Rome in A.D. 64 was a magnificent city. It was the hub of one of the mightiest empires in history, spanning from England to the Euphrates. The first emperor, Caesar Augustus, who reigned at the time of Jesus’ birth, boasted that he had found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble. Subsequent emperors competed with each other in adorning the Eternal City with enormous structures whose ruins still bring awe and delight to the minds of tourists.
Sixty-four A.D. was the year of the great fire that swept through the slums of the city like an inferno. On the throne sat a half-demented emperor named Nero, a man who fancied himself a great artist, a man who cared little how the populace suffered so long as he had the means to accomplish his grandiose scheme of embellishing the city as a lasting monument to his name. When rumor pointed to the emperor himself as the arsonist, he cunningly sought to escape the blame. Among the new religions in the capital city was an already unpopular group called Christians—a perfect scapegoat. Arrests were quickly made and Nero obligingly offered his own stadium for the cruel tortures that followed. Tacitus, a Roman historian, wrote this description:
“… some were covered with the skins of wild beasts and torn to pieces by dogs, while others were fixed to crosses and burnt to light the night when daylight had failed. … Although they were criminals who deserved the most severe punishment, yet a feeling of pity arose, since they were put to death not for the public good but to satisfy the rage of an individual.”1
Not long after these frightful days Mark, desiring to preserve the stories of the martyred church leaders, penned a little book known to us as the Gospel According to Mark. Mark’s primary concern was to set down the mighty deeds of Christ that he had so often heard from Peter and others. It was something like ten or fifteen years later when Matthew and then Luke produced their Gospels. They incorporated into their records nearly everything that Mark had written plus extra important material illuminating Jesus’ life and teachings. The Gospel of John came still later (between A.D. 90 and 100), making it one of the last of the New Testament books to be written.
Why did they wait so long to write? There may have been several good reasons, such as (1) the press of missionary duties precluding literary efforts, (2) the adequacy of the oral message that could still be heard from those who had actually known Jesus, and (3) the belief that the second coming of Christ was near; obviously there would be no need for written records when that happened.2
Some have worried about the reliability of the Gospels since they were written so late. Were the authors simply relying on memory for the words and events they recorded? Could the story of Jesus by this time have become distorted and heightened in color? This becomes less of a problem when one learns that Bible scholars believe the authors of the Gospels obtained much of their information from earlier records in addition to dependable oral sources. Luke in his introductory remarks attests to this when he mentions that “many” had written of Christ before him (Luke 1:1–4). Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor in the early second century, has left us this intriguing statement: “Matthew wrote down the sayings of Jesus in Hebrew, and each interpreted these as best he could.”3 One is tempted to interpret this to mean that Matthew was the historian of the twelve and produced a diary that was used by later writers. Papias may be referring to a pre-Gospel document that scholars designate with the letter Q, which stands for the German word Quelle, meaning source. Scholars have found that Matthew and Luke have a large body of Jesus’ teachings in common. They postulate that Q is the source both used for this material. Of course, to a Mormon student all this evidence is secondary to the firm support given to the truthfulness of the Bible by the Book of Mormon, our “second witness for Christ.”4
The Gospels though arranged first were not the earliest New Testament literature to be written. Following the death and resurrection of Christ, the apostles, with astonishing energy, began spreading the gospel throughout the Mediterranean world. Luke wrote a brief history of that exciting movement; it is called the Acts of the Apostles. The Gospels tell how the despondency felt by the apostles at the crucifixion was quickly dispelled as they gazed upon and touched the open wounds of their resurrected Messiah! Fired with enthusiasm and charged with the Savior’s divine commission that they “go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15), the apostles eagerly spread the “good news.” Tradition tells us that they fanned out in every direction: Thomas supposedly went as far east as India; Philip labored in Egypt; Paul went to Asia Minor and Greece; and Peter taught in Palestine and points west. Nothing could match their preaching. Peter’s defiant reply characterized their attitude: “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19–20.) The book of Acts tells mainly of the missions of the Apostle Paul, one of the most courageous Christians. During the course of his missionary work Paul wrote numerous letters to deal with local problems that arose in the churches. These epistles were the first of our New Testament books to be written and were composed between the years A.D. 50 and A.D. 64. Paul had been trained as a Jewish rabbinical scholar prior to his miraculous conversion to the Christian Church and many of his letters were weighty and difficult even for contemporaries. Even so, his epistles are often passionately eloquent and highly informative.
The remainder of the New Testament writings—the Book of Hebrews, seven general epistles, and Revelation—were mostly written late in the first century to combat troubles within and without the church. Hebrews, 1 Peter, and Revelation are Christian answers to conflict with the Roman government. Under the reign of Domitian (A.D. 81–96), emperor worship in many provinces became a compulsory duty. Since many faithful Christians refused to compromise their allegiance to God, they came under the threat of state persecution. It was to encourage the Christians in this dark hour that John the Beloved disciple wrote his cryptic attack on the Roman government and religion, the Book of Revelation. He portrayed in majestic imagery the struggle of good and evil through the ages, ending in the final triumph of the kingdom of God.
It was to convince some Jewish Christians living in Rome from taking the easy way out by lapsing back into Judaism that the Book of Hebrews was written. The writer’s thesis was to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity to Judaism, of Christ to the prophets and priests of the Old Testament.
Another type of trouble faced the church in the form of heretical doctrines and schismatic groups, the most dangerous of which was Gnosticism. Even some of Paul’s letters attack early manifestations of this heresy. The Gnostic movement became an immense peril to the church in the second century. The three letters of John and those of Jude and 2 Peter were written primarily to attack and defend church doctrine against this dangerous heresy.
In the early second century A.D. when the last of the New Testament books had been written, there was still no New Testament. How were these scattered writings collected and given scriptural status?
The first book of scripture accepted by the Christians was the Old Testament, although they had disassociated themselves from much that was Jewish. Jesus rejected some practices of the Jewish faith and announced that he had come to fulfill or improve the Law of Moses. Therefore, it appears that Jesus’ teachings were more authoritative than the literature of the Old Testament. Paul also held his doctrinal views and revelations to be superior to the Law. The Law, said Paul, was merely “our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ. …” (Gal. 3:24.) Consequently, from the beginning, it seems that the teachings of Jesus and the apostles take on an authoritative status equal to or greater than the Old Testament.
The Book of Acts describes the apostles as the spirit-inspired, recognized spokesmen of God, and it is only reasonable to conclude that their words and letters would be so considered by the church. Paul certainly made it clear that his preaching message was not the wisdom of men but the inspiration of the Lord. (1 Cor. 2.) To the Galatians he wrote that the gospel he preached “is not after man,” for he received it “by the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Gal. 1:11–12.) He emphatically claimed that his writings were just as surely the “commandments of the Lord.” (1 Cor. 14:37.) In his second letter to the Thessalonians Paul urged that they hold fast to the teachings they had received “whether by word, or our epistle.” (2 Thes. 2:15.) What is more, the writers of 1 Timothy and 2 Peter refer to earlier New Testament books as scripture. (1 Tim. 5:18; 2 Pet. 3:15–16.) The conclusion is clear that the apostles considered their writings to be authoritative and thus equivalent to scripture, and it is undoubtedly true that the churches who received these records treasured them as inspired apostolic literature. Paul’s letters were read in church services along with passages from the Old Testament. (Col. 4:16; 1 Thes. 5:27.) As time passed these early Christian documents were copied and recopied, much as we copy choice sermons of our General Authorities today.
What forces were at work in the church that led to the collection of these writings into a single book of scripture? The following are counted among the important reasons: (1) As the church entered into the second century, those who had known Jesus personally were nearly all deceased. More thought was therefore given to preserving their precious memoirs of the Savior. (2) Belief in the imminence of the second coming of Christ was on the wane thus increasing the need to stabilize the church both doctrinally and organizationally. (3) Spurious writings about Jesus and the apostles were circulating, and it became necessary to designate the reliable from the apocryphal records. (4) Apostate doctrines were troubling the church until many were confused in their beliefs. What better way to answer these apostates and critics than to point to an authoritative book of doctrine that contained accepted truths.
Curiously enough, it was one of the most famous apostates of the second century who gave impetus to the movement to formulate a New Testament. His name was Marcion, a wealthy shipowner from Pontus in Asia Minor. Marcion sought to sever the church completely from Judaism and Jewish influences. He proposed that the church reject the Old Testament and substitute a canon5 of their own. He suggested that the canon should consist of the Gospel of Luke and ten of Paul’s letters. Marcion was excommunicated and led away a powerful apostate faction. He did, however, stimulate interest in a Christian book of scripture. It was not long before other prominent Christians were recommending their lists of preferred books. For the next two hundred years Christian churches and leaders carefully sifted through the literature of the church and finally selected only twenty-seven short booklets and letters as the New Testament canon.
From the beginning there was little dispute about the inclusion of the four Gospels and most of Paul’s letters in the canon. Some controversy centered around later Christian writings where authorship was uncertain or contents of questionable worth. Something that compounded the problem was the increasing number of apocryphal gospels, acts, and letters, many of which laid claim to apostolic authorship. A book by M. R. James entitled The Apocryphal New Testament is a 600 page anthology of these documents. Most of these writings contain fanciful and heretical stories that easily disqualified them from serious contention in the canon. Many of these apocryphal gospels manifest a curiosity about the unknown years in Jesus’ life and manufacture tales to fill the gap. The Gnostic work, the Gospel of Thomas, for example, tells of the boy Jesus making clay animals and then astounding his friends by making them come alive.6 In the same work, Joseph makes a mistake by cutting a plank too shod. The child Jesus takes the board and miraculously pulls it into the desired length.7 There are several stories of the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven, a legend that the Catholic Church later accepted as probable truth.8 There are similar farfetched stories of the apostles. Many of these tales were popular in the Middle Ages and, indeed, the appetite for such myth-making is not dead yet.
Unlike these writings, there were some Christian books that enjoyed such high respect that they nearly won a place in the New Testament. The most important of these were written in the early second century and include the Epistle of Clement, Epistle of Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, Teachings of the Apostles or Didache, and the Apocalypse of Peter.
By the year A.D. 200 there was near universal agreement on what books should comprise our New Testament. A good evidence of this is the so-called Muratorian Fragment, a manuscript dating from about A.D. 180 and containing a list of canonical books of the Roman Church. This manuscript, named after the Italian antiquarian who discovered it in the eighteenth century, lists the four Gospels, Acts, thirteen letters of Paul, Jude, two epistles of John, and the Book of Revelation. It also gives the Apocalypse of Peter only conditional approval and mentions the Shepherd of Hermas as worthy to be read. The books of Hebrews, 2 Peter, James, letters of John, and Revelation were disputed by some churches for another hundred years. One is surprised, for example, to find Eusebius, the Christian historian and contemporary of the Emperor Constantine, writing in A.D. 325 and dividing the books that had been vying for acceptance into four categories: (1) “recognized books,” (2) “disputed books,” (3) “spurious books,” and (4) books that were “impious and beyond the pale.”9
This minor difficulty was eventually settled and the canon of scripture was closed. St. Jerome’s translation of the entire Bible into Latin (the Vulgate) had a major influence in settling the matter. Jerome’s New Testament contained the twenty-seven books that we still use. To Latter-day Saints it is unfortunate that Christians decided on a closed canon, which implies that there was to be no more scripture or revelation.
One important idea that emerges from this story is the one concerning the reliability of our New Testament as manifested in the careful sifting and selection process of the canon. If a book did not pass the test of doctrinal soundness, popular usage, and trustworthy authorship, it was rejected as scripture. This fact reinforces our trust in this incomparable religious record.