We come to what may be the hottest current debate among scholars concerning the formation of the Christian canon: the role of heretics. For scholars such as Adolph von Harnack and Hans von Campenhausen, the Marcionite heresy all but forced the formation of the New Testament scriptures. Indeed, Campenhausen went so far as to call Marcion the “creator of the Christian holy Scripture.” Bruce Metzger argues that the formative heretical forces were threefold: Gnosticism, Marcion, and Montanism; each of these respective theological battles pushed the church to develop a canon of scripture. Lee McDonald argues that while it is overbearing to say that Marcion created the New Testament, his influence in hastening the development of the canon must not be overlooked. Concerning Gnosticism, Montanism, and heresy in general, McDonald concludes that the response of the early church was not a canon of sacred books, but the production of a “canon of faith.” John Barton argues that Marcion actually followed the orthodox example of developing a collection of authoritative books and thus was in no way truly formative in the development of the Christian canon, thus presenting a view that is diametrically opposed to Campenhausen. J. N. D. Kelly argues that the essential contours of the canon were in place before the controversies, arguing that their impact was minimal as most. The prevailing modern view concerning the role of heretics on the formation of the canonical scriptures seems to be primarily that of McDonald and Barton, that while the Marcionite, Gnostic, and Montanist conflicts certainly had an impact upon Christian theology and the role of the canon, the form of the books viewed as scripture seems to have been roughly intact prior to the controversies, thereby making the impact of the heretics slight at most. Though this position is hotly debated in some realms, it seems to represent the growing scholarly consensus. Continue reading
By the end of the second century, Christians and Christian writings had spread to every corner of the Roman Empire. And with this increase came an increase in quotations, allusions, and citations of New Testament writings. The research of scholars such as Franz Stuhlhofer, Biblia Patristica, and Bruce Metzger is invaluable in understanding the quality and quantity of these uses by the early Church Fathers. From a detailed study of second century writings, we notice a distinct pattern of use. Excluding Old Testament allusions and quotations, the use of specifically Christian writings (that is, those written after the death and resurrection by those claiming to follow Jesus of Nazareth) fell into three categories: books viewed as authoritative and scriptural, books viewed as non-scriptural, and “fringe” books. Among the books generally accepted as scriptural (and thereby part of the “practical canon”), a core of immediately emerged as the chief texts of Christianity, including the Synoptic Gospels (especially Matthew), the Fourth Gospel (John), and the major Pauline epistles. Metzger and Barton indicate that surrounding these core Christian texts were two additional categories of “practically canonical” writings: writings which were generally accepted but less used than the core texts, and writings which were candidates for the fringe category. By the second and third centuries those categories had become clearly differentiated, with books such as the Acts of the Apostles, the minor Pauline letters, the Catholic Epistles, and the Apocalypse of St. John, being widely viewed as scriptural and texts such as First Clement, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Herman, and the Didache generally categorized as “fringe” writings. Continue reading
Before any sort of canonization could take place, the Apostolic writings now included in the New Testament had to become viewed with some form of authority. The sources that scholars utilize most in determining the authority granted to the writings of the New Testament are those of the Apostolic Fathers, a designation given to late first and early second century Christian literature that is not included in the New Testament proper. These writings typically include Clement of Rome’s First Letter to the Corinthians, the seven authentic letters of Ignatius of Antioch, the Didache, the Letter of Polycarp, Second Clement, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Letter to Diognetus, the writings of Papias, and the Shepherd of Hermas. Continue reading
Vital to understanding the formation of the New Testament canon is the need to understand both the context of Second Temple Judaism as well as first century Christian use of the Jewish Scriptures (now also the Christian Old Testament). Do any Google search on “Jewish Bible” and you’re likely to find the common argument that the Jewish Bible was not closed until the Council of Jamnia (c. 90 CE). This has led some scholars, such as Lee M. McDonald, to advocate that Jesus may have considered some writings which are now not included in the Protestant Old Testament to have been scriptural and authoritative. McDonald argues that Jesus, and even the writers of the New Testament books, did not have to hold to a traditional Jewish canon, and even though most New Testament quotations are from the Torah (Books of Moses) and Nevi’im (Prophets), the writers of the New Testament felt free to quote from the open Ketuvim (Writings; see for example Jude 14’s possible quotation of Enoch). Continue reading
Of primary importance in discussing the development of the New Testament canon is determining precisely what constitutes a “canon.” Historically, three primary schools of thought have emerged concerning the definition of the term the “canon.” Theodor Zahn argued that, since many of the foundational books of the New Testament were regarded as authoritative and scriptural by the end of the first century (as seen by their quotation by Christians such as Ignatius of Antioch), the New Testament canon should be understood as established and collected rather early on in the history of the Church, perhaps by the early second century. A second perspective was that of the late great Adolph von Harnack, who took a more fluid view of canon creation. Arguing that while the texts included in the New Testament where written early on in the Christian tradition, they were not regarded as totally authoritative until several decades (or even centuries, depending on the book) later. A third school of thought, as evidenced by A. C. Sundberg, relies heavily upon the rigid definition of “canon” as an authoritative list of scriptural books.  Thus, while early second century Christians such as Ignatius may have viewed certain books as important and useful, Sundberg maintained that the term “canon” cannot be applied to the Christian New Testament until authoritative canonical lists appeared in the fourth century. 
Fundamental to the Christian worldview is the Word, Jesus Christ. Of great importance in determining not only who Jesus is but also what He taught are the words of God contained within the Christian Bible, more specifically the twenty-seven books contained in the New Testament. Where the New Testament came from and the amount of authority that can be allocated to that text have been the questions of theologians for nearly two millenniums. More recently, historians and scholars have questioned the veracity of the Biblical text and its formation as a holy book. The task of this two-week series is to examine but a facet of this greater conversation, namely, the question of the development of the Christian New Testament canon and the factors which contributed to this collection. Continue reading
Some of the most common questions that I am asked are some variation of “Where did we get the Bible?” or “Why are these specific books included in the Bible?” In conjunction with yesterday’s post on Where We Got the New Testament, this post seeks to address why the New Testament includes the writings which it contains.
Why Are These Specific Books Included in the New Testament?
Most of us take for granted the twenty-seven books that make up the New Testament, but this was not always the case. It was not uncommon in the ancient world for there to be different books included in Christian collections of writings. Such works asthe letters of Clement, Epistle of Barnabas, and Shepherd of Hermas are included in such noteworthy and important manuscripts as Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus. For many years the Eastern and Western Churches debated both the inclusion of Hebrews and Revelation. As recently as the 16th century and the Protestant Reformation, there were serious doubts about the works to be included in the New Testament. Of these, Martin Luther’s objections to Hebrews, James, Jude, and the Apocalypse of John (Revelation) were so severe that he placed them in an addendum to his German New Testament. Some contemporary Christian Churches in the ancient parts of the world (mostly the Middle East) still have New Testament canons that differ from the standard twenty-seven book canon of the “Orthodox” (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant). Obviously several factors had to influence why certain writings were included in the New Testament. But what were they? Continue reading
Some of the most common questions that I am asked are some variation of “Where did we get the Bible?” or “Why are these specific books included in the Bible?” Obviously complete answers to these questions are long, complex, and remain the topic of scholarly discussion. For those of you not planning to pursue a PhD in Historical Theology, there are relatively straightforward answers to these questions, answers which I want to briefly explain today and tomorrow.
Where Did We Get the New Testament?
Some people seem to assume that the New Testament fell from the sky by the hand of God, an assumption that lacks anything close to historical accuracy or credibility. The first thing we need to understand when thinking about the writings of the New Testament is that they are just that: writings. The letters of Paul are letters. The Catholic epistles (James, the Peters, Jude, Hebrews, Jude, and letters of John) also seem foremost to be letters. It is worth noting that many scholars have argued for the “sermonic” character of many of these writings, meaning that they may have been sermons before they were letters. Each of the four Gospels (or at least portions of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were also something before they were the canonical gospels that we have today. Exactly what remains a particularly thick area of discussion in modern scholarship, though clearly each of the four Gospel narratives was originally part of some aspect of Christian faith and practice. Each of the writings of the New Testament had to be written and delivered, either to the far off congregation for whom it was written or to the literate members of the community at which it was originally delivered. Continue reading
Most Christians, and I would dare say most Americans, know some basic things about the Christian New Testament. But many people don’t know (or don’t want to know) how the New Testament came into being. Some people seem to think that Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Revelation fell from the sky in a nicely leather bound English translation (whichever your church happens to use, of course). Hopefully, most of you know that wasn’t quite how it happened.
So how did the New Testament canon form?
Before digging into five things that everyone should know about the formation of the New Testament canon, we need to clarify what the New Testament canon is. The word canon itself comes from the Greek kanonikos, the basic meaning of which is “of one rule.” So a canon is something that other things are ruled by, the standard if you will. Within the field of Early Christianity, however, there are two more nuanced meanings behind the term canon, especially as it applies to the New Testament. In the first sense, a canon can mean a “list of authoritative books.” In this context, the canon of the NT is a list of books that should be considered authoritative for Christians. In the second sense, however, canon refers to an “authoritative list of books.” In this context, a list is authoritative and “closed”– only the books on this list are considered authoritative. Much of the history of scholarship concerning the development of the NT canon has actually revolved around misunderstanding this two definitions of the term canon. For the sake of clarity, I use the term “closed canon” when discussing an “authoritative list of books” (even though in the strictest terms, the NT canon may not even be entirely “closed” for Christians today– but that will have to be a different post).
Now that we’ve covered some important terminology, let’s talk about the five things that everyone should know about the formation of the New Testament canon.
1. New Testament Writings Are the Earliest Specifically Christian Writings
The earliest Christians often had at their disposal the writings of Judaism (now contained in the Christian Old Testament). But the earliest specifically Christian writings (that is, those that were written by followers of Jesus) are the writings now contained in the New Testament. Even though we don’t know the specific dates that these writings were composed, scholars generally agree on a range of possible times that they were written. These dates are based on a number of factors, internal and external to the writings themselves. For example, based on Acts 1.1-2, we know that the Gospel According to Luke was written before the books of Acts. Similarly, some scholars have argued that because there is no mention of Paul’s death in Acts, it was written before the Apostle’s death (I hasten to note that this perspective is not universally held). Thus, we have a range of possible dates for the writing of Acts. We should note that there is a minor caveat to the fact that the New Testament Writings are the earliest specifically Christian writings, insofar as they are the earliest writings that we have access to. There are early Christian writings that we know were written but are lost to us. For example, there is good reason to suspect that the Apostle Paul actually wrote four letters to the Church at Corinth, including I Corinthians and II Corinthians, which was actually likely the third letter. As a final (potential) caveat, it’s worth knowing that some scholars date the writing of certain New Testament books (such as the Apocalypse of John or II Peter) into the second century. By no means do all scholars do this, and there is reasonable evidence that supports the writing of all the books in the New Testament by the end of the first century. Continue reading