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Repost: The New Testament Canon: The Least You Need to Know

I previously blogged about the Old Testament canon. Now I’d like to jot down some thoughts about the New Testament.

1. The Church Has Always Had a Bible.

Jesus and all of his original followers were Jews. As such, they were heirs of a centuries-long tradition of studying, preaching, debating, and praying the Scriptures of Israel. The Christian church accepted from the beginning the authority of the Old Testament as holy Scripture. They did this following the example of Jesus, who is seen in the Gospels reading the Jewish Scriptures in the synagogue and debating their interpretation with biblical scholars.

Even though the final decisions about the content of this Bible had not yet been ironed out, the church was able to hit the ground running on the Day of Pentecost with a collection of sacred texts from which they derived the basics of their theology, moral instruction, and liturgy. The various speeches in the book of Acts indicate in summary form how the early church interpreted the biblical story in light of the revelation of Christ, and every book of the New Testament interacts with the Old Testament in one way or another. The book of Revelation is dripping with Old Testament imagery from first to last; the book of Hebrews is best understood as a form of Hellenistic Jewish sermon drawing on a number of Old Testament texts; the letters of Paul reveal at numerous points an informed interaction not only with the sacred texts of Judaism but with common Jewish methods of biblical interpretation. All of this points to an early church steeped in Scripture from the very beginning.

2. The Church Has Not Always Had a New Testament.

It should be self evident, however, that the first Christian communities existed before a single word of the New Testament was committed to writing. It was within these communities that Christians hammered out their core beliefs, values, and practices, and it was for these communities that the New Testament writers wrote. This fact carries a number of implications, but let me suggest two that seem especially important in terms of the development of the New Testament canon:

(1) The texts existed within a wider framework of tradition. The texts served this tradition and were an organic part of it. The tradition included basic matters of theology, ethics, and liturgy, and on all points was informed by a close reading of the Old Testament through the light of God’s revelation in Christ.

As but one example, think about what we’re looking at when we read one of the Gospels. Even the most conservative of scholars agree that the Gospels preserve information about Jesus that was first handed down by word of mouth. In Paul’s letters (largely written before any of the Gospels — at least in their final, canonical form) we even find the technical rabbinic vocabulary of “receiving” and “handing on” an oral tradition (1 Cor 11:23-25; 15:3-7). Paul also urges his churches to hold fast to the traditions he handed on to them, whether oral or textual (2 Thess 2:15). Paul apparently understood that this tradition was authoritative for the early church. One might even argue it was “canonical.” But it was not committed to writing in a universally agreed-upon form.

(2) The texts only gradually became recognized as Scripture in their own right. Like the Old Testament canon, the new Christian writings were accepted as authoritative in the church in stages. The four Gospels were originally written and circulated separately as independent literary units, but by the late second century there was assumed to be a “fourfold” Gospel.

Similarly, Paul’s letters would have originally circulated only to the stated addressees (although some, like Ephesians, may have had a wider readership). In time, these came to be collected and regarded as authoritative. Second Peter 3:16 counts Paul’s letters among the “other” Scriptures. Depending on how one dates this text, it belongs either toward the end of the apostolic era or somewhat later, perhaps into the early part of the second century. At any rate, it is clear from the New Testament itself that Paul’s version of the Christian message was not universally embraced even among Christians during the Apostle’s lifetime.

Other portions of the New Testament were eventually also accepted, but sometimes only after a good bit of debate over many years or even centuries. Even as late as Eusebius of Caesarea (c. AD 300), the books of James, 2 Peter, 2-3 John, and Jude were acknowledged to be “disputed.” Some Christians also held the book of Revelation in deep suspicion. Others had doubts about Hebrews because of questions about its authorship.

At the same time, some books were read in some churches or commended for private devotion that did not ultimately get included. Foremost among these were the Acts of Paul, the Acts of Peter, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas. The Didache was also apparently popular in some locales, and is acknowledged by Athanasius as having some value for Christians. Weekend Fisher has made an admirable attempt at objectively “scoring” the weight of historical attestation of all these books, and you may want to check out her results (part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10).

Church fathers acknowledge that heretical groups had their own Scriptures. The Ebionites had the Gospel to the Hebrews and a variant form of the Gospel of Matthew as well as the Clementine literature; the Gnostics had an abundance of unique texts–the Gospel of Thomas, the Exposition of the Soul, etc. None of these can be credibly dated earlier than the middle to late second century, however, and do not seem to have ever been serious contenders for inclusion in the canon of orthodox Christianity. [NB: I’m eager to read April DeConick’s work on Thomas; she argues for an early orthodox kernel of material within GThom. If Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas requires me to adjust what I have written in this paragraph, I’ll alert you to that fact in a later post.] Frankly, a cursory reading of most of this material tends to make one grateful that these texts not only didn’t make the cut but were never even in the running!

[Update: Ben Witherington has posted on his blog a paper from one of his doctoral students critiquing Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities. The paper deals in much greater depth with the question of why the existence of books like Gospel of Thomas does not constitute a threat to the traditional understanding of canon formation that I am espousing.]

3. The Canonization of the New Testament Took Place in the Church.

So, the early Christians not only had a growing number of texts at their disposal for use in their worship and teaching, they also had an informal understanding about what their spiritual tradition was. They called this understanding the “rule of faith,” which can be understood as a somewhat fluid summary of the community’s beliefs and values: of what it understood the Bible, both Old and (later) New Testaments, to teach. There is no one “canonical” wording of this rule, but here is that of Irenaeus in his Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching (late 2nd century):

This then is the order of the rule of our faith, and the foundation of the building, and the stability of our conversation: God, the Father, not made, not material, invisible; one God, the creator of all things: this is the first point of our faith. The second point is: The Word of God, Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, who was manifested to the prophets according to the form of their prophesying and according to the method of the dispensation of the Father: through whom all things were made; who also at the end of the times, to complete and gather up all things, was made man among men, visible and tangible, in order to abolish death and show forth life and produce a community of union between God and man. And the third point is: The Holy Spirit, through whom the prophets prophesied, and the fathers learned the things of God, and the righteous were led forth into the way of righteousness; and who in the end of the times was poured out in a new way upon mankind in all the earth, renewing man unto God.

Astute readers will note both the trinitarian structure of this rule as well as the verbal parallels to later creeds of the church.

Decisions about how to interpret the Bible — and what books belonged in the canon — were largely answered by recourse to the rule of faith. Texts in conformity with the rule were accepted; texts that violated the rule were rejected. And all texts were interpreted with the rule of faith as a template or interpretive grid. Irenaeus compared the biblical interpretations of the Gnostics, for example, as if someone took the tiles of a beautiful mosaic picture of a king and rearranged them so as to make a shoddy picture of an animal instead (Against Heresies 1.8.1). They used the same data, but came to the wrong conclusions because their interpretations fell outside the rule of faith.

4. The Canonization of the New Testament Did Not Take Place in a Vacuum.

The canonization process took place as the early Christians ironed out their beliefs and its Scriptures in polemical confrontation both with the Jews and with heretical or schismatic elements within the church. We can remember of the most significant challenges by recalling the Three M’s:

(1) Marcion. Marcion was a semi-Gnostic teacher active in the middle of the second century. He published the first “Christian” canon based on his conviction that Paul was Jesus’ greatest interpreter and that there was an uncrossable divide between the Law of Moses and the gospel of Christ. Marcion’s canon thus had no Old Testament at all, ten of Paul’s letters (the Pastorals are excluded), and a severely redacted version of Luke’s Gospel. This resulted in an overly restricted canon.

(2) Montanism. At the other extreme was Montanism, which also seems to have been been born in the middle of the second century. Montanus and his followers emphasized immediate spiritual experiences and claimed special revelations and visions, which they wrote down in additional sacred texts. This resulted in an overly expanded canon. [Update: Obviously, Gnosticism, with its abundance of texts, was also a major factor here. But, you know, alliteration.]

(3) The Mishnah. The Mishnah is the codification of Jewish oral traditions, many of which undoubtedly reach back to the first century AD. It provides a authoritative interpretation of the Law and thus a guide to the proper understanding of the biblical texts of Judaism. Since the church also claimed to interpret rightly the texts of the Jewish Bible, production of the Mishnah (c. AD 200) called for a corresponding development among Christians.

The New Testament canon in its present form was basically settled by the early third century, although some books (e.g., Hebrews, Revelation) were not yet universally accepted and others (e.g., Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas) were not yet definitely excluded. In his Paschal Letter of AD 367, Athanasius gives us the first extant New Testament canon list matching the twenty-seven books Christians acknowledge today. This effectively settled the matter in the East; in the West, the Council of Carthage (397) arrived at the same canon as Athanasius.