From The Fourth R
How did the church decide which books belong to the New Testament? When was the decision made? The answers to these questions constitute one of the most revealing yet least known aspects of early Christian history.
This question is traditionally referred to as the formation of the canon. The meaning of the Greek term canon is “norm” or “rule,” the standard by which things can be measured. In designating the twenty-seven books of the New Testament as a canon, the church was declaring them to be its “rule” for faith and practice, its “normative” collection of writings.
A Long Time in Coming
The first list of “canonical” books that names the same twenty-seven writings found in our New Testament appears in the Easter letter of Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, in 367 C.E. He names them in a different order, to be sure. Even so, the first list that agrees with ours was a long time in coming.
By the time of Athanasius, or shortly before, the church had reached an informal consensus about most of the writings to be included in the “New” Testament. In fact, agreement on much of the list had been reached more than a century earlier. The process of forming a canon had begun even earlier.
There is evidence that Paul’s letters had been collected by churches in several geographical locations by the end of the first century C.E. In a letter sent from the church at Rome to the church at Corinth, the author writes (1 Clement 47:1): “Examine the letter of the blessed Paul the Apostle. What did he write to you at first, when he was just beginning to proclaim the gospel?”
This is a reference to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. It indicates that the Christians in Rome owned a copy of it, and that the church in Corinth still had a copy in its possession, half a century after Paul wrote it.
The author of 2 Peter also knows about a collection of Paul’s letters (3:15–16) and assumes that his readers do as well. 2 Peter was written early in the second century C.E.
Also in the early second century, Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, wrote letters to seven churches while he was en route to Rome, where he was martyred. In his letters he uses language that clearly shows his familiarity with the letters of Paul. He refers to Paul frequently by name. Such evidence is clear: by the turn of the first century a number of churches had already acquired copies of Paul’s letters for their use. The formative stage of a canonical collection of Paul’s writings had already taken place.
At an even earlier date other Christians had made collections of Jesus’ sayings and stories about him. The Sayings Gospel Q is just such a compendium of sayings, and the Signs Gospel underlying the Gospel of John is a collection of wondrous deeds ascribed to Jesus. These collections were incorporated into the narrative gospels. The authors of those gospels rearranged the collections of sayings and stories to form continuous stories. Like the letters of Paul, these gospels, along with other writings, were collected by various churches. By mid-second century C.E. a considerable assortment of writings were known to the churches: narrative gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), at least one sayings gospel (the Gospel of Thomas), dialogues and revelations attributed to Jesus, various accounts of his birth, several accounts of acts of the apostles, homilies, and more. The church was rapidly becoming a literate church. Within a century of Jesus’ death, then, Christians had produced a small but quite diverse library of writings. However, as yet there was no proposal to create an official list, a canon.
Marcion and the First Canon
The first significant move toward the creation of a new Christian canon was initiated by Marcion, a ship owner and merchant, the son of a bishop of the church in Asia Minor. Marcion proposed that the church reject the Jewish scriptures and embrace a new canon of its own. That canon was to be composed of only one gospel, Luke, and one apostle, Paul. Marcion’s thesis, based on his reading of Paul, was that the Jewish scriptures concerned only the covenant God made with Israel, and was not valid for Christians. The church, for the sake of its unity and for the truth of its gospel, ought to identify its own normative writings and cease its use of Jewish scriptures. Marcion was convinced that references to the God worshiped by the Jews appearing in the writings of Luke and Paul were corruptions of what Luke and Paul wrote originally. As a result, he expunged such references from the versions he included in his proposed New Testament.
Marcion took Paul as his guide to the correct Christian view of these matters. The Roman suppression of the Bar Kochba rebellion of 132–135 C.E., the last attempt in antiquity of Jews to win their liberty, may have contributed to Marcion’s position. If the Jewish scriptures had to do only with the history of the Jewish nation and temple, and if those institutions had come to an end, the church need no longer be concerned with the Jewish scriptures. The disregard of the Hebrew scriptures had been confirmed by events. Marcion’s radical move prompted the church to take up the question of canon in a conscious way for the first time. He was clearly the first to propose a specific new canon for the Christian movement.
Marcion’s proposal was shocking to many in his day; his theological rationale was heterodox-heretical. It required response. It forced the church to make a case for the value and status of the Jewish scriptures it had adopted as its own, and it prompted the church to determine which of its own writings ought to be regarded as canonical — as normative and why.
The First Lists
The church met Marcion’s challenge by drawing up lists of books that were approved to be read in the churches. The earliest of these, the Muratorian Canon, is usually dated to the end of the second century. The most illuminating is the one drawn up by Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, in his multi-volume history of the church published in 325 C.E.
Eusebius’ list shows that a consensus had already been reached on at least twenty books to be included in the new collection of sacred writings, to be known as the New Testament. He divided books into three categories: “acknowledged,” “disputed,” and “rejected” writings. That division is typical of earlier lists also. We know, for instance, that Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon in Gaul (France), in works produced about 185 C.E., regarded the twenty books that later appeared in Eusebius’ “acknowledged” category as canonical books. In addition, he recognized Revelation and the Shepherd of Hermas, for a total of twenty-two. Early in the next century, Origen of Alexandria endorsed twenty-two writings as canonical. Origen’s list was nearly identical with those accepted by Irenaeus and listed as “acknowledged” by Eusebius.
It can be said, then, that not more than twenty-five or thirty years after Marcion proposed his canon, Irenaeus had proposed an “orthodox” list of twenty writings as canonical. This list was later supplemented but never altered in later debates about the canon. The church adopted Marcion’s basic categories, “gospel” and “apostle,” but disagreed with his minimalistic definitions of them. Not one gospel but four; not one apostle but “all” the apostles were to be included. The Acts of the Apostles made it into the list under the second heading, along with the letters of Paul and two general epistles (circular letters).
Four Gospels, One Gospel
Four gospels appeared to some to compromise the unity of the church’s gospel. Marcion had proposed a single gospel, which had the advantage of avoiding any discrepancies or inconsistencies. Around 165 C.E. Tatian in Syria had produced the Diatessaron (literally, “one through four”). Tatian had created a single composite gospel by combining and harmonizing the texts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The complete text of this innovative work has not survived, but it does reveal another impulse to make unity a fact. But the ancient church rejected such impulses and elected rather to understand the four gospels as four testimonies to one gospel story, one saving message. Irenaeus embellished the point by arguing that just as there are four regions of the world and four directions of the wind, so there are four pillars of the gospel God had given the world. The number four Irenaeus took to be direct evidence of the authenticity of the gospels: the world-wide church could possess neither more nor less than a four-fold gospel.
Eusebius, Advisor to Emperor Constantine
When Eusebius produced his “list” in three categories in 325 C.E. he employed rather less fanciful criteria than those advocated by Irenaeus more than a century earlier. Eusebius asks whether writings had been mentioned by earlier generations of church leaders, whether their style comports well with writings known to have been written early in the history of the church, and whether their content is consistent with established orthodoxy. If writings proclaiming to represent the faith do not meet these criteria, he labels them “the forgeries of heretical men.”
The canon was reserved for early works, insofar as their antiquity could be determined. The compilers of the Muratorian Canon had rejected the Shepherd of Hermas, despite its popularity, because it was known to have been composed “recently.” Some argued on a more colorful basis that gall should not be mixed with honey, honey presumably representing more orthodox works. But none of the canonical lists mentions inspiration as a criterion for determining which writings were to be included in the canon. The reason, apparently, is that since all Christians were filled with the spirit, a claim of inspiration would not have been useful as a way of distinguishing canonical from extracanonical Christian writings. It is often noted that the one writing in the New Testament claiming to be inspired is the Revelation of John, and it is precisely this book that was most often among the disputed nominees for inclusion in the New Testament. Eusebius’ list of 325 C.E., names twenty-one writings as “acknowledged,” or accepted as canonical, if we assume that he included the letter to the Hebrews among the letters of Paul, and if we count Revelation among the disputed works. He does not say what the letters of Paul includes; and he lists Revelation twice, once among the acknowledged books and once among those disputed.
Athanasius’ Easter Letter
The next list that survived from antiquity is the list of Athanasius published in 367 C.E. His list names the same twenty-seven books that constitute our New Testament. In the years intervening between Eusebius and Athanasius, the six books that were disputed or rejected had found their way into the acknowledged category. From Athanasius’ day to our own they remain in the canon, although they have been challenged from time to time by leading churchmen and theologians. Martin Luther, for example, thought James, Jude, and Revelation unfit to be included among the canonical books.
The Bible and Political Intrigue
What happened between the time of Eusebius and the time of Athanasius to account for the last step in the direction of a consensus? How did the church decide finally on what to include and what to exclude? Unfortunately, our sources are mute on this issue. The Council of Nicea in 325 C.E. did not address the question, and neither Eusebius or Athanasius nor any other writer from the period tells us how this came about.
One development suggests an intriguingly plausible explanation. In 331 C.E. the Roman Emperor Constantine sent a letter, the text of which has survived, to Bishop Eusebius in Caesarea asking him to arrange for the production of fifty bibles. These books were to be skillfully executed copies of “the divine scriptures” on fine parchment for use in the churches of the new capitol of the Empire, Constantinople. Constantine not only promised to pay all of the expenses incurred in this project, he also provided two carriages to assure the swift shipment of the completed copies for his personal inspection.
Eusebius was an advisor to and confidant of the Emperor. He is widely regarded as the principal architect of the political philosophy of Constantine’s reconstituted empire. He was a trusted ally of the Emperor in advocating and implementing the policies of the newly Christianized state. Eusebius knew that Constantine was concerned about the unity of the church and the unity of the state. Eusebius also knew that these new bibles prepared for the capital city would play an important role in the unity of the church. The inclusiveness of Athanasius’ list has the look of political accommodation. It resolves the disagreement about the canonical status of Hebrews and Revelation by including both. It therefore seems plausible to conjecture that the addition of the last six books to the canonical list was not the result of historical or theological argument, but was prompted by the needs of the state. In other words, the New Testament canon was settled for all practical purposes when Constantine gave the order to create fifty bibles. Their publication was palpable evidence of the unity of the church and hence the unity of the empire.
An Open-Ended Bible
The fourth-century canon has been durable, but it was not regarded as final and has never been universal. Among Eastern orthodox churches the canonical diversity in evidence before Constantine continued. The Syrian church’s canon, for example, is that of the Peshitta, a Syriac version of the New Testament dating from the fifth century. The Peshitta lacks 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. Luther placed Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation last in his translation of the New Testament in 1522, because he had doubts about their claims to canonical status. The Gustavus Adolphus Bible (Stockholm, 1618) identifies these four as apocryphal writings. William Tyndale,” the father of the English Bible,” placed these same four writings last in his translation of the New Testament in 1526, apparently following the practice of Luther.
The Roman Catholic Church did not issue an authoritative statement about the contents of the Bible until 8 April 1546, when the Council of Trent, by a vote of twenty-four to fifteen, with sixteen abstentions, declared the writings in Jerome’s Latin Vulgate version to be the church’s official canon. The Roman Catholic canon differs, however, from the Bible accepted by most Protestant churches: it includes the Old Testament Apocrypha, a series of intertestamental books omitted in Protestant Bibles.
No single canon, in fact, has ever been accepted as final by the whole church. For the church universal catholic with a small “c” — the status of the canon today resembles what it was in Eusebius’ day: it is both a matter of consensus and a matter of difference.
- Clement (1st century C.E.): Probably the third bishop of Rome and author of a letter (1 Clement) written to the church at Corinth about 95 C.E.
- Ignatius (ca. 35–107 C.E.): Bishop of Antioch in Syria and author of letters to several churches: Ephesians, Magnasians, Trallians, Romans, Philadelphians, Smyrmeans. He also wrote a letter to Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna,
- Marcion (d. ca. 160 C.E.): A native of Sinope in Pontus and a wealthy shipowner. He was excommunicated in 144 CE.
- Muratorian canon: The oldest extant list of New Testament writings, discovered in the 18th century by L. A. Muratori in an 8th century manuscript. The list generally thought to date from the 2nd century.
- Tatian (2nd century C.E.): A native of Assyria, Tatian was a Christian apologist and author of the Diatessaron, a history of the life of Christ compiled from the four gospels and used in the Syriac church until the 5th century C.E.):
- Irenaeus (ca.130–200 C.E.): Bishop of Lyon, Gaul (France).
- Origen (ca. 185–254 C.E.): Alexandrian biblical critic, exegete, theologian and spiritual writer.
- Eusebius (ca. 260–340 C.E.): Bishop of Caesarea. His Ecclesiastical History, a multivolume history of the church down to ca. 300, was published ca. 325 C.E.
- Constantine (ca. 274–337 C.E.): Roman emperor whose policy was to unite the Christian church to the secular State by the closest possible ties. His laws and letters are a chief primary source for the relations of Christianity and the State from 313 onwards.
- Athanasius (ca. 296–373 C.E.): Bishop of Alexandria, Egypt.
- Council of Nicea (325 C.E.): The first general council of the Christian church called by Emperor Constantine who feared that disputes within the church would cause disorder in the empire. The Nicene Creed was a result.
- Council of Trent (1545–1563); In response to the Protestant Reformation, defined Catholic doctrine as distinct from Protestant and implemented reforms to begin a revitalization.