As we have seen, the Gospels were written at different times. We put them at the beginning of the New Testament, but, of course, they were not the first books to be written. The letters of Paul and other writers were sent to groups of Christians scattered about in various parts of the world. So when were all these separate works gathered together to form a volume and added to the Old Testament to make what we call the Bible?
Well, they were not collected together for the best part of 300 years.
So for centuries, the separate work that make up the New Testament were bit together in one volume, were not in the possession of most Christians, and were even unknown in some groups.
What is called the “Canon”, the list of New Testament books we have now, was settled in 397 A.D. at the Council of Carthage, in N. Africa. It was decided by the Bishops at that meeting, who then said that the list should be sent to Rome to be confirmed as authoritative. At the Council of Carthage, then, is the first time we find a clear list of all the New Testament books as we have them in the Bible now. Before then Bishops had certainly drawn up lists of books that are more or less the same as our New Testament, but not exactly the same.
Before the Council of Carthage in 397 there were three distinct classes into which Christian books were divided:
1. Those books that were officially recognised: the 4 Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the letters of St. Paul. These were read aloud at the Eucharistic celebrations.
2. A second group was those books that were “disputed”. That means that in some places they were recognised, in others rejected. Among these books we find the Letters of James, Jude, Peter; the 2nd. and 3rd Letters of John; the Letter to the Hebrews; and the Apocalypse. There were doubts about these works. They were suspected. Some of these disputed books are found in our New Testament. Some were rejected completely, even though in some places they had been read at public worship. For example, there were the Shepherd of Hermes, the Letter of Barnabas, the Gospel according to the Hebrews, the Letter of Paul to the Laodiceans. Some of these are probably read by men studying for the priesthood today, but nobody else reads them and would find it difficult to obtain them if he or she wanted to.
3. The last class of book floating around before 397 is those which were never acknowledged as having any value in the Church. They were full of superstitions and ridiculous stories of miracles of Our Lord and the Apostles which made them a laughing-stock. We know the names of about 50 Gospels (such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of James), about 22 Acts (like the Acts of Pilate, Acts of Paul, and others). They were all condemned as “Apocrypha” – that is, false and uncanonical.
We must remember, too, that there were many spurious books floating around among Christians in the early centuries. We know the names of many of them. The Catholic Church rejected these and guarded the collection of inspired writings from being mixed up with them. Once a Council of the Church had spoken (in 397 and again in 419), and Rome had confirmed it, all doubt ceased among Christians as to what was genuine and what was not. The Church sifted, weighed, discussed, rejected, and finally decided what was what. Here she rejected a writing that was once very popular and reckoned by many as inspired and was actually read as Scripture at public services; there, she accepted another that was very much disputed and viewed with suspicion, and said, “This is to go into the New Testament”. The Church had the evidence before her; the tradition to help her; and, above all, the assistance of the Holy Spirit to enable her to come to a right conclusion in so important a matter. The decrees of the Councils of Carthage were reaffirmed by the Council of Florence in 1442 under Pope Eugenius IV, and again by the Council of Trent in 1546.
We should get this firmly:
- The Church existed before the Bible.
- The Church wrote the Bible.
- The Church selected its books.
- The Church preserved the Bible.