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
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. 
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