The first Roman emperor came to power around a generation before Jesus was
born. The last Roman emperor, in the west, was Romlulus Agustulus, in the
late 5th century. I think he ruled less than a year. Rome in the East, i.e.
Constantinople, continued for another 1,000 years. We know it as the
I believe the lion's share of scholars of religion, classics, and ancient
history believe Jesus was a historical figure.1 Who they believe
he was and who they believe he thinks he was varies. Some of these scholars
are Christians and some not.
If I remember correctly, there are around 5,000 existing New Testaments from
medieval times and none of them are said to be exactly alike. Most of the
differences are in spelling, though there are instances of words, sentences,
and even pages being dropped out. Mistakes happen, especially when copies
had to be done by hand. There are examples of scribes 'correcting' other
scribes' works. The printing press lessen such mistakes, but when a mistake
was made it went out in multiple copies. For instance, there's the "Wicked
Bible" printed in the early 1600's. One of the printers accidentally or
deliberately dropped "not" out of the 7th commandment rendering it, "Thou
shall commit adultery". This was caught relatively quickly and the offending
copies were confiscated and burnt.
Until around the 4th century, there was no "New Testament". Even after
Christians began writing down the stories and letters, different churches
and groups were using different collections. The Marionite Church believed
the only true word of Christ came from the Gospel of Luke and Paul's
letters. Christians argued over which gospels and letters were the proper
ones to use. And there were more than four gospels - a couple dozen or so.
After the Roman Empire embraced Christianity they needed an authoritative
set of writings. Church leaders discussed, debated, and decided on the 27
'books' that would be accepted as canonical.2 There were some
four criteria used in judging the candidates, but I only remember three of
them: (1) the older the book, the better, (2) the more widely used over
geographical space, the better, (3) the book could not contain material that
was at odds with what the church leaders believed were the true teachings,
i.e they had to be orthodox.
For example, one of the gospels being used by one of more of the churches
was not acceptable, because a line or two could be interpreted as implying
Jesus was not of flesh and blood, that is he was not human. I believe the
line went ~~ As Jesus hung from the cross he expressed no sign of pain.~~
There were some Christians who believed Jesus was not a man, but a divine
being, but this belief was not in keeping with the what the Church leaders
believed. Consequently, this gospel did not make the cut (I think it was the
"Gospel of Peter").
What's significant about this criteria is Christian leaders were choosing
which gospels and letters to accept based in part on what they believed. If
a candidate book did not agree with their belief, then it didn't make it
into the canon. So where did they get their beliefs? At least in part from
whatever gospels and letters they had been exposed to in their lives.
So were Christians choosing the gospels and letters they liked or the ones
they had lived with? Perhaps the choices reflected the correlation of
political forces with those church leaders? OTOH, maybe God guided the
choices? Of the latter, why wait so long? Then again, what's a few centuries
1 There are a few who believe there was no historical Jesus.
2 Each of the separate writings are called books. Since I don't
think of letters as books, I used quotation marks. I'm being petty. *g*
Also, I believe the Catholic Bible includes books not included in some or
all Protestant Bibles, but I could be wrong - it's been awhile.
3 There's a science fiction story from some thirty years ago
where the protagonist is a priest who's sent to another planet to run-down
who is behind a new Christian church with its own new gospel. All I remember
of the story was that the founder of the new church himself wrote the gospel
and did so because he believed the people needed new stuff. His new gospel
included a dragon or two. ~People like dragons~ he told the priest. *g*