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General Introduction

Even though millions of people world-wide read the New Testament— whether from curiosity or religious devotion—very few ask what this collection of books actually is or where it came from, how it came into existence, who decided which books to include, on what grounds, and when. The New Testament did not emerge as an established and complete set of books immediately after the death of Jesus. Many years passed before Christians agreed concerning which books should comprise their sacred scriptures, with debates over the contour of the “canon” (i.e., the collection of sacred texts) that were long, hard, and sometimes harsh. In part this was because other books were available, also written by Christians, many of their authors claiming to be the original apostles of Jesus, yet advocating points of view quite different from those later embodied in the canon. These differences were not simply over such comparatively minor issues as whether a person should be baptized as an infant or an adult, or whether churches were to be run by a group of lay elders or by ordained priests, bishops, and pope. To be sure, such issues, still controversial among Chris­ tian churches today, were at stake then as well. But the alternative forms of Christianity in the early centuries of the church wrestled over much larger doctrinal questions, many of them unthinkable in most modern Christian churches, such as how many gods there are (one? two? twelve? thirty?); whether the true God created the world or whether, instead, it was created by a lower, inferior deity; whether Jesus was divine, or human, or somehow both; whether Jesus’ death brought salvation, or was irrelevant for salvation, or whether he ever even died. Christians also debated the relationship of their new faith to the religion from which it came, Judaism. Should Chris­ tians continue to be Jews? Or if not already Jews, should they convert to Judaism? What about the Jewish Scriptures? Are they to be part of the Christian Bible, as the “Old Testament”? Or are they the Scriptures of a different religion, inspired perhaps by a different God? Such fundamental issues are for the most part unproblematic to Chris­ tians today, and their solutions, as a result, appear obvious: There is only one God; he created the world; Jesus his Son is both human and divine; his death brought salvation to the world, in fulfillment of the promises made in the Old Testament, which was also inspired by the one true God. One of the reasons these views now seem obvious, however, is that only one set of early Christian beliefs emerged as victorious in the heated 1

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