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
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
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.