The Emergence of the New Testament Canon
by Daniel F. Lieuwen
All Christians agree that Scripture is the heart of the Christian tradition. However,
what they mean by this affirmation often differs. To shed light on how this affirmation
ought to be understood, this paper will trace the history of the New Testament canon from
the apostolic church to the present. The goal is to show how we know that the Church
properly identified all and only those books that belong in Sacred Scripture and to
consider the implications of the process of identification.
When the church began, there were no New Testament books. Old Testament texts alone
were used as scripture. The first book written was probably I Thessalonians (c. 51) (or
possibly Galations which may be c. 50-there is some controversy over the dating of
Galatians). The last books were probably John, the Johannine epistles, and Revelations
toward the end of the first century.(1) The books were
written to deal with concrete problems in the church-immoral behavior, bad theology, and
the need for spiritual "meat".
Thus, the church existed for roughly twenty years with no New Testament books, only the
oral form of the teaching of the apostles. Even after a book was written, it was not
immediately widely available. Some books like II Peter were read almost exclusively in
their target area, a situation which continued for a long time, leading to their
(temporary or permanent) rejection from the canon due to doubts about their apostolic
origins. Thus, for instance, II Peter was rejected for centuries by many, and it is
rejected by Nestorians to this day.(2) Even if not
universally accepted, a book was highly regarded by its recipients and those church's in
the surrounding areas. This led to local canonicity, a book being used in public
worship in a particular region. Twenty-seven of these books came in time to have universal
canonicity, but others (e.g. Didache, Shepherd of Hermas, Barnabas, I Clement, Gospel of
the Hebrews) were rejected for inclusion in the New Testament canon, even though they
often retained a reputation for being profitable Christian reading.(3)
Although the New Testament books we have today were written in the first century, it
took time for them to be accepted as universally authoritative. Initially, only the life
and sayings of Christ were considered of equal authority with the Old Testament
scriptures. For instance, Hegessipus in the first half of the second century accepted only
"the Law, the Prophets, and the Lord" as norms "to which a right faith must
conform"(4) The Didascalia Apostolurum
which appears to have been written in the first half of the third century in Northern
Syria similarly states the authoritative norms are "the sacred scriptures and the
gospel of God" (which it also refers to as "the Law, the book of the Kings and
of the Prophets, and the Gospel" and the "Law, Prophet, and Gospel").(5)
Moreover, the "Gospel" spoken of was often the Oral Gospel and not
exclusively the four Gospels we have in our current Bible. There were also many apocryphal
gospels written between the late first and early third centuries. Some of them appear to
accurately preserve some of Christ's sayings and were long used in Christian circles (for
instance, Eusebius (c. 325) writes that the Gospel of the Hebrews was still in use
although not widely accepted); others were written to support some heretical sect.(6) While use was made of the four Gospels,
in the first one and a half centuries of the Church's history, there was no single
Gospel writing which is directly made known, named, or in any way given prominence by
quotation. Written and oral traditions run side by side or cross, enrich or distort one
another without distinction or even the possibility of distinction between them.(7)
The reason for this is that the authority of Christ's words came from Christ having
spoken them and not from the words appearing in a sacred text in a fixed form. As a
result, sayings from apocryphal sources and the Oral Gospel appear alongside quotes from
the four Gospels of our present New Testament.(8) Many
early Christians, in fact, had a preference for oral tradition. For instance, Papias in
the first half of the second century, said that he inquired of followers of the apostles
what the apostles had said and what "Aristion and the presbyter John, disciples of
the Lord were still saying. For I did not imagine that things out of books would help me
as much as the utterances of a living and abiding voice." However, he does mention
the Gospels of St. Mark and St. Matthew by name.(9)
Early Christian preference for oral tradition had rabbinic parallels-for instance Philo
though oral tradition was superior to scripture. In Semitic thought, the idea persisted
for a long time. As late as the thirteenth century, Arab historian Abu-el-Quasim ibn
`Askir said, "My friend strive zealously and without ceasing to get hold of
[traditions]. Do not take them from written records, so they may not be touched by the
disease of textual corruption."(10)
St. Irenaeus (c. 130-c. 200), Bishop of Lyons and a great fighter against heresy, was
the last writer to use the Oral Gospel as an independent source. He initially fought
heresy using only the Old Testament and the church's Oral tradition. However, later, in
response to needs arising from fighting Gnosticism and Marcionism, he came to use the
books of New Testament extensively.(11)
Besides the Oral Gospels, the Diatessaron served as an alternate Gospel. The
Diatessaron was a harmony of the four gospels, written c. 150-160 by Tatian. It circulated
widely in Syriac-speaking churches-it was their standard text of the gospels until it was
superseded by the Peshitta in the fifth century. The Diatessaron's use shows that the four
gospels were considered important authorities, but not exclusive authorities. The
Diatessaron by itself constituted as the New Testament scriptures for the Syrian churches
until the fourteen Pauline epistles were added in the third century.(12)
Thus, we see that for a considerable period of time, many Christians (particularly
those in Syria and those from a Jewish background) accepted only the Gospel alongside the
Old Testament as Scripture. Further, many accepted it in the form of the Oral Gospel or of
both the Oral and written Gospel (where the written Gospel might contain either more or
fewer books than are currently accepted).
The Pauline letters achieved acceptance in a fixed form considerably earlier; they were
circulating as a body of writing "well before AD 90."(13) In fact, recent research makes it quite likely that p46, an
early collection of Pauline letters should be dated in the late first century.(14) The letters were known and circulated among both
orthodox and heretics as a collection from the early second century. The collection
probably contained ten Pauline letters: Romans, I and II Corinthians, Galatians,
Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, I and II Thessalonians, and Philemon.(15)
The first person to attempt to define the canon precisely was the heretic Marcion.
Marcion believed that the God of the Old Testament, the Creator God, was contemptible, a
very different God from the God of the New Testament. He believed the Christian Gospel was
a Gospel of Love to the exclusion of Law. He rejected the Old Testament as a result. His
message was quite popular-it was the chief rival to Orthodox Christianity in the latter
half of the second century.(16) He accepted only the
Lukan gospel and ten Pauline letters, which he probably chose based on the standard
circulating collection.(17) He felt St. Paul alone
understood Christ-he was certain that the disciples completely misunderstood their Master.
Marcion's motivation for accepting only St. Luke's gospel is complex; he took St. Paul's
reference to "his gospel" or "the gospel" to refer to a particular
book at St. Paul's disposal and set out to find it. The Oral Gospel was out of the
question as the sayings could not be confirmed and hence were dubious-he wanted documents
which might have preserved the truth in a pure form. (Incidentally, he is the only critic
of the Oral Gospel, or any written Gospel, known in the early church.) St. Matthew, while
the most popular Gospel, was out of the question as too "judaising"; St. Mark
was not widely used. St. John was a mixture of things he liked and didn't like-and there
were questions on its age and authenticity. From Marcion's perspective, St. Luke's Gospel
had the fewest problems; further, St. Luke was associated with St. Paul.(18)
However, Marcion was not satisfied with accepting the eleven books of his canon in the
form he received them. He was convinced that they had been interpolated with
"judaising" material. He set out to reconstruct the original, uncorrupted text,
free from all distortions.(19) His mind was too narrow
and his ideology too rigid to conceive that there were multiple perspectives on the same
truths in St. Paul, that God's Law and Grace while contrasted were not put into
opposition-although God's Law and man's laws were. He eliminated all but one perspective
from his Gospel and Epistles. This perspective, however, was not St. Paul's, but
Marcion's. However, it should be noted that he only subtracted, he never added to the
texts he received.(20) (His canon and a number of
other canons are summarized in tabular form in the appendix.)
Before Marcion, the question we are addressing in this paper as to how we can be
confident that all and only those books that belong in the New Testament in fact are in
the New Testament had not begun to be formulated. Marcion formulated part of the question
in his attempt to determine a collection of authoritative books. His answer was very
wrong, but he forced the church to consider the question of what books should be included
in the canon as Marcion's was clearly too small. It left out too much of the Christian
In responce to Marcion's canon, the expansion phase of the New Testament canon began.
The books in his canon in unmutilated form were at the core of both the final canon and
most approximations of it on the path to the final canon. The church insisted on a
catholic scripture-one that encompassed Jewish and Gentile Christianity and that
faithfully reflected the apostolic teachings. (Marcion had accepted only a small strand of
Gentile Christianity and added in much that was his own.) The book of Acts is absolutely
crucial to a catholic New Testament because it honored Ss. Peter, Paul, and James. Some
Jewish Christians revered St. James and hated St. Paul's memory. Some heretics like
Marcion rejected all that was Jewish. However, this polarization is impossible for those
who take Acts seriously.(21)
St. Justin Martyr (c. 100-c. 165), the preeminent apologist of the early church and a
vigorous opponent of Gnosticism including Marcionism,(22)
was unwilling to accept Marcion's truncated canon. He "quoted freely from" the
four canonical gospels, Acts, the Pauline Epistles including Hebrews, and I Peter.(23) However, he does not speak of a canon-for instance
he was apparently unacquainted with treating the four church gospels as a unit.(24)
St. Irenaeus, who was previously mentioned in connection with the Oral Gospel, produced
the first known catholic canon. He was the first to adopt Marcion's notion of a new
scripture. He used this idea to fight heresies, including Marcion's. He recognized the
four gospel canon as an already established entity and championed it as "an
indispensable and recognized collection against all deviations of heretics."(25) Thus, sometime in the last half of the second
century, the four church gospels began to be viewed as a single unit. He defended the four
gospels by letting the various heresies that accepted only one of the gospels testify on
behalf of the gospel they adhered to (the Ebionites, Docetists, Marcionites, and
Valentinians for the gospels of St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. John
respectively.) He refused to accept new gospels, arguing from symbology the
appropriateness of having four gospels. He defended Acts by pointing out that it is
illogical to accept St. Luke's gospel and reject Acts (as the Marcionites did). The
Pauline letters needed no defense as even the heretics acknowledged them as authoritative.(26) He cited most of them, in fact he cited from every
New Testament book except Philemon and III John.(27)
(Given that both are extremely short, this does not indicate one way or the other what he
thought of their canonicity.) While citing both Revelations and the Shepherd, he did not
cite them as canonical books, although he considered them important.(28)
St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-c. 215) made use of an open canon. He seemed
"practically unconcerned about canonicity. To him, inspiration is what
mattered."(29) In addition to books that did not
make it into the final New Testament canon but which had local canonicity (Barnabas,
Didache, I Clement, Revelation of Peter, the Shepherd, the Gospel according to the
Hebrews), he also used the Gospel of the Egyptians, Preaching of Peter, Traditions of
Matthias, Sibylline Oracles, and the Oral Gospel.(30)
He did, however, prefer the four church gospels to all others, although he supplemented
them freely with apocryphal gospels. He was the first to treat non-Pauline letters of the
apostles (other than I Peter) as scripture-he accepted I Peter, I and II John, and Jude as
The expansion phase considerable enlarged the accepted canon. It reached near final
form in many quarters by around 200, containing the four gospels, Acts, and the Pauline
Epistles. The main books disputed after that time were: Revelations, Hebrews, Philemon,
and the Catholic Epistles (I and II Peter, I and II and III John, and Jude).(32) For instance, the Old Latin translation of the New
Testament (c. 200) contained the present day canon other than II Peter, James, and
The Muratorian Canon written c. 200 by a private theologian states that the New
Testament canon consists of the following: the four gospels (the beginning of the document
is mutilated, but it speaks of "the third book of the gospel: according to
Luke," which almost certainly implies the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark were
included), Acts, the thirteen Pauline epistles, two letters of John (probably I and II
John), Jude, and Revelation-as well as the Revelation of Peter ("which some of our
people will not have to be read in the church," but which "may be read")
and the Wisdom of Solomon.(34) However, it rejected
the Shepherd for public reading in church because it was "written by Hermas in the
city of Rome quite recently, in our own times, when his brother Pius occupied the bishop's
chair in the city of Rome." (Pius was bishop of Rome during part of the reign of
Antoninus Pius whose reign ran from 138-161.) It was, however, considered good private
reading.(35) The reasoning is that the work was
post-apostolic and hence that it could not possibly be canonical. (The history backing up
the reasoning is open to debate, dates as early as 90 and as late as 157 are plausible.(36))
The expansion phase was forced to come to an end by the Montanist heresy, an
apocalyptic movement that demanded incredible moral and ascetic rigor of its adherents and
was convinced that it was Spirit-inspired prophets and not clerics who should lead the
church. Montanists claimed that they were completing Christ's unfinished work, that
rejecting their three prophets was blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Just as Marcion
forced the church to think about what books ought to be in the canon of New Testament
scripture, the Montanists forced the church to think about what should be excluded from
the canon.(37) The attitude that the canon is closed
can be found in a quote in Eusebius written "more than thirteen years" after the
last of the three Montanist "prophets" died. The writer explains that he was
hesitant for a time to write against Montanism
not from inability to refute falsehood and witness to the truth, but a precaution
against the danger that some people might think I was adding another paragraph or clause
to the wording of the New Covenant of the Gospel, to which nothing can be added, from
which nothing can be taken away, by anyone who has determined to live by the Gospel
Scripture came to be seen as a fixed collection of authoritative books, and it was
believed to be presumptuous to add to the collection.(39)
While the ideas of a canon became more clear, only the core described previously was
certain. Revelation in particular was attacked by many because Montanism had made
apocalyptic material suspect. Gaius of Rome, an early third century churchman, attacked
the inclusion of the Gospel of St. John, Hebrews, and Revelation on anti-Montanist grounds
(he ascribed St. John's Gospel and Revelation to Cerinthus, a Gnostic heretic who was a
contemporary of St. John).(40) In general, however,
apocalyptic material, while treated with caution, was not considered as suspect in the
West as in the East. The Shepherd was dropped from the Western canon; the Revelation of
Peter and the Revelation of John were both challenged. However, in the East (the Greek
speaking parts of the world and Egypt), there was nearly universal refusal to allow
apocalyptic writings into the canon until Western influence began to sway the Eastern
Christians in the fourth century. Moreover, Hebrews was rejected in the West because it
was used by the Montanists to justify their harsh penetential system and because the West
was not certain of its authorship. Hebrews was not accepted in the West until the fourth
century under the influence of St. Athanasius.(41)
Origen (c. 185-c. 254), the most influential Biblical commentator of the first three
centuries of Christianity, categorized books into three categories: those acknowledged by
all the churches, the disputed books which some churches accepted, and the spurious books.
The acknowledged books were the four gospels, Acts, the thirteen Pauline epistle, I Peter,
I John, and Revelation. The disputed books were II Peter, II John, III John, James, and
Jude.(42) He may have considered Barnabas, Didache,
and the Shepherd canonical as well-he used the word "scripture" for them. Both
Bruce and von Campenhausen indicate that Origen did view them as canonical (although,
Origen became more cautious about both Revelation and the Shepherd in later life), while
Davis states that even though Origen used the word "scripture" for them, Origen
"did not consider them canonical."(43)
Origen personally came to consider Hebrews as canonical, stating
In the epistle entitle To the Hebrews the diction does not exhibit the
characteristic roughness of speech or phraseology admitted by the Apostle himself, the
construction of the sentences is closer to Greek usage, as anyone capable of recognizing
differences of style would agree. On the other hand the matter of the epistle is
wonderful, and quite equal to the Apostle's acknowledged writings: the truth of this would
be admitted by anyone who has read the Apostle carefully ... If I were asked my personal
opinion, I would say that the matter is the Apostle's but the phraseology and construction
are those of someone who remembered the Apostle's teaching and wrote his own
interpretation of what his master had said. So if any church regards this epistle as
Paul's, it should be commended for so doing, for the primitive Church had every
justification for handing it down as his. Who wrote the epistle is known to God alone: the
accounts that have reached us suggest that it was either Clement, who became Bishop of
Rome, or Luke, who wrote the gospel and Acts.(44)
Origen's views were important in making Hebrews widely accepted throughout the East; it
had previously been accepted as Pauline and canonical only in Egypt. In time, Eastern
acceptance led the West to accept Hebrews as scripture.(45)
For instance, Eusebius wrote in his History of the Church (c. 325) that Paul
was obviously and unmistakeably the author of fourteen epistles, but we must not shut
our eyes to the fact that some authorities have rejected the Epistle to the Hebrews,
pointing out that the Roman Church denies it is the work of Paul.(46)
Eusebius' view of the canon was very similar to Origen's, both for the canon's bounds
and for the method of specifying the bounds-the main difference being Eusebius' outright
rejection of Barnabas, Didache, and the Shepherd. Eusebius followed Origen's
classification of alleged New Testament books, stating
It will be well, at this point, to classify the New Testament writings already referred
to. We must, of course, put first the holy quartet of gospels, followed by the Acts of the
Apostles. The next place in the list goes to Paul's epistles, and after them we must
recognize the epistle called I John; likewise I Peter. To these may be added, if it is
though proper, the Revelation of John, the arguments about which I shall set out when the
time comes. These are classed as Recognized Books. Those that are disputed, yet familiar
to most, include the epistles known as James, Jude, and II Peter, and those called II and
III John, the work either of the evangelist or of someone else with the same name.
Among Spurious Books must be placed the `Acts' of Paul, the `Shepherd', and the
`Revelation of Peter'; also the alleged `Epistle of Barnabas', and the `Teaching of the
Apostles' [Didache], together with the Revelation of John, if this seems the right place
for it; as I said before, some reject it, others included it among the Recognized Books.
Moreover, some have found a place in the list for the `Gospel of Hebrews', a book which
has a special appeal for those Hebrews who have accepted Christ. These would all be
classed with the Disputed Books, but I have been obliged to list the latter separately,
distinguishing those writings which according to the teaching of the Church are true,
genuine, and recognized, from those in a different category, not canonical but disputed,
yet familiar to most churchmen; for we must not confuse these with the writings published
by heretics under the name of the apostles, as containing either Gospels of Peter, Thomas,
Matthias, and several others besides these, or Acts of Andrew, John, and other apostles.
To none of these has any churchman of any generation ever seen fit to refer to his
writings. Again, nothing could be farther from apostolic usage than the type of
phraseology employed, while the ideas and implications of their contents are so
irreconcilable with true orthodoxy that they stand revealed as forgeries of heretics. It
follows that so far from being classed even among Spurious Books, they must be thrown out
as impious and beyond the pale.(47)
The final form of the canon was nearly at hand. Emperor Constantine's order for fifty
copies of scripture may have been important in the process. While their exact contents are
not certain, some surmise that these copies may have contained the 27 books of the final
New testament canon.(48) The canons of the council of
Laodicia (c. 363) accepted all the books of the final canon except Revelation.(49) The first list of canonical books of the New
Testament that exactly matches our own, having neither more nor fewer books, was contained
in St. Athanasius' Easter Letter of 367 which states that
Again it is not tedious to speak of the [books] of the New Testament. These are, the
four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the
Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one; of Peter, two; of
John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition there are fourteen Epistles of Paul,
written in this order. The first, to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians; after these,
to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians;
after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy;
one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John.(50)
In addition to the books of the canon, he mentions that other books are profitable for
that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but
appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for
instruction in the word of godliness. The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and
Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles
[Didache], and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the
latter being [merely] read.(51)
The ancient distrust of the Western Church for Hebrews continued. It was probably St.
Athanasius' influence during his stay in Rome (he fled there in 339) which helped convince
many influential Western churchmen to accept Hebrews as canonical, although not
necessarily Pauline. A diversity of opinion as to its authorship continued, but it was
The final acceptance of exactly this set of 27 books by everyone except the Nestorians
(who accept five fewer) and the Ethiopians (who accept more) took some time particularly
for Hebrews (because the Roman church was unsure of its authorship), Revelations (because
it was easily misused by those with apocalyptic fantasies), and Jude (because it quoted
from the apocryphal book of Enoch). While II Peter previously was the most disputed book,(53) by this point, it was less controversial to the
Christian mainstream. For instance, St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315-386) and St. Gregory
Nazianzus (329-389) accepted all 27 books except Revelation. On the other hand, in 405,
Pope Innocent I wrote a letter which affirms a 26 book canon that excluded Hebrews.(54) Clearly, it took some time to achieve universal
acceptance among the Orthodox for Hebrews in the West, and Revelation in the East.
The Western Council of Hippo (393) was probably the first council to specify the limits
of the canon, and it accepted the 27 book canon, allowing only them to be read in church
under the name of canonical writings. It "permitted, however, that the passions of
martyrs, be read when their [martyrdoms'] anniversaries are celebrated."(55)
Some accepted larger canons as well. St. Epiphanius of Salamis (c. 315-415) accepted
all 27 books but also accepted the Wisdom books of Solomon and Ben Sirach. The late fourth
century Codex Sinaiticus included Barnabas and the Shepherd "at the end but
with no indication of secondary status." The early fifth century Codex
Alexandrinus made "no demarcation between I and II Clement" and the rest of
the New Testament. St. Jerome (c. 342-420), the translator of the Vulgate and one of the
greatest scholars of the early church, seemed to believe that Barnabas and the Shepherd
were worthy of inclusion. However, he recognized that they were not in the accepted canon,
and he did not believe that anyone had the authority to add them. He also noted that many
still rejected Jude because of its quotation from Enoch.(56)
The canon of the Syriac-speaking churches in the third century included the Diatessaron
and the fourteen Pauline epistles. In the early fifth century, the Peshitta became the
official text of Syriac-speaking churches. It replaced the Diatessaron with the four
gospels. It contained the 22 books of our New Testament other than II Peter, II John, III
John, Jude, and Revelation. (The Peshitta is traditionally held to be the work of Rabulla,
bishop of Edessa from 412-435. However, it probably built on work of the previous
century.) The Nestorian church still uses this 22 book canon. In 508, the Jacobite branch
of the Syriac church came to accept the standard 27 book canon.(57)
The longest Biblical canon belongs to the Ethiopian church. Their Old Testament
contains the Septuagintal books, Jubilees, the Ethiopic Enoch, IV Edras, the Rest of the
Words of Baruch, the Ascension of Isaiah, and other books. Their New Testament includes
the Shepherd and other books. Some manuscripts of the Ethiopian New Testament include the
Epistle of Eusebius to Carpianus and the Eusebian Canons which were written by Eusebius,
bishop of Caesarea (c. 260-c. 340).(58)
Thus, we see that producing the final form of the New Testament canon took a
considerable period of time. It took still longer to produce near universal agreement.
However, to this day, there exist ancient churches which have either never accepted
certain books or which accept more than 27 books. The canon in its present form was not a
self-evident fact, but the result of a prolonged struggle-we reap the fruits of other
The reasons for formalizing the canon included determining which books should be used
liturgically and in theological and moral reasoning, heretical stimuli (e.g. Marcionism,
Montanism), the "missionary stimulus" which required determining which books to
translate, and the need to know which books must be preserved at all costs in persecution.
There were a number of principles used in formalizing the canon. Apostolic authority
(which required that the book have been written by an apostle, by someone associated with
an apostle-for instance St. Mark and St Luke, or by a member of the Lord's family) was a
crucial principle in determining canonicity. A corollary was that the book had to be from
the apostolic age. It had to conform to Orthodoxy as opposed to Docetism and Gnosticism.
Regular use of a book liturgically was also an important principle-and the book must have
been widely accepted for a long time and in many places. Note that liturgical use both
provided a powerful motivation to produce the canon (since knowing what books ought be
used in public worship was critical) and was itself an important determinant in setting
the bounds of the canon.(59)
The complexity of the process demonstrates that we can know that all and only those
books that belonged in the canon are in fact in the canon only because we know that God is
faithful, that He will give us all that is necessary for salvation, that He promised to
protect His Church so that the gates of hell will be impotent to prevail against her. If,
however, we accept that He led the Church aright in the matter of preserving the apostolic
teachings, it seems logical that He must have preserved His bride from errors in other
matters as well. The myth of the Church abandoning its Master's precepts shortly after the
apostolic age or after the beginning of the Constantinian era must be abandoned by those
who wish to affirm the New Testament scripture for those scriptures were recognized by
Many practices that are deplored by Protestants were common before the beginning of the
fourth century, a time when many if not most Christians rejected inclusion of at least
some of the following books in the canon: Hebrews, James, II Peter, II and III John, Jude,
and Revelations; while others accepted additional books like Barnabas and the Shepherd.
For instance, the practice of praying for the dead comes to Christianity from Judaism.
This practice is testified to in II Macabees 13:42-45 (RSV) which tells how Judas
Maccabeus (d. 161 B.C.)(60) and his men
turned to prayer beseeching that the sin which had been committed [by their dead
comrades] might be wholly blotted out... In doing this he acted very well and honorably,
taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen
would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if
he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in
godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore, he made atonement for the dead,
that they might be delivered from their sins.
II Timothy 1: 16-18 may also be a prayer for a departed believer; I Corinthians 15: 29
speaks not merely of prayer for the dead, but even of baptism on their behalf. Many
inscriptions in the catacombs contain prayers for the souls of the departed-for instance
an inscription for "the dear and well-loved Sirica" concludes with the prayer
"Lord Jesus, remember our daughter." The inscription for Agape pleads, "I
beg you to pray when you come here and to entreat Father and Son in all your prayers. Do
not fail to remember dear Agape so that God Almighty may keep Agape safe forever."(61) The early liturgies typically commemorated the
dead. The writings of Tertullian (c. 160-c. 225), St. Cyprian (d. 258), and others
demonstrate that private prayers for the dead were also common. While the fourth century
heretic Aerius denied the "efficacy and legitimacy" of such prayers, his views
on this and other matters were rejected.(62)
Similarly, requesting the prayers of the departed was also common. For instance, the
catacombs contain inscriptions like "Atticus, sleep in peace, carefree in your
security, and pray earnestly for our sinful selves," and "Holy Xystus, have
Aurelius Repentinus in mind during your prayers." Inscriptions like "Paul and
Peter, pray for Victor" appear frequently.(63)
The tangible expressions of God's grace through the relics of the saints is attested to
in both the Old and New Testaments. For example, II King 13: 21 (RSV) states,
And as a man was being buried, lo, a marauding band was seen and the man was cast into
the grave of Elisha; and as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived and
stood on his feet.
The woman with the issue of blood was healed by touching Christ's garment and not his
person (Matthew 9: 21). Also, Acts 19: 11-12 (RSV) states that
And God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul so that handkerchiefs or aprons
were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits
came out of them.
This knowledge that God's grace is associated in a special way with objects from holy
persons led the early church to pay great respect to the relics of the martyrs. Thus, in
The Martyrdom of Polycarp 18: 2, 3, we read that after St. Polycarp (traditionally c.
69-c. 155)(64) was killed and his body burned, his
later took up his bones, more precious than costly stones and finer than gold, and
deposited them in a suitable place. And there, in so far as it is possible, the Lord will
grant that we come together with joy and gladness and celebrate the birthday of his
martyrdom both in memory of those who have contended in former times and for the exercise
and training of those who will do so in the future.(65)
Here, we see both the honoring of relics and the celebration of saints' days.
These practices, though an integral part of the faith of the early Christian martyrs
are tragically a source of divisions among Orthodox and Protestants. It is not because
they differ on the central role of scripture in the life of faith. Both Protestants and
Orthodox affirm that
everything in the Church is judged by the Bible... Nothing in the Church may contradict
it. Everything in the Church must be biblical; for the Church, in order to be the Church,
must be wholly expressive of the Bible; or more accurately, it must be wholly faithful and
expressive of that reality to which the Bible is itself the scriptural witness.(66)
The point of disagreement is, then, not on scripture's role, but on the proper method
of interpreting scripture. The differences comes not because one group studies scripture
more carefully and respects it more. Commendable as such diligence is, careful and
respectful study, while indispensable, is insufficient to discover the truths of the
Christian faith if one comes to the Bible with the wrong set of assumptions. Most Orthodox
and Protestant believers must admit that the Jehovah's Witnesses study scripture more
carefully than they do-the Jehovah's Witnesses may even respect it more. However, like all
of us, the Jehovah's Witnesses come to scripture with a set of presuppositions-this cannot
be avoided since
complete objectivity is impossible, even in perceiving the physical environment. What
one knows already, one's presuppositions and expectations will not only have a tremendous
effect on what one sees and how one interprets but may even determine what one
The Jehovah's Witnesses provide a sobering warning that one's devotion to scripture is
not enough-the presuppositions of their tradition prevent them from seeing scripture
clearly despite their devotion to it. It is also clear, for instance, that the
presuppositions of an early Christian who grew up in a Judaism that was used to praying
for the dead will be quite different from those of a twentieth century Protestant who grew
up in a culture that has deplored prayer for the dead for over four-hundred years. Both
would read the New Testament as justifying their status quo, but the status
quo being justified would be quite different. However, it makes more sense to assume
that the interpretations of the early church are correct; being closer to the founding of
the faith, they share more of the presuppositions of Christ and the apostles, both in
terms of general cultural assumptions and in terms of oral tradition.(68) Only scripture is ultimately authoritative for the defense of
doctrine, but only with tradition can we obtain the correct presuppositions so that we can
interpret scripture aright. Personal interpretation leads only to the chaos of literally
tens of thousands of denominations-established because each founder, having his own
personal presuppositions, taught a somewhat different gospel.
In avoiding the pitfall of incorrect interpretation, then, good intentions are
insufficient. Wisdom, accurate information, and the leading of the Spirit are all
required-if one is missing any of them, one will almost certainly go astray. However, an
accurate reading of history tells us that the Church existed about twenty years with no
New Testament books; roughly 150 years before most of the books of the final New Testament
canon were known and accepted by some important churchmen-and then, they accepted
some additional books and did not know or knew and rejected some of the 27 books; almost
340 years before the first list that exactly matches the final canon was produced; and
almost 480 years before the present canon was accepted by the last major group to resist
(other than the Nestorians who reject five books to this day). Clearly, it was possible
for people to be Christians with something less than total clarity about the contents of
the New Testament. They were able to be Christians because they belonged to the Church
which existed before the New Testament existed and has frequently been forced to make do
with no written copies in whole areas due to persecution or poverty. The Church preserved
and preserves the teaching of Christ and of His apostles, and not only the words on the
pages of sacred scripture, but also the correct set of presuppositions, the authentic
tradition which is required to interpret scripture correctly. Scripture is only properly
interpreted in the context of the Church. If one's presuppositions are leading one to
conclusions that differ from those of the early Church, one needs to change one's
presuppositions. The simplest and safest way to do this is to learn and obey the tradition
of the Church.
"Books that Almost Made It," Christian History, 43 (1994), p. 30-31.
Cha[dwick], H[enry]. "Christianity Before the Schism of 1054," Encyclopedia
Britannica:Macropaedia, 1977 edition.
Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church. New York: Penguin, 1993.
Cross, F. L. and E. A. Livingston, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian
Church. Oxford: Oxford Press, 1974.
D[avis], H. G[rady]. "Biblical Literature," Encyclopedia
Britannica:Macropaedia, 1977 edition.
Eusebius. The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, trans. G. A.
Williamson. New York: Penguin, 1989.
Geisler, Norman and William Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible. Chicago:
Harris, R. Laird, Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible: An Historical and
Exegetical Study. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1971.
Hopko, Thomas. "The Bible in the Orthodox Church."' St. Vladamir's
Theological Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 1-2, 1970, pp. 66-99.
Louth, Andrew. "Who's Who in Eusebius" in The History of the Church from
Constantine to Christ. New York: Penguin, 1989.
May, Herbert and Bruce Metzger, The New Oxford Study Bible. New York: Oxford
Meyendorff, John. "Does Christian Tradition Have a Future." St.
Vladamir's Theological Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 3, 1982, pp. 139-154.
Milburn, Robert. Early Christian Art and Architecture. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1988.
Roberts, Alexander and James Donaldson, ed., The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols.
Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981.
Sanford, Mary. "An Orthodox View of Biblical Criticism." Sourozh, 26
(November 1986), pp. 25-32.
Schaff, Philip and Henry Wace, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (2nd
series), 14 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982.
Sparks, Jack. The Apostolic Fathers. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson,
Thiede, Carsten Peter. "A Testament is Born," Christian History, 43
(1994), pp. 24-29.
von Campenhausen, Hans. The Formation of the Christian Bible. trans. J. A.
Baker. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972.
V[bus], A[rthur]. "Eastern Christianity, Independent Churches of," Encyclopedia
Britannica:Macropaedia, 1977 edition.
(1) F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingston, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church
(Oxford: Oxford Press, 1974), pp. 134, 300, 544, 1365. Herbert May and Bruce Metzger, ed.,
The New Oxford Study Bible (New York: Oxford Press, 1977), pp. 1286, 1433, 1484,
1489, 1490, 1493. Note that I am rejecting these sources' second century date for II
Peter. It is traditionally ascribed to St. Peter, and possible citations from it exist in
I Clement and Barnabas, both of which were written in the first century-see scripture
index in Jack Sparks, ed., The Apostolic Fathers (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas
Nelson, 1978), p. 328, particularly to the similarities to II Peter 3: 4, 8 in those
(2) Carsten Peter Thiede, "A Testament is Born," Christian History, 43
(1994), 28. F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, Illinois:
InterVarsity Press, 1988), p. 215.
(3) Norman Geisler and William Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago:
Moody, 1986), p. 313.
(4) Hans von Campenhausen, The Formation of the Christian Canon, trans. J. A. Baker
(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), p. 167.
(5) von Campenhausen, p. 167. Cross and Livingston, p. 401.
(6) Cross and Livingston, p. 7. Eusebius, The History of the Church from Christ to
Constantine, trans. G. A. Williamson (New York: Penguin, 1989), p. 88.
(7) von Campenhausen, p. 121.
(8) Ibid, p. 121.
(9) Eusebius, pp. 102-104.
(10) von Campenhausen, p. 130.
(11) von Campenhausen, pp. 185, 202. Cross and Livingston, p. 713. The books he used will be
discussed later in the paper.
(12) Cross and Livingston, pp. 400, 1067. Davis. von Campenhausen, p. 203 states that Acts,
too, was included in the third century Syrian canon.
(13) H[enry] Cha[dwick], "Christianity Before the Schism of 1054," Encyclopedia
Britannica: Macropaedia, 1977 ed.
(14) Thiede, p. 27. The standard dating was previously c. 200.
(15) Bruce, pp. 130-131.
(16) Cross and Livingston, p. 870.
(17) von Campenhausen, p. 153. Bruce, p. 148.
(18) von Campenhausen, pp. 151, 152, 155, 156, 159, 160.
(19) A mission repeated in our day by those on a "quest for a historical Jesus" and
those infatuated with higher criticism.
(20) Bruce, p. 152. von Campenhausen, p. 161.
(21) Bruce, p. 152.
(22) Cross and Livingston, p. 770. Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (New York:
Penguin, 1993), p. 77.
(23) H. G[rady] D[avis], "Biblical Literature," Encyclopedia
Britannica:Macropaedia, 1977 ed.
(24) von Campenhausen, p. 171.
(25) Ibid, pp. 172, 186.
(26) Ibid, pp. 189, 196, 201.
(27) Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, ed. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, (Grand
Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), I, 599-602. These pages contain an index to scriptural
references in St. Irenaeus. The index showed more books being cited than some of my
secondary sources (e.g. Davis) indicated.
(28) von Campenhausen, p. 219.
(29) Davis. Cross and Livingston, p. 303.
(30) Bruce, p. 190.
(31) von Campenhausen, p. 213, 294.
(32) Ibid, p. 327.
(33) R. Laird Harris, Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible: An Historical and
Exegetical Study (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1971), p. 217.
(34) Davis. von Campenhausen, p. 244. Bruce, pp. 159-161. A translation of the Muratorian
Canon appears in Roberts and Donaldson, V, 603, 604.
(35) Bruce, pp. 161, 166. van Campenhausen, p. 259.
(36) "Books that Almost Made It," Christian History, 43 (1994), 30.
(37) Henry Chadwick, 1993, pp. 52, 53. Andrew Louth, "Who's Who in Eusebius" in The
History of the Church from Christ to Constantine (New York: Penguin, 1989), pp. 396,
(38) Eusebius, p. 160, 163.
(39) von Campenhausen, p. 230.
(40) von Campenhausen, p. 238. Louth, p. 369. Eusebius, p. 91.
(41) von Campenhausen, pp. 232, 233, 235, 237. Bruce, p. 221.
(42) Bruce, pp. 192, 193. Davis. Cross and Livingston, p. 1008.
(43) von Campenhausen, p. 320. Bruce, p. 194. Davis.
(44) Eusebius, p. 202.
(45) von Campenhausen, pp. 232, 233.
(46) Eusebius, p. 66.
(47) Ibid, p. 88.
(48) Bruce, pp. 203, 205. Geisler and Nix, p. 282.
(49) Bruce, p. 210.
(50) Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (2nd series),
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978), IV, 552.
(51) Ibid, p. 552. The "[Didache]" interpolation is mine, while
"[merely]" appeared in the translation. Note that while the vast majority of
Christians agree on the books of the New Testament canon, there is great disagreement to
this day on the bounds of the Old Testament.
(52) Bruce, p. 221. Cross and Livingston, p. 101.
(53) Geisler and Nix, p. 299. It was disputed because of doubts that is was a genuine writing
of St. Peter due to stylistic differences between I and II Peter.
(54) Norman Geisler and William Nix, p. 104. Bruce, pp. 211, 212, 234. Cross and Livingston,
pp. 369, 599.
(55) Bruce, p. 232.
(56) Bruce, p. 213, 214, 227. Cross and Livingston, p. 309, 310, 464, 731. Davis.
(57) Cross and Livingston, p. 1067. Bruce, p. 215. Davis.
(58) A[rthur] V[bus], "Eastern Christianity, Independent Churches of," Encyclopedia
Britannica: Macropaedia, 1977 ed. Cross and Livingston, pp. 475, 481.
(59) Geisler and Nix, p. 277. Bruce, pp. 256-269. von Campenhausen, p. 331.
(60) Cross and Livingston, p. 763.
(61) Robert Milburn, Early Christian Art and Architecture (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1988), pp. 36, 37.
(62) Cross and Livingston, pp. 367, 381, 1352.
(63) Milburn, p. 38.
(64) Cross and Livingston, p. 1107. Some following Eusebius place his death in the reign of
Marcus Aurelius (161-180) and his birth a corresponding amount later. His birth year is
estimated using his trial statement that he had served Christ for 86 years.
(65) Sparks, p. 148.
(66) Thomas Hopko,"The Bible in the Orthodox Church," St. Vladamir's
Theological Quarterly, Vol 14, No. 1-2 (1970), 66, 67.
(67) Mary Sanford, "An Orthodox View of Biblical Criticism," Sourozh, 26
(November 1986), 30. Emphasis in the original.
(68) "the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by
letter" II Thessalonians 2:15 (RSV)
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