NT Canon: Conclusions

This is the final post in our series outlining the formation of the New Testament canon.

BibleHere at the end of our two week examination of New Testament canon formation, what can we conclude? Remembering the distinction between a “formal canon” (an authoritative list of books) and a “practical canon” (a list of authoritative books), we note several important conclusions. First, very early on (if not immediately) the words of Jesus were viewed by his followers as authoritative and equal, if not greater, in status to the Jewish scriptures. This should not be entirely surprising, of course, given the fact that scholars sometimes seem to forget, namely that followers of Jesus followed Jesus. Second, the use of the New Testament writings began very early in the history of Christianity in writings of the Apostolic Fathers. The earliest non-canonical writings of the Christian faith demonstrate reliance upon those writings now included in the New Testament canon. Third, there was a progression of the status of the writings now in the New Testament from the time of Apostolic Fathers to the third century, demonstrating the continuity and development of a “New Testament” tradition among followers of Jesus Christ across the Roman Empire.

Fourth, as the practical canon developed there was a threefold division among all specifically Christian writings: the canonical, which was further subdivide into immediately canonical (the core of the Gospels and Paul) and gradually accepted (the Catholic Epistles, Acts, and Revelation), non-canonical, and fringe texts (such as the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas). These categories, while not universally accepted, were nearly so among the orthodox, with only minor exceptions. Fifth, the impact of heretics upon the formation of the canon, while hotly debated, seems to be minimal at best based upon the development already seen in the Christian community by the time Marcion, Montanus, and the Gnostics arrived on the scene. Finally, concerning the process of formal canonization, the strongest precedent for authoritative lists of books begins in the fourth century with the writings of Eusebius, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Athanasius. However, the Muratorian Fragment preserved evidence of a basic canon of scripture from the late-second century, indicating that Christians may have been thinking about an early “formal canon” during the second century. Having surveyed these major events within the history of New Testament canon formation, we may conclude that while the formal New Testament canon was not fully formed until sometime in the early fourth century, the words of Jesus Christ and the writings of His Apostles had long been viewed as authoritative, both functionally scriptural and “practically” canonical.


 

Overall Works Cited

[1] Barton, John. Holy Writings, Sacred Text: The Canon in Early Christianity. Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, 1997. [2] Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines. Fifth Ed. Continuum: London, 2009. [3] McDonald, Lee Martin. The Biblical Canon: Its Origins, Transmission, and Authority. Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody, MA, 2007. [4] Metzger, Bruce M. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1992. [5] –. The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content. Abingdon Press: New York and Nashville, 1965. [6] The Canon Debate. Editors McDonald, Lee Martin and Sanders, James A. Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody, MA, 2002. [7] Von Campenhausen, Hans. The Formation of the Christian Bible. Trans. Baker, J.A. Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1972.

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