Why the Date of the Canon is Not a Problem
The canon is the collection of writings that make up the Christian Scriptures. They are traditionally the 66 books of the Bible. Some people criticize the reliability of the Bible because of the relatively (to whom?!) late assembly of the canon of Christian Scripture. It’s my goal to show why that is to be expected and why that time gap might actually be a good thing.
Some scholars say that the New Testament was written between 70 and 95 A.D. With the book of Revelation being last, I think the late date is probably pretty close. But I think that the other 26 writings were most likely written before 70 A.D. Follow this is simple reasoning… an author cannot write a document after he is dead. The things that they wrote must be before 67 A.D. for Paul’s writings, 66 A.D. for Peter’s writings, and 64 A.D. for the book of James. That doesn’t date the writings; that just puts a limit on how late they could have been written.
According to Papias, the immediate disciple of John, Luke wrote his Gospel alongside and with the affirmation of the Apostle Paul, and Mark wrote from Peter’s testimony. Therefore, Luke must pre-date 66, and Mark must pre-date 67. Scholars agree that Mark was written before Luke. Due to the simplicity of Mark, many assume that it was the first Gospel written. I think it may have been Matthew (I believe Papias mentioned that it was first).
Luke was written before its sequel (seems reasonable, too, right)—the Acts of the Apostles. Acts makes no mention of events that would have been vital to include. Nor does any other book of the New Testament mention these things. There is no mention of the overthrow of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. There is no mention of the martyrdom of Paul or Peter in 66-67 A.D. There is no mention of the martyrdom of James in 64 A.D. Acts ends just before Paul enters Rome in 63 A.D. This puts the date for the book of Acts most likely at year 63. Luke was probably written in the late 50s or early 60s. Mark and Matthew were most likely written in the late 50s or earlier.
Paul began his missionary journeys in 45 A.D. and probably wrote his epistles between 52 and 67 A.D. This puts all the writings except for John’s before 67 A.D. In other words, the doctrine was set in written form during the lifetime of the eye-witnesses. I also think John was written in this time frame because of the passing phrase in John 21:24: “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true.” The immediate context deals with interaction with the apostles. I think this is probably an attestation by other disciples, which could have only been done before about 70 A.D.
These writings circulated throughout the known world very rapidly—as the manuscripts reveal. But the collection of the writings into one book did not happen yet. In fact, it was not finalized in any way until 2 events—the counsel of Nicaea in 325 A.D. and by Athanasius in 397 A.D. The first evidence of one document containing all the writings is the Codex Vaticanus in about 340 A.D. So it appears to have taken nearly 300 years to settle on the canon of the New Testament Scripture.
We need not be shocked by this. Just because they we don’t see them assembled into one document doesn’t mean that they weren’t accepted as Scripture along with other writings. The non-assembly can be expected because writings were seen as separate documents and were challenging to make. The church fathers, and even the apostles, recognized the New Testament writings as Scripture from very early on.
The late assembly of the canon may have safeguarded the authenticity of the New Testament writings. There are those that say that the New Testament underwent drastic alterations very early on. Consider that if the writings were instantly included into a canon, then there would be more motivation to alter the writings before they became widespread. But if heretics did not know that these writings of Paul, Peter, John and the others were going to influence much more than anything that has ever been written, then they would have had little to no motivation for trying to alter the text. If a heretic or power-hungry individual knows that a writing is about to influence the world as the words of God’s inspiration, then he would try to do what he could to alter the writings or stop the writings. If these were merely viewed as encouraging letters containing history and doctrine about God, then the motivation to mess with them would have been diminished.
By year 300 the writings were so well known and well spread that: 1) they could make informed conclusions about the inspiration of the writing and 2) deliberate changes would not have survived as viable alteration. These writings seem to have cemented their legacies individually. Therefore a variety of writings would have had to been eliminated to alter Christian doctrine overall. There is no evidence that I can see as realistic that shows me that this took place in the early days of the New Testament documents. Altering established texts was far too tall a task. So heretics and cult leaders distributed separate—forgery—writings. This was simple for the educated Christians at the time to recognize, so they knew not to include them in the collection of inspired writings. The one other things that eliminated a writing from canon-ability was if it was after the time that the apostles could attest to it. Some of these were pseudo-apostolic, like the Gospel of Thomas, using the name of the Apostle, but recognized as not actually being from the Apostle.
In summary, the gap of time between the completion of the New Testament writings and the assembly of the writings into one collection can be appreciated. The writings could have spread more rapidly and be under greater protection as writings that were not immediately widely recognized as Scripture.