10 Misconceptions about the NT Canon: #5: “Early Christians Disagreed Widely over the Books Which Made It into the Canon”

augustine refuting heretic

This is the fifth installment of a blog series announced here.

1934 was a big year for Germany.  It was the year that Adolf Hitler became the Führer and complete head of the German nation and the Nazi party.  And, as we all know, it wasn’t long after that time, that Germany invaded Poland and began World War II.

But 1934 was a significant year for another reason.  Very quietly, behind the scenes, a book was published that would change the landscape of early Christian studies for years to come.  Walter Bauer published his now famous monograph, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity.   Compared to Hitler’s rise, this was not very newsworthy.  And Bauer’s book did not have much of an impact at first.  But, in 1971 it was translated into English and since that time things have radically changed in the academy of the English speaking world.

As is well known now, Bauer’s main thesis was that early Christianity was a bit of a mess.  It was a theological quagmire.  No one could get along; no one could agree.  There was in-fighting and competition between various competing factions, all warring it out about what really constituted “Christianity.”  Thus, for Bauer, there was no such thing as Christianity (singular) during this time, but only Christianities (plural).   And each of these Christianities, argues Bauer, had its own set of books.   Each had its own writings that it valued and thought were Scripture.   After the dust settled, one particular group, and their books, won the theological war.  But, why should we think these are the right books?   These are just the books of the theological winners.

Bauer’s thesis has seen a strong resurgence in recent years, particularly in the writings of scholars like Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrman, and Helmut Koester.  And it is the basis for a very common misconception about the NT Canon, namely that there was very little agreement over the books that made it into the canon until the fourth or fifth century.  Before that, we are told, early Christianity was somewhat of a literary free for all.  No one could agree on much of anything.

But was that really the case?  Several considerations:

1.  A core NT canon existed very early.   As I noted in my prior blog post in this series (see here), there was a core canon of NT books that was well-established by the early to middle second century.  These would have included the four gospels, the epistles of Paul (at least 10, if not 13), and a handful of other books.  Although discussions about some of the smaller books would continue on for a while, the core books were not really ever seriously disputed. John Barton comments, “Astonishingly early, the great central core of the present New Testament was already being treated as the main authoritative source for Christians.  There is little to suggest that there were any serious controversies about the Synoptics, John, or the major Pauline epistles.”[1]

 If so, then the idea that Christians disagreed widely over canonical books simply isn’t accurate.  At most, this occurred for just a handful of books.

2. Use of apocryphal books is not evidence of widespread disagreement.  One of the most popular tactics in modern scholarship is to demonstrate that early church fathers used apocryphal books and then, on this basis, declare that there was no agreement about the canonical books.  For instance, Geoffrey Hahneman rightly observes that “Christian writers of the second century refer to many other gospels beside the canonical four.”[2]  However, Hahnemen then draws an unexpected conclusion from this fact: “This would seem unlikely if the Fourfold Gospel canon had already been established.”[3]  But, how does this follow? Hahneman never explains how the mere use of non-canonical Jesus tradition is evidence that the fourfold gospel was not established. Why are the two mutually exclusive?  Apparently Hahneman is operating under the assumption that the adoption of certain books as canonical (say the four gospels) somehow means that you can never again use material that falls outside these books.   But, it is unclear where this assumption comes from and Hahneman never offers an argument for it.

When we examine the Church Fathers more closely it is clear that some of them were quite willing to use apocryphal gospels, but, at the same time, they were very clear that only our four gospels were to be received as canonical.  Clement of Alexandria is a perfect example of this practice.  He is comfortable using apocryphal gospels, but is always clear that they are not on par with the canonical four.

3. Instances of disagreement over canonical books are not necessarily evidence that such disagreement is widespread.   A second kind of argument used by some scholars is to appeal to particular instances of canonical dissent or disagreement and use those instances as evidence that there is no broader unity about the canon.  Indeed, one gets the impression that it would require an extremely high (if not unanimous) amount of agreement about a book before these scholars would regard its canonical status as decided.  For instance, Hahneman rejects the existence of the fourfold gospel canon by appealing to the third-century orthodox theologian Gaius of Rome who supposedly rejected the gospel of John as a work of Cerinthus.  But, does the broad acknowledgement of a fourfold gospel require zero disagreement?   Does the existence of some objections to John’s gospel override the evidence that it was widely received elsewhere?  With this sort of standard in place, then we would never be able to say that we have a canon, even in the modern day.  There will always be some disagreement.

Another example of a place where disagreements are overplayed is Origen’s comments on 2&3 John where he acknowledges that “not all say that these are genuine.”[4]  Although Hahneman uses this comment to point out that universal agreement on these epistles has not yet been achieved, he entirely overlooks the implications of Origen’s comments in the other direction, namely that apparently most Christians do consider them genuine—including Origen himself.   The phrase “not all say” indicates that Origen is simply noting that there are exceptions to a more broadly established trend.   Thus, it is misleading to use this passage as evidence that John’s letters were not regarded as canonical.  That is more than this language can bear. At most it reveals that in certain quarters of the church some disagreements over these books continued to occur (which is hardly surprising).

In sum, there is impressive evidence for widespread agreement over the core canonical books from a very early time.  Most of the disagreements dealt with only a handful of books—2 Peter, 2-3 John, Jude, Revelation. But even these disagreements should not be overplayed.  We should not be too quick to assume that disagreements over a book are due to the fact that its canonical status is undecided.   On the contrary, sometimes disagreements are not so much over what should be included in the canon, but are over which books are already in the canon.  As David Trobisch observes, “The critical remarks of the church fathers can be better interpreted as a historical critical reaction to an existing publication.”[5]

[1] Barton, Spirit and the Letter, 18.

[2] Hahneman, The Muratorian Fragment, 94.

[3] Hahneman, The Muratorian Fragment, 94.

[4] Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 6.25.10.

[5] Trobisch, The First Edition of the New Testament, 35 (emphasis mine).


10 Misconceptions about the NT Canon: #5: “Early Christians Disagreed Widely over the Books Which Made It into the Canon” — 7 Comments

  1. Pingback: A common misconception: “Early Christians Disagreed Widely over the Books Which Made It into the Canon” | Canon Fodder « thereformedmind

  2. Dear Michael,

    Excellent post.

    I find that the attempt to de-normalize the present NT Canon is another attempt to validate antinomianism.

    For instance:
    1) The attempt of Marcion to limit the NT Canon to Luke and Paul’s 13 epistles (ca. 140 AD).

    2) The Gnostics had also several commentaries on the Gospel of John about mid-second century AD.

    3) The lack of the Pastorial Epistles in P46 is used to declare that Paul did not write the Pastoral Epistles. All of this to say that the Pastoral Epistles did not fit in their view of the Early Church. Presuppositions to the forefront.

    4) A lot of these attempts is due to requirements in doctoral programs to write a thesis that promotes (?) or articulates something NEW in the field of Biblical Studies whether it be in theology, linguistics, hermeneutics, science (recent post on Theistic Evolution) in order to justify heresy and accommodation to modern “scholarship” so-called. This would especially include the “anti-Semitism” of most of German Scholarship during the late 19th Century going forward (cf. Anders Gerdmar: Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism: German Biblical Interpretation and the Jews, from Herder and Semler to Kittel and Bultmann (Brill, 2009); and the reveiw by Kevin Edgecombe on his blog, Biblicalia, beginning June 2009).

    5) The early use and acceptance of Revelation as written by the Apostle John, ca. eary second century AD to it’s denial by Eusebius, et al because of the supposedly “literal heaven and earth (Rev. 20).

    I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

  3. Thanks, Dr. Kruger. Your point about use of other books brings to mind the graph in Hill’s Who Chose the Gospels? which plots the number of references to gospels by Clement of Alexandria (I think it was him, don’t have the book in front of me). The upshot is that his citations of the canonical gospels completely dwarfs the few citations he gives the non-canonicals. Hill characterizes him as “cosmopolitan” in that he deals with the documents and ideas circulating in his own context.

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  5. “But, how does this follow? Hahneman never explains how the mere use of non-canonical Jesus tradition is evidence that the fourfold gospel was not established.”

    I’m guessing his thinking is that if the early writers recognized the canonical nature of the four gospels then they’d have no need to go outside them in order to support any doctrinal argument.

    Would you appeal to apocryphal books today in support of a doctrinal argument? I wouldn’t. Why not? Because I assign special significance to the canon that I don’t extend to apocryphal writings. Namely, the canon is the living Word of God and the latter isn’t. Certainly most theologically conservative believers operate this way; the Bible is special and trustworthy in a way apocryphal writings are decidedly not.

    So, then, if I were to appeal to apocryphal writings in the course of making a doctrinal argument it would seem reasonable to conclude that I didn’t hold the above view with respect to the canon.

    It really depends on the context in which the early writer was appealing to apocryphal writings. They can be useful for some things while not being useful for others (at least, in light of a high view of the canon).

    • Thanks for the comments. A few points:

      1. First, whether we would use apocryphal literature today is beside the point. We are asking the question of how the early fathers viewed literature, so it is their beliefs we are exploring.

      2. We do use “apocryphal” literature today in one sense, if by that we simply mean books outside the canon. In arguments over doctrinal matters one might appeal to Calvin’s Institutes, or Augustine’s COnfessions in a manner not unlike the way early church fathers appealed to 1 Clement or the Epistle of Barnabas.

      3. You say, “So, then, if I were to appeal to apocryphal writings in the course of making a doctrinal argument it would seem reasonable to conclude that I didn’t hold the above view with respect to the canon.” That may be true, unless you expressly told me otherwise! In fact, this is exactly what Origen and Clement of Alexandria did. They used apocryphal literature as helpful/useful books, and then expressly declared they were not to be seen as canonical. So, we can’t say that such a view is impossible when this is precisely the view of these church fathers.

      4. In our modern day, we probably give too little attention to books outside the canon and forget that they can be useful/helpful. We too quickly assume that if a book is outside the canon that it is irrelevant or heretical. Of course, some apocryphal books were very much heretical (e.g., Gospel of Thomas), but the church fathers condemned this book also. THey would not use just any apocrypal book.

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