Last week we looked at the question “How can I know that the Bible is true?” Today I wanted to briefly answer a comment and look at the questions “Who put the Bible together? What did the church do for the first 300 years?”
The books of the New Testament date back to the first decades after Christ’s death and resurrection, to the apostles who were present at the events written about, and their contemporaries. These books were passed down among the churches as they sprung up and grew. Copies were made and circulated, some of which we have today.
The single most important criteria for a book to be considered divinely inspired is that it had to be written by an apostle. This was mandatory. During the early years of the church the books and letters written by the apostles were thus accepted as Scripture. These were preserved and compiled, and by A.D. 175 the New Testament looked pretty much like it does today, being unanimously accepted by the church and its leaders. At the 3rd Council of Carthage in A.D. 397 the canon was confirmed and officially closed.
Someone might ask, “What about the other gospels?” It is true that some books were not accepted into the biblical canon, but this was for good reason. Books known as the Gnostic Gospels started to show up in the second century A.D. These often took on the names of apostles of Christ, but were not actually written by them (having been written a couple hundred years after the fact). They were created by the Gnostics to spread their teachings and try to pass them as the true teachings of Christ. Not only were they not written by the apostles, but they were also not true to the Scriptures that were already known to be authoritative. So these books were excluded from the canon.
So to answer the question, the church had the books of what we now call the New Testament and used them as Scripture from the very beginning. Later on the books were compiled and formally canonized, but there wasn’t a time when these books were not God’s Word. Certain books were discussed and even disputed at different times, but over all, the canon we have today was always accepted. Various church fathers had compiled books of the New Testament, and today we have some of these lists along with commentaries and various writings about them. The canon was formalized in A.D. 397.