Making sense of conceptions of scripture during the earliest years of Christianity is no easy task. The relative scarcity of evidence from this period is made even more difficult by the non-systematic form of many early Christian writings and the literary practices of the time, where authors used sources without formal (or clear) introductions, regularly cited from memory, modified existing sources for form and/or content, and packaged passages together in conglomerative fashion. Not surprisingly, then, the earliest extant Christian writings are often a battleground for competing claims and narratives concerning the conception and use of scripture in the first centuries of the Church. Continue reading
Few queries surrounding the New Testament are as well known as the question regarding the authorship of Hebrews. Since the early centuries of Christianity—indeed, long before the New Testament canon was finalized—inquisitive readers have investigated who wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews. Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Eusebius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Harnack (to name but a few) have theorized and argued about the identity of Hebrew’s author. No less a list than Paul, Barnabas, Apollos, Luke, Silas, Peter, Clement of Rome, Priscilla and Aqulia, Ariston, Philip, Jude, Epaphras, John the Apostle, Timothy, and Mary (the Mother of Jesus) has been suggested as to whom this figure might be. In recent decades, those studying Paul have increasingly problematized claims that the Apostle’s authored Hebrews, making it less likely that the long-assumed writer of Hebrews actually penned the work. And despite the copious number of theories concerning other potential authors of Hebrews, rather little has been offered by way of solid conclusions. To address this noteworthy issue, a couple of years ago came David L. Allen’s Lukan Authorship of Hebrews (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010. 416 pgs). Continue reading
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 as the 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
The two most common questions that I am asked are some variation of “Where did we get the New Testament?” or “Why are these specific books included in the New Testament?”1 Obviously complete answers to these questions are long, nuanced, and complex (i.e., scholarly discussions of dissertation length answer). But there are also relatively straight-forward and easy-to-understand answers to these questions. Today, I want to tackle the first of these queries: Where did we get the New Testament? 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? Continue reading
The New Testament (NT) writings were read in churches early on (Col 4:16), but were not generally called “scripture” until the end of the second century C.E., despite being used that way earlier. Ancient texts always functioned as scripture before they were called scripture. Only one New Testament author makes the claim that what he wrote was equivalent to sacred scripture (Rev 22:18-19; compare with Deut 4:2).
By the middle of the second century C.E., Justin Martyr (1 Apology 64-67) noted that the Gospels were read alongside of and occasionally instead of the “prophets” (Old Testament books). When New Testament writings were read in church worship, or served as an authority in matters of faith and conduct this was a first step in acknowledging the sacredness of the NT writings. The first writings acknowledged as scripture included the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John and some Pauline letters. Not all New Testament writings were called scripture at the same time or place. Irenaeus of Lyon was among the first to make explicit statements about the scriptural status of the canonical Gospels; however several others took much longer to be recognized, notably Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation.
Initially, early Christians also appear to have accepted other Christian writings as scripture. Some of the most popular Christian writings not included in the canon include Shepherd of Hermas, Epistle of Barnabas, Didache, and others that were read in churches well into the fourth and fifth centuries and in some cases even later.
Finally, decisions made about the sacredness of the church’s scriptures did not take place universally at the same time or location. One church father’s decision does not mean that all church leaders came to the same conclusions at the same time. By the fourth century C.E., most Christians had accepted most of the NT writings, but canon lists varied well into the eighth or ninth centuries.
Even after nearly 2000 years, the Shepherd of Hermas remains an intriguing set of apocalyptic writings from the early Church. The central concern of Hermas revolves around post-baptismal sin: What can Christians do if they have fallen into sin after their baptism? In answering this question, Hermas writes down five visions, twelve commandments, and ten parables, many of which he recounts in terms of divine visions and conversations with an angelic figure called the Shepherd (hence the title of the book). The Shepherd remains the longest extant text of early Christianity, much longer than a number of New Testament books, and was included in many early canonical lists and codices, including Codex Sinaiticus and some contemporaries of Eusebius and Athanasius. Ultimately, the Shepherd was rejected as canonical, due at least in part to its not being written by an apostle (as argued in the Muratorian Canon). Hermas may have been the brother of Pius, Bishop of Rome from around 140 to 154, and Origen argues that he was the Hermas mentioned in Romans 16.14. Additionally, Hermas mentions someone named Clement in V8.2, which may be a reference to Clement of Rome. Most scholars agree that the Shepherd was likely written between 110-140 CE, perhaps over a period of time. Such as early date fits the writings widespread use in both East and West, as well as the claims to usefulness by the Church Fathers despite its ultimate non-canonical status. Continue reading
To “kick off” our Early Christian Authority Series, we begin with First Clement, which is the earliest non-canonical, specifically Christian, and still extant writing available to us today. First Clement claims to have been written from the Church at Rome to the Church at Corinth, and seems to have been written around 95-96 CE (though I hasten to note that it could have been composed almost anytime between 64 and 99 CE). Since at least the mid- to late- second century, First Clement was thought to have been written by Clement of Rome, who was the second or third bishop of Rome, holding office from around 92 to 99 CE. Additionally, from at least the mid-second century until sometime in the fifth century, First Clement was used a “scripture” by various Christian communities, being read aloud during corporate worship in Corinth and other Christian communities. This is attested to by Dionysius of Corinth and Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History, 4.23), as well as the letter’s inclusion in the fifth-century Codex Alexandrinus. This post broadly examines First Clement’s use of existing sources of authority. 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
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.