The Congregation at Duke University Chapel

NEW TESTAMENT: Origins and Formation

NEW TESTAMENT: Origins and Formation

notes for a presentation at Adult Forum by
Sonja Tilley
Congregation Director of Christian Education
December 5, 2010

OPENING PRAYER: Hymnal #602 – “Concerning Scripture” (from the Book of Common Prayer)

Blessed Lord, you have caused all Holy Scripture to be written for our learning. Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, forever and ever. AMEN.


  • This morning, we are going to look at how the New Testament came to be.

    • Continuation of our talk on Nov. 7th on origin/formation of OT or Hebrew Bible

    • We often take for granted that our Bible has always looked the way it does today

    • The Bible has evolved over a long period of time into what we hold in our hands today.

Things to bear in mind as we examine how Bible books were written (Review from 11/7)

  • We do not have the original manuscript of any book of the Bible, Old or New Testament

  • We are unsure about who the actual authors were of the great majority of the books. Authorship was not viewed as legal possession during the time when the books were written – no concept of copyrights. It was common practice to write under the name of a prominent person, and was not considered unethical to do so. It was rather seen as a way to honor that person.

  • NT books were written by leaders of the fledgling church to instruct particular congregations or individuals and were collected and circulated among different churches as people came to realize that they might be helpful to others. They were not intended to be scripture when they were written, with the possible exception of Revelation

  • All books of the NT were originally written in Greek

  • All NT books were written between 50-120 CE

    • Earliest book: 1 Thessalonians – around 50 CE

    • Latest book: 2 Peter – somewhere between 90 CE at earliest to 120 CE at latest

  • Important to realize that Jesus himself never wrote a book

  • Other than Paul, we know very little about the authors of the NT books other than what is contained within the books themselves

Writing of the Four Sections of the New Testament

  1. Gospels

  • Early Christians believed that Jesus’ return was imminent, so no need to write anything down – people could remember the events surrounding his life, many first-hand

  • As time passed and it became obvious this was not the case, the need to put the stories in writing for a new generation emerged.

  • Also need arose to differentiate followers of Jesus from other Jewish groups in Palestine after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.

  • Some 50 gospels that we know of were actually written, though by 200 CE, the four we are familiar with today were the most widely available and accepted

  • Scholars recognize 3 stages of development of the 4 Gospels:

    • First stories were circulated orally among believers

    • Then written collections of short sayings, parables, and a complete account of the Passion narrative were written.

    • Finally, different authors assembled these collections into the Gospels. Different authors used different sources, thus accounting for the differences in them.

  • Each Gospel was directed to a particular person or group of people with the intention of converting them to the Christian faith or strengthening them in their existing faith.

    • Matthew: Written to the Jews to convince them that Jesus fulfilled the Messianic prophecies, and was, therefore, the Messiah.

  • Luke: Written to “Theophilus”, an unknown Christian of some social standing, and to the Gentiles.

    • Some scholars believe “Theophilus” could be interpreted as a generic term for “People of God.”

      • Purpose was to give as accurate an account of Jesus’ life as possible so that ALL (men, women, Gentiles…) might come to believe.

  • Mark is earliest Gospel – dated somewhere between 64-70 CE (before the destruction of the Temple)

  • Matthew, Mark & Luke make up the “synoptic” gospels, so-called because they share a similar outlook (“synoptic” is from the Greek word “synoptikos” meaning “seeing with one eye”)

    • In fact, there is so many similarities between these three gospels that scholars believe that the three are related

Synoptic Gospels: Four Source Hypothesis

Some reading material provided in a handout during class by Sonja Tilley on December 5, 2010.

[Graphic showing flow from Jesus to each of M, Mark, Q, and L, and from these to Matthew and Luke.]

  • M - Source used only by the author of Matthew
  • L - Source used only by the author of Luke
  • Q - Source used by both authors

Some scholars believe that the authors of Matthew and Luke both used the gospel of Mark as a source, along with a second source, Q (from the German word Quelle which means source) which is lost to us today. This explains all of the overlapping material, some of which is not found in Mark. They believe that the unique material in each book comes from other sources now lost to us - Matthew using "M" as a source and Luke using "L".

  • The author of the Gospel of Luke actually mentions the fact that he used earlier sources: “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the first, to write an orderly account …” (Luke 1:1-3)

  1. History

    • Acts is a unique book in the New testament

    • Records the history of the early church, basically picking up the story from of the early church from Jesus’ resurrection forward

    • Written as a “sequel” to Luke, around 85-90 CE

  2. Letters

    • Earliest of the NT writings

    • As problems arose in the early church, Paul and others wrote letters to the congregations and individuals to provide needed support and encouragement.

    • Also written to clarify theological issues and interpret Hebrew scripture in the light of the life of Jesus

    • Congregations receiving these letters quickly realized that some of them were universally applicable, and began copying them and passing them on to other churches.

    • Collections of letters began to be circulated, and emerged as the first scripture of the newborn Christian faith.

    • Two types of letters:

      1. Pauline Letters

        • Either written by Paul or by someone else in his name

        • Paul himself wrote between circa 50-64 CE

      2. Catholic/Universal Letters

        • Written by authors other than Paul

        • Message of letter had universal scope

  3. Apocalypse

    • Contained in the book of Revelation

    • Written c. 95 CE to the churches of Asia Minor

    • Very distinctive literary style that was commonly used and known until c. 200 CE

New Testament Canon

  • Depending on what source you look at, it took the early church between 400-1500 years to decide on an official canon.

  • It could be argued that the “Christian” church has never decided on an canon, since we have different canon for the different branches of Christianity – Protestants, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and other minor branches

  • In the early church, different gospels and letters, along with some other books, circulated among the churches. Not all communities had access to all the material we accept today. For example, one community’s scripture might include several letter of Paul and others, one of the gospels or parts of several, plus some other works we don’t include today.

  • Some communities were Jewish and had a great deal of knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures, while others were Greek and had little knowledge of them, and did not consider them important.

  • 4-stage development of the NT canon:

    1. Initially, Christian writings composed by persons who wrote with little or no consciousness that they were writing scripture. (What we’ve discussed up to now.)

    2. Certain of these writings were ascribed special status through extensive usage, particularly usage by a bishop or other prominent leader, and began to take on a sacred character.

    3. These sacred writings began to be gathered into loosely defined collections.

    4. Finally, some writings, even some that had at one time been considered by some to be sacred, are excluded from the collections.

  • While we can generally identify these four stages of development, we should not see the overall process as a neatly unfolding set of developments. In truth, it was quite messy though consensus did eventually emerge, especially around the four Gospels and most of the letters attributed to Paul.

  • The first recorded attempt to create an official canon came from a layperson, a wealthy ship owner who lived in Rome, named Marcion.

    • Marcion was deeply influenced by a form of Gnosticism that believed that the creator God of the Old Testament was different and inferior to the God of the New Testament, Jesus. Could not reconcile the OT God, who seemed cruel and inconsistent, with Jesus, who represented the Supreme God of Goodness.

    • They only used the Old Testament scriptures to show their lack of authority, i.e. how the Hebrew God couldn’t be all knowing since he had to ask Adam “Where are you?” when he hid in the Garden of Eden. (Gen. 3:9)

    • Believed that the apostles had misunderstood the teachings of Jesus

    • Proposed a canon that included only Luke and edited versions of Paul’s letters – 11 books in all. Did not include the Old Testament.

Some Early Proposed Canons

Some reading material provided in a handout during class by Sonja Tilley on December 5, 2010.



180 A.D.
  Matthew Matthew Matthew
  Mark Mark Mark
Luke Luke Luke Luke
  John John John
  Acts Acts Acts
  Romans Romans Romans
1 Corinthians 1 Corinthians 1 Corinthians 1 Corinthians
2 Corinthians 2 Corinthians 2 Corinthians 2 Corinthians
Galations Galations Galations Galations
Ephesians Ephesians Ephesians Ephesians
Philippians Philippians Philippians Philippians
Colossians Colossians Colossians Colossians
1 Thessalonians 1 Thessalonians 1 Thessalonians 1 Thessalonians
2 Thessalonians 2 Thessalonians 2 Thessalonians 2 Thessalonians
  1 Timothy 1 Timothy 1 Timothy
  2 Timothy 2 Timothy 2 Timothy
  Titus Titus Titus
Philemon   Philemon Philemon
  1 Peter   1 Peter
      2 Peter
  1 John 1 John 1 John
    2 John 2 John
      3 John
    Jude Jude
  Revelation Revelation Revelation
  Shepherd of Hermas    
    Wisdom of Solomon  
    Revelations of Peter  
  • The canon put forth by Marcion was soundly rejected, and his beliefs declared heretical.

  • Another leader of the early church, Irenaeus, writing in response to Marcion, insisted that both testaments proclaim one and the same God and were important to the faith.This was accepted as the orthodox view.

  • Irenaeus was the person who came up with the names “Old Testament” and “New Testament”.

  • He proposed his own canon around 180 CE, which included 21 of the 27 books we accept today, along with another, The Shepherd of Hermas, that was not accepted. Although his canon was never adopted, it was very influential.

  • As the process of selection of texts for the canon continued, the following criteria emerged:

  • Orthodoxy – had to reflect accepted doctrine of the church

  • Apostolic Origin – had to be from the time of the apostles’, though not necessarily written by one

  • Universal – had to be generally applicable to all congregations

  • Use by a Bishop – reflected common usage

  • The first time the 27 books that we currently accept as the NT appeared was in a letter from St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, in 367. He proclaimed: “…in these alone is the teaching of true religion proclaimed as good news; let no one add to these or take anything from them.”

  • Though this came to be the generally accepted canon, no official action was taken by the church to name this the definitive Bible until more than 1000 years later, after the Protestant Reformation in the early 1500’s

  • Council of Trent – held by the Catholic church in response to the Protestant Reformation

  • Met on and off between 1545-1563

  • 1546, at the fourth session of the Council of Trent, formally ratified the official canon containing the 27 NT books, along with the Apocrypha, declaring them to be “sacred and canonical”

  • The Protestant Church eventually accepted this official canon, minus the Apocrypha.

  • In 1563, the Anglican Church’s 39 Articles of Religion affirmed the 66 books of the Bible as canonical, as did the Presbyterian’s Westminster Confession in 1647.

      • See Book of Common Prayer, pg. 868-9.

Some Interesting Notes

  • Martin Luther, who started the Protestant Reformation, had real problems with several books of the NT on the grounds that they did not stress the importance of grace over works of faith. The books included James, Hebrews, Jude and Revelation. He especially did not like James, which some have suggested he considered downright evil.

  • The most controversial NT book was, not surprisingly, Revelation.

What about the Apocrypha?

  • A Greek word meaning “concealed or hidden away”

  • Accepted to be the OT Apocrypha, all of which were written during the time period between the Old and New Testaments.

  • Considered “deutero-canonical” by the Catholic church, meaning that they are included in the canon, but are realized to be of secondary importance, most likely because of the late authorship by OT standards

  • Not considered sacred by the Jewish people.

  • Today, many Protestant Bibles contain the Apocrypha. Though not considered part of the canon, they have come to be recognized as important.


I chose to entitle this study “The Word of God for the People of God.” In a short while, most if not all of you will attend worship in the Chapel. At some point in the service, you will hear the lector read a text and end with these words: “The word of God for the people of God,” at which time you will respond…

  • Why do we do this?

    • Because by so doing, we call attention to the sacred nature of the text that was just read.

  • What makes this text sacred?

    • I believe it’s because God inspired the authors who originally wrote the texts, the later editors who shaped them into their final forms, and all those who had a hand in passing them along so that we the Bible today.

    • I also believe, however, that each of us must experience the biblical text becoming sacred in our own lives so that Bible study becomes something more than an academic exercise.

  • I hope that this inspires you to spend some time with your Bible, perhaps hearing the texts with a fresh ear and some new insights.