The Reliability of the Bible

Canon & Scripture Videos to Watch

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Ten Basic Facts about the NT Canon that Every Christian Should Memorize

Book: Canon Revisited


10 Common Misconceptions About the New Testament Canon:

1.       The Term “Canon” Can Only Refer to a Fixed, Closed List of Books

a.       There has always been a vigorous debate amongst scholars over what we mean by the term “canon.”

                                                              i.      One particular definition of canon has begun to emerge as the dominant one.  In fact, scholars have suggested that we must all use this definition lest the entire field of canonical studies be thrown into confusion and anachronism. And that definition is the one that says canon only exists when one has a closed, final, fixed list. You can have “Scripture” prior to this time, but not a “canon.”  This can be called the exclusive definition.

                                                             ii.        Would early Christians have regarded Scripture as fluid and open-ended and only canon as limited and restricted?  If they were able to say that certain books in their library were Scripture, then that implies they would have been able to say that other books in their library were not Scripture.  But, if they are able to say which books are (and are not) Scripture, then how is that materially different than saying which books are in (or not in) a canon?   Thus, it seems some degree of limitation and exclusion is already implied in the term “Scripture.”

                                                           iii.      Brevard Childs has highlighted what we might call the functional definition which suggests we have a canon as soon as a book is used as Scripture by early Christians.  On this definition, we would have a canon at least by the early second century.

                                                           iv.      And I have argued for a third definition in my forthcoming article for Tyndale Bulletin that would define canon as the books God gave his corporate church (what I call the ontological definition).  One might say this views canon from a divine perspective.  On this definition, we would have a “canon” as soon as these books were written.

2.       Nothing in Early Christianity Dictated That There Would be a Canon

a.       The question is “Why is there a New Testament at all?”

                                                              i.      The answer, according to critics of the canon, is not to be found in the first-century—there was nothing about earliest Christianity (or the books themselves) that would naturally lead to the development of a canon. Instead, we are told, the answer is to be found in the later Christian church.  The canon was an ecclesiastical product that was designed to meet ecclesiastical needs. Thus, the New Testament canon was not a natural development within early Christianity, but a later, artificial development that is out of sync with Christianity’s original purpose—it was something imposed upon the Christian faith. Gamble argues this very point: “There is no intimation at all that the early church entertained the idea of Christian scriptures…Therefore, the NT as we think of it was utterly remote from the minds of the first generation of Christian believers.”

1.       I will argue here that the earliest Christians held a number of beliefs that, especially when taken in tandem, would have naturally led to the development of a new collection of sacred books—what we could call a “canon.”  In other words, the theological matrix of first-century Christianity created a favorable environment for the growth of a new written revelational deposit. Let us consider what three of these theological beliefs might have been.

a.       This possibility finds confirmation in the fact that some of the New Testament writings seem to be intentionally completing the Old Testament story.  It is noteworthy that the first book of the New Testament begins with a genealogy with a strong Davidic theme (Matt 1:1), and the (likely) last book of the Hebrew canon begins with a genealogy that has a strong Davidic theme (1 Chronicles 1-2). This structural feature led D. Moody Smith to declare, “In doing so, Matthew makes clear that Jesus represents the restoration of that dynasty and therefore the history of Israel and the history of salvation. Thus, Jesus continues the biblical narrative.”[3] Davies and Allison agree that Matthew “thought of his gospel as a continuation of the biblical history.”

2.        The earliest Christians believed that Jesus inaugurated a new covenant.  We must remember that the Jews of the first century were covenantally oriented. N.T. Wright has observed that “Covenant theology was the air breathed by the Judaism of this period.”[5]  And it is clear that the earliest Christians were also covenantally oriented, as they saw Jesus as ushering in a new covenant (Luke 22:20; cf. Matt 26:28; Mark 14:24; 2 Cor 3:6; Heb 7:22, 8:8).  What implications does this belief have on canon?

a.       The answer lies in the very close connection between covenants and written texts.  It is well-established by now that the very concept of ‘covenant’ (or treaty) was drawn from the ancient near eastern world where a suzerain king would often make a treaty-covenant with his vassal king. And here is the key: when such covenants were made, they were accompanied by written documentation of that covenant.  It is not surprising then that when God made a treaty-covenant with Israel on Sinai, he gave them written documentation of the terms of that covenant.  Indeed, so close was the connection between the covenant and written texts, that Old Testament language would often equate the two—the written text was the covenant! If this is the background of early Christian understanding of covenants, then the implications are easy to see. The earliest Christians were themselves immersed in the covenantal structure of the Old Testament and thus would have understood this critical connection between covenants and written texts.  Thus, if they believed that through Jesus Christ a new covenant had been inaugurated with Israel (Jer 31:31), it would have been entirely natural for them to expect new written documents to testify to the terms of that covenant

b.      This appears to find confirmation in 2 Cor 3:6 when Paul refers to himself and the other apostles as “ministers of the new covenant”—and Paul makes this declaration in a written text that bears his authority as a minister of the new covenant.  Thus, one could hardly fault the Corinthians if they understood Paul’s letter as, in some sense, a covenant document

3.       The earliest Christians believed in the authority of the apostles to speak for Christ. Jesus had commissioned his apostles “so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority” (Mark 3:14–15).  When Jesus sent out the twelve, he reminds them that “For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matt 10:20).  Thus, he is able to give a warning to those who reject the apostles’ authority: “If anyone will not receive you or listen to your words…it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” (Matt 10:14)

a.       Initially, of course, the apostles delivered their message orally through teaching and preaching. But, it was not long before they began to write their message down. And when they did so, they also told Christians “Stand firm and hold to the traditions you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thess 2:15). And again, “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person and have nothing to do with him”

                                                                                                                                      i.      It is here that we see the obvious connection between the role of the apostles and the beginnings of the canon.  If apostles were viewed as the mouthpiece of Christ, and they wrote down that apostolic message in books, then those books would be received as the very words of Christ himself.  Such writings would not have to wait until second, third, or fourth-century ecclesiastical decisions to become authoritative—instead they would be viewed as authoritative from almost the very start.

3.       The New Testament Authors Did Not Think They Were Writing Scripture  

a.       Sometimes, even in the academic world, things get said so many times that people assume they are true.   And when that happens, no one bothers to look at the historical evidence in a fresh way.  This has certainly been the case when it comes to this third misconception about the New Testament canon. It is routine these days to assert that the New Testament authors certainly did not think they were writing Scripture, nor had any awareness of their own authority. Mark Allan Powell, in his recent New Testament introduction, affirms this view plainly, “The authors of our New Testament books did not know that they were writings scripture.”[1]  Gamble takes the same approach, “None of the writings which belong to the NT was composed as scripture…[they] were written for immediate and practical purposes within the early churches, and only gradually did they come to be valued and to be spoken of as ‘scripture’.”

                                                              i.      What they are trying to say is that certainly none of the NT authors wrote with an awareness of a 27 book canon and understood their place in it.  They could not have fully foreseen the shape and scope of this collection.  But, these scholars imply that there was no authoritative intent when the NT authors wrote—and that is a very different thing.  McDonald even declares, “[Paul] was unaware of the divinely inspired status of his own advice.”

                                                             ii.      However it is clear that the Apostle knew in which the authority of whom they spoke for. We cannot go through the whole Bible but we will go through specific verses from the OT.

1.       1 Thess 2:13.  In perhaps Paul’s earliest letter, he is explicit about his own authority as an apostle of Jesus Christ when he reminds the Thessalonians, “You received the word of God, which you heard from us, and accepted it not as the words of men but as what it really is, the word of God” (2:13). By the phrase “word of God” (λόγον θεοῦ), Paul is no doubt referring to the authoritative “apostolic tradition” which they had already passed to the Thessalonians through their oral teaching and preaching. But, if Paul’s apostolic instruction bears divine authority, are we to think that the instruction contained in 1 Thessalonians itself does not?  Is this letter somehow exempt from that very authority? Paul acknowledges elsewhere that the mode of delivery for his apostolic instruction is secondary, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thess 2:15). Thus, commenting on 1 Thess 2:13

2.       1 Cor 14:37-38.  This passage is one of the most explicit about Paul’s apostolic authority, “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord.  If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized” (1 Cor 14:37-38).  Most noteworthy about this passage is that Paul directly addresses the precise nature of his writings and declares that they are a “command of the Lord” (κυρίοu ἐντολη,).  Such a phrase is common throughout the Old Testament as a reference to either the commands that come directly from God himself or to the commands he has given to Moses.[5] So confident is Paul of his authority to speak for the Lord that he declares that anyone who does not recognize the authority of his writings is himself “not recognized.” Fee calls such a pronouncement a “prophetic sentence of judgment on those who fail to heed this letter.”[6]  In light of such statements from Paul, we don’t have to wonder how the Corinthians would respond if we were able to ask them “So, do you think that Paul was aware of his own authority when he wrote you that letter?”   Perhaps Paul himself understood the way his authority would be perceived when he wrote the Corinthians a second time and said, “I do not want to appear to be frightening you with my letters” (2 Cor 10:9).

3.       Luke 1:1-4.  Luke makes express claims to be passing down apostolic tradition. In his prologue, Luke claims that the traditions included in his gospel have been “delivered” to him by those “who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.”  Most scholars view the “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” as a clear reference to the apostles. And the term “delivered” is a standard reference to the way that authoritative apostolic tradition is passed along. Thus, Luke understood his gospel to be the embodiment of the authoritative apostolic “Word” that had been delivered and entrusted to him. Craig Evans comes to the same conclusion about the prologue, “Luke does not see himself primarily as a biographer, nor even a historian.  The Lukan evangelist is a writer of Scripture, a hagiographer who is proclaiming what God has ‘accomplished among us.

4.       Rev 1:1-3. The most explicit claim for a book’s authority no doubt comes from the author of Revelation.  The opening line of the book directly claims that it is the inspired prophecy of Jesus Christ delivered to John by an angel (1:1).  Consequently, there is a divine blessing attached with this book: “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near” (1:3).  Moreover, the authority of this book is heightened by the inclusion of an “inscriptional curse” at the end, warning the reader not to add nor take away from this document lest they suffer divine judgment (22:18-19).  On the basis of these explicit statements, even McDonald is willing to acknowledge that Revelation “claims for itself such a lofty position that [it] would come close to the notion of inspiration and Scripture.”

4.       New Testament Books Were Not Regarded as Scriptural Until Around 200 A.D.

a.       In recent years, however, somewhat of a quasi-consensus has been building that the canon was first regarded as Scripture at the end of the second century (c.200). 

                                                              i.      The reason that this is stated is that the quasi consensus is that Irenaeus single handedly created the NT with comprehensive statements.

                                                             ii.      However is there evidence that the New Testament documents were recognized as scripture long before 200AD?

1.       But, was Irenaeus really alone?  Was he the innovator scholars have made him out to be?  Let us consider a number of historical sources which show that others during this same time frame (and earlier) also regarded NT books as Scripture.  As we briefly examine these sources, we should remember that we are concerned here not with the extent of canon but with the existence of canon.  Although the boundaries of the canon had not yet solidified at this point, it is still clear that many of these books were viewed as Scripture long before 200 AD.

a.       In terms of Irenaeus’ contemporaries, two key sources tell us that he was not alone.  The Muratorian fragment (c.180) is our earliest canonical list and affirms approximately 22 of the 27 books of the NT, remarkably close to Irenaeus’ own position.  Moreover, writing just slightly later than Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria (c.198) had a remarkably similar position, affirming the 4 gospels, 13 epistles of Paul, Hebrews, Acts, 1 Peter, 1&2 John, Jude, and Revelation.  Such a widespread affirmation of these books could not have happened overnight (sort of a “big bang” theory of canon), but would have required some predecessors.   Let us examine who some of those predecessors were (and here we must be brief):

b.      .Justin Martyr (c.150):  He refers to plural “gospels” and at one point provides an indication of how many he has in mind when he describes these gospels as “drawn up by His apostles and those who followed them.” Since such language indicates (at least) two gospels written by apostles, and (at least) two written by apostolic companions, it is most naturally understood as reference to our four canonical gospels.   The fact that he actually cites from the Synoptics and John shows that he had a fourfold gospel in mind.

c.       Papias (c.125):  As mentioned in another post, Papias tells us that the early church had received the gospels of Mark and Matthew and valued because of their apostolic status.  In fact, Papias even affirms that Mark received his information from Peter himself—a very ancient tradition of the church.  Although Papias writes c.125, he actually refers to an earlier time (c.90) when he received this information from “the Elder” (who is no doubt John the Elder, one of Jesus’ disciples). Papias also knew 1 Peter, 1 John, Revelation, and some Pauline epistles.

d.      Barnabas (c.130).   The Epistle of Barnabas (4.14) explicitly cites Matt 22:14: “Many are called but few are chosen.”  Barnabas clearly regards Matthew as Scripture because he introduces his citation with “It is written” (the same language he uses when citing OT books).

e.       1 Clement (c.95).  1 Clement charges the church to “Take up the epistle of that blessed apostle, Paul… To be sure, he sent you a letter in the Spirit concerning himself and Cephas and Apollos.”  Scholars agree that Clement is referring here to the letter of 1 Corinthians which he said Paul wrote “in the Spirit,” no doubt showing the high authority he gave to the book.  1 Clement also makes likely allusions to other epistles of Paul including Romans, Galatians, Philippians, Ephesians; and also Hebrews.

f.        5.2 Pet 3:16 (c.65).  One of the earliest examples comes from the well-known passage in 2 Pet 3:16 where Paul’s letters are regarded as on par with “the other Scriptures” of the Old Testament.  Most notably, this passage does not refer to just one letter of Paul, but to a collection of Paul’s letters (how many is unclear) that had already begun to circulate throughout the churches—so much so that the author could refer to “all his [Paul’s] letters” and expect that his audience would understand that to which he was referring.

                                                                                                                                      i.      This is a very brief sampling of the use of NT books as Scripture within the first and second centuries.  But it is sufficient to show that the NT canon did not pop into existence at the end of the second century in a “big bang” sort of fashion.  Instead, we have solid evidence that NT books were used as Scripture from a very early time period (according to 2 Peter, even in the first century itself).  Despite the fact that boundaries of the canon were not solidified until a later time, it is clear that a “core” canon was present from nearly the very beginning.

5.       Early Christians Disagreed Widely over the Books Which Made It into the Canon

a.        There was a man named Walter Bauer, who in 1934 published a monograph called “Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Church” in Germany. It was not until 1971 when the book was translated into English, when the theory that Bauer asserted made headlines and drastic scholastic changes occurred.

                                                              i.       As is well known now, Bauer’s main thesis was that early Christianity was a bit of a mess.  It was a theological quagmire.  No one could get along; no one could agree.  There was in-fighting and competition between various competing factions, all warring it out about what really constituted “Christianity.”  Thus, for Bauer, there was no such thing as Christianity (singular) during this time, but only Christianities (plural).   And each of these Christianities, argues Bauer, had its own set of books.   Each had its own writings that it valued and thought were Scripture.   After the dust settled, one particular group, and their books, won the theological war.  But, why should we think these are the right books?   These are just the books of the theological winners.

                                                             ii.      Bauer’s thesis has seen a strong resurgence in recent years, particularly in the writings of scholars like Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrman, and Helmut Koester.  And it is the basis for a very common misconception about the NT Canon, namely that there was very little agreement over the books that made it into the canon until the fourth or fifth century.

1.       But is this true?

a.       A core NT canon existed very early.   As I noted in my prior blog post in this series (see here), there was a core canon of NT books that was well-established by the early to middle second century.  These would have included the four gospels, the epistles of Paul (at least 10, if not 13), and a handful of other books.  Although discussions about some of the smaller books would continue on for a while, the core books were not really ever seriously disputed. John Barton comments, “Astonishingly early, the great central core of the present New Testament was already being treated as the main authoritative source for Christians.  There is little to suggest that there were any serious controversies about the Synoptics, John, or the major Pauline epistles.”[1]

                                                                                                                                      i.       If so, then the idea that Christians disagreed widely over canonical books simply isn’t accurate.  At most, this occurred for just a handful of books.

b.      Use of apocryphal books is not evidence of widespread disagreement.  One of the most popular tactics in modern scholarship is to demonstrate that early church fathers used apocryphal books and then, on this basis, declare that there was no agreement about the canonical books.  For instance, Geoffrey Hahneman rightly observes that “Christian writers of the second century refer to many other gospels beside the canonical four.”[2] However, Hahnemen then draws an unexpected conclusion from this fact: “This would seem unlikely if the Fourfold Gospel canon had already been established.”[3] But, how does this follow? Hahneman never explains how the mere use of non-canonical Jesus tradition is evidence that the fourfold gospel was not established. Why are the two mutually exclusive?  Apparently Hahneman is operating under the assumption that the adoption of certain books as canonical (say the four gospels) somehow means that you can never again use material that falls outside these books.   But, it is unclear where this assumption comes from and Hahneman never offers an argument for it.

                                                                                                                                      i.      When we examine the Church Fathers more closely it is clear that some of them were quite willing to use apocryphal gospels, but, at the same time, they were very clear that only our four gospels were to be received as canonical.  Clement of Alexandria is a perfect example of this practice.  He is comfortable using apocryphal gospels, but is always clear that they are not on par with the canonical four.

1.       However, when the frequency of citations are considered, this claim proves to be unfounded—Clement vastly prefers the New Testament books, over and above the apocryphal literature or other Christian writings.  J.A. Brooks has observed that Clement cites the canonical books “about sixteen times more often than apocryphal and patristic writings.”[7] This disparity is thrown into sharper relief when we consider just the four Gospels. According to the work of Bernard Mutschler, Clement references Matthew 757 times, Luke 402 times, John 331 times, and Mark 182 times.[8]  Comparatively, Clement cites apocryphal gospels only 16 times.[9]  Apparently, Clement was not in doubt about which books he regarded as canonical.

c.       Instances of disagreement over canonical books are not necessarily evidence that such disagreement is widespread.   A second kind of argument used by some scholars is to appeal to particular instances of canonical dissent or disagreement and use those instances as evidence that there is no broader unity about the canon.  Indeed, one gets the impression that it would require an extremely high (if not unanimous) amount of agreement about a book before these scholars would regard its canonical status as decided.  For instance, Hahneman rejects the existence of the fourfold gospel canon by appealing to the third-century orthodox theologian Gaius of Rome who supposedly rejected the gospel of John as a work of Cerinthus.  But, does the broad acknowledgement of a fourfold gospel require zero disagreement?   Does the existence of some objections to John’s gospel override the evidence that it was widely received elsewhere?  With this sort of standard in place, then we would never be able to say that we have a canon, even in the modern day.  There will always be some disagreement.

                                                                                                                                      i.      Another example of a place where disagreements are overplayed is Origen’s comments on 2&3 John where he acknowledges that “not all say that these are genuine.”[4]  Although Hahneman uses this comment to point out that universal agreement on these epistles has not yet been achieved, he entirely overlooks the implications of Origen’s comments in the other direction, namely that apparently most Christians do consider them genuine—including Origen himself.   The phrase “not all say” indicates that Origen is simply noting that there are exceptions to a more broadly established trend.   Thus, it is misleading to use this passage as evidence that John’s letters were not regarded as canonical.  That is more than this language can bear. At most it reveals that in certain quarters of the church some disagreements over these books continued to occur (which is hardly surprising).

                                                                                                                                     ii.      In sum, there is impressive evidence for widespread agreement over the core canonical books from a very early time.  Most of the disagreements dealt with only a handful of books—2 Peter, 2-3 John, Jude, Revelation. But even these disagreements should not be overplayed.  We should not be too quick to assume that disagreements over a book are due to the fact that its canonical status is undecided.   On the contrary, sometimes disagreements are not so much over what should be included in the canon, but are over which books are already in the canon.  As David Trobisch observes, “The critical remarks of the church fathers can be better interpreted as a historical critical reaction to an existing publication.

6.       In the Early Stages, Apocryphal Books Were as Popular as the Canonical Books

a.       Was it really that common for apocryphal writings were as numbered as the canonical books? One what to measure this is by the physical remains of writings found in the Extent Manuscripts.

                                                              i.      The physical remains of writings can give us an indication of their relative popularity.  Such remains can tell us which books were used, read, and copied. When we examine the physical remains of Christian texts from the earliest centuries (second and third), we quickly discover that the New Testament writings were, far and away, the most popular.  Currently we have over sixty extant manuscripts (in whole or in part) of the New Testament from this time period, with most of our copies coming from Matthew, John, Luke, Acts, Romans, Hebrews, and Revelation.  The gospel of John proves to be the most popular of all with eighteen manuscripts, a number of which derive from the second century (e.g., P52, P90, P66, P75). Matthew is not far behind with twelve manuscripts; and some of these also have been dated to the second century (e.g., P64-67, P77, P103, P104).

1.       During the same time period, the second and third centuries, we possess approximately seventeen manuscripts of apocryphal writings such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Peter, the Protevangelium of James, and more. The Gospel of Thomas has the most manuscripts of all, with just three.

2.       The implications of this numerical disparity has not been missed by modern scholars. Hurtado argues that the low number of apocryphal manuscripts “do not justify any notion that these writings were particularly favored” and that whatever circles used these writings “were likely a clear minority among Christians of the second and third centuries.”[4]  Similarly, C.H. Roberts observes, “Once the evidence of the papyri is available, indisputably Gnostic texts are conspicuous by their rarity.”[5]  Charlesworth agrees, “If the ‘heterodox’ were in the majority for so long, the non-canonical gospels should have been preserved in greater numbers in Egypt

                                                             ii.      Second would be the frequency of the citation. Frequency of Citation.  While scholars typically focus on whether apocryphal books are cited, they have not paid sufficient attention to how often they are cited in comparison to the canonical writings.  When that data is considered, the disparity between apocryphal and canonical writings becomes even more evident.

1.       Take, for example, Clement of Alexandria, who is often mentioned as an early church father who prefers canonical and apocryphal writings equally.  However, when the frequency of citations are considered, this claim proves to be unfounded—Clement vastly prefers the New Testament books, over and above the apocryphal literature or other Christian writings.  J.A. Brooks has observed that Clement cites the canonical books “about sixteen times more often than apocryphal and patristic writings.”[7] This disparity is thrown into sharper relief when we consider just the four Gospels. According to the work of Bernard Mutschler, Clement references Matthew 757 times, Luke 402 times, John 331 times, and Mark 182 times.[8]  Comparatively, Clement cites apocryphal gospels only 16 times.[9]  Apparently, Clement was not in doubt about which books he regarded as canonical.

2.       Everybody loves a good conspiracy theory.  It would certainly be far more interesting and entertaining if one could show that apocryphal books were really the Scripture of the early church and that they have been suppressed by the political machinations of the later church (i.e., Constantine).   But, the truth is far less sensational.  While apocryphal books were given some scriptural status from time to time, the overwhelming majority of early Christians preferred the books that are now in our New Testament canon.   Thus, we are reminded again that the canon was not something that was arbitrarily “created” by the church in the 4th or 5th century.  Rather the affirmations of the later church simply reflected what had already been the case for many, many years

7.       Christians Had No Basis to Distinguish Heresy from Orthodoxy Until the Fourth Century

a.       But is it really the case that pre-fourth century Christians had no basis or standard by which they could distinguish heresy from orthodoxy?  Were they really wandering around blind without a reliable guide?  There are good reasons to doubt these claims.  On the contrary, we shall argue here that early Christians would have had three solid guideposts as they navigated the doctrinal complexities of their faith:


c.       a. The Old Testament.   Routinely overlooked by those in the Bauer camp—ironically in a Marcionite fashion—is the decisive role played by the Old Testament amongst the earliest Christians. M.F. Wiles once declared, “There was never a time when the Church was without written Scriptures.  From the beginning she had the Old Testament and it was for her the oracles of God.”[1]   Aside from the numerous examples of Old Testament usage within the New Testament itself, quotations from the Old Testament are abundant within the writings of the apostolic fathers and other early Christian texts. Thus, right from the outset, certain “versions” of Christianity would have been ruled as out of bounds.  For example, any quasi-Gnostic version of the faith which suggested the God of the Old Testament was not the true God but a “demiurge”—as in the case of the heretic Marcion—would have been deemed unorthodox on the basis of these Old Testament canonical books alone.  As Ben Witherington has observed, “Gnosticism was a non-starter from the outset because it rejected the very book the earliest Christians recognized as authoritative—the Old Testament.”[2] So, the claim that early Christians had no Scripture on which to base their declarations that some group was heretical and another orthodox is simply mistaken.   The Old Testament books would have provided that initial doctrinal foundation.

                                                              i.       “Core” New Testament Books.   Although all New Testament books are orthodox, not all of them needed to have this expressly established prior to their recognition by the early church (or at least portions thereof).  As we discussed in a prior blog post, some New Testament books, especially Paul’s major epistles and the four gospels, would have been recognized as authoritative from a very early time period. They were received not so much because they measured up to some standard of orthodoxy but primarily on the basis of their obvious apostolic origins—these were the books that were “handed down” from the apostles. Gamble notes, “The letters of Paul and the Synoptic Gospels…had been valued so long and so widely that their orthodoxy could only be taken for granted: it would have been nonsensical for the church to have inquired, for example, into the orthodoxy of Paul!”[3]   Thus, there appears to have been a collection of core New Testament writings that would have functioned as a norm for apostolic doctrine at quite an early point.   This explains why the vast majority of later “disagreements” about the boundaries of the New Testament canon appear to be focused narrowly on only a handful of books; apparently the core of the New Testament was intact from a very early time period.

1.       In sum, we can agree that the earliest Christians did not have a completed New Testament canon from the start.  It took time for this to fully develop.  However, this does not mean that early Christians were drifting aimlessly in the theological ocean of the first few centuries.  They had the Old Testament, the earliest “core” of the New Testament, and the rule of faith to guide them

8.       Early Christianity was an Oral Religion and Therefore Would Have Resisted Writing Things Down

a.       Though the large population was illiterate, this does not mean that the culture at the time lacked textuality.

                                                              i.      The method of transmission of Scripture by writing,  though written to a majoritively illiterate culture does not denounce the mode in which the Spirit of God guided the Apostles.

1.       People at that time though illiterate were still able to gain from written texts. Society was still influenced by the OT for example. The word could still be preached and the letters read aloud. To allude the offense to Scripture because the culture was mainly illiterate is a confusion of cultural disposition and transmission.

9.       The Canonical Gospels Were Certainly Not Written by the Individuals Named in Their Titles

a.       One of the most commonly made claims regarding the canonical gospels is that they were not written by the individuals named in their titles.  Instead, we are told that these gospels were written later in the first century by anonymous individuals outside of Palestine who were not eyewitnesses of any of the events that they record.  After all, the text of the gospels themselves offers no indication of their authorship.   And the gospel titles, it is argued, were added at a later point—probably the middle of the second century—in order to bolster the credibility of these anonymous texts.

1.       The manuscript evidence.  Although we possess a limited number of gospel manuscripts from the second and third centuries that preserve the title pages, the ones we do possess have the title present. In other words, we do not find “title-less” gospel manuscripts from this time period.  Examples of early gospels manuscripts with titles are P66 (John), P4-64-67 (Matthew and Luke) and P75 (Luke and John).  Put simply, as far back as we can see in the manuscript tradition the titles are present.

2.       The inclusion of Mark and Luke.  If the titles were added in the late second century, as some suppose, then it is difficult to imagine that Mark and Luke’s names would have been included.  If names were arbitrarily chosen, we would hardly expect these two.  If one wanted to get quick credibility for a gospel, it would have been named after an apostle—indeed, this is what happened with so many of our apocryphal gospels (e.g., Thomas and Peter).  Yet, here we have two gospels named after non-apostles.  It would have been especially easy to name Mark’s gospel after Peter, given the historical connections between the two men, but the early church resisted. This, I would suggest, is a sign of authenticity

3.       But, this still leaves the question of why the gospel writers didn’t just include their names in the actual gospels accounts themselves.  Why write a gospel that is formally anonymous?  For one, this did happen from time to time with Greco-Roman biographies.  We do have examples of formally anonymous biographies, so this would not have been unheard of (e.g., Lucian’s Life of Demonax, Secundus the Silent Philosopher, Lives of the Prophets, Arrian’s Anabasis, and Sulpicious Severus’ Life of St. Martin ).  But, Armin Baum has suggested another, and even more fundamental reason.  Baum has argued that the Gospels were intentionally written as anonymous works in order to reflect the practice of the Old Testament historical books which were themselves anonymous (as opposed to other Old Testament writings, like the prophets, which included the identity of the author).[1]  Such a stylistic device allowed the authors of the gospels “to disappear” and to give “highest priority to their subject matter.”[2] Thus, the anonymity of the Gospels, far from diminishing their scriptural authority, actually served to increase it by consciously placing the Gospels “in the tradition of Old Testament historiography.”

10.   Athanasius’ Festal Letter (367 A.D.) is the First Complete List of New Testament Books

a.       When it comes to the study of the New Testament canon, few questions have received more attention than the canon’s date.  When did we have a New Testament canon?  Well, it depends on what one means by “New Testament canon.”   If one is simply asking when (some of) these books came to be regarded as Scripture, then we can say that happened at a very early time.  But, if one is asking when we see these books, and only these books, occur in some sort of list, then that did not happen until the fourth century.  To establish this fourth-century date, most scholars will appeal to the well-known canonical list of Athanasius, included in his Festal Letter in 367 A.D.

                                                              i.      But is this the first list?

1.       Despite the repeated claims that he is, we have a list by Origen more than a century earlier (c.250), that seems to include all 27 books.  Origen, in his Homilies on Joshua, writes:

a.       So too our Lord Jesus Christ…sent his apostles as priests carrying well-wrought trumpets.  First Matthew sounded the priestly trumpet in his Gospel, Mark also, and Luke, and John, each gave forth a strain on their priestly trumpets.  Peter moreover sounds with the two trumpets of his Epistles; James also and Jude.  Still the number is incomplete, and John gives forth the trumpet sound through his Epistles [and Apocalypse]; and Luke while describing the deeds of the apostles.  Latest of all, moreover, that one comes who said, “I think that God has set us forth as the apostles last of all” (1 Cor 4:9), and thundering on the fourteen trumpets of his Epistles he threw down, even to their very foundations, the wall of Jericho, that is to say, all the instruments of idolatry and the dogmas of the philosophers

b.      This confirms that Origen has a New Testament canon that contains books authored by these eight men.  And these eight men are the authors of the 27 books in our New Testament.  But, even beyond this, Origen seems to indicate that this list is closed and complete.  After comparing the Scriptures to a net (yet another classic Origen allegory), Origen declares that “before our Savior Jesus Christ this net was not wholly filled; for the net of the law and prophets had to be completed…And the texture of the net has been completed  in the Gospels, and in the words of Christ through the Apostles.”[4]

c.       This language suggests not only that Origen had a 27 book canon, but that, in his mind at least, that canon was closed.  Moreover, he mentions this quite naturally in a sermon, suggesting that his audience also would have known and accepted these books.  And all of this is more than a century before Athanasius’ Festal Letter.

What is noteworthy for our purposes here is that the Muratorian fragment affirms 22 of the 27 books of the New Testament.  These include the four Gospels, Acts, all 13 epistles of Paul, Jude, 1 John, 2 John (and possibly 3rd John), and Revelation.  This means that at a remarkably early point (end of the second century), the central core of the New Testament canon was already established and in place.

Of course, it should be acknowledged that the Muratorian canon also seems to affirm the Apocalypse of Peter.  However, the author of the fragment immediately expresses that some have hesitations about this book.  Those hesitations eventually won out, and the Apocalypse of  Peter was never widely affirmed by the early church, and never earned a final spot in the canon.

The fact that there was some disagreement during this time period over a few of the “peripheral” books should not surprise us.  It took some time for the issue of the canon to be settled.  This occasional disagreement, however, should not keep us from observing the larger and broader unity that early Christians shared regarding the “core” New Testament books.

If there was a core canon from an early time period, then there are two significant implications we can draw from this.  First, this means that most of the debates and disagreements about canonical books in early Christianity only concerned a handful of books.  Books like 3 John, James, 2 Peter and so on.  Early Christianity was not a wide-open literary free for all, where there was no agreement on much of anything.  Instead, there was an agreed-upon core canon that no one really disputed. 

Second, if there was a core collection of New Testament books, then the theological trajectory of early Christianity had already been determined prior to the debates about the peripheral books being resolved.  So, regardless of the outcome of discussion over books like 2 Peter or James, Christianity’s core doctrines of the person of Christ, the work of Christ, the means of salvation, etc., were already in place and already established.  The acceptance or rejection of books like 2 Peter would not change that fact. Thus, the Muratorian fragment stands as a reminder of two important facts.  First, Christians did disagree over books from time to time. That was an inevitability, particularly in the early stages.  But this list also reminds us of a second (and more fundamental) fact, namely that there was the widespread agreement over the core from a very early time.