The history of how the New Testament was written, copied, and translated is an important topic that impacts the foundation of the faith of Christianity. This chapter answers the following questions: How did we get the New Testament? Who decided which books would be included? Why were some ancient texts not included? Why are there so many translations?
The New Testament consists of 27 books that were written between about AD 45 to approximately AD 100. Some authors penned their books themselves while others typically dictated the contents of a letter or narrative to an assistant or a scribe. This assistant would write down what was spoken, and the author would then check the document for accuracy. Apparently, Paul handwrote some of his first letters (Gal 6:11) and dictated his later ones, adding his handwritten salutation to authenticate them (Col 4:18; 2 Thess 3:17; see also 1 Pet 4:12). The books of the New Testament were written on leather scrolls and papyrus sheets.These books were circulated independently at first, not as a collection.
Perhaps itinerant preachers such as the apostle Matthew stayed in the home of a rich believer who had a library and slave to serve as his personal scribe. Matthew may have allowed a scribe to copy his Gospel. Hence, the Gospel of Matthew was circulated widely as he traveled from church to church. Paul instructed that some of his letters be circulated (Col 4:16). We don't know if the actual letter (called an autograph) was circulated to various churches or if copies were made by scribes to be circulated. In any case copies were eventually gathered into collections. Apparently, there were collections of Paul's letters (cf. 1 Pet 3:16). They were copied into codices, which are similar to modern-day books, with the pages sewn together to form a binding. In this form the documents were easier to read. Leather or scrolls were harder to use because the entire book had to be unrolled to find a passage. Also, papyrus sheets cracked if rolled into a scroll; hence, the flat papyrus pages were sewn into a book. In Latin the codex collection was called Ta Bibla, the words we use to designate our Bible. But the codex form forced decisions to be made, none more important than this: Which books would be included?
Several factors need to be considered when addressing the formation of the canon. Canon refers to a permanent list of authoritative books recognized as Scripture. The formation of the Old Testament canon, which will not be discussed here in any detail, gave the church the idea of forming the New Testament. Some scholars place the gathering of the 39 books of the Old Testament to Ezra. Remember, the first five books of the Old Testament had been gathered into the Pentateuch. Other scholars say the Old Testament was gathered into a canon when the Septuagint was translated from Hebrew into Greek. Therefore, the concept of a canon would have been familiar to the writers of the New Testament and Jewish Christians in general.
God "inbreathed" the writings of Scripture so that the writers wrote the Word of God without error. God chose three languages for His self-revelation. First, the Old Testament is written in Hebrew, a language structure that reflected the Jew. Of all the Semitic languages, it is simple, solitary, and straightforward. Hebrew is as beautiful in its descriptive words as it is ingenious in its idiomatic expressions. Some parts of Daniel and Ezra were written in another Semitic language, Aramaic. The New Testament was written in Greek.
The Greek of the New Testament was different from the classical Greek of the philosophers. However, the archaeological excavations have uncovered thousands of parchments of "common language Greek," verifying that God chose the language of common people (Koine Greek) in which to communicate His revelation. God chose an expressive language to communicate the minute colors and interpretations of His doctrine. Still others feel that God prepared Greeks with their intricate language, allowed them to conquer the world, used them to influence their tongue as the universal "trade language," and then inspired men of God to write the New Testament in common Greek for the common people who were part of the new formation of the church. This made the Word of God immediately accessible to everyone. If the Bible had been written in literary Greek or "a special language of the Holy Ghost," Christianity would have had a language barrier to reach the common people.