The Development of the New Testament Canon


Introduction

The Christian life is grounded on the Biblical text.  Furthermore, that life is fundamental to the teachings of Jesus Christ and those who declared His message throughout the known world.  Bruce M. Metzger says that the term canon “used with reference to the Bible means the collection of books which are received as divinely inspired and therefore authoritative for faith and life.”[1]  However, after the disciples of Jesus and 1st century apostles passed away into the memories of Christians, the early church’s need for canonical structure became increasingly important.  This is because various groups sought to undermine the authority of the many ‘approved books’ which circulated throughout the churches.  Over time the canon developed, but not without opposition, however the results clearly show that the early church leaders “were fully engaged in thinking about the authenticity of various documents”[2] which eventually became the books for the New Testament.

The word canon, κανών (kanṓn) in ancient Greek, is defined as a ‘straight’ piece of either wood or a rod of any material that was fastened upright.  Its Hebrew equivalent is קָנֶה (qâneh), which refers to a reed, stalk, also took on other meanings like a balance, shaft (lampstand), in addition to a measuring rod.  The interpolation of this meaning carried on into New Testament Greek and “took on the metaphorical meaning of ‘rule,’ ‘measure,’ or ‘standard,’ so in the early church, it was applied to religious law and doctrine and to a list of writings understood to provide an authoritative standard of faith.”[3]  As pagans continued to attack the fundamentals surrounding the Christian faith, apologetics proceeded to take form in the works of early church leaders like Quadratus, Tatian, Justin Martyr, and Tertullian.  Yet, as the second century came to a close, apologists not only applied their skills to pagan encroachment and beratement, but likewise entrenched themselves with challenges made from ‘within’ the church body which greatly affected the development of the New Testament Canon.  Pillars of the faith like Irenaeus of Lyons, Origen of Alexandria, Eusebius of Caesarea and Athanasius of Alexandria, all took part in the scrupulous ratifications of the various books which were held in high regard throughout the early church, which finally culminated in the Synod of Hippo and Council of Carthage whereby the New Testament Canon was decisively recognized throughout orthodoxy.

Marcion

In 140 A.D., Marcion arrived in Rome and ‘proposed that the church reject the Jewish Scriptures and embrace a canon of its own, composed of one gospel, Luke, and the letters of one apostle, Paul.”[4]  More so, he removed any inferences to the God of the Old Testament in Luke and Paul’s epistles asserting they “were corruptions of what Luke and Paul originally wrote.”[5]  Nevertheless, he suggested that the “first disciples of Jesus had misunderstood the point of his teachings and that Paul was the only true interpreters of Jesus.”[6]  Marcion didn’t believe Jesus was actually human, only appearing as such, a largely Docetist philosophy, who was also an anti-Semite, minimizing the God of the Old Testament as a demiurge.[7]  His defragmentation of the traditional books of the apostolic generation and the outright omission of the Old Testament began a long yet methodological evolution of the New Testament Canon.

The Response to Marcion

The intrusion of Marcionism compelled the early church to “publish more comprehensive and idiosyncratic lists,”[8] which appear some years later in remnant of papyri known as the Muratorian fragment.  This fragment lists the four Gospels, Acts, thirteen letters of Paul, Jude, 1st and 2nd John, John’s Revelation, and the Wisdom of Solomon.”  Nevertheless, the purpose behind the Muratorian Canon isn’t specified in the fragment, yet, Minkoff states, “the tone of the list is clearly polemical”[9]  The Muratorian Canon is most likely a reflection of the ‘earliest known response to Marcion’s challenge to the church to define the canon of scriptures.”[10]  There are other books listed in the fragment like the Shepherd of Hermas and the Revelation of Peter, however the first could “not be read publicly to the people in church,”[11] while Peter’s Apocalypse wasn’t approved by some within the church.[12]  Marcion is mentioned twice, once where he is implicated in the forgeries of letter to the Laodiceans and Alexandrians, and towards the end of the fragment, he is also associated with other ‘heretics’ such as Valentinus, who “composed a new book of psalms for Marcion.”[13]  It is evident that the Muratorian Fragment listed a collection of books which were accepted as authoritative for the early church’s use.

Montanus

Montanus was a Phrygian convert who prophesied under the presumption to have been “possessed by the Holy Spirit.”[14]  He was aided by two women named Maximillia and Priscilla who also prophesied, claiming “that their movement was the beginning of a new age. Just as in Jesus Christ a new age had begun, so was a still newer age beginning in the outpouring of the Spirit.”[15]  This was a direct threat on the early church’s beliefs that “the last age of history had dawned”[16] in Jesus Christ with the outpouring of His divine Spirit during Pentecost shortly after Jesus ascended into Heaven (Acts 1-2).  “The Montanists themselves took over the New Testament of the Church and put it alongside their own oracle,”[17] and instead of removing books and references to the Old Testament like Marcion attempted to do, they added to the already circulating books with their revelation of ‘New Prophecy.”[18]  In the years that would follow, when church fathers began to compile lists for the Canon, neither of them infer that “inspiration as a criterion” be considered in the decision whether a certain text should be included because “all Christians were filled with the spirit, so inspiration could not be used to distinguish canonical from extra-canonical Christian writings.”[19]

Gnostics and The New Testament Apocrypha

Gnosis, meaning knowledge, was proposed by its adherents to have “possessed a special, mystical knowledge, reserved for those with true understanding. That knowledge was the secret key to salvation.”[20]  The threat to the early church was clear, in that it asserted, like the Montanists’ added ‘revelations,’ for the Gnostics it was the addition of ‘apocryphal’ books such as the Gospel of Thomas, “which scholars refer to as Esoteric Wisdom”[21] making “no reference to Jesus’ death or resurrection,”[22] although some scholars have suggested this means it was composed at a later date than assumed or that the “early church leaders were not unanimous that resurrection was the fulcrum of Christian faith.”[23]  Regardless, Gnostic writers not only went beyond the realms of orthodoxy by removing Jesus Christ’s humanity and preserving His divinity, but also claimed the authority of apostolic credibility even though their works were intrinsically anonymous in nature.[24]  The Acts of John is another book that appears to remove Jesus’ humanity from the picture.[25]  These two books, among many others like The Gospel of Mary or The Infancy Gospel of James, are all characterized as books containing “fanciful descriptions” which “have nothing to do with biblical Christianity or historical Christianity.”[26]  In the end, the Gnostic books now labeled as the New Testament Apocrypha were not included into the Canon because they failed to meet the criterion selected by the councils deliberating them.[27] 

Canonical Methodology

Long before the Synod of Hippo (393 A.D.) and the Council of Carthage (397 A.D.) had moved to establish the New Testament Canon, Tatian, a disciple of Justin Martyr, compiled the Diatessaron in 150 A.D. which was a harmonized biography of Jesus Christ taken from the four Gospels, thus confirming that early Christians held them as a primary collection for the faith.  Irenaeus of Lyons “quotes extensively from 20 books as authoritative”[28] which included Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Paul’s letters (omitting Hebrews), 1st John, 1st Peter, Revelation and the Shepherd of Hermas.  Origen of Alexandria (250 A.D.) included the four Gospels, Acts, Paul’s letters, 1st Peter, 1st John, Jude and Revelation.  As mentioned earlier, the Muratorian fragment insinuates that the church was responding to the Marcion heresy, however, it doesn’t include James, 1st and 2nd Peter, and 3rd John.[29]  Evidently, the early church, in response to a variety of attacks on the church’s orthodoxy, diligently built upon each other to establish a canon that could be used for the edification of the Body of Christ.

Eusebius of Caesarea’s list was even shorter, only affirming the four Gospels, Acts, Paul’s letter, 1st Peter and 1st John, and later he softened his stance and eventually accepted twenty-two to be canonical[30]  even though he regarded James, Jude and 2nd Peter to be “spurious.”[31]  Like those before him, Eusebius categorized the books under three different headings as accepted, disputed and rejected by the general ecclesiastics,[32] and following him until the councils in the late fourth century, “the fluctuations in the canon are very slight.”[33]  Eusebius’ involvement with the development of the Canon is paramount, because in his method for authenticating a book for the Body of Christ was far less “fanciful” than Irenaeus’ “four-point” Gospel sacredness, in which he asserted the need for authenticity and authority was it had to be “mentioned by earlier generations of church leaders (historical criterion), whether their style comports well with writings known to have been written early in the history of the church (a literary criterion), and whether their content is consistent with established orthodoxy (a doctrinal or theological criterion).”[34]  This method created a theologically textual barometer which would help facilitate the finalizing of the Canon a few decades later in the Synod of Hippo and the Council of Carthage.

Athanasius of Alexandria

Athanasius played a large part in the development of the Canon, pronouncing “without reservation the twenty-seven books of the New Testament”[35] in a document called his “Thirty-ninth Festal Letter.”[36]  Of course, he was met with opposition from those in the East.  Gregory of Nazianzus contended with him on Revelation, and Amphilochius approved all apart from 2nd Peter, 2nd and 3rd John, Jude and Revelation, whereby Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia “included at least twenty-two of the twenty-seven books.”[37]  What transpired between the efforts of Eusebius and Athanasius although remains a mystery as to how they eventually compiled and presented the collection of books when the Synod of Hippo and Council of Carthage met, Athanasius’ Easter Letter in 367 A.D. condemned “certain unorthodox books as heretical.”[38]  In order for the church to stand united as one against heresy, the need for a standardized collection of orthodox books was necessary.  When Emperor Constantine order the production of fifty bibles in 331 A.D., being an “advisor and confidant” to him may have given Eusebius rise to develop a compilation, and Athanasius’ canonical list possibly sought to resolve the “disagreements between churches in the East and churches in the West about the canonical status of Hebrews and Revelation.”[39]  Whatever the case may be, it is certainly evident that the New Testaments’ canonization served a variety of purposes that were plaguing the early church.

The Canonical Councils of Hippo and Carthage

            The finalizing of the New Testament Canon was ratified in the Synod of Hippo and the Council of Carthage.  The Synod of Hippo was primarily a reaffirmation of the criterion Eusebius once established for apostolic authority and theology for the canonical books.  The Council of Carthage was also a confirmation of the Synod of Rome (382 A.D.), which affirmed the books for the New Testament that would later be reaffirmed in the Codex Canonum Africanae Ecclesiae of 419 A.D.[40]  New Testament canonization was convened not only to guard the church from encroachment by heretical groups such as the aforementioned, but likewise was to “emphasize reading the Christian Bible as a literary and theological whole made of the Old and New Testaments.”[41]

Concluding Remarks

Upon looking back into church history and the development of the Canon, it is clear that the process in finalizing the canonical books of the New Testament was a gradual and methodological exercise which took great care and most likely a good deal of prayer.  Whether it was the removal of sacred volumes and codices to appease Marcion’s Docetism, or the spiritual incantations of the Montanists, or perhaps it was the secret revelations imbedded within the Gnostic sects.  Nevertheless, orthodox theologians spanning hundreds of years held the mantle of authenticity high and advanced the cause for the Body of Christ, which climaxed in the crowning of the New Testament Canon that is widely circulated throughout the world over a thousand years later.  The historical church is forever indebted to those who have sought nothing but the edification of the church, and most importantly, the Lord Jesus Christ, God incarnate.

Bibliography:

Mkole, Jean-Claude Loba, “Biblical Canons in Church Traditions and Translations,” The Bible Translator, Vol 67, Issue 2, pp. 108 – 119 (September 14, 2016).

Mkole, Jean-Claude Loba, “Intercultural Construction of the New Testament Canons,” Vol 67, Issue 2, pp. 240-261, ((September 14, 2016).

Komoszewski, J. Ed, Sawyer, M. James and Wallace, Daniel B., Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss The Real Jesus And Mislead Popular Culture, (Grand Rapids: Kregal Publications, 2006).

Minkoff, Harvey, ed. Approaches to the Bible: Composition, Transmission and Language, Vol. 1, (Washington D.C.: Biblical Archeology Society, 1994).

Metzger, Bruce M., The New Testament, its background, growth, and content, 2nd ed., enlarged, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983).

González, Justo L., The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1 (New York: Harper Collins Publishing, 2010), 70 Accessed June, 2018, www.mywsb.com/reader

Campenhausen, H. v.”The Formation of the New Testament.” Universitas 11, no. 1 (1968).

Drane, John, Introducing The New Testament, 3rd ed., (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011).

Kirby, Peter. trans. “Acts of John.” Early Christian Writings. 2018. 15 June 2018, 87-89

Muratorian Fragment – add translator


Footnotes:

[1] Bruce M. Metzger, The New Testament, its background, growth, and content, 2nd ed., enlarged, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983), 273.

[2] J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss The Real Jesus And Mislead Popular Culture, (Grand Rapids: Kregal Publications, 2006), 144.

[3] John Drane, Introducing The New Testament, 3rd ed., (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 455.

[4] Harvey Minkoff, ed. Approaches to the Bible: Composition, Transmission and Language, Vol. 1, (Washington D.C.: Biblical Archeology Society, 1994), 115.

[5] Ibid., 115.

[6] John Drane, Introducing The New Testament, 3rd ed., (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 245.

[7] J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss The Real Jesus And Mislead Popular Culture, (Grand Rapids: Kregal Publications, 2006), 126.

[8] Ibid., 127.

[9] Ibid., 116.

[10] Ibid., 116.

[11] Mur. 78.

[12] Ibid., 73.

[13] Ibid., 84.

[14] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1 (New York: Harper Collins Publishing, 2010), 91 Accessed June, 2018, www.mywsb.com/reader

[15] Ibid., 91.

[16] Ibid., 91.

[17] Campenhausen, H. v.”The Formation of the New Testament.” Universitas 11, no. 1 (1968): 120, http://ezpr…

[18] Ibid., 120.

[19] Harvey Minkoff, ed. Approaches to the Bible: Composition, Transmission and Language, Vol. 1, (Washington D.C.: Biblical Archeology Society, 1994), 117.

[20] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1 (New York: Harper Collins Publishing, 2010), 70 Accessed June, 2018, www.mywsb.com/reader

[21] Harvey Minkoff, ed. Approaches to the Bible: Composition, Transmission and Language, Vol. 1, (Washington D.C.: Biblical Archeology Society, 1994), 98.

[22] Ibid., 100.

[23] Ibid, 100.

[24] J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss The Real Jesus And Mislead Popular Culture, (Grand Rapids: Kregal Publications, 2006),, 160-161.

[25] Kirby, Peter. trans. “Acts of John.” Early Christian Writings. 2018. 15 June 2018, 87-89.

[26] J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss The Real Jesus And Mislead Popular Culture, (Grand Rapids: Kregal Publications, 2006), 164

[27] Ibid, 151.

[28] Harvey Minkoff, ed. Approaches to the Bible: Composition, Transmission and Language, Vol. 1, (Washington D.C.: Biblical Archeology Society, 1994), 116.

[29] Ibid, 116.

[30] Bruce M. Metzger, The New Testament, its background, growth, and content, 2nd ed., enlarged, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983), 275.

[31] Ibid, 275.

[32] Harvey Minkoff, ed. Approaches to the Bible: Composition, Transmission and Language, Vol. 1, (Washington D.C.: Biblical Archeology Society, 1994), 116.

[33] Bruce M. Metzger, The New Testament, its background, growth, and content, 2nd ed., enlarged, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983), 275.

[34] Harvey Minkoff, ed. Approaches to the Bible: Composition, Transmission and Language, Vol. 1, (Washington D.C.: Biblical Archeology Society, 1994), 116.

[35] J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss The Real Jesus And Mislead Popular Culture, (Grand Rapids: Kregal Publications, 2006), 130.

[36] Ibid., 130.

[37] Ibid., 130-131.

[38] Harvey Minkoff, ed. Approaches to the Bible: Composition, Transmission and Language, Vol. 1, (Washington D.C.: Biblical Archeology Society, 1994), 91.

[39] Ibid., 119.

[40]Jean-Claude Loba Mkole, “Biblical Canons in Church Traditions and Translations,” The Bible Translator, Vol 67, Issue 2, pp. 108 – 119 (September 14, 2016),  https://doi-org.ezproxy.liberty.edu/10.1177%2F2051677016654001

[41] Jean-Claude Loba Mkole, “Intercultural Construction of the New Testament Canons,” Vol 67, Issue 2, pp. 240-261, ((September 14, 2016), https://doi-org.ezproxy.liberty.edu/10.1177%2F2051677016653801