Many today challenge and deny the authority of the New Testament. Therefore, in the context of an increasingly skeptical culture around the authority of the Bible, Christians need to know for themselves why the New Testament in their Bible can be relied on as God\’s written revelation to man.
Christians should be confident that the 27 books in the contemporary New Testament should be recognized as divinely authoritative writings from the historical period beginning with the life of Christ for a few different reasons. One reason is the date of the writings. The entire New Testament was completed in about 50 years, all within the first century. This is noteworthy because we also know the events found in the canonical Gospels were likewise in the first century. This means the events described in the New Testament and the writing of the New Testament itself are very close, within a few decades at most. In terms of reliability, any time evidence surfaces from a historical event, the evidence has more credibility when there is a small gap between the evidence (writings of the NT) and the events themselves (the life of Jesus, his words, teachings, resurrection, etc.). The canonical Gospels were written because the eyewitnesses were getting old and knew they were nearing the end of their life. Thus, they wanted to preserve the testimonies of the life of Jesus and Acts. The NT does just that.
By the end of the first century, four canonical Gospels, Acts, and the Pauline Epistles were considered authoritative right at the start of the early church. What this means is that from the very beginning of the early church, 20-23 of the 27 books found in the NT were already considered inspired and authoritative. There was very little debate about the other books. These were books considered “books around the edges,” or the smaller books. These would be books such as Jude, 2 & 3 John, and 2 Peter. It should be no surprise, however, that these books took longer to be recognized as authoritative. Smaller books took longer to circulate across geographical regions. Thus, they were cited less and not quoted as often, which is the major reason they took longer to be recognized as authoritative.
The question then becomes, how did the church decide if a book was to be considered authoritative? Before answering, it is important to note that the early church was more skeptical about adopting a book as authoritative than they were willing to accept a book. They were very conservative about the books they chose. The teachings of the apostles and Christ became the standard by which they were to discern if a book was authoritative. From this, three criteria emerged by which this standard was met: 1) apostolicity (written by or associated with an apostle), 2) orthodoxy (teachings consistent with that which was taught in books already considered authoritative), and 3) catholicity (universally accepted early on by the majority of churches). When looking at a book presented to them, the early church fathers used these to determine if a book was authoritative.
There were also books written after the first century, but they were not accepted as divinely inspired scripture. The fundamental reason is they are not first-century documents. Therefore, they could not have been written by an apostle or associated with an apostle. This automatically eliminates any book written after the first century as divinely inspired scripture. Also, anytime a book was proven to not have been written by the person who is claimed to be the author, the church automatically rejected it.
Christians can also be assured that the text has not been changed since the original writings. Although the text is not perfectly exact and there are textual variants (these are reasons for footnotes in modern Bibles that say “or” or “some manuscripts say”), the smallest group is the group that is both meaningful and viable (meaning it changes the meaning of the text and likely dates back to the original). According to Dr. Daniel Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary and founder of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, it’s less than 1/5 of 1% of all textual variants. The largest group, being 99% of all textual variants, is the group that does not change the meaning at all and is not viable. These are things like spelling errors, different order of words, etc. Because of the vast amount of NT manuscripts we have (more than 24,000), we can determine what the original said based on these numerous copies by comparing them and checking out the errors.
A reassuring insight to think about as a final thought is once the church reached a consensus on the 27 books of the NT, that consensus has been widely longstanding since the time the consensus was reached. There has been no objection in the church since this, with the very few objections being nothing more than concerns about very few (probably less than five) of the 27 books of the NT. This should be an encouraging truth for Christians to stand on.
With an unusual amount of overwhelming evidence, Christians can be assured the books found in the NT are the books God intended us to have, for they reflect the truth of God’s heart, character, and plan for His Creation. Also, the Doctrine of the Clarity of Scripture asserts that if God wants to be understood, he can be understood. Therefore, God would not have led the Church through the Holy Spirit to agree on the books of the NT if he did not intend for us to have them, given the fact he wants to communicate with us through the NT. The scriptures reflect all God wants us to know about himself, and he has provided more than enough evidence for us to be confident his plan for the NT (as well as the whole Bible) has been carried out in full.
For further reading:
The Historical Reliability of the New Testament: Countering the Challenges to Evangelical Christian Beliefs (Craig L. Blomberg and Robert B. Stewart)
The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (F. F. Bruce)
Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence (Daniel B. Wallace and Philip Miller)