The Complete Series: 10 Misconceptions About the NT Canon

New Testament

For the last 3-4 months I have been working through a blog series entitled “10 Misconceptions About the New Testament Canon.”  This series exams some common beliefs out there in the academic (and lay-level) communities that prove to be problematic upon closer examination.

Although the series is not quite finished (two more to go), I have received several requests to have it all one place.  So, here is the list.  I will update this list as we go along.  Also, there will be a link to this list under the “Blog Series” heading in the left margin of my website.

  1. The Term “Canon” Can Only Refer to a Fixed, Closed List of Books
  2. Nothing in Early Christianity Dictated That There Would be a Canon
  3. The New Testament Authors Did Not Think They Were Writing Scripture
  4. New Testament Books Were Not Regarded as Scriptural Until Around 200 A.D.
  5. Early Christians Disagreed Widely over the Books Which Made It into the Canon
  6. In the Early Stages, Apocryphal Books Were as Popular as the Canonical Books
  7. Christians Had No Basis to Distinguish Heresy from Orthodoxy Until the Fourth Century
  8. Early Christianity was an Oral Religion and Therefore Would Have Resisted Writing Things Down
  9. The Canonical Gospels Were Certainly Not Written by the Individuals Named in Their Titles
  10. Athanasius’ Festal Letter (367 A.D.) is the First Complete List of New Testament Books


The Complete Series: 10 Misconceptions About the NT Canon — 3 Comments

  1. Dear Michael,

    1. It is an excellent that you will have all the links to the various posts on this topic.

    2. Below is from a comment from Larry Hurtado’s blog regarding “Early Christian Movements,”

    “Michael W. Holmes permalink
    I deployed basically the same “market” metaphor in my essay on the formation of “The Biblical Canon” (in The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies [OUP, 2008], 418-9):

    “If by 175 CE or so there was as yet no ‘canon’ in the sense of a closed collection of scriptures (Sundberg’s definition), there were, without question, emerging ‘protocanons’, different groupings of authoritative writings by which different strands of the Christian movement defined themselves—virtually always, it would seem, in conjunction with an accompanying hermeneutical perspective that shaped their interpretation. Each strand offered its own ‘take’ on what it meant to be a Christian, its own perspective on what the essence of Christianity was—often accompanied by a different sense of which writings counted as ‘scripture’.
    “Which of these options would thrive and prosper, which would not? Around 175, the answer was not obvious. Perhaps that is the point of this effort to look at the canon from the beginning forward, rather than from the end back: to realize that there was nothing particularly inevitable about how matters turned out. This in turn leads to a different question: instead of ‘how’ did a twenty-seven-book canon eventually emerge in the fourth century from the amorphous collection of writings visible two centuries earlier, perhaps the more interesting question becomes ‘why’ did this particular proposal carry the day?
    “Whatever a full answer to that question may look like,4 one part of the answer is clear: Irenaeus. The case that Irenaeus made (in his major work, Against Heresies) for seeing the ‘rule of faith’ and his core group of writings as the authentic and reliable transmitters of the teachings of Jesus and his ‘true disciples’ (Haer. 2. 32. 4) proved to be widely persuasive. Irenaeus was ‘but the pioneering representative of a method and approach which everywhere met an urgent need’, and Clement, Tertullian, and Hippolytus, among others, picked up and developed further his ideas concerning the central role of authoritative tradition (Campenhausen 1972: 210; also 208–9). With the support of such an able group of advocates, Irenaeus’s ‘answer’ eventually became the ‘mainstream’ answer.”
    4. One may suggest, as a start, that in a social context that valued tradition and stability, the ‘proto-orthodox’ proposal was apparently a more attractive ‘product’ with a more compelling rationale. Also, the proto-orthodox appear to have had a more effective and broadly based organization. Moreover, whatever factors led to the victory of Nicene Christianity over competing formulations likely assisted the closure of a New Testament canon favoured by the Nicene proponents.”

    I wouldn’t want to push the metaphor too hard, but it does offer, I think, an interesting and idea-generating angle from which to think about the narrative of early centuries of the Christian movement.”

    3. Now, what are your thoughts that Michael Holmes wrote?

    • Thanks, Bryant. I have a lot of appreciation and respect for Michael Holmes. He is correct that there were various proto-canons prior to 175. And I agree with the “market” metaphor–I think the orthodox books won because they proved to be more compelling (I would call this self-authenticating if we were to stick theological terms to it). However, I would have to disagree that there was no clear majority or core position within early Christianity. Sure, Gnostics had their own ‘scriptures’ but the acceptance of the core canonical books was much more widespread. As for Irenaeus being the architect of the NT canon, that is an idea that has been suggested by many. I am working on a chapter right now that pushes back against the idea that Irenaeus is the solution to this problem. Likewise, Chuck Hill’s fine book, Who Chose the Gospels?, also challenges the idea that Irenaeus is behind the development of the canon.

  2. Dear Michael,

    Thanks for your kind reply.

    I think that too often there is the tendency to push back the time of Orthodoxy away from the Apostolic Era. This is because of the presuppositions
    1) High Christology could not have developed so soon after the death of Jesus.
    2) Paul hijacked Christianity from that of Jesus.
    3) Anti-Semitism especially coming from the German school founded in the mid-19th Century to the present which denigrated the Jewishness that lay behind the Gospels and the authors of Scripture.