The Marcion Problem: Tertullian (Part II)

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Marcion of Sinope and his influence on the development of the New Testament canon.
Tertullian of Carthage

Tertullian of Carthage

From Tertullian’s writings emerge several implications for Marcion’s conceptions of scripture, canon, and authority. First, from his Prescription against Heresies it seems that Marcion in some way undermined the existing authority structures of the Catholic Church by appealing to sources of authority outside those which were typically employed. These sources at least appear to be sources imbued with philosophical thought that moves away from what Tertullian references the teachings of Christ and ‘rule of faith.’ Second and also from Prescriptions, Marcion appears to have used and distorted existing Christian scriptures. This could mean a number of things, but from Tertullian’s claims that Marcion rejected the apostolic and Jewish roots of Christian faith it seems to indicate that Marcion had rejected some writings and manipulated others in an attempt to present a unified authoritative corpus of some sort. Continue reading

Why “This” New Testament?

I am often asked some variation of “Where did we get the New Testament?” or “Why are these specific books included in the New Testament?” In conjunction with yesterday’s post on the Origins of the New Testament, today’s post seeks to address why the New Testament includes the writings which it contains.

BibleMost 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

NT Canon: What You Need to Know

New TestamentMost 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

Why Does the NT Contain These Books?

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?

The Muratorian FragmentMost 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

Five Things Everyone Should Know About the New Testament Canon

Bible Formation WordcloudMost 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