The Principles of New Testament Canon
The process of determining New Testament canon is the study of how the twenty-seven books that are currently part of the New Testament came to be. From the many early Christian writings, only twenty-seven were placed into ecclesiastical canon. The process of researching New Testament canon is the study of how the select list of twenty-seven was formulated. The canonized books of the New Testament are considered sacred scripture, and have been determined to be canon throughout a very controversial history.
The word canon comes from the Greek word “kanon,” which means “reed,” a tool for measurement or alignment. In the craftsmanship field, a reed was known to be a standard, or a ruler in which to judge other things by. Finally, the word came to be recognized as a formal list, or table. Throughout the first three centuries of the Christian era, the term “kanon” was designated to set aside ethical and doctrinal content of the Christian faith.
The first use of canon as applied to Christian writings occurred in 350 A.D. when Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in his decrees of the Council of Nicea, used the term canon to refer to authentic New Testament works. In the decree the bishop describes the document known as The “Shepherd of Hermas,” as not part of New Testament canon. In 367, in the bishop’s famous Easter Letter, he gives a list of authoritative early Christian writings, and refers to them being “canonical.” At about the same time in history, the Council of Laodicea refers to two different lists of New Testament writings, both ones that are “canonical” and those that are “uncanonical.” Canon is referred to today as being the closed set of Christian writings that formulate the New Testament. The word “kanon” first appeared in early Christian writings when Paul wrote to Galatia. “Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this kanon…” (Gal. 6.16). Paul is suggesting that people, who live by the canon, or law, will have peace and mercy come upon them. Paul established canon as a measuring stick, which to live by.
Christianity did not begin as a religion based upon scripture, as the Jewish religion. Christianity was based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. The knowledge that was passed down about the life of Jesus was done orally. From the beginning of Christianity, people had been quoting Old Testament scripture that supported the Christian message. Nowhere in early Christianity was the idea that the new religion would be based upon a series of books. At some point people realized that the oral traditions must be put down on paper, so not to lose them. Christians feared the use of scriptural patterns because they wanted to separate themselves from the scriptural religion of Judaism. Early Christian leaders did not think about forming a canon, because the Old Testament canon had not even been definitely set.
The New Testament canon process was spread out over many years and was fiercely debated throughout the process. Because the early church left behind no evidence to why they decided on certain books instead of others, the only way to determine why certain books were included is to piece together what little fragmentary evidence is still left. Also, much of the theory must be left up to speculation. Basically three types of evidence exist in determining the canonization process. One of the ways of investigating the origin of New Testament canon is to examine the early Christian writings from the third through the fifth centuries. In counting the number and frequency of citations of early Christian writings, one can determine how much emphasis was placed on the very first Christian writings, and the reasons why the works made it into canon. The second way to determine why a certain work is in canon is to compile the discussions and ecclesiastical councils about documents that have been either accepted or rejected as New Testament canon. The arguments that were made for certain documents could lead to a possible understanding about why they were included in New Testament canon. Also the arguments against a certain document could help explain why the work was left out. The compilation of this kind of evidence is from the fourth and fifth centuries, so it is not necessarily the oldest or most accurate reason for canonization. The third way to determine why a work has been canonized is to look at the oldest copies of the manuscript available. Sometimes the works contained some form of prologue that gives an overview of the early church and lends a possible explanation to why the work was included in the New Testament.
The many works that make up the bible were brought into canon at different times, in different ways. The Gospels, the uniquely Christian writings based on the life of Jesus Christ, were brought into New Testament canon, all at one time. The four Gospels were individually shaped together outside of the Canonization process, and then adapted afterwards. There were a few Gospels however, that did not make it into canon. The Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter both did not make it into canon. Other gospel-like documents have been found that also did not make it into New Testament canon. The Dialogue of the Savior and the Apocryphon of John, found among the Nag Hammadi codices in 1945, were also left out. Also, the Unknown Gospel, which was found in 1935, is also not a part of canon. Why were some Gospels included in canon, while others were not? The reason that scholars have determined has been that those later works, the ones written in the third or fourth century, did not have any unique value and did not establish any special authority, that made in worthy of being in canon. Paul’s letters, which make up a large portion of the New Testament, were heavily debated, in whether to include them because they were directed at a specific group of people and not Christianity as a whole. The early history of Paul’s letters is very obscure. The process that surrounded Paul’s letters is a result of the “snowball theory”(Gamble 36). This theory explains why Paul’s letters were so popular and widely known. Each individual letter was directed to a person or to a community, and the news of his letter writing traveled quickly across the land. Paul in turn became very popular, and his works became widely read. Eventually, his many works circulated until they were all joined together. When it came time to determine the canon, Paul’s letters were included because of his authority in the early church. These two woks, which make up the bulk of the New Testament, are a combination of works that were put together before they were decided upon being let into canon.
The New Testament canon has four criteria that were used in determining canon. The first of the criteria is apostolicity. According to popular Christian thinking, the apostolicity of the New Testament writings means that the writings are actually written by the apostles. This idea is a misconception in terms of how the concept relates to its canonization. The idea of apostolicity does not refer only to the works that apostles wrote themselves. Apostolicity actually refers to the works that an apostle may have come into contact with at some point. Simply because an apostle came into contact with a certain work, does not ensure it of being guaranteed as a canonical work. Such works as The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles, Barnabas, and the Gospel of Peter, which inexplicably claim apostles as their authors, were not added in canon. Catholicity was another way of determining the reasons why certain works were included. The term catholicity meant that the work must be relevant to the church as a whole and was intended to be by the author. This is understood to mean that works that were addressed to a small group of people, instead of the entire church, were questionable additions to the New Testament canon. Oddly enough, Paul’s letters are all addressed to certain groups of people or individuals, and not the church in general. Most of the New Testament writings were addressed to a specific group, which made many of the writings fall short in the catholicity criteria. The next form of the criteria is orthodoxy. The orthodoxy is whether or not the content of the documents are in accordance with the precedence set forth by prior church documents. The final criterion of the New Testament canon was whether the works were part of traditional usage. This criterion determines whether the work that was being proposed for entry into New Testament canon was currently in use as a part of the church in its teachings. This criterion could only be used after the third or fourth centuries, after the church had a long enough time to establish a definite custom.
Three factors during the second century weighed heavily on the formation of canon. Marcionism, Gnosticism and Montanism all shaped the formation of canon. Marcion was one of the most influential characters in second century Christianity. He was the son of a wealthy ship owner from Sinope, a city in northern Asia Minor. He came to Rome in 140 A.D. and became a teacher and follower of the Roman church. Marcion taught that Christianity was a totally new and different religion from anything prior (Farmer and Farkasfalvy 134). He said that Christianity was on a higher level than any previous religion. Marcion therefore created his own form of canon that included Gospel literature and apostolic letters. Because Marcion’s work was one of the first known formations of New Testament canon, scholars believe that he laid the groundwork for others to formulate new canons. Gnostic literature, while being in existence for approximately the same length of time, was rejected by people who supported the apostolic and catholic teachings. Gnosticism is relevant to the discussion because, in order to know why things are included, the scholar must know why certain ideas have been left out. Montanism also provoked the formation of New Testament canon. The movement began in Asia Minor, during the middle of the second century. A man named Montanus claimed he and his associates were sent by God to offer new and final revelations to the church. This situation was common. People made claims that God sent them, and the church had a hard time in discrediting them as result of not having a closed set of Christian writings. Canon was a result of the church attempting to end all of the new additions to Christian writings. New Testament canon spurred from the church wanting to end the many inconsistencies that were prevalent in the early church. From this period the church decided to only accept into canon, works that had specific apostolic authority.
The canon of the New Testament was proposed by many different figures throughout the process of canonization. A closing of New Testament canon took place at The Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. The canon that was adopted at Chalcedon was not agreed upon until the time of Constantine (Dunbar 317). The New Testament canon lists that were presented at Chalcedon can be traced back as far as Athanasius (296-373). The Chalcedonian churches have primarily accepted the list of Athanasius. The list of Amphilochus, bishop of Iconium, who died in 394, wrote a list that matched Athanasius, and was identical except for a slight discrepancy in the order that the books were in. Eusebius, who died in 340 A.D., also had a list for the formation of New Testament canon. Eusebius also had the same books in his version of the list. The discrepancy between Eusebius’s list and the two others was the order that the books were put into.
In the late third and early fourth century the Alexandrian school introduced another version of New Testament canon. The canon of Clement was similar to those of the Chalcedon churches, but differed in both order and content. Clement traveled extensively, and eventually settled down in Egypt. His travels included Greece, Italy and Palestine. This can be deduced because he knew of the scriptures that were used by churches in those areas. He included the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Gospel of the Egyptians, and the Gospel of Mattathias, instead of just the four gospels that appear in the Chalcedonian churches. Clement also included fourteen letters from Paul. The fourteenth letter being to Clement. In total, the canon of Clement included thirty-six books. Origen, who lived from 185-254 A.D., also traveled widely, visiting Greece, Arabia and Rome, and compiled another list out of the Alexandrian style. Origen included the twenty-two undisputed works, the same number of undisputed books as Clement. Origen apparently changed his list multiple times before he was set on a certain one. When Origen was in Alexandria, he accepted the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Epistle of Barnabas as canon. After traveling to Caesarea, he changed his list when he found out the books were not accepted there. Origen also began to question whether the Preaching of Peter belonged in canon, a work that Clement had been fond of. Origen was very strong in excluding certain books, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mattathias, the Gospel of the Twelve, the Gospel of the Egyptians, and the Acts of Paul. Hippolytus, who died in 235 A.D., also formulated a list of canonical works based on his travel findings. The Hippolytus canon differs because the Pauline works are different. He did not include Hebrews as an accepted “undisputed” work. Besides the difference over Hebrews, Origen’s list is very similar to Hippolytus’s list. Hippolytus also includes twenty-two books in his canon version.
The process of the canonization of the Christian bible was disputed throughout the beginnings of the Christian religion. Canonization is a compilation of many different lists proposed by numerous different scholars. Canon was necessary to ensure that the church was united by common teachings. At the Council of Trent on April 8, 1546, the church closed its final copy of New Testament canon, which includes the present day twenty-seven works.
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