As a first step in answering this question, we need to consider what the New Testament is. Why is there even such a collection of books and letters that report on events from the first century A.D.? Are these merely the random writings of an influential religious movement that have found their way into the literature of the present time?
Or, as the New Testament claims for itself, is this part of the inspired Word of God? Understanding who preserved the New Testament adds even more proof about the unquestionable authority of this part of the Bible that we now possess!
What is the New Testament? Consider the following summary statement given in the “Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible,” Herbert Lockyer, Sr., Editor, 1986:
“…the second major division of the Bible. It tells of the life and ministry of Jesus and the growth of the early church. The word testament is best translated as ‘covenant.’ The New Testament embodies the new covenant of which Jesus was Mediator (Jer. 31:31-34; Heb. 9:15)…
“The 27 books of the New Testament were formally adopted as the New Testament canon by the Synod of Carthage in A.D. 397, thus confirming three centuries of usage by the church.”
This traditional overview of the New Testament places formal acceptance of the “books” as occurring some three hundred years after the lives of the apostles and of their contemporaries. However, this selection, done by what had become the Catholic Church, is merely an example of a religious organization choosing to accept what already existed—much as did later movements within “Christianity,” such as Protestantism.
Earlier, history of the Church established by Jesus Christ, through His chosen ministry, also shows the source of the writings we now have in the canon of the New Testament. An important test of what truly constitutes the inspired Word of God is true for both the Old and New Testaments:
“…the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness…” (2 Timothy 3:15-16).
To this end, individuals inspired by God wrote the record of the life of Jesus Christ, the founding of the Church and the subsequent growth of the faith of Christianity, along with instructions concerning the doctrines of God. We must note that the New Testament also contains the record of false teachers with deceiving doctrines beginning to infiltrate the body of true worshippers of God and Jesus Christ:
“I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:6-9).
Along with this stern rebuke from Paul, others whose letters became a part of the New Testament, recorded warnings and admonitions concerning a growing departure from the original faith (compare 2 Peter 2; 1 John 4:1-6; 3 John 1:9-12, and the letter of Jude).
Additionally, carefully note what Peter said, showing that in his lifetime it was necessary to warn the brethren—and this message was written down in order that it would endure beyond his own lifetime:
“For this reason I will not be negligent to remind you always of these things, though you know and are established in the present truth. Yes, I think it is right, as long as I am in this tent, to stir you up by reminding you, knowing that shortly I must put off my tent, just as our Lord Jesus Christ showed me. Moreover I will be careful to ensure that you always have a reminder of these things after my decease” (2 Peter 1:12-15).
While most people who study the history of the Bible agree that the canon—that is, the entire New Testament as commonly accepted—is complete, the fact is that the preservation of these writings was first accomplished by the Church of God that began on the Day of Pentecost and the giving of the Holy Spirit of God in 31 A.D. And while the Church grew with powerful impact in the decades that followed, nonetheless, heresy arose to such an extent that the next century records a much different kind of Christianity. Note what Jesse Lyman Hurlbut states in his book, “The Story of the Christian Church,” 1967, page 33:
“For 50 years after… Paul’s life a curtain hangs over the church, through which we strive vainly to look; and when at last it rises about 120 A.D. with the writings of the earliest church fathers, we find a church in many aspects very different from that in the days of… Peter and… Paul.”
In fact, the true and faithful Christians all but disappeared from the annals of history in those times. These followers of the true faith depended on the copies of the letters that were to become a part of the New Testament, which they continued to preserve through hand-written documents. As already mentioned, the Roman Church was able to avail itself of long existing copies of the New Testament books several centuries later.
A very poignant example of multiple copies of a part of the New Testament being distributed among various congregations is found in the Book of Revelation. The resurrected Jesus Christ is quoted by John as saying: “‘…I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last,’ and, ‘What you see, write in a book and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia: To Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamos, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea’” (Revelation 1:11).
If we are to believe that John carried out what he was instructed to do, then we know that this information went to these churches—and, since they received this inspired “book” of Revelation, they then were instrumental in preserving it. The very intent of this book is primarily focused on the future and was to be preserved for our time—prophesying of events leading to the return of Jesus Christ (For further explanation, please read our free booklet: “Is That in the Bible? The Mysteries of the Book of Revelation!”).
Other letters were commonly circulated among the churches (compare 2 Peter 3:15-16; Colossians 4:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:27). However, not all of these “letters” were genuine (compare 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2). In fact, this very process of writing letters continued well past the lifetime of the first generation of the apostles. Spurious writings made claims to inspiration on par with that of the New Testament books; however, when closely examined for authorship and for agreement with foundational biblical teachings, these documents were eventually rejected.
Beyond the rather blurry record that marks the transition of the early Christian faith into history’s background and the subsequent emergence of the Roman Catholic Church, another factor supersedes in accounting for Who preserved the New Testament. The real Author of the inspired writings of the New Testament also has sustained His written Word throughout the ages. The proof of this statement is found in the words of Jesus Christ, when He said, “‘Sanctify them [set them apart] by Your truth, Your word is truth’” (John 17:17); and, “‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away’” (Matthew 24:35; also, compare parallel statements)—1 Peter 1:23, 25).
These Scriptures, along with many others, point to the fact that the New Testament record would be preserved. For instance, another quote from Jesus shows that His teachings would come before all men in all generations: “‘He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him–the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day’” (John 12:48).
Consider one final answer as to who preserved the New Testament. The teachings of Christianity became a Way of life for those who embraced what they learned! Note this statement by Paul: “For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe” (1 Thessalonians 2:13; also, compare a parallel statement in 1 John 2:5).
By taking to heart their calling to salvation, the faithful of countless generations have helped sustain and preserve a true understanding of the written Word of God. That same responsibility now falls upon us—we, too, must endeavor to uphold the teachings we have been given, just as those who helped to preserve the New Testament: “I know your works. See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, HAVE KEPT MY WORD, and have not denied My name” (Revelation 3:8).
Lead Writer: Dave Harris