You’re right that John 21:25 says that “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” If I understand you right, you’re raising the question, how did the books for the New Testament get chosen? Would any book that talked about Jesus’ deeds be included? How do we decide what the “scriptura” is in “sola scriptura”?
I love this question because it gets us thinking not just about the Bible as a historical document (although it is!) but also about the idea of the Bible being “God’s Word.”
A book that’s been key in my thinking through this is a volume edited by DA Carson called Scripture and Truth, which came out back in the days when there were a lot of conversations about what does it mean that the Bible is “inerrant” (still an important question today!). That book introduced me to the idea that Christians should take their view of the Bible, from Jesus’ view of the Bible. After all, if Jesus really was God – we need to take seriously what he had to say! And Jesus had things to say about the Bible. Of course, “the Bible” for Jesus was the Hebrew Scriptures, so we’ll have to start there.
When we look at what Jesus said about the Hebrew Scriptures, we see he had an immensely high view of them. He says things like “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35), he tells us that “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law” (Matthew 5:18-19). Jesus says that David, in writing the psalms was “speaking by the Holy Spirit” (Mark 10:36). We see Jesus quoting from all the major sections of Hebrew Scriptures – Torah, Psalms, Prophets (even lesser prophets like Jonah!) – and throughout treating it as God’s word and utterly authoritative.
But we also see Jesus anticipate the writing of another Scriptures. In John 16, he tells the disciples about the coming of the Spirit. Now, because we know the Spirit comes to all believers, we know that much of what Jesus says in this passage applies to all Christians. Nevertheless, I think a good case can be made that one part of Jesus’ teaching about the Spirit was meant for the apostles especially; Jesus says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:13). In this verse, many have argued that Jesus is giving the apostles a special authority to write a new Scripture; he is promising that the Spirit will guide the apostles in a particularly special way.
I think by way of evidence that this is what Jesus meant, we can see that the New Testament authors saw themselves and one another as writing Scripture. Paul writes, for instance, in 1 Corinthians 2:13, “This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit.” We know Peter saw Paul’s letters as inspired Scripture; in 2 Peter 3:16 he writes, “There are some things in [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” We see, in turn, Paul in 1 Timothy 5:18 quoting from Luke 10:7 and treating it as Scripture, “For the Scripture says… the laborer deserves his wages.”
As the early church discerned which texts were included in the Bible, one of their key criteria (based on passages like this one) was whether the text could be traced to the testimony of an apostle, who had seen Christ risen from the dead. It’s worth noting that this would include the writings of Paul, “the least of the apostles” (1 Cor 15:9), as well as books like Mark, which though not written by an apostle were based on an apostle’s testimony (Peter in this case). The early church also looked at criteria such as non-contradiction (whether the text fits with the Old Testament), catholicity (whether the text was accepted across the whole Christian world, and not just a particular region), inspiration (whether there is evidence of self-attestation as inspired text), and how early the text was written. The canonization of the New Testament did not happen at Nicea in 325 under Constantine’s heavy hand – as is sometimes said – but was rather a gradual process culminating with Synod of Hippo in 393AD. But to see an early example of this process in progress, check out the Muratorian Fragment possibly dating from as early as 170AD, which included a list of 20+ books now in the New Testament. It was encouraging to my faith to learn that, even from the perspective of the most skeptical scholars today, the earliest accounts we have of Jesus are those that are in the New Testament. The other books that didn’t “make the cut,” like the Gospel of Thomas, were all written later (sometimes much later) and don’t meet the other criteria the early church used. I’m finding the more I learn about the history of the Bible, the more confident I am becoming about its historical validity, as well as its validity as the Holy Scripture that God, by his Spirit, sovereignly put together.
In terms of your question on the differences in terms of the versions of the Old Testament used by Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians, here’s a response written on that coming from a Protestant perspective. I believe, again, a guiding principle for us is what Jesus would have considered the Hebrew Scriptures to contain.
I hope that’s helpful, Dan. Thanks again for your great questions. Sorry for writing you a book!