Another Look at the Earliest Complete List of the Canon of the New Testament

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

July 12, 2016

Last year I posted an article entitled “What Is The Earliest Complete List of the Canon of the New Testament?”  In that post I argued, contrary to common opinion, that the earliest (nearly complete) list is not Athanasius’ Festal Letter in 367.  Instead, the earliest complete list occurs more than a century earlier in the writings of Origen (see picture).

My blog post was based off a fuller academic piece I wrote for the recent festschrift for Larry Hurtado, Mark Manuscripts and Monotheism (edited by Chris Keith and Dieter Roth; T&T Clark, 2015), entitled, “Origen’s List of New Testament Books in Homiliae on Josuam 7.1: A Fresh Look.”

Around 250 A.D., in his typical allegorical fashion, Origen used the story of Joshua to describe what seems to be the complete New Testament canon:

But when our Lord Jesus Christ comes, whose arrival that prior son of Nun designated, he sends priests, his apostles, bearing “trumpets hammered thin,” the magnificent and heavenly instruction of proclamation. Matthew first sounded the priestly trumpet in his Gospel; Mark also; Luke and John each played their own priestly trumpets. Even Peter cries out with trumpets in two of his epistles; also James and Jude. In addition, John also sounds the trumpet through his epistles [and Revelation], and Luke, as he describes the Acts of the Apostles. And now that last one comes, the one who said, “I think God displays us apostles last,” and in fourteen of his epistles, thundering with trumpets, he casts down the walls of Jericho and all the devices of idolatry and dogmas of philosophers, all the way to the foundations (Hom. Jos. 7.1).

So, why is this list not accepted by modern scholars?  Because some have argued that the list has been modified by Rufinus who translated Origen’s sermon on Joshua into Latin.  Rufinus, it is argued, changed the list to fit his own view of the New Testament a century later.

In my academic piece for the Hurtado festschrift I defended the reliability of Rufinus’ translation, arguing that there is no reason to think he has materially modified Origen’s view of the NT canon (see the article for the fuller argumentation).

I was pleased therefore to see the article by Edmon L. Gallagher in the latest issue of New Testament Studies entitled, “Origen via Rufinus on the New Testament Canon.”  In short, Gallagher’s study confirms my own conclusions, namely that Rufinus was (generally speaking) a reliable translator of Origen regarding the NT canon.

Gallagher covers much of the same ground as my earlier article, but he offers a more detailed analysis of Rufinus’ translation of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History–a topic I touched on more briefly.  His analysis explores the particular terminology used by Eusebius in Greek and the varied ways that Rufinus translated that terminology into Latin, showing that (as a whole) Rufinus was quite reliable.

And if Rufinus was reliable in his translation of Eusebius then we have reasons to think he was also reliable in his translation of Origen’s Homilies on Joshua. Gallagher concludes:

On balance it seems probable that Rufinus’ translation of Origen’s Homilies on Joshua contains a list of New Testament books because the translator found such a list–very similar to what he provided in Latin–in the Greek copies of the homilies lying before him (475).

In other words, it seems that we have good reasons to think that Origen’s list of NT books in the Homilies on Joshua is authentic.  And therefore we have good reason to think that there was a fairly well-established NT canon further back than many have thought.

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