Why are there only 27 books in the New Testament? And if so, what about the lost gospels?
– JR From Cleveland, Ohio
Part 1: New Testament Canon fixed
Part 2: Lost Gospels/Apocrypha
New Testament Canon fixed (Part 1)
I could answer you by saying that there are only twenty-seven books in the New Testament because that’s all God inspired. That’s true enough but I know more needs to be said. Truly, there has been debate over the inclusion or exclusion of particular books at different points in history but for all practical purposes the New Testament Canon has been set since the end of the 4th Century.
How did it get set? That’s a long story and it is not completely cut and dried but generally, a sense of agreement came within the Christian leadership—those holding respected positions of authority. Both the Eastern and the Western sections of Christianity came to the same conclusion to include only the books we now consider the New Testament. In the 16th Century, both Roman and Protestant Christianity reaffirmed their adherence to these same twenty-seven books.
You do not ask about the Old Testament but I will mention that the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches came to different conclusions for it. If you ever pick up a Catholic Bible you will note that it includes an additional seven books and additional passages to two more books. Who is right? Both sides would say, “We are!” and both sides have their reasons. For this discussion, we’ll stick to the New Testament.
Now I return to the original thought I mentioned regarding God’s inspiration. 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us, “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” Men wrote down what the Holy Spirit inspired them to write; they were active participants and even their own style is evident yet they wrote under a Divine spigot.
So what about those books that never made the final cut?
Lost Gospels/Apocrypha (Part 2)
You ask about the “Lost Gospels” and they are part of a wider body of works generally referred to as the Apocrypha. They were written around the time of the inspired scriptures, though many of them were written after all the apostles and the original disciples of Jesus were dead. Still, they are early works.
The Apocrypha were valued for private study but were not used to formulate doctrine or for preaching or teaching in public worship services. All in all, in each case, they did not seem to carry the weight of divine authority and were rejected as God inspired. If you read some of them (after study of God’s genuine Word) you may be able to see why.
I have read some of the Apocrypha and somehow they miss the mark. Something seems off. In some cases certain passages are downright contradictory to approved scripture. Part of a passage will mirror a passage of the Bible and then it will take a little rabbit trail that feels false. Still, they are interesting and you can still obtain sets of the main works in bookstores today. Just like reading other historical material of Bible times, they can enhance your understanding of those early days of the church.
I have purposely avoided the long detailed explanation I could have made about the history of the approved Canon of scripture. It can be quite confusing but if you want more you can pick up most any Bible Dictionary or Commentary for the full lowdown.
In the meanwhile, keep reading and studying God’s Word because it’s the final word on spiritual matters.