We now turn to an examination of canonical lists, an important step on the road to formal canonization. The importance of the core scriptures increased throughout the second and third centuries and were in due course joined in prestige and use by the rest of the books of the New Testament by the third century. Outside of these works were the “fringe” writings, including those of the Apostolic Fathers. Around this time the process of formal canonization began with the creation of lists of books that were permissible for Christians to use. The exact timing of formal canonization varies amongst scholar; Barton and others postulate that a ‘Pauline canon’ was likely in circulation among churches by the end of the first century. Our earliest lists of canonical books that are clearly datable are from Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History (ca. 303-325 CE), which includes the threefold division of canonical, non-canonical, and fringe books; Cyril of Jerusalem in his Catechetical Lectures (ca. 350); and Athanasius in his Festal Letter Thirty-Nine (ca. 367), which also includes the threefold division of books and includes in the canonical division the New Testament books exactly as we have them today.Towards the middle to end of the fourth century numerous canonical lists began appearing within the Church, placing an increased importance on earlier lists such as those mentioned above. 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