In an earlier blog I briefly discussed the authorship of the New Testament and the transmission of individual texts from their writing until now. The final topic in this discussion of the reliability of the New Testament is concerned with how we got the New Testament into the form that it is in today. There is a lot of discussion, and much confusion, concerning the selection of the books that make up the New Testament. What process and criteria were used for the selection, and rejection, of books for inclusion into what we today call the New Testament?
The process used for New Testament canonization was not well defined or directed and took a long time. There are a number of factors that served to drive the selection of authoritative writings for the Christian churches. These include: providing a response to those deemed as heretics; persecution and the need to know which writings to hide from destruction; and the need to identify orthodoxy. Some writings were accepted at a fairly early date, others were accepted much later, some were considered but later rejected, and there are others that have recently been discovered for which there seems to be no early discussion, indicating they had only a very narrow following or a late date for their writing. Contrary to the perception of many, there is no recorded attempt at developing and mandating a standard canon from a centralized authority. By the time the Councils met to discuss this topic, the canon was largely in place and at most was only ratified or tweaked by the Councils.
The most important criteria for inclusion in the canon seems to be orthodoxy, authorship and familiarity, with orthodoxy the most important of these. If the writings disagreed with the beliefs of the person defining the list, it was not included. And yet, across the Roman Empire the churches all developed fairly similar lists. The four gospels accepted today, along with Acts and Paul’s letters had widespread acceptance fairly early. The only real dispute concerned the catholic epistles and Revelation along with a small handful of other writings including, the Letter of Clement to the Corinthians, the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas. I can find no evidence that the Gospels of Thomas, Judas or Mary were ever considered for inclusion into the canon by any branch of the church. Nor were they specifically rejected. They actually appeared to be unknown to church authorities in the first few centuries.
Other than the heretic Marcion, who accepted a watered down version of Luke and 10 of Paul’s letters, the earliest known list of writings identified as acceptable for the church is found in what is called “The Muratorian Fragment”. This is generally believed to be from about 170 AD, although some will date it later. The author of the list is unknown as is the reason for producing it. It is similar to the New Testament of today with the following exceptions. The beginning is missing but lists Luke and John as the third and fourth gospels, the order they have today. The list includes the Wisdom of Solomon and the Apocalypse of Peter but does not include Hebrews, James, 1st and 2nd Peter or 3rd John. The Shepherd of Hermas was authorized for reading but not considered scripture.
For the next few centuries various individuals across the Roman world compiled lists of authorized scriptures for the churches in their area. These lists generally were very similar to the Muratorian Fragment, although the latter lists generally included some of the New Testament writings that were missing from the earlier list. In 367 A.D., Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria included in a letter what he considered to be the authoritative books of the New Testament, a list identical to what most Christians accept today. This was not the end of the issue though. Many continued for quite some time, actually up until today, either accepting or rejecting a handful of books. A number of councils, or synods, met in the following centuries to ‘officially’ ratify the contents of the New Testament, but by that time, for all practical purposes, the decision had already been made.
It is clear that the New Testament of today was not available to the church of the first few centuries, at least in its finished form. The four gospels and Paul’s writings were the two earliest collections and appear to have received near universal acceptance by the middle of the 2nd century. While there were many writings that came out of the early years of Christianity, there is little to indicate that more than about three dozen of them ever had anything like wide spread acceptance. Of these, half were accepted by just about everyone leaving a written opinion and half of the remaining writings were accepted by enough to eventually be included into the canon. From what I have been able to find there is no evidence of a conspiracy to reshape the beliefs of Christianity through the development of the canon. Quite the opposite is actually suggested, that the canon was shaped by the beliefs of the early church.
The following documents provide a more detailed discussion of this topic
- The Formation of the New Testament Canon – http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/NTcanon.html. Richard Carrier provides a detailed review of the canonization process from the prospective of an atheist. This article is based to some extent on Bruce Metzger’s “The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development and Significance”. I include this reference, not because I agree with everything he writes, but to show that it is not just conservative Christians who have similar conclusions to what I have written above. Metzger’s book is also a very valuable resource.
- Ancient Canon Lists – http://www.bible-researcher.com/canon8.html. This provides a collection of the older canon lists as well as quotes from the early centuries concerning opinions of the writings available to the church.
- The New Testament Documents by FF Bruce, Chapter 3. This is a brief description of the canonization process from the perspective of a well respected Christian scholar.
There is no way to prove that the New Testament is true. But it is easy to demonstrate that:
- it was written by people who, at the very least, were close to the events that are described;
- that what we have today is a very good re-creation of the original texts;
- and that the collection of writings we have today were selected, not for political reasons, but because the church at large used them and felt they were worthy.
I think it is fair to say that, whether you agree with the writings or not, they are a fair description of the beliefs of the Christian church of the first centuries and not an attempt by a later generation to build a religion around some legends and myths. And that leaves us with the question of why they believed these things, especially since it would not be too difficult to disprove them early on, if they were indeed not true.