Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Process of Canonization -- How We Got the New Testament

I can't give a detailed explanation of the canonization process, but perhaps what follows can be helpful in our conversation about biblical interpretation -- and why these books got in. I'm in agreement with Kurt Aland that whatever the process, the church got it right. There is a qualitative difference between the "accepted" books and those kept out.



1. The Growth of the "Apostolic" Literature.

The Christian Scriptures (New Testament) have their origins in oral traditions, such as the sayings of Jesus, that were passed on and eventually written down (the Gospels, Acts, and “Q.”). Others were of course letters that were passed through the churches. By the early 2nd century, much of what we know as the New Testament was being gathered into collections and used by church leaders. When written down, there was not the sense that these were sacred writings. Only time and use granted them this property.

By reading the works of early church leaders we can get a sense of their growing usage as something akin to Scripture. Polycarp (135) wrote a letter composed largely of Pauline texts, suggesting that the Pauline letters were the first gathered. The Gospels were probably written between 70 and 100 AD. We find reference to the use of what became the New Testament in worship by the middle of the 2nd Century (Justin Martyr). Ireneaus was the first to formally recognize a New Testament Scripture, and it is he who first uses the terms Old and New Testament.

While the New Testament canon is forming, other works also emerged that were often used as Scripture, suggesting that the early church was quite diverse and fluid. Some of these works include the now famous Coptic Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, the Gospel of Barnabas, the Gospel of Paul and Thecla, but church leaders in the end chose not to include them.


With such a diversity of church life and texts, the churches began to consider the question of genuineness. If you have a lot of competing stories, which ones should be considered normative for the church. Though we have no record as to how this was accomplished, there are some criteria that were preeminent.

1. Apostolicity

The early church gave pride of place to those pieces thought to be written by an apostle or by someone close to the apostles. If it was thought to be written by an Apostle, then it was deemed scriptural. Questions of authorship would bring into question texts such as Peter, James, John, Hebrews, and Revelation. Apostolic appellations themselves do not seem to have been major determinants, since a large part of the New Testament was not written by an apostle (e.g., James, Jude, Hebrews, Mark, Luke-Acts). The church rejected many works that carried apostolic names, including the Gospel of Peter, the Acts of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Acts of Paul and Thecla.

2. Orthodoxy of Content

More important than authorship was content. That is, did these works teach right doctrine and practice. The question therefore was whether these books best represented the core faith of the church – that is their agreement with the “Rule of Faith.” (I'll post this later)

3. Antiquity
To be Scripture, a work needed to be considered coming from the apostolic age. It is for this reason that Shepherd of Hermas did not make the Muratorian Canon.

4. Usage

Where and how was it used? Works used in worship and in the larger churches like Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch, was also determinative. Apostolic Succession factors into all of this as well -- those churches that could trace their lineage, had the ability to speak to this issue.


Scott said...

hey Bob-- have you read the fascinating book on NT canon by David Trobisch? "The First Edition of the New Testament" (Oxford, 2000). He argues that the NT canonization process was not a "slow growth" but the history of one edition-- one that competed with others for popularity. Most people do not accept his "Big Bang" approach, and find his "book publishing" idea anachronistic. But he is raising some very interesting questions, and deals with the data in some most stimulating ways.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...


I'm not familiar with Trobisch or his theory. It's interesting, but I can see why it hasn't gained too much support. I'll have to check it out, however.

Anonymous said...

I have a bad feeling this is going to end up like “laws and sausages” we mightn’t want to know?

Any earmarks, stimulations needed?

David Mc

A. D. Hunt said...

For my money Bruce Metzger's book on the formation of the canon is the most solid.