and history of the early Christian church. Thus between 30 and 60 A.D., during the period of his greatest activity, certainly ten, and probably thirteen, of our twenty-seven New Testament books came from the burning heart of the apostle to the Gentiles.
[Sidenote: Growth of the other epistles]
Similar needs impelled other apostles and early Christian teachers to write on the same themes with the same immediate purpose as did Paul. The result is a series of epistles, associated with the names of James, Peter, John, and Jude. In some, like Third John, the personal element is predominant; in others, the didactic, as, for example, the Epistle of James.
[Sidenote: Purpose of the Epistle to the Hebrews]
A somewhat different type of literature is represented by the Epistle to the Hebrews. Its form is that of a letter, and it was without doubt originally addressed to a local church or churches by a writer whose name has ever since been a fertile source of conjecture. The only fact definitely established is that Paul did not write it. It is essentially a combination of argument, doctrine, and exhortation. The aim is apologetic as well as practical. Most of Paul's letters were written as the thoughts, which he wished to communicate to those to whom he wrote, came to his mind; but in the Epistle to the Hebrews the author evidently follows a carefully elaborated plan. The argument is cumulative. The thesis is that Christ, superior to all earlier teachers of his race, is the perfect Mediator of Salvation.
[Sidenote: Value of the Epistles]
Thus the Epistles, originally personal notes of encouragement and warning, growing sometimes into more elaborate treatises, were made the means whereby the early Christian teachers imparted their doctrines to constantly widening groups of readers. At best they were regarded simply as inferior substitutes for the personal presence and spoken words of their authors. Like the Old Testament books, their authority lies in the fact that they faithfully reflect, in part at least, the greater revelation coming through the lives and minds of the early apostles.
[Sidenote: The larger group]
As is well known, the twenty-one letters in our New Testament were selected from a far larger collection of epistles, some of which were early lost, while others, like the Epistles of Barnabas and Polycarp and Clement, were preserved to share with those later accepted as canonical, the study and veneration of the primitive Church.
[Sidenote: Influences that gave rise to the earliest Gospels]
The influences which originally produced the Gospels and Acts were very different from those which called forth the Epistles. The natural preference of the early Christians for the spoken word explains why we do not possess to-day a single written sentence in the Gospels which we can with absolute assurance assign to the first quarter-century following the death of Jesus. Two influences, however, in time led certain writers to record his early life and teachings. The one was that death was rapidly thinning the ranks of those who could say, I saw and heard; the other was the spread of Christianity beyond the bounds of Judaism and Palestine, and the resulting need for detailed records felt by those Christians who had never visited Palestine and who had learned from the lips of apostles only the barest facts regarding the life of the Christ.
[Sidenote: Testimony of Luke's Gospel]
The opening verses of Luke's Gospel are richly suggestive of the origin and growth of the historical books of the New Testament:
Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to draw up a narrative concerning those matters which have been fulfilled among us, even as they delivered them unto us, -- they who from the beginning were eye-witnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having traced the course of all things accurately from the first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, that thou mightest know the certainty concerning the things wherein thou wast instructed.
This prologue states that many shorter Gospels had previously been written, not by eye-witnesses, but by men who had listened to those who had themselves seen. Luke leaves his readers to infer that he also drew a large number of his facts from these earlier sources as well as from the testimony of eye-witnesses. The implication of the prologue is that he himself was entirely dependent upon written and oral sources for his data. This is confirmed by the testimony of the Muratorian Fragment:
Luke the physician, after the ascension of Christ, when Paul had taken him, as it were, as a follower zealous of the right, wrote the gospel book according to Luke in his own name, as is believed. Nevertheless he had not himself seen the Lord in the flesh, and, accordingly, going back as far as he could obtain information, he began his narrative with the birth of John.
His many literal quotations from it and the fact that he makes it the framework of his own, indicate that Mark's Gospel was one of those earlier attempts to which he refers.
[Sidenote: Luke's motive in writing]
The motive which influenced Luke to write is clearly stated. It was to prepare a comprehensive, accurate, and orderly account of the facts in regard to the life of Jesus for his Greek friend Theophilus, who had already been partially instructed in the same. His Gospel confirms the implications of the prologue. It is the longest and most carefully arranged of all the Gospels. The distinctively Jewish ideas or institutions which are prominent in Matthew are omitted or else explained; hence there is nothing which would prove unintelligible to a Greek. The book of the Acts of the Apostles, dedicated to the same patron, is virtually a continuation of the third Gospel, tracing, in a more or less fragmentary manner, the history and growth, of the early Christian Church, and especially the work of Paul.
[Sidenote: Purpose of Mark's Gospel]
Very similar influences called forth the shortest and undoubtedly the oldest of the four Gospels, the book of Mark. The testimony of the contents confirms in general the early statement of Papias and other Christian Fathers that it was written at Rome by John Mark, the disciple and interpreter of the apostle Peter, after the death of his teacher. The absence of many Old Testament quotations, the careful explanation of all Jewish and Palestinian references which would not be intelligible to a foreigner, the presence of certain Latin words, and many other indications, all tend to establish the conclusion that it was written for the Gentile and Jewish Christians, probably at Rome, and that its purpose was simply historical.
[Sidenote: The two-fold purpose of the Gospel of Matthew]
The memoir of Jesus, which we know as the Gospel of Matthew, is from the hand of a Jewish Christian and, as is shown by the amount of material drawn from Mark's Gospel, must be placed at a later date. The great number of quotations from the Old Testament, the interest in tracing the fulfilment of the Messianic predictions, and the distinctively Jewish- Christian point of view and method of interpretation, indicate clearly that he wrote not with Gentile but Jewish Christians in mind. Nevertheless, like that of Mark and Luke, his purpose was primarily to present a faithful and, as far as his sources permitted, detailed picture of the life and teachings of Jesus. His arrangement of his material appears, however, to be logical rather than purely chronological. The different sections and the individual incidents and teachings each contribute to the great argument of the book, namely, that Jesus was the true Messiah of the Jews; that the Jews, since they rejected him, forfeited their birthright; and that his kingdom, fulfilling and inheriting the Old Testament promises, has become a universal kingdom, open to all races and freed from all Jewish bonds. [Footnote: Cf. e.g., x.5, 6; xv.24; viii.11, 12; xii.38-45; xxi.42, 43; xxii.7; xxiii.13, 36, 38; xxiv.2; xxviii.19] This suggests that the First Gospel represents a more mature stage in the thought of the early Church than Mark and Luke.
[Sidenote: Origin of Matthew's Sayings of Jesus]
Its title and the fact that the Church Fathers constantly connect it with Matthew, the publican, and later apostle is explained by the statement of Papias, quoted by Eusebius:
Matthew accordingly composed the oracles in the Hebrew dialect, and each one interpreted them as he was able (H.E., iii.39). These oracles evidently consisted of a written collection of the sayings of Jesus. Since they were largely if not entirely included in our First Gospel, It was therefore known as The Gospel of Matthew. There is no evidence that the original Matthew's Sayings of Jesus contained definite narrative material. The fact that the First Gospel draws so largely from Mark for its historical data would indicate that this was not supplied by its main source. The Sayings of Jesus was probably the oldest written record of the work of Jesus, for, while oral tradition, easily remembers incidents, disconnected teachings are not so readily preserved by the memory. Their transcendent importance would also furnish a strong incentive to use the pen. It was natural also that, of all the disciples, the ex-customs officer of Capernaum should be the one to undertake this transcendently important task.
[Sidenote: Aim of the The Fourth Gospel]
The Fourth is clearly the latest of the Gospels, for it does not attempt fully to reproduce the facts presented in the other three, but assumes their existence. Its doctrines are also more fully developed, and its aim is not simply the giving of historical facts and teachings, but also, as it clearly states, that those reading it might believe that Jesus was the Christ, the son of God, and that believing they might have life in his name (xx.31). The motive that produced it was, therefore, apologetic and evangelical rather than merely historical.
[Sidenote: Review of growth of the Gospels]
A detailed comparison of the differences between the Gospels, as well as of their many points of likeness which often extend to exact verbal agreement, furnishes the data for reconstructing their history. In general the resulting conclusions are in perfect harmony with the testimony of the Church Fathers. Mark, the shortest and more distinctively narrative Gospel, is clearly the oldest of the four. Possibly it was originally intended to be the supplement of the other early source, Matthew's Sayings of Jesus, now known only through quotations. These two earliest known Christian records of the work of the Master in their original form were the chief sources quoted in the First and Third Gospels. So largely is Mark thus reproduced that, if lost, it would be possible from these to restore the book with the exception of only a few verses. But in addition, Matthew and Luke each have material peculiar to themselves, suggesting other independent written as well as oral sources. To such shorter written Gospels, and also to the oral testimony of eyewitnesses, Luke refers in his prologue. In the Fourth Gospel, the doctrinal motive already apparent in Matthew, and prominent in the Church at the beginning of the second Christian century, takes the precedence of the merely historical. A distinct source, the personal observation of the beloved disciple, probably also furnishes the majority of the illustrations which are here so effectively arrayed.
[Sidenote: Influences that produced the apocalypses]
More complex were the influences which produced the single example of the third type of New Testament literature, -- the Apocalypse, or Book of Revelation. The so-called apocalyptic type of literature was a characteristic product of later Judaism. The Book of Daniel is the most familiar example. Although in the age of scribism the voice of the prophets was regarded as silent, and the only authority recognized was that of the past, the popular Messianic hopes of the people continued to find expression anonymously in the form of apocalypses. In the periods of their greatest distress Jews and Christians found encouragement and inspiration in the pictures of the future. Since the present situation was so hopeless, they looked for a supernatural transformation, which would result in the triumph of the right and the establishment of the rule of the Messiah. Underlying all the apocalypses is the eternal truth voiced by the poet: "God's in his heaven and all's right with the world."
[Sidenote: Origin of the Book of Revelation]
The immediate historical background of the Apocalypse is the bitter struggle between Christianity and heathenism. Rome has become drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus (xvii.6). The contest centres about the worship of the beast, -- that is, Caesar. The book possibly includes older apocalypses which reflect earlier conflicts, but in its present form it apparently comes from the closing years of Domitian's reign. The obvious aim of its Jewish Christian writer was to encourage his readers by glowing pictures of the coming victory of the Lamb, and thus to steel them for unfaltering resistance to the assaults of heathenism. The purpose which actuated the writer was therefore in certain respects the same as that which led Paul to write his letter to the persecuted church of Thessalonica, although the form in which that purpose was realized was fundamentally different.
[Sidenote: The literary activity of the first four centuries]
Many other apocalypses were written by the early Christians. The one recently discovered and associated with the name of Peter is perhaps the most important. Thus, the second half of the first century after the death of Jesus witnessed the birth of a large Christian literature, consisting of epistles, gospels, and apocalypses. The work of the next three centuries was the appreciation and the selection of the books which, to-day constitute our New Testament. The influences which led to this consummation may be followed almost as clearly as those which produced the individual books.
[Sidenote: Influences that led to the canonization of the Gospels]
Early in the second century the motives which had originally led certain Christians to write the four Gospels induced the Church to regard those books as the most authentic, and therefore authoritative, records of the life and teachings of the Master. We have no distinctive history of the process. It was gradual, and probably almost unconscious. The fact that three of the Gospels were associated with the names of apostles and the other with Luke, the faithful companion of Paul, undoubtedly tended to establish their authority; but the chief canonizing influence was the need of such records for private and public reading. The production, early in the second century, of spurious gospels, like the Gospel of Marcion, written to furnish a literary basis for certain heretical doctrines, also the desire of the Church Fathers to have records to which they could appeal as authoritative hastened the formation of the first New Testament canon. The use of the Gospels in the services of the church, which probably began before the close of the first Christian century, by degrees gave them an authority equal to that of the Old Testament Scriptures. The earliest canon consisted simply of these four books. They seem to have been universally accepted by the Western Church by the middle of the second century. About 152 A.D. Justin Martyr, in proving his positions, refers to the Memoirs of the Apostles compiled by Christ's apostles and those who associated with them, and during the same decade his pupil Tatian made his Diatessaron by combining our present four Gospels.
[Sidenote: The second edition of the New Testament]
Meantime the natural desire to supplement the teachings of Jesus by those of the Apostles led the Church to single out certain of the epistles and associate them with the Gospels. Already in the first century the apostolic epistles and traditions were cherished by the individual churches to which they had been first directed. In time, however, the need for a written record of the apostolic teachings and work became widely felt. Hence, by the end of the second century, Acts and the thirteen Pauline epistles, First Peter, First John, and the Apocalypse, were by common consent placed side by side with the Gospels, at least by the leaders of the Western Church.
[Sidenote: The disputed books]
Regarding the authority of the remaining New Testament books, Hebrews, James, First and Second John, and Jude, opinion long remained undecided. Concerning them an earnest discussion was carried on for the next two centuries. By certain leaders in the Church they were regarded as authoritative, while elsewhere and at different periods, other books, like the Gospel to the Hebrews, the Epistle of Barnabas, Clement's Epistle to the Corinthians, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Apocalypse of Peter, were included in the canon and even given the priority over the disputed books later included in our New Testament.
[Sidenote: Final completion of the New Testament canon]
The final decision represents the result of an open and prolonged and yet quiet consideration of the merits of each book and of its claims to apostolic authority. The ablest scholars of the early Christian Church devoted their best energies to the problem. Gradually, thoughtfully, prayerfully, and by testing them in the laboratory of experience, the Christian world separated the twenty-seven books which we find to-day in our New Testament from the much larger heritage of kindred writings which come from the early Christian centuries. Time and later consideration have fully approved the selection and confirmed the belief that through the minds of consecrated men God was realizing his purpose for mankind. As is well known, at the Council of Carthage, in 397 A.D., the Western world at last formally accepted them, although the Syrian churches continued for centuries to retain a somewhat different canon.
[Sidenote: Conclusions from this study of the influences that produced the New Testament]
This brief historical study of the origin of our New Testament has demonstrated twelve significant facts: (1) That the original authors of the different books never suspected that their writings would have the universal value and authority which they now rightfully enjoy. (2) That they at first regarded them as merely an imperfect substitute for verbal teaching and personal testimony. (3) That in each case they had definite individuals and conditions in mind. (4) That the needs of the rapidly growing Church and the varied and trying experiences through which it passed were all potent factors in influencing the authors of the New Testament to write. (5) That certain books, especially the historical, like Luke and Matthew, are composite, consisting of material taken bodily from older documents, like Matthew's Sayings of Jesus and the original narrative of Mark. (6) That our New Testament books are only a part of a much larger early Christian literature. (7) That they are unquestionably, however, the most valuable and representative writings of that larger literature. (8) That they were only gradually selected and ascribed a value and authority equal to that of the Old Testament writings. (9) That there were three distinct stages in the formation of the New Testament canon: the gospels were first recognized as authorative; then Acts, the Apostolic Epistles, and the Apocalypse; and last of all, the complete canon. (10) That the canon was formed as a result of the need felt by later generations, in connection with their study and worship, for reliable records of the history and teachings of Christianity. (11) That the principles of selection depended ultimately upon the intrinsic character of the books themselves and the authority ascribed to their reputed authors. (12) That the process of selection continued for fully three centuries, and that the results represent the thoughtful, enlightened judgment of thousands of devoted Christians. Thus through definite historical forces and the minds and wills of men, the Eternal Father gradually perfected the record of his supreme revelation, to humanity.