When we ask, “How we got the NT,” we are actually asking several different questions. One question is how did the books of the NT originate? How are they related to each other? Why these 27 books? Why not fewer books, or more books, or different books?
That question has reference to the original production of the NT canon. Who are the NT writers, and how are they related to each other?
Then there’s the historical question of how early Christians came to recognize the NT canon. That is also an evidentiary question. Where we’re consulting very early Christian writers, or somewhat later Christian writers who incorporate the testimony of very early Christian writers, that may shed valuable light on the first question. It’s a form of corroborative evidence. It helps to identify the writers of the NT.
Mind you, there is internal evidence as well as external evidence to on matters of dating, authorship, and so on.
Finally, there’s the retrospective question of how Christians at a later date should recognize the NT canon. Do we evaluate the tradition or traditions which have come down to us? Or do we simply rubberstamp the result?
This is obviously a question that Protestants must ask themselves since we believe in the necessity of sifting tradition. Questioning received answers.
But it’s also a question that Catholics have to confront. For example, the Tridentine Fathers debated the scope of the canon. And modern Catholic Bible scholars ask the same questions as their Protestant counterparts.
From a Protestant perspective, the first question is the primary question. Answering the second question helps us to answer the first question, although that’s not our only source of information.
If you read Bart Ehrman or the average Catholic epologist, you’d think the process went something like this: a lot of indistinguishable Christian literature was written in the first phase of the Christian church. Later Christians then had to do some sorting. They started with this bit, random pile of books. They tossed out some books, and the remainder became the canon.
But this set of books is arbitrary. If Christians did their own sorting, without the church authorities breathing down their necks, they’d come up with a different canon of books.
However, this approach to the NT canon fails to connect the NT canon with NT history. The history of the NT canon parallels the history of the NT church. A detailed argument is presented by Earle Ellis in The Making of the New Testament Documents (Brill 2002). And his conclusions are reaffirmed by Paul Barnett in Finding the Historical Christ (Erdmans 2009). For now I’m going to summarize their conclusions.
Is there a unifying principle to the NT? On traditional authorship, we can group some of the NT books based on common authorship. Likewise, many NT books were penned by apostles. But five books were not. How do the non-apostolic writers (and writings) related to the apostolic writers (and writings)? And how does a writing by one apostle relate to a writing by another? Is there any coordination?
As Ellis has detailed, the NT is not a random anthology of unrelated books. Rather, it falls into four blocks of interrelated material.
The NT church was a missionary church. It had four missionary teams with four team leaders: Peter, Paul, James, and John.
(By “James” I mean James the Just, brother of Christ, and not the Apostle James.)
The above statement needs to be slightly qualified. On the one hand, John was an itinerate evangelist, but we don’t have any NT evidence of a Johannine missionary team. On the other hand, we have a Jacobean missionary team, but James may have merely overseen their efforts rather than functioning as an itinerate evangelist in his own right.
They divided up the mission field in the far-flung Roman Empire. There was some overlap between one mission field and another. And they were at liberty to shift their base of operations.
The NT literature is missionary literature, targeting different demographic groups. For example, the Gospel of Matthew and Letter of James are directed at Jews and Jewish Christians.
There are natural alliances as well. For example, Jude is the younger brother of James.
On this analysis, Mark is a member of the Petrine circle, Matthew and Jude are members of the Jacobean circle, while Luke and the author of Hebrews of the Pauline circle.
Each missionary team has a Gospel–as well as correspondence. To evangelize and disciple the lost, church-planters needed Christian literature–especially literature attuned to the particular needs of the demographic niche they were targeting.
On this analysis, we can correlate the NT documents as follows:
Gospel of Mark
Gospel of Luke
Book of Acts
Gospel of John
Gospel of Matthew
Letter of James
Letter of Jude