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Who Wrote the New Testament?

The Holy Spirit inspired the authors of the New Testament books, but who were the authors?

What Ancient Books Were Like

In the New Testament era, writers most often published their works anonymously out of modesty.

If the writer was a participant in the events, he referred to himself indirectly. This still happens today. In a newspaper editorial, it is not uncommon to read “this writer is not impressed” instead of “I am not impressed.” This kind of indirect self-reference is also in the Gospel According to John. The person in the gospel who is obviously John is never mentioned by name, only by circumlocutions, such as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” That is evidence that John is either the source or the writer.

It was also not uncommon for writers to pose as famous historical figures. There are several possibilities for what that might mean.

If the person died in the recent past (relative to the writer), the writer might intend to preserve that person’s legacy by writing it down, interviewing the deceased person's friends and associates, and examining any documents the deceased may have written. The document would be accurate and factual, subject to the writer’s respect for the deceased and the limitations of his abilities and sources.

If the person died in the remote past, the writer might put himself in the role of a ghostwriter and attribute the authorship to the deceased. He might even pretend that he discovered the document that he wrote. There are several reasons why a person might do this:

The writer might also make up a fictional person and misrepresent him as someone who really existed.

If the book contains information about things that did not exist until after the time it purports to have been written, or if no one quotes the book until 200 years later, or if it refers to people and events that never happened, it is either historical fiction or fraud.

What Canonicity Means

“Canonicity” means “approved by the church for use as holy Scripture.” The resolutions of the local and ecumenical councils are called “canons.” Many churches today still use the term “canon” to mean “by-law.” The term “Canon of Scripture” refers to whatever church by-law lists the books that the church endorses as Scripture.

Here are some questions you might have at this point:

You notice how the phrase “the whole church has endorsed, approved, or used it as Scripture throughout history” keeps coming up?

We call it the canon of Scripture even though there really isn’t one in the literal sense. It was more like a consensus than a canon. As early as the end of the first century, Christian leaders used the books that are presently in the New Testament as Scripture. Eventually, a local council in the east issued a list of New Testament books that was the same as the one we have today. Some time later, a local council in the west issued the same list. The issue never rose to the level of an ecumenical council.

Figuring Out Who Wrote What

Today, if you want to find out who wrote a book, you just to look for the by line on the cover or the title page. Since it was the custom for ancient authors to write anonymously, it isn't so easy with the New Testament. There is no by line. Ancient readers or scholars may tell us who the author was, but since the writer is most often anonymous, even they could be mistaken. When we say, "traditionally, Paul wrote Jude," we mean that it’s so far back in the past that we can’t reconstruct the ancient scholarship. All we can do is report what they said.

In both the ancient and modern worlds, an author is a person who is the source of the document’s contents and has final control over the document. The author is not necessarily the person who does the physical writing. We know from the New Testament, for example, that Paul often dictated his letters to an amanuensis (a fancy word for “secretary”) who actually put pen to papyrus. This is especially clear in Romans 16:22.

In translation, the books of the New Testament seem to speak with one voice, either because there is only one translator or because all parts of the translation went through the same review and editing process. In Greek, however, it’s obvious that the New Testament is an anthology of documents written by several people. The books have different vocabulary, usages, and turns of phrase, just as you would expect from a collection of books written by several people. Scholars analyze that to determine if two books were written by the same person or by different people.

Here’s how it works. Suppose your grandmother wants to write you a note congratulating you on some accomplishment, but because of her arthritis, she asks your mother to write it for her. When you read it, you can tell that it is your mother’s writing style but your grandmother’s message. Or suppose you have five books by the same author. You discover a sixth book that doesn’t say who the author is. How would you determine whether the sixth book was written by the same person as the first five? You’d know right away by the writing style.

Scholars examine New Testament writings the same way you would examine those six books. For example, they notice that the writing style in Luke and Acts is the same, but James speaks with a completely different voice, so they conclude that Luke and Acts were written by the same person, but James was written by someone else.

New Testament books are very short, so we often do not have other undisputed writings by the same authors that we can use for comparison. People can imitate other people’s writing style in a very short document and get away with it. That makes the work more difficult. Determining the authorship of New Testament books takes a lot of time and research, and in some cases, the author remains unknown.

Shortly before the year AD 325, the ancient church historian, Eusebius reported that no one knew who wrote the epistle to the Hebrews.

What about the “Banned Books of the Bible”?

There never was a formal church procedure to remove books from the Bible or to add any that weren’t previously there; ancient bishops only affirmed books that were already in use when heretics attacked them. If you see a book that claims to contain the “banned books of the Bible,” it’s just a come-on to get you to buy the book. A more accurate title would be the “the books that kind of look like they could have been in the Bible, but aren’t,” but that’s not good marketing.

The “banned” books are just Christian writings from ancient times. Some of them were held in high esteem, like C. S. Lewis’ books are today. Others were contrary to the teachings of the ancient church, and still others were obvious works of religious fiction. The “banned” books were never in the Bible, thus they were never actually banned.

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