Inspecting Claims of Biblical Canon and Historicity


The following is a response to an article posted on CCC Discover by Timothy W. Massaro, with the relevant sections quoted here for easier reference.

As Bible Inspectors, it's our job to investigate the text of the Bible as well as all claims made about the book itself. The article we will look at today is a bite-sized, easily shareable, six-point list that is formatted for simple sharing across Facebook or Twitter (which should be evident by the bold “Share this post with your friends” at the bottom of the page). Worse than that, it provides precisely zero citations or even further reading recommendations for what is ostensibly a history lesson.

Let's take each point and provide citation that both builds on the meaning intended by the original author and also refutes many of their assumptions. These conclusions are built upon the consensus of historical and biblical scholars and form a foundation of reasonable skepticism as to the accuracy of the Bible and its claims.

[Please note that citations leading to Wikipedia are used to simplify the citation process. All references on Wikipedia provide proper academic citations at the bottom of each page. I am not a historian (though neither is Mr. Massaro), but I stand by the cited references. I am open to corrections on any statement of fact I have made in this rebuttal.]

1. The New Testament Canon was not decided by any church council.

The church councils did not decide what was canonical. While regional church councils made declarations about the canon, these councils affirmed the books they believed had functioned as foundational documents for the Christian faith. The councils merely declared the way things had been since the time of the apostles. Thus, these councils did not create, authorize, or determine the canon. They simply were part of the process of recognizing a canon that already existed.

Saying that the New Testament Canon “was not decided by any church council” doesn’t tell the whole story. First of all, it’s important to understand that the word “canon” used in this context (being authoritative or accurate) literally originated with the formation of Christian biblical canon. It comes from a Greek word that means “rule” or “measuring stick” and was never used to describe a set of authoritative scriptures until the first seven ecumenical councils. The discrete concept of canonicity was quite literally decided by church councils since the term didn’t even exist before their intervention.

Now, of course there were large congregations that already accepted the majority of modern New Testament books as authoritative before the Proto-orthodox church ratified them, they just didn’t refer to them as “canonical” (since the term didn’t exist yet). But there were also dozens of sub-groups and competing Christian theological communities that accepted different books as authoritative. Congregations were in disagreement as to which books should be allowed to be read in worship. Many Proto-orthodox groups like the MarcionistsGnosticists, and Montanists even disagreed on fundamental aspects such as the nature of God and the Trinity, and these disagreements reared into importance as early as 100 A.D. These were all groups that identified primarily as Christian, but they simply disagreed on what “Christianity” fundamentally entailed. Church councils were specifically held to reduce confusion amongst these fracturing Christian communities.

There was never one single accepted doctrine that followed straight from “the time of the apostles”.

They simply were part of the process of recognizing a canon that already existed.

The operative word here is “a”. Not the canon that exclusively existed, but a canon amongst many. The church councils between 325 A.D. and 787 A.D. (an exceedingly long period of time to be described as a “simple process”) were instrumental in recognizing a single canon that they endorsed in an attempt to unify the fracturing early Christian theologies. At the time of the early church councils, the largest Christian group was the Proto-orthodox church which would later come to be known as the Orthodox Church. These councils may have consolidated some authority concerning the biblical canon, but they were unsuccessful in maintaining a single unified church. During a several hundred year period the church broke into many pieces all claiming to be the true continuation of the Orthodox Church, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Assyrian Church, the Anglican Communion, and several others.

This process is repeated over and over throughout history. Even today the label of Christianity describes literally thousands of unique denominations with their own scriptural canons and interpretations. There is no one universally accepted “Bible” and there never has been. The largest and most powerful sub-groups simply declare ownership of the “one true doctrine”. Even if most of those denominations agree on the primary canon, what good is it if they cannot come to a consensus on what that canon actually teaches?

Interestingly, the word orthodox, when understood in context of its Greek origins, comes from “orthos” which means “straight or right”, and “doxa” which means “opinion”. Words like Orthodox and Canon hold a powerful weight in our modern language, but ultimately the church councils of the time simply declared themselves the holders of the “right opinion” (orthodoxy) concerning the “rule” (canon) of scripture. They defined themselves into authority.

2. Early Christians believed that canonical books were self-authenticating.

Another authenticating factor was the internal qualities of each book. These books established themselves within the church through their internal qualities and uniqueness as depicting Christ and his saving work. The New Testament canon we possess is not due to the collusions of church leaders or the political authority of Constantine, but to the unique voice and tone possessed by these writings.

It’s actually quite difficult to criticize this particular point because it is so maddeningly vague. What does it mean for a work of scripture to be “self-authenticating”? How do we quantify “internal quality and uniqueness”? How do we measure scripture as having “unique voice and tone”? We are given no examples and no definitions to work from. The meaning of self-authentication is pontificated throughout Christian biblical study, but since the author of this article provides literally zero citations we will work from his simple description as best we can.

Let’s work from the understanding that self-authentication is the appearance of internal consistency and a lack of self-contradiction. Unfortunately, this assumption stems from a failure in understanding the principles of the historical-critical method. The books of the Bible do not exist in a vacuum and we cannot rely on internal structure and content alone to confirm their reliability or accuracy in portraying historical events or revelations. Self-authentication is a term used to put a positive spin on the fallacies of survivorship bias and confirmation bias.

Many scriptures that were deemed “non-canonical” by the ruling churches have not survived because they were no longer transcribed, copied, or printed. This is the survivorship bias. We place special significance on the modern biblical canon in part because it survived by winning popular support in an important historical period. Missing and incomplete scriptures cannot be properly evaluated for their “internal quality and uniqueness”. In fact, a large percentage of the New Testament Gospels are believed to have originated from another long lost source referred to as “Q”.

Self-authentication may also be the result of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the process of only seeking out evidence or answers that confirm your existing conclusions. This is not necessarily a conscious or nefarious process, but it is antithetical to the historical-critical method. The books of the Bible have the appearance of internal consistency precisely because those were the criteria that church leaders looked for when choosing which scriptures to include in the canon, especially when those consistencies supported their thoughts concerning theological issues like the Trinity.

Confirmation bias can also be used to criticize whether the books of the Bible are actually internally consistent. Christians are more inclined to confirm their biased belief that the Bible is infallible by selectively referencing consistent verses while ignoring many that seem to be contradictory.

Finally, if self-authentication is a reliable way to conclude which scriptures are canonical, then wouldn’t that imply that reading scripture should generally lead everyone to similar conclusions? If so then why are there still disagreements as to authorship, historical accuracy, theological interpretation, and which books deserve inclusion in the Bible?

3. The New Testament books are the principle Christian writings we have.

The New Testament books are the earliest writings we possess regarding Jesus. The New Testament was completed in the first century. This means the writings include testimonies from eyewitnesses and were written within fifty years of the events, which cannot be said of any of the apocryphal literature often discussed in the news. This is particularly evident when it comes to the four gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the only gospel accounts that originate in the first century.

This point is quite welcome in a list entitled “things we need to know about the formation of the Bible”. Yes, the New Testament books are some of the earliest Christian writings we know of. It seems reasonable that this is precisely why they have been revered and included in biblical canon since the earliest days of the Proto-orthodox church. The implication in this point however, is that this is somehow relevant to their authenticity or accuracy.

Many Christians are not actually aware that the gospels were written long after Jesus’ death – or that many authors’ identities are unknown – or that they internally confirm that they are only restating accounts from other eyewitnesses (they were not eyewitnesses themselves). The formation of the New Testament was essentially a 50+ year game of telephone with words and deeds being passed from one group of people to another, long after Jesus had lived.

So while some Christians may consider these facts supportive of their position on biblical accuracy, they actually open up the Bible to more critical review and skepticism. When you avoid using biases or presuppositions to formulate your beliefs about the Bible you will find that biblical scholarship is no different than the methods we use to evaluate all historical texts. And those methods have led to a consensus among historians on many topics that are in direct conflict with modern church teachings.

4. The New Testament books directly relate to the apostolic testimony.

Unlike any book from that period or the following century, the New Testament books were directly connected to the apostles and their testimony of the resurrected Christ. The canon is intimately connected to their activities and influence. The apostles had the very authority of Christ himself (Matt. 28:18–20). Along with the Old Testament, their teachings were the very foundation of the church.  The church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets” (Eph. 2:20).

What qualifies a work of scripture as “directly connected to the apostles”? I’ve already given links above to articles concerning the authorship and dating of the New Testament books. And this is not the opinion of just a bunch of atheists on the internet. These are the consensus positions of biblical scholars and historians, many of which consider themselves Christians.

Despite the inconclusive identities and dates of authorship you can still make the claim of their testimony being “connected to the apostles” through the assumption of long lost oral and written traditions. Though the only evidence provided for this in the original article are references to Bible verses. This is called circular reasoning. How do we know that the events described in the Bible are true and come directly from the apostles? Apparently, because the Bible says so.

5. Some New Testament writers quote other New Testament writers as Scripture.

The belief in new revelation or a testament of books was not a late development. From the days of the apostles themselves, these writings were seen as unique in their authority and witness. This belief seems to be present in the earliest stages of Christianity. In 2 Peter 3:15–16, Peter refers to Paul’s letters as “Scripture,” which would have put them on a par with the books of the Old Testament. This is a significant fact that is often overlooked.

Should we expect anything else from a collection of books that has been curated for their internal consistency?

6. Early Christians used noncanonical writings without analogous authority.

Christians often cited noncanonical literature with positive affirmation for edification. Yet, Christians were simply using these books as helpful, illuminating, or edifying texts. Rarely was there confusion as to whether they were on a par with Scripture. These books were eventually disregarded according to the criteria of whether they had general acceptance, apostolicity, and self-authentication.

And here we get to the most important issue concerning the relevance of “canonicity”. Do any of these qualities attest to their accuracy? The obvious answer should be no.

None of the six points presented can be used to reliably conclude that the events described in the Bible are actually true. Non-canonical books may contradict some teachings within the traditional Orthodox canon, but most have equal historical evidence when it comes to confirming their supernatural claims, which is to say – none. Did Jesus exist? Probably. Was he resurrected from the dead? We can’t really know. We cannot conclude that dragons exist simply because they are described commonly and consistently in ancient writings and we cannot conclude that Jesus was resurrected for the same reason.

The Bible is full of claims. To evaluate these claims we must seek external sources and historical evidence that supports them. If we knew that the Bible provided accurate testimony then we could consider that testimony as one piece of evidence that could bolster supporting external evidence, but by using the historical-critical method we already know that the Bible’s authorship is unreliable.

This is not to say that the entire Bible should be considered a lie. Quite the contrary. There are many references within the Bible that can be confirmed with external sources. Names of towns and villages. Names of rulers and kings. Jewish cultural traditions and societal structures. We confirm these claims the same way historians confirm claims from any ancient text. However, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Being skeptical of supernatural claims in the Bible doesn’t make you a contrarian.

Skepticism should be the natural position when you apply the same level of criticism you would to the supernatural claims of any other religion.