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Christian Union
June 14, 2015

Scholar debunks modern conspiracies, explains history 

by Catherine Elvy, Staff Writer

canon-of-scriptureSome scholars argue politics, rather than divine guidance, determined the 27 books of the New Testament and the 39 texts of the Old Testament.

That is not so, according to theologian Craig Blomberg.

The New Testament scholar debunked such claims surrounding the canon of Scripture during an appearance at Cornell University.

It is simply untrue that the formation of either testament was "brought about because of ideological conniving, such that a winning party in a political process had the opportunity to suppress or rewrite or even chose unilaterally in a totalitarian fashion what should go in either the Old or New Testaments," said Blomberg.

Blomberg, a distinguished professor of the New Testament at Denver Seminary, appeared at Cornell at the invitation of the Chesterton House as part of its Institute of Biblical Studies. Bethel Grove Baptist Church and New Life Presbyterian Church also co-sponsored his lectures throughout the corresponding weekend.

Some scholars assert political figures shaped the formal literature and legacy of the early church, resulting in the exclusion of some potential texts from the New Testament.

Such proponents believe that "this was a huge act of politicking," said Blomberg.

They postulate there were many sects of Judaism and Christianity. The theory goes, "from the outset, these religions were movements of competing sects, until one emerged victorious that then chose the books that would be considered uniquely sacred books and rewrote the history of their movements – suppressing, destroying, or, at the very least, neglecting other equally worthy candidates for inclusion in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, respectively."

Blomberg labeled such posturing as "spin" and "only slightly less fictitious than the one that Dan Brown made up in The Da Vinci Code."

As for the canonized literature of the New Testament, Christian writers started to identify the books they designated to be "treated on par in terms of authority and God-givenness as the Hebrew scripture" by the mid-second century, said Blomberg.

In the early centuries, as the New Testament canon began to take shape, the consensus centered on the four traditional gospels, letters from the Apostle Paul, Acts of the Apostles, and the like. In particular, Christian leaders looked for apostolic authority with the writings and materials that were non-contradictory with the Old Testament.

Early church leaders recognized other Christian documents as possessing value for practical instruction, but not holding the same weight and authority as the select texts.

"Smattered throughout these writings are regular allusions and frequent quotations of the first-century books that would come to form the New Testament," Blomberg said.
Theologian Craig Blomberg dismantles contemporary arguments that politicking determined the content of the Bible.

Such letters and instructional materials also contain statements by the authors acknowledging that they lacked "the type of authority the apostles had." Nor do the writers put forward their works to be "on par" with the accepted books of the New Testament.

"Only 20th and 21st-century scholars have sometimes said, 'Maybe, we should treat them on the same level,'" Blomberg said.

As for the books of the Old Testament, Blomberg noted the major components came together in three discreet stages, with the final one containing the most disputed texts.

The 39 texts capturing histories, prophesies, and the like offer a "remarkable unity to the narrative of the story that they sketch out," Blomberg said.

As well, "prophet after prophet is looking forward to the messianic age when a deliverer will bring about the fulfilment of all of what God first intended for Abraham," Blomberg said.

Indeed, the Hebrew Bible is a "very open-ended collection of books."

In randomly reading the prophets, "you will see that, with few exceptions, there's a lot of judgment in the short term. There's a lot of blessing in the long term. That blessing has yet been fully realized. That's where Jesus, the Christian movement, and the New Testament come into play."

While less is known about the criteria Jewish leaders used in picking the sacred texts of the Old Testament, references to apocryphal works seem "conspicuously absent."

Likewise, as Jewish tribes faced persecution, their leaders would have been motivated to be selective about sacred scrolls.

"The prospect of dying for owning a book can have a profound effect on a person. It probably made much of Judaism, at least within Israel, reflect upon which books they were willing to die for and which were uniquely sacred, authoritative, and inspired," Blomberg said.

Still, apocryphal literature offers insights into the spread of Judaism and even early Christianity.

At the same time, "there is no evidence the Israelite leaders ever included them in the Hebrew canon of uniquely authoritative scriptures," Blomberg said. When New Testament figures quote Old Testament materials, they occasionally sound like they are alluding to apocryphal writings, "but never clearly enough to call it a quotation," or the fulfilment of a passage.

Ultimately, orthodoxy from early church leaders may have played a modest role in the selection of New Testament texts, Blomberg said.

Recommendations for further reading

The Canon of Scripture by F. F. Bruce

Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books by Michael J. Kruger