P3- Evaluating Episode 3: Bible Secrets Revealed – What history really says about the New Testament Canon

Introduction and Review of the past couple of posts:

Today we continue evaluating the third episode of “Bible Secrets Revealed”.  To review, we noted at the beginning of this current blog series that we would evaluate the third episode along three lines:                                                                                                                                  1.  What story are they telling?                                                                                                      2.  What story does history tell about the development of the Biblical Canon                            3.  Have they told the story right?

In the past two posts we have examined the particular story being told by the revisionist scholars of “Bible Secrets Revealed” and summarized it as composed of two main points:

A. According to the panel of “experts” in the History Channel series, the years spanning from 100-300 A.D witnessed many gospels come from the apostles or claiming to be written by the Apostles.  These so-called “lost Gospels” had been preserved by the Gnostics but were the expunged as the result of an alleged political agenda operating within the early church of the first few centuries.

B. Gnostic gospels are deemed non-inspired by the church heirarchy and due to political reasons are banned from the Bible. This was a process that the “Bible Secrets Revealed” panel suggests took place in the years following 100 A.D to right after 300 A.D.

In yesterday’s post we looked in detail at the background worldview driving the show’s particular conclusions regarding the relationship of the New Testament to the so-called Gnostic texts, which include the so-called lost Gospels, Apocalypses and other Nag Hammadi literature.   The aim of this current series of blogs is to equip the Christian reader with an understanding of what is being communicated in the History Channel series and to hopefully untangle error from truth.  In today’s post we will move onto the second main area of evaluation of episode #3 of the series: “Bible Secrets Revealed”, namely – “what story does history have to tell about the development of the New Testament Canon?

Part Two: Setting the record straight – The story history has to tell about the development of the New Testament Canon

The third episode of the The History’s Channel series: “Bible Secrets Revealed” persists in attempting to prove that somehow the Gnostic gospels were a major source of the origins of Christianity.   Such claims require us as Bible believing Christians to not only evaluate such claims, but to respond and communicate the evidence of history concerning the development of the New Testament Canon.

1. The truth about the development of the New Testament Canon

So did the early church wait nearly 300 years to pick its own books for the New Testament to the exclusion of the Gnostic gospels?  When we read history and the Bible, we discover that canonicity was not something that the church decided to make up to suit its own political interests.  Norman Geisler, an evangelical scholar writes in his book (co-edited with William Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible):

Inspiration determines canonicity. If a book was authoritative, it was so because God breathed it and made it so. How a book receives authority, then, is determined by God. How men recognize that authority is another matter altogether (see discussion in chap.13 ).  As J. I. Packer notes, “The Church no more gave us the New Testament canon than Sir Isaac Newton gave us the force of gravity. God gave us gravity, by His work of creation, and similarly He gave us the New Testament canon, by inspiring the individual books that make it up.” [1]

Since the New Testament books were immediately recognized by God’s people within or shortly after the apostolic age, then history would tell a completely different story from the History Channel’s panel of “experts”

2. The earliest records that bear witness to the development of the New Testament Canon

          Church historian Everett Harrison cites the letters of Paul, Peter and John as the first immediate evidence of the early church’s recognition of the inspired texts of those apostles.[2] With all of these New Testament texts dated between 50-90 A.D by even the most hardened critics, we can safely acknowledge that recognition of what constituted inspired text was a first act of the apostolic church.

In fact the churches established by the apostles constituted the criteria by which the church recognized the number of books and the type of books as authoritative witnesses of the words of God. Harrison notes three tests used by the early church in determining which books were canonical:[3]

1). Was it of apostolic origin or authority?                                                                                   2). Was it received by the earliest churches and in use?                                                          3). Was it consistent with the teaching of the already established norm of the Old Testament?”

3. Questions surrounding the exact numbers of the books

With the early church already acknowledging each of the New Testament books as individually inspired, the next step would involve recognizing the gospels and epistles in their respective groupings as canonical, with the end result being the entirety of our 27 book N.T.  Many within the world of liberal, critical scholarship claim that the N.T Canon was invented or put together in 325 A.D at the Council of Nicaea under the watchful eye of Emperor Constantine.  Yet testimony from the early church fathers and early lists of New Testament books state otherwise.

A). Papias was a student of Polycarp, who in turn had been a student of the apostle John. Eusebias, the first church historian, notes that Papias acknowledged the authority of the four gospels as early as 135 A.D, only 40 years after the apostolic age.[4]

B). As already mentioned, Polycarp, Papias mentor, had been himself a student of the apostle John.  Polycarp in his book entitled “First Apology” asserts  the authority of the four gospels and Pauline epistles while sharply distinguishing them from the then popular but apocryphal books of “The Shepherd of Hermas” and “Apocalypse of Peter”.[5]  Polycarp is dated 115 A.D, some 25 years after the close of the apostolic age.

C). Ireneus, Bishop of Lyons, wrote his work “Against Heresies” to record and critique the growing Gnostic threat that was attempting to undermine the orthodox, Bible believing church of his day. Irenaeus not only mentions almost all of the 27 books of the New Testament, but effectively denounces all of the Gnostic gospels.  Iranaeus wrote his work in 180 A.D, some 85 years after the apostolic age.

D). The Muratorian Fragment, the earliest list we have of the New Testament books outside the apostolic era, can be dated to 170 A.D.  In it we have almost a complete record of all the New Testament books except two.  This canonical list represents a good portion of the early church’s opinion of what constituted the New Testament.

4.  The length of time it took  for the early church to acknowledge the New Testament  Canon?

Overall we could quote well over a dozen more church fathers that lived and wrote prior to 200 A.D.  The point is that even though the Gnostic gospels had begun to be written by 150 A.D, yet we have ample testimony that some 30 to 40 years previous to their existence, the 27 book New Testament that we have today was in one way or another already established.  P.R Ackroyd, a New Testament scholar writes:[6]

“While there was some considerable dispute over some of the N.T books, the major writings were accepted by almost all Christians by the middle of the 2nd century (150 A.D).”

Thus despite the claims of the History Channel “experts” like Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrman and company,  the New Testament canon as we know it was well on its way by 150 A.D.  By the time we arrive in the fourth century, various church fathers (like Athanasius of Alexandria) and certain church councils (Hippo in 393 A.D and Carthage in 397 A.D) did nothing more than affirm what was already generally acknowledged by all Christians everywhere – namely the canonicity of the 27 New Testament Books.

5. Constructing a Timeline for history’s account of the story of the N.T canon

With the major evidence for the development of the N.T Canon considered, it is now time to see how all of this evidence lays out in a time line.  The reader will find it helpful to compare this time line to that of Brown’s above.  Not only will there be obvious differences, but this timeline gives more data and thus a more reasonable account of how our New Testament came to be recognized as the canon.

CHURCH HISTORY’S RECKONING OF THE N.T CANON                                               Part 1: Apostles, Post-Apostolic/Pre-Nicaean Church Fathers                                  1 Tim 5:18                  Polycarp          Muratorian Canon                  Tertullian                            & 2 Peter 3:14-16       115 A.D           Mentions all but three            refuses to use any              50-66 A.D                                            of the N.T books 170 A.D        other gospels other                                                                                                                               than the four 200 A.D

50 —–100 A.D————————-150 A.D—————-200 A.D————>>

Epistle of Barnabas                 Papias                                 Irenaeus quotes                    120 A.D quotes                       quotes four                          almost all 27 books                  Matthew                                gospels 135 A.D                      in his apology against                                                                                                                   the Gnostics, 180 A.D 

Part Two: Nicean and Post-Nicean Church Fathers (Nicaea refers to Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D)

<<—–300A.D————————————————-400 A.D 

       Athanasius “Festal Letter”    Council of Carthage                                                             listing all 27 books 367 A.D          recognizes canon

Part Three: Ancient New Testament Translations that testify of the recognition of the 27 N.T Books as being Canonical

Ancient translations             Athanasius “Festal Letter”       Council of Carthage of Greek originals               listing all 27 books 367 A.D          recognizes canon        N.T writings (Itala,                                                                           for whole church 397 Syriac, Coptic) verify                                                                                                     unanimity of 27 books                                                                                                         from 200-300 A.D

 200 A.D———–300 A.D———–350 A.D————————400 A.D

           Church is being persecuted.                                               Council of Hippo                                                                                                                           agrees on 27 books                                                                                                                            393 A.D, reaffirming                                                                                                                  what church generally                                                                                                                  had believed since                                                                                                                           shortly after the days                                                                                                                      of the Apostles

Comparing genuine church history’s account of the New Testament Canon to that of the revised history of  “Bible Secrets Revealed” 

As one can see, the above chart is not only conflicts with the critical scholars’ revised history, but it gives a more realistic picture to the development of the canon.  The scholars of the History Channel persist in committing the one error that plagues revisionist approach to history: ignorance of the testimony of the early church fathers and canonical lists!

No greater New Testament scholar than Kurt Aland has commented on this error of judgment among modern New Testament scholarship:

“These insights gained from the history of the canon are fundamental and of vital significance for the history of the text – New Testament textual criticism has traditionally neglected the findings of early church history, but only to its own detriment, because the transmission of the N.T text is certainly an integral part of that history”.[7]

More tomorrow……


[1] Geisler, N. L., & Nix, W. E. 1996, c1989. A general introduction to the Bible. Includes a short-title checklist of English translations of the Bible

[2] Harrison, Everett. Introduction to the New Testament.

He cites 1 Thess 5:27, Colossians 4:16; 1 Timothy 4:13; and passages throughout the Book of Revelation as evidence for there being at least a beginning point of a formation of the Canon.

[3] Ibid. 104-106

[4] Bettenson, Henry. Documents of the Christian Church.

[5] McDowell, Josh. Evidence that demands a verdict. Volume One. Page 37.

[6] Ackroyd, P.R and C.F Evans. The Cambridge History of the Bible

[7] Aland, Nestle and Barbara Aland. The Text of the New Testament.

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About pastormahlon

By the grace of God I was converted to saving faith in Jesus Christ at the age of 10 and called into the Gospel ministry by age 17. Through the Lord's grace I completed a Bachelors in Bible at Lancaster Bible College in 1996 and have been married to my beautiful wife since that same year. We have been blessed with four children, ranging from 7-18 years of age. In 2002 the Lord enabled me to complete a Master of Arts in Christian Thought at Biblical Theological Seminary, Hatfield PA. For nearly 25 years I have been preaching and teaching God's Word and have been studying the original languages since 1994. In 2016 God called my family and me to move to begin a pastorate at a wonderful Southern Baptist Congregation here in Northern New York.
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