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The Canon – Part 8: The Origin of the Canon

Von Christian

Many probably take for granted that their Bible contains 27 scriptures, beginning with the Gospels and ending with Revelation. Before the birth of Christ, on the other hand, there were certainly no writings that we would call ‘Christian writings’. What happened in between? This is indeed an exciting – and important matter for the foundation of our faith. In this part of the series we can only give an overview, based on the standard work on this subject by Bruce M. Metzger, “The Canon of the New Testament”, which I can only warmly recommend:

Bruce M. Metzger „The Canon of the New Testament”

In the introduction he writes [This is my English translation of the German version. Unfortunately, I didn’t have an English copy.]:

The recognition of the canonical status of the various books of the New Testament was the result of a long and gradual process in which certain writings that were considered authoritative were separated from a much broader corpus of Christian literature. Although this was one of the most significant developments in the thought and practice of the early church, history is essentially silent as to how, when, and by whom it was set in motion. In the annals of the Christian church, nothing is more surprising than the absence of detailed accounts of such a significant process.

Bruce M. Metzger „The Canon of the New Testament“, Introduction, p. 11 (italics not in the original)

So we do not know who started this process and when. Jesus did not do it. Nowhere do we read that he instructed his disciples to write a ‘holy book’. However, history and manuscripts provide us with a lot of clues as to how the process unfolded over a good three centuries. We can see that there was no master plan, no commission to produce exactly these 27 writings and form a canon from them. By the way, I use the term canon here in the sense of a list of books recognized by Christians. The word itself comes from the Greek and had many different meanings and was also used differently by Christians in the first centuries.

In order to better understand the formation of the canon, I present important events in the first four centuries:

The Development of the Canon of the New Testament in the Context of the First Four Centuries

What is probably immediately noticeable is the great time gap between the time of Jesus, the apostles and the creation of the scriptures and the evidence of different versions of the canon of the New Testament. The final establishment of the canon that we know did not happen until the fourth century at the time when Emperor Constantine promoted Christianity and the councils took place in which the doctrine of the Trinity was established as doctrine.

What authorities were recognized by Jesus’ disciples and what influence did they exercise?

1. From the first day of its existence, the Christian church possessed a canon of sacred writings – the Jewish scriptures. … The exact boundaries of the Jewish canon may not yet have been finally established, but its books were already sufficiently defined that it was possible to refer to them collectively as “scripture” (he grafe) or “the scriptures” (hai grafai) and to introduce quotations from them with the formula “it is written” (gegraptai).

Bruce M. Metzger “The Canon of the New Testament,” Introduction, p. 12.

On the one hand, it is interesting that the canon of the Jewish scriptures was still discussed around the year 90 AD, although the translation into Greek (Septuagint) had already begun over 300 years earlier. The discussion was not about what should be included, since there was a whole series of books from the second temple period, but whether some should remain in the canon (Ecclesiastes, Esther, Solomon’s Song of Songs).

Second, it is important to note again, as in Part 2 of this series, what the Christian authors meant when they spoke of ‘the Scriptures’ or ‘the sacred writings’ in, for example, 2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:20, or Romans 15:4: They were the writings of the Jewish canon! Not their own! As we shall see, it was only later that Christians began to regard the writings of Paul or Peter in this way.

2. In the oldest Christian communities there was another authority that had found its place side by side with the Jewish Bible, namely the words of Jesus as they had been handed down orally. …

It is not surprising, therefore, that in the early church the words of Jesus, which were remembered, were highly esteemed and quoted, and thus took their place beside the law and the prophets, and were regarded as equal or superior to them in respect of their authority.

Bruce M. Metzger “The Canon of the New Testament,” Introduction, pp. 12, 13.

Since today we no longer have the same oral tradition, but are very much fixated on the Bible as a book, we may not be so aware of the immense importance that oral tradition had until well into the second century. Perhaps the difference will impress itself on us by means of this diagram:

Oral tradition, teachings and beliefs, writings

In the first century and early second century, the oral tradition through the disciples was still so strong that new teachings and writings were measured against it. Later – and even more so today – the writings became more and more authoritative because the chain of trustworthy transmitters of the oral tradition became too long and unreliable.

3. Parallel to the oral dissemination of Jesus’ teachings, apostolic interpretations arose on the significance of his person and work for the life of believers. …

Even if the writers of these apostolic letters are convinced that they speak with authority, they do not yet show the consciousness that their words could one day be considered the permanent norm of doctrine and life in the Christian church. They wrote for an immediate purpose and just as they would have spoken, they would have been able to be present with their addressees.

Bruce M. Metzger “The Canon of the New Testament,” Introduction, pp. 13, 14.

There is a note in the footnote that references to autographs can be found among the patristic authors. Tertullian (De Preasc. Haer. 36) mentions Thessalonica among the cities to which apostolic letters were written and still read in the original. This would have been about the second half of the second century.

4. In the course of time, Christian literature gained in volume and was disseminated in various communities.

At the same time, allusions to the higher rank of the apostolic writers, who had lived so close to the time of Jesus’ earthly appearance, set the earlier documents apart from the contemporary writings and helped those to solidify as a separate literary coprus.

It is not surprising, therefore, that readers could, and did, distinguish between the “sound” of certain documents that were later identified as canonical and the ever-growing corpus of patristic literature.

Bruce M. Metzger “The Canon of the New Testament,” Introduction, p. 15.

So, after the Jewish canon (Old Testament) and the words of Jesus, the writings of the apostles and others in the first century are now slowly receiving a special, higher status.

5. In the age that followed that of the apostles, the expression “the Lord and the apostles” represented the norm referred to in all matters of faith and life practice. …

It is precisely to this kind of public reading of the Christian documents that Justinus Martyr refers around 150 A.D. He tells us that it was customary to read out “the memory of the apostles” (i.e. the Gospels) or the writings of the prophets on Sundays at the services. Thus it came about that the Christian congregations became accustomed to regard the apostolic writings as in some sense equal to the older Jewish writings, and this liturgical custom, though it no doubt varied in the different congregations, stamped certain Gospels and Epistles as deserving special respect and obedience.

Bruce M. Metzger “The Canon of the New Testament,” Introduction, p. 15.

Here we see the later development: by the fact that both “the scriptures” of the Jewish canon and the scriptures of the Christian authors were read side by side in the worship service, in the course of time they were perceived as equal to them for Christians.

6. In the second and third centuries, translations of the apostolic writings were made into Latin and Syriac, and possibly into the Coptic dialects of Egypt.

Bruce M. Metzger “The Canon of the New Testament,” Introduction, p. 16.

In particular, the translations into the language of the people of Western Europe – Latin – led to the fact that already from something of the fourth century these were considered ‘the scriptures’ and no longer the Greek (or Aramaic) autographs. As we have already noted, already in the 4th century Eusebius had to begin to evaluate the variant manuscripts and the resulting Vulgate was to become ‘the Bible’ of Christians for many centuries.

This is the introduction of Bruce Metzger’s book. In the remaining almost 300 pages, one finds a multitude of historical facts.

In the patristic period, the writings of the apostolic fathers are characterized by the fact that they quote from the writings that were later included in the canon. But they are always only a part of them and different ones. All seem to know only a part of these writings.

For early Jewish Christians, the Bible consisted of the Old Testament and some Jewish apocryphal literature. Along with this written authority, mainly oral traditions of sayings attributed to Jesus circulated. On the other hand, authors who belonged to the Hellenistic wing of the Church more often refer to writings that would later become parts of the New Testament. At the same time, however, they considered such documents as “Scripture.”

Moreover, there was not yet an obligation to quote exactly from books that were not yet canonical in the full sense. … In short, we find both in the Jewish and Hellenistic groups a knowledge of the existence of certain books which later constitute the New Testament, and more than once they express their thoughts by sentences taken from these writings. These echoes aim to show that an implicit authority of such writings was felt before a theory of their authority had been developed. This authority, moreover, was in no way exclusionary.

Bruce M. Metzger, “The Canon of the New Testament,” p. 79.

Typical for this time a letter around the year 95/96 AD, which according to tradition is attributed to Clement of Rome.

The Old Testament quotations are often introduced by such well-known formulas as “the Scripture says” (he grafe legei), “it is written” (gegraptai), “that which is written” (to gegrammenon), and are usually taken with great accuracy from the Greek text of the Septuagint. The situation is different with the few New Testament quotations. Rather than introducing gospel material with citation formulas that imply a written record, Clement twice urges his readers to “be mindful of the words of the Lord Jesus.” In 1 Clem 12:2, Clement compiles a number of phrases, some of which are found in Matthew and Luke, but others have no exact parallels in the four Gospels.

He is familiar with several of Paul’s letters and holds them in high esteem for their content; the same can be said of the Letter to the Hebrews, with which he is well acquainted. Even though these writings obviously have noteworthy importance for Clement, he never refers to them as authoritative scripture.

Bruce M. Metzger “The Canon of the New Testament,” pp. 50, 52.

Metzger writes about the development of the canon in the East:

After the time of the Apostolic Fathers, we enter a new stage in the history of the books of the New Testament. The books of the canonical Gospels form a closed collection and are received by the entire Church in this form. The Pauline epistles are also considered inspired Scripture, and here and there the same is true of the Acts of the Apostles and the Revelation of John. A few other books are still on the fringes of the canon: the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Epistle of James, the Epistles of Peter, the Epistles of John, and the Epistle of Jude.

Bruce M. Metzger, “The Canon of the New Testament,” p. 116.

With regard to the development of the canon in the West, I would like to highlight only one aspect in connection with Irenaeus of Lyons:

In contrast to the multitude of the new gospels of the Gnostics, the universal church at the time of Irenaeus recognizes only the four gospels or – as he expresses it – the one gospel in fourfold form (to euaggelion tetramofron). Their multiplicity is regarded as given and final.

“It cannot be at all that the number of the Gospels is greater or less than they sit, for in the world in which we live there are also only four cardinal points and four winds … The four living beasts (Acts 4:9) symbolize the four Gospels … and there are four main covenants with mankind: Noah, Abraham, Moses and Christ.” (Adv. Haer. III 9,8).

This means that for Irenaeus the canon of the Gospels is closed; its texts are sacred. The apostolic canon, on the other hand, is not yet closed, and it does not occur to him to theorize about their number, as with the Gospels, when he speaks of the twelve Pauline epistles, their addressees, or their attribution to Paul.

Bruce M. Metzger, “The Canon of the New Testament,” p. 152.

For us it may be quite natural to speak of four Gospels. But in the first centuries this was not so. Otherwise Irenaeus would not have had to stoop to such numerical mysticism. “At that time, when there was no finished canon, it was by no means everywhere considered natural that different biographies of Jesus, even differing from each other to some extent, should have equal authority.” (S. 248). This did not happen until the development and completion of the canon. “There is reason to believe that a Gospel was newly in use in some churches long before the canon question was settled. Apparently only the Gospel of Matthew was in use throughout Palestine. In contrast, there were churches in Asia Minor that had only the Gospel of John from the beginning, and likewise Luke and Mark were read only in certain churches.” (S. 249)

As far as the number of reports about Jesus is concerned, already the introduction of Luke’s Gospel is interesting:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled a among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

Luke 1:1-4 NIV

So, many have already written gospels in the sense of reports about Jesus. But not all of them are in the canon. We will talk about that in a later part of this series. And there were the eyewitnesses and oral tradition.

In fact, there were dozens of other books that were at times considered canonical in certain individual churches (p. 163). These included apocryphal gospels, such as the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Gospel of the Egyptians, or the Gospel of Peter. There were also apocryphal Acts of the Apostles as well as apocryphal epistles. And finally, apocryphal apocalypses, such as the Apocalypse of Peter or the Apocalypse of Paul. For example, the Apocalypse of Peter is included in the list of canonical books in the Codex Claromontanus (p. 181).

In the Canon Muratori (probably late 2nd century), which is more a list of titles than a canon, are found (pp. 188ff): a) The Gospels. The Gospel of John is presented as representing the common teaching of the Twelve, whereas the others each transmit a particular individual tradition. b) The Acts of the Apostles. c) The Epistles of Paul, thirteen in number. d) Other Epistles. Epistle of Jude and two epistles of John. Then comes a “book of wisdom, of which was written by Solomon’s friends in his honor.” How this got in, no one understands to this day. e) Apocalypses. John’s and Peter’s apocalypses. Of the latter it says, “though some of us do not wish the latter to be read in church.” Which means, of course, that it was certainly read out. f) Excluded books.

Finally, a double categorization is found in Eusebius (p. 197):

First, Eusebius classifies the writings according to the criterion of canonicity and sets “canonical” against “non-canonical”. Then he distinguishes according to their character and sets “orthodox” against “heretical”. … But this classification can explain to us why Eusebius could assign the Revelation of John to two classes. The historian recognizes that the Scriptures are widely accepted, but as a churchman he knows of the extraordinary use that the Montanists and Millenarists make of the book. And so he is glad to be able to report in another place of his church history that others do not consider it genuine.

Bruce M. Metzger, “The Canon of the New Testament,” p. 198.

It may sound dry and boring, but it raises an interesting question: Should a scripture be considered ‘holy scripture’ simply because it is part of a canon? What do most Christians do today when presented with a scripture and asked if it is inspired by God? Exactly, tif hey find the scripture in their Bible, then it’s ok. But the list of books in our Bible is exactly the canon of the New Testament that was worked out in the first four centuries. In the first century, the content was checked against the orally transmitted teachings. And by the time of Eusebius, one was now kind of in between. If a scripture was read over and over again in the congregation on Sundays, then it was part of a ‘canon’ and therefore to be accepted, right? That’s roughly the first division of Eusebius. But he also still has the second: Is the Scripture ‘orthodox’ in content, that is, does it agree with the teachings of the Church? Many of the Church Fathers also found other writings to be useful and suitable for reading aloud, but did not necessarily count them among the narrower circle of writings recognized by most. The Shepherd of Hermas, for example, was such a scripture.

As late as 325 A.D., Eusebiuus reports that in the Church in the East the authority of most of the Catholic epistles (i.e., general, not addressed to a specific congregation) and the Revelation of John is still doubtful. (S. 201)

Even as late as 691/692, this is expressed in an astonishing conciliar decision by the Trullanic Synod: “Indirectly, with regard to a biblical canon, the Council sanctioned hardly coherent and downright contradictory opinions. For example, we have seen that the Synod of Carthage and Athanasius recognized the minor Catholic letters and Revelation as canonical, whereas the Synod of Laodicea and the Eighty-fifth Apostolic Canon rejected them. The latter canon regards the two Clementine epistles as canonical, while the others reject them.” (p. 208) In summary, Metzger writes: “The official lectionaries of the Greek Church do not contain the Revelation of John in either Byzantine or modern times. This makes clear the inferior position of this book in the East. And it is significant that, taking into account the number of all extant copies, very few Christians are likely ever to have seen or possessed an entire New Testament.” (S. 209)

The last sentence in particular raises an important question: How does the idea that God and Jesus would have planned that a canon of these 27 books is exactly what every follower of Jesus needs fit with the historical fact that in the early centuries virtually no Christian ever saw or heard the complete canon of the New Testament in his or her lifetime?

Metzger summarizes the development in the West as follows: “Twenty-seven books, no more, no less – this has been the slogan in the entire Latin Church ever since. It would be wrong to present it as if the canon question had been settled for all Christian churches at the beginning of the fifth century. The manuscripts of the Pauline Epistles (and entire Bibles) were not immediately expanded or replaced by complete copies, and thus the Epistle to the Hebrews was given the place now officially accorded to it. Thus, the Letter to the Hebrews is missing from a Latin and Greek manuscript (MS G) from the 9th century. On the other hand, manuscripts with the Letter to the Laodiceans appear. Thus, in spite of the influence of Jerome, Augustine and the decisions of the three provincial syndodes, in the following centuries we find more than once testimonies that deviate from the canon: Either writings are added, or some are missing.“ (p. 227)

Since we have already recognized so much about the history of the canon just in a few minutes, we can compare this with what the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses says about the canon in the book Insights on the Holy Scriptures – Volume 1 under the keyword ‘Inspiration’:

However, even as God by his spirit, or active force, granted to certain Christians the “discernment of inspired utterances,” he could also guide the governing body of the Christian congregation in discerning which inspired writings were to be included in the canon of the Sacred Scriptures.​—1Co 12:10; see CANON.

Insights on the Holy Scriptures – Volume 1, p. 1205 (italic by me)

If, as in the literature of Jehovah’s Witnesses, ‘governing body’ means the assembly of apostles and elders in Jerusalem according to Acts 15, then it did not compile a canon. How could it have, if most parts of it did not exist yet. Otherwise, the popes and bishops would have to be regarded as the ‘governing body’ until the 5th century, which was hardly intended. So it is simply false and misleading, and is simply meant to detract from the scriptural statement that Christians – and not just ‘certain Christians’ either – could discern through the Holy Spirit. Ok, back to the topic.

Today, the canon of the New Testament looks as stable as if it had been designed directly by God, with exactly 27 books. But this was the result of the development of the canon in the West of the Church over a period of at least 400 years. So is the canon only man’s work? Everyone must form his own opinion on this, and the following text by Metzger is helpful:

Without wanting to extend the discussion here to the paradox of double causation, i.e. human and divine, according to which events can be caused by God as well as by man, it must be asked whether Marxsen is justified in declaring that “from the historical point of view the canon is a product of chance”. Marxsen’s judgment is not a necessary consequence of historical science, but a purely philosophical judgment. There is no historical data to prevent one from safely subscribing to the view of the universal Church that, in spite of all human conditions (confusio hominum) in the production, preservation, and collection of the books of the New Testament, the whole process can rightly be regarded also as a result of divine providence (providentia dei). This is nowhere more evident than in cases where a book has been recognized as canonical on obviously erroneous grounds. For example, much of the Church erred in attributing the anonymous Letter to the Hebrews to the Apostle Paul. Everyone will agree, however, that they were intuitively correct and in the course of time recognized the intrinsic value of the letter.

Bruce M. Metzger “The Canon of the New Testament,” p. 268.

“There are no historical data which prevent …” means, however, also that the historical data do not really force the conclusion that God’s hand was the leading here.

We should also not forget the temporal dimension that we saw in the diagram at the beginning. And that it was the same ecclesiastical dignitaries who established the canon, including doctrines such as the Trinity, and who share responsibility for the persecution of all other opinions.

We also tend to see the result of this process: Finally, the New Testament is restored. And with that, all is well. We have seen that this process is not yet over and that many writings of the first century – let alone the oral tradition – are no longer available to us. And most importantly, during this centuries-long process, Christians had no canon of unadulterated and trustworthy writings.

Concerning our assertion from the first part of the series, I interpret the part “thus contains exactly what God wanted” in such a way that it excludes any human influence. If one understands it in such a way, then one must delete this on the basis of the facts known to us now also.

“The Bible is God’s Word, the Holy Scriptures, fully inspired by God and thus containing exactly what God intended. It has been preserved for us to this day exactly as the Bible itself says so, every book, paragraph, sentence, word, comma and period.

I know that some people will now look at this sentence in despair and ask whether there is anything left at all. But we must not forget that this sentence represents a very, very far-reaching assertion – which cannot be held like that. But just beneath the surface of this perfect wishful thinking, we find more solid ground. Or to put it more casually, you can wait like the proverbial princess until the ideal, perfect prince charming arrives. Or become happy together with the real prince, who comes as close as possible to the ideal one.

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