This is the third in my series of posts which consist of the notes I distributed as part of the Sunday School classes I taught this fall. Today we have reached the middle point of the first class.
I. Criteria of Canonicity – the criteria used to determine whether a particular book should be in the canon or not. This list of criteria is not a list that we get from the early Christians. It is a list we came up with later, as we tried to understand why some books made it and others didn’t.
A. Apostolicity – not just that an apostle wrote a book, but that a book was associated with an apostle or an apostle’s teaching.
Apostolicity and the Gospels: All four gospels are anonymous; they don’t have anyone’s name on them. But Matthew and John, for as long as we can tell, have been associated with the apostles of those names. Mark and Luke were not apostles. But Mark was associated with Peter, and Luke was associated with Paul.
Apostolicity and Hebrews: Hebrews was not accepted by the whole church early on, partially because of concerns about who its author was. Some thought it was Paul, but others, including Origen, thought it was someone else, like Barnabas or Apollos.
There were other books, such as the Acts of Paul and the Apocalypse of Peter, that had apostles’ names on them, but were not traditionally associated with apostles and did not contain apostolic teaching. Thus, they didn’t make it (and they also didn’t meet the other criteria).
B. Orthodoxy – a book had to be in accordance with the teaching of the church that had been passed down from the apostles.
Some books of the NT appeal to received tradition explicitly: Gal. 1:9, 2 Thess. 2:15, 2 Thess. 3:6.
The “Rule of Faith” – a summary of the doctrines held in common by apostolic churches.
C. Widespread Use, or Catholicity – If a book, or collection of books, was used by many churches spread across a wide geographical area, that made it more likely that it would make it into the canon.
Even though Paul’s letters were written to particular churches, and Revelation was written to particular churches, they both grew in their influence over time (as we can see, in the case of Paul at least, from 2 Peter 3:15).
The Roman church had doubts about whether Hebrews was written by Paul. They eventually accepted it, however, because of widespread use (and antiquity and orthodoxy): the eastern churches used it, and attributed it to Paul. So Hebrews made it in because of its widespread use, despite the fact that there has always been disagreement about who wrote it.
This is closely related to apostolicity: if a book is written by an apostle or someone associated with an apostle, it must be old.
Even some orthodox books, like the Shepherd of Hermas, or the Didache, did not make it into the NT because they just weren’t old enough.
It is important to note as we conclude this section that this was not a bureaucratic move, or a power play. The canon wasn’t decided by one council, or one church. These four criteria were used over time, often several at the same time, to decide which books should be part of the canon.
II. A Book That Didn’t Make it: the Gospel of Thomas
III. Marcion (110?-160?)
He is the first person we know of to establish a canon of scripture, but he was rejected as a heretic.
He was anti-Jewish, thought that the God of the OT and Jesus’ father were not the same, and so disregarded the whole OT. His canon consisted only of 10 of Paul’s letters and an edited version of the Gospel of Luke.
IV. The Muratorian Fragment
This fragment was found in Italy, probably belongs to the second half of the second century, and is mutilated at the beginning. It is important because it is the earliest list of authorized books that we know of.
Lists all of our NT books except Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 3 John. Luke and John are listed as the third and fourth gospels, so it may be supposed that the missing first part of the fragment refers to Matthew and Mark. It also lists the Wisdom of Solomon and the Apocalypse of Peter, though it mentions “some of our people will not have [it] to be read in church.”
V. Eusebius (263?-339?), church historian
His list includes all of our current NT, but says a few books are “disputed, but recognized by the majority”: James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Revelation.
VI. Athanasius (293?-373), bishop of Alexandria
The first writer (367) who lists exactly our 27 NT books without making any distinction of status among them.
VII. Jerome (347?-420) and Augustine (354-430)
By the time these two near-contemporaries wrote, in the late fourth century, the NT canon was fixed at 27 books. No council had declared on the matter. Rather, these were just the books that were passed on within the community as authoritative.
The Council of Hippo (393) was not an all-church council, but it was probably the first to officially set the limit of the NT at 27 books.
We can see that the formation of the NT canon happened gradually, over time. First, a core of books was seen as authoritative, and then others were added to that core. By the fourth century, 300 years after most of the NT was written, it was complete.
VIII. John Calvin (1509-1564)
“For him the authority of the New Testament, like that of all scripture, rested not on any church decree but on the self-authenticating quality of what was written, attested in the receptive heart by the inward witness of the Holy Spirit.” — Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 246-7
Protestants still believe this about scripture. The authority of the NT is not based on the decision of a church council, but on the Holy Spirit, who prompted its authors to write and over time prompted churches all over the world to accept those writings as from God.