Last week I did a live “TV” interview with Ratio Christi on the topic, “Can We Trust the New Testament?” The interview covered a wide range of topics from textual criticism to bible contradictions to the development of the NT Canon. Here it is:
One of the most common misconceptions about the New Testament canon is that the authors of these writings had no idea that they were writing Scripture-like books. I dealt with this misconception on a general level here, showing that there was a clear apostolic self-awareness amongst the New Testament authors.
While this apostolic self-awareness may be easy to show for authors like Paul, what about the gospels which, technically speaking, are formally anonymous? Do their authors exhibit awareness that they were writing something like Scripture? To explore this further, let us just consider just one of our gospels, namely the Gospel of Matthew.
The first step is to get our expectations clear. We should not expect that Matthew would say something like, “I, Matthew, am writing Scripture as I write this book.” Gospels are a very different genre than epistles, and we would not expect the authors to provide the same type of direct and explicit statements about their own authority as Paul does in his letters. Indeed, the gospel authors are decidedly behind the scenes and only rarely make appearances within the flow of the story. [Read more…]
Although most discussions about the development of the canon focus on the patristic period (second century and later), there is much canonical gold yet to mine from the pages of the New Testament itself. Unfortunately, this step is often skipped.
There are a number of possible reasons for why it is skipped. But perhaps most people just assume that the whole idea of a “canon” is a late development anyway, and thus we wouldn’t expect to find anything about it in the New Testament books themselves.
Aside from the fact that such a position already presupposes an entire canonical “worldview” known as the extrinsic model (for my critique of this model see my book The Question of Canon), it keeps us from noticing some fascinating clues.
One passage that I think contains a number of intriguing clues is [Read more…]
One of the most-oft repeated ideas about the earliest Christians is that they believed that the Kingdom of God would come (apocalyptically) within their own lifetime. In fact Schweitzer famously argued that Jesus himself thought the world would end in his own lifetime; of course the world didn’t end and Jesus died disillusioned on the cross saying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).
In recent years, some have suggested that this belief in early Christianity would even have affected the development of the canon. If Christians thought the world would end in their own lifetime, then, it is argued, they would not have been interested in composing new scriptural books. Thus, the idea of a canon must be a later ecclesiastical development.
But, this argument simply doesn’t hold. [Read more…]
A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to join R.C. Sproul, Michael Haykin, and Stephen Nichols for the Ligonier 2017 Winter Conference. The theme was “Scripture in the Early Church.”
There were a number of great sessions on a variety of topics related to early Christianity, such as “Preaching God’s Word in the Early Church,” “Living God’s Word in the Early Church,” and “Heresy in the Early Church.”
My session was on “God’s Word in the Early Church,” where I explored the unique qualities of our four gospels over against apocryphal texts like the Gospel of Thomas. You can watch here: [Read more…]
Few issues in the study of the NT canon have generated more discussion (and disagreement) than that of the canon’s date. When were Christian writings first regarded as “Scripture”? When was the first time we can see that happening?
For many modern scholars, the key time is the end of the second century. Only then, largely due to the influence of Irenaeus, were these books first regarded as Scripture.
But, I think there is evidence that NT books were regarded as Scripture much earlier. And some of this evidence is routinely overlooked. A good example is the widely neglected text tucked away in 1 Tim 5:18:
For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and “The laborer deserves his wages.”
The first part of this quote comes from Deut 25:4, but where does the second part come from? There is one text, and one text only, that matches these words, namely the statement of Jesus in Luke 10:7.
Could 1 Timothy be citing Luke’s Gospel as Scripture?
I explore this issue extensively in my recent article, “First Timothy 5:18 and Early Canon Consciousness: Reconsidering a Problematic Text,” which appears in the new festschrift for my friend Stan Porter: The Language and Literature of the New Testament: Essays in Honor of Stanley E. Porter’s 60th Birthday, eds. Lois K. Fuller Dow, Craig A. Evans, Andrew W. Pitts (Leiden, E.J. Brill: 2017): 680-700. [Read more…]
Over the last decade, I have taught an elective here at the RTS Charlotte campus entitled “The Origin and Authority of the NT Canon.” We cover a variety of subjects related to the origins of the NT, including definition of canon, theology of canon, epistemology of canon, the historical reception of the canon, and so on.
It was this class that gave birth to my book, Canon Revisited (Crossway, 2012). I was unable to find a book on canon that answered the questions my students were asking. So, I decided to write one that did!
On of my favorite parts of the class has been a section where we explore early New Testament manuscripts and the way those manuscripts inform us about the history of the NT. We also read from high resolution photographs of P66–a late second-century copy of the Gospel of John (see inset photo). [Read more…]
There is little doubt that most people are confused by the book of Revelation. Perhaps is not surprising, then, that people are equally confused by its journey into the New Testament canon.
Revelation is one of those “debated” books in the early church, along with books like 2 Peter, 2-3 John, and Jude.
If you are looking for more on the canonical history of Revelation, I point you to my recent article entitled, “The Reception of the Book of Revelation in the Early Church” which has just come out in the new volume Book of Seven Seals: The Peculiarity of Revelation, its Manuscripts, Attestation and Transmission, eds. Thomas J. Kraus and Michael Sommer (Mohr Siebeck, 2016), 159-174. [Read more…]
One of the most profound challenges for Christians as we live in an ever-more-hostile world is how to properly defend the faith against the incessant attacks against it. And these attacks have taken their toll. We have seen far too many casualties over the years as people leave the church because they had doubts or questions that were never answered.
It is precisely this issue that is behind Andy Stanley’s recent sermon, “The Bible Told Me So” (preached Aug 28, 2016). Stanley, son of well-known Atlanta pastor, Charles Stanley, is the senior pastor of Northpoint Community Church in Alpharetta, GA.
Stanley’s concern in this sermon is for those who have experienced what he calls “deconversions”—people who went to church as a child but have drifted away from the faith as they have reached adulthood. They drifted away because they went to a church that refused to answer their difficult questions and insisted that they were “just supposed to have faith.”
There is little doubt that Stanley has put his finger on a critical issue for the church today, and he should be commended for it. We need to find a compelling way to address the questions and doubts people have about their faith without ducking the hard questions.
But while Stanley has correctly diagnosed the disease, serious questions remain about whether he has offered an adequate cure. Indeed, in many ways, his suggested cure becomes problematic enough that one begins to wonder whether it just might be more troubling than the disease itself.
So what is the cure that Stanley has offered? In brief, Christians need to stop basing their faith on the Bible. [Read more…]
How and when the early church recognized the 27 books in our New Testament has always been a fascinating topic for people. There is innate curiosity within us about why these books were regarded as Scripture and not others.
Unfortunately, the high level of interest in the New Testament canon is often combined with a high number of misconceptions about the canon. For anyone willing to search for it, the internet is packed with myths, mistakes, and misunderstandings about how the whole process really worked.
While there is no quick cure for such misconceptions, there is one essential key that really helps clear away the cobwebs. And that key is understanding the different categories of books in early Christianity.
We tend to think there are only two categories, those books that are “in” and those books that are “out.” But, early Christians were more nuanced than than this. In fact, they divided up books into four categories. And understanding these categories will clear up a good number of the misunderstandings of the way the canon developed.
We will take our cue from the four categories laid out by the well-known fourth century historian Eusebius in Hist. eccl. 3.25.1-7:
Next week, Aug 1-5, I will teach an elective at RTS Charlotte entitled, “The Origin and Authority of the New Testament Canon.”
In this class, we will be covering not just the history and development of the canon, but also its theological meaning, and its epistemological foundation. In other words, we will not only discuss when these books were recognized, but we will explore how we know which books belong and which do not.
So, the class will cover the various canonical models present in theological circles today, as well as responding to modern historical-critical scholars who attack its integrity.
One other interesting part of the course is that we will do in-class reading from high resolution photos of the Greek manuscript P66, an almost complete copy of John’s gospel dated c.200. This is one of the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament that we possess and provides a wonderful introduction to the world of ancient manuscripts. We will discuss not only the Greek text, but scribal habits, inscriptional features, nomina sacra, and more.
As one might guess, the base textbook for this class will my Canon Revisited (Crossway, 2012). But, I will also be using other texts and articles along the way.
Probably too late for many of you to consider taking this course, but if you are in the area, and have some free time, come and join us. You can read more about it here.
And, as an additional note, the class is being recorded by our Global Campus and should be available online in the year to come.
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:
I just received in the mail the latest issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. And I noticed that it contained my review of Monte Shanks’ recent volume, Papias and the New Testament (Pickwick, 2013). (I can’t keep track of when my book reviews appear!).
Seeing this review reminded me of one of the key debates in discussions of the emerging New Testament canon, namely whether Papias, the bishop of Hierapolis in the early second century, knew the apostle John. This is a key question simply because Papias provides one of the earliest explicit references to the gospels of Mark and Matthew.
So, where did Papias get this information from? And can this information be trusted?
Bart Ehrman, in his latest volume Jesus Before the Gospels, says no. This information cannot be trusted. Why? Because, “Papias is not himself an eyewitness to Jesus’s life and does not know eyewitnesses” (112, emphasis mine).
But is Ehrman correct? Shanks makes the case in his book, a case that has been made by a number of other scholars before him (e.g., Robert Gundry) that in fact Papias got his information from the most reliable of sources, namely the apostle John himself.
And personally I find that case compelling. We cannot repeat all the details in a blog post, but here are some highlights:
(a) Irenaeus and the majority of other fragments about Papias affirm that Papias knew John the apostle (Shanks, 288-291). Irenaeus’ testimony is particularly weighty given that he is even earlier than Eusebius and plainly states that Papias was a “hearer of John” (Haer. 5.33.4).
(b) Despite Eusebius’ confident declaration that Papias didn’t know John the apostle (Hist. eccl. 3.39), in his earlier work the Chronicle he actually affirms that Papias knew John (Shanks, 111-113). Obviously, Eusebius’ view had changed between his publication of the Chronicle and his publication of Ecclesiastical History (something that was not unusual for Eusebius).
(c) Papias states plainly that he “learned from the elders” (Hist eccl. 3.39.3). A few sentences later, Papias describes the “words of the elders” as “What Andrew or Peter said, or Philip, or Thomas or James, or John or Matthew or any of the Lord’s disciples, and whatever Aristion and the elder John, the disciples of the Lord, were saying” (Hist. eccl. 3.39.4). In other words, it seems that Papias uses the word “elders” to refer to the apostles.
(d) Eusebius admits that Papias learned directly from “the elder John” mentioned in the above quote. Although Eusebius thinks this is a John other than the apostle, it seems likely that he has misunderstood the words of Papias here. When Papias mentions the name John a second time in the statement above, it is best understood as a reference back to the apostle John due to the fact that both are called “elder” and the anophoric use of the article which points back to the prior John (Shanks, 19-21).
(e) Moreover, Eusebius’ idea of second “John” in Ephesus, one different from the apostle, is based on the faulty conclusions drawn by Dionysius of Alexandria, and fueled by his prejudice against Papias’ chiliastic eschatology.
(f) Papias was a colleague and contemporary of Polycarp. Since Polycarp knew John, it is quite likely that Papias would have as well.
Although not each of the above points are equally certain (or persuasive), they form a collectively weighty argument. An argument that suggests Papias got his information from John the apostle.
If so, then this is yet another reason to think that our canonical gospels were known by their traditional names by the end of the first century. And that is incredibly early testimony for the traditional authorship of the Gospels.
“God has spoken to me.”
There are few statements that will shut down debate more quickly than this one. If Christians disagree over a doctrine, a practice, or an idea, then the trump card is always “God has spoken to me” about that. End of discussion.
But, the history of the church (not to mention the Scriptures themselves) demonstrates that such claims of private, direct revelation are highly problematic. Of course, this doesn’t mean that God doesn’t speak to people. The Scripture is packed with examples of this. But, these were typically individuals with a unique calling (e.g., prophet or apostle), or who functioned at unique times in redemptive history (e.g., the early church in Acts).
After the first century was over, and the apostles had died, the church largely rejected the idea that any ol’ person could step forward and claim to have direct revelation from God. This reality is probably best exemplified in the early Christian debate over Montanism.
Montanism was a second-century movement whose leader Montanus claimed to receive direct revelation from God. In addition, two of his “prophetesses,” Priscilla and Maximilla also claimed to receive such revelation. Such revelations were often accompanied by strange behavior. When Montanus had these revelations, “[He] became obsessed, and suddenly fell into frenzy and convulsions. He began to be ecstatic and to speak and to talk strangely” (Hist. eccl. 5.16.7).
Needless to say, this sort of activity caused great concern for the orthodox leaders of the second century. Part of their concern was the manner in which this prophetic activity was taking place. They condemned it on the grounds that it was “contrary to the custom which belongs to the tradition and succession of the church from the beginning” (Hist. eccl. 5.16.7).
But, the other concern (and perhaps the larger one) was that this new revelation was inconsistent with the church’s beliefs about the apostles. The second-century leaders understood the apostles to be a unique mouthpiece for God; so much so that they would accept no revelation that wasn’t understood to be apostolic.
As an example of this commitment, the early church rejected the Shepherd of Hermas–a book supposedly containing revelations from heaven–on the grounds that it was written “very recently, in our own times” (Muratorian fragment). In other words, it was rejected because it wasn’t apostolic.
This issue reached a head when the Montanists began to write down their new prophecies, forming their own collection of sacred books. The orthodox leaders viewed such an activity as illegitimate because, on their understanding, God had already spoken in his apostles, and the words of the apostles were recorded in the New Testament writings.
A few examples of how the orthodox leaders rejected these books of “new revelation”:
1. Gaius of Rome, in his dialogue with the Montanist Proclus, rebuked “the recklessness and audacity of his opponents in composing new Scriptures” (Hist. eccl. 6.20.3).
2. Apollonius objected on the grounds that Montanist prophets were putting their “empty sounding words” on the same level as Christ and the apostles (Hist. eccl. 5.18.5).
3. Hippolytus complained that the Montanists “allege that they have learned something more through these [Montanist writings], than from law, and prophets, and the Gospels” (Haer. 8.12).
4. The anonymous critic of Montanism recorded by Eusebius registers his hesitancy to write a response to the Montantists lest he be seen as making the same mistake as them and “seem to some to be adding to the writings or injunctions of the word of the new covenant of the Gospel” (Hist. eccl. 5.16.3)
When you look at these responses, a couple of key facts become clear. First, and this is critical, it is clear that these authors already knew and had received a number of New Testament writings as authoritative Scripture. Thus, they already had a NT canon of sorts (even if some books were still under discussion). Indeed, it is the existence of these books that forms the basis for their major complaint against the Montanists.
Second, and equally critical, the response of these writers shows that they did not accept new revelation in their time period. For them, the kind of revelation that could be considered “God’s word,” and thus written down in books, had ceased with the apostolic time period.
In terms of the modern church, there are great lessons to be learned here. For one, we ought to be equally cautious about extravagant claims that people have received new revelation from heaven. And, even more than this, the Montanist debate is a great reminder to always go back to Scripture as the ultimate standard and guide for truth. It is on the written word of God that the church should stand.
As the title suggests, this is yet another book (in a long list of predecessors) that insists that the idea of an authoritative Scripture is a late invention of Christians.
According to Satlow, the Bible was not originally holy. It became holy. And that didn’t even happen until well into the third century or later.
Although Satlow’s volume covers both OT and NT issues, my review addressed some weaknesses on the NT side of things:
As for the development of the New Testament canon, Satlow provides a brief overview of some of the major players in the second century, including Justin Martyr, Tatian, and Irenaeus (pp. 241–56). Although there is substantial evidence that these individuals held a high view of New Testament writings, one gets the impression that Satlow is trying to minimize this evidence at every turn. For example, when it comes to Justin Martyr, he argues that the Gospels “play a relatively minor role for him” and “didn’t play much of a role in the lives of most ordinary Christians” (p. 250). But, then Satlow just glosses over the major text that shows otherwise, namely Justin’s description of how the Gospels are read in early Christian worship services as Scripture on par with the Old Testament writings (1 Apol. 67.3). Surely this suggests that the Gospels not only possessed a high authority, but that they did play an important role in the life of ordinary Christians.
In order to downplay further the authority of New Testament writings during this time period, Satlow then argues that early Christian scribal cultural was problematic. He makes three claims: (a) Christian manuscripts were “utilitarian” and lack evidence of being written by professional scribes; (b) manuscripts were not written for public recitation; and (c) physical features of manuscripts had no (or very little) importance (pp. 255–256). However, each of these claims is in serious doubt. Graham Stanton has observed, along with many others, that the scribal hand of many early NT manuscripts is quite professional, suggesting the scribes were more well-trained than many suppose. Stanton reaches the opposite conclusion of Satlow when he states, “The oft-repeated claim that the gospels were considered at first to be utilitarian handbooks needs to be modified” (Jesus and Gospel [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press], 206). The argument that the Gospels were not written for public recitation has been taken up by a number of scholars, including Scott Charlesworth who (again) reaches the opposite conclusion of Satlow, arguing that the line spacing and reader’s aids in many gospel manuscripts suggest they were intended for public reading (“Public and Private: Second-and Third-Century Gospel Manuscripts,” in Jewish and Christian Scripture as Artifact and Canon, ed. C. A. Evans and H. D. Zacharias [London: T&T Clark, 2009], 148–175). And as for the physical features of New Testament manuscripts, Satlow is correct that they did not exhibit the elite, high-culture artistic features of some literary texts in the Greco-Roman world. But, that doesn’t mean their visual/physical characteristics played no role. Larry Hurtado has shown that early Christians valued more than the text, but also the visual and material appearance of their manuscripts, particularly as exemplified by the use of the codex, nomina sacra, and the staurogram (The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Origins [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006]).
And here is my conclusion:
In conclusion, Satlow has written an interesting, provocative and wide-ranging volume on the origins of the Old and New Testaments that provides much helpful information on the history of biblical texts. However, Satlow’s aggressive (and sometime speculative) reconstruction often presses the evidence beyond what it can bear. In addition, one gets the impression that Satlow is intent on minimizing the role of Scripture in both Israel and the early church, even when the evidence could be naturally read in the other direction. The broad, narrative style of the book allows him to lay out the standard higher-critical view of biblical origins, but does not provide the sort of documentation of his claims that might persuade those who don’t already share his starting point. Regardless, those in the field of biblical studies, especially those interested in the origins of the canon, will want to read and interact with this volume.
You can read the whole review here.
Tomorrow I head to Atlanta for the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. This is always a great occasion to catch up with old colleagues, meet new ones, and network with scholars from around the country.
In addition to a full slate of meetings, I will be involved in the following three sessions:
1. On 11/18 at 10:40AM I will be giving a paper in the Synoptic Gospels section (Hilton Grand Salon C) where I will review the recent book by Monte Shanks, Papias and the New Testament (Pickwick, 2013). Afterwards there will be a panel discussion on Papias with me, Monte Shanks and Darrell Bock.
2. Also on 11/18 at 4:40PM I will be giving a paper in the NT Canon, Textual Criticism, and Apocryphal Literature section (Hilton 201) on a miniature codex of 2 John (Gregory Aland 0232). The theme for this year’s session is the physical and textual features of early Christian manuscripts, so this seemed to be an appropriate topic.
3. On 11/19 from 1:00-4:10PM (Hilton 304), I will be moderating the open session of NT Canon, Textual Criticism and Apocryphal literature. There is a great line up of papers by Zachary Cole, Peter Gurry, Nick Perrin, and David Yoon.
But, in the midst of all of this, the most important part of ETS should not be missed: books! This is the main time each year to see all the new publications in one place, and often they are being sold at a major discount. And I will be sticking around for a few days at SBL and enjoying the book tables there as well.
If you are coming to either of these conferences, hope to see you there.
If we learn anything from church history, its that the church fights the same battles over and over again. Until Christ returns and redeems His church, this reality is, to some degree, inevitable. And one of those reoccurring battles is the issue of biblical authority. For a variety of reasons, this topic continues to pop up again and again.
In the last 50 years, one of the key issues related to biblical authority is the issue of inerrancy. Is inerrancy a recent, post-enlightenment, rationalistic (and largely American) invention as so many maintain? While one most always be careful to explain and nuance the meaning of the term, I don’t think it should be kicked to the curb as some suggest. Rather, I have argued elsewhere (see here) that it is one of the most natural words for expressing the core belief that Christian’s have always had about the Bible, namely that it is true.
Because of the importance of inerrancy, I was pleased to participate in the forthcoming volume, The Inerrant Word: Biblical, Historical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspectives, ed. John MacArthur (Crossway, 2016). This volume pulls together a fine collection of pastors and scholars including Ligon Duncan, John Frame, Carl Trueman, Stephen Nichols, Al Mohler, Kevin DeYoung, Sinclair Ferguson, Mark Dever, R.C. Sproul, and others.
My own chapter was entitled, “Inerrancy, Canonicity, Preservation, and Textual Criticism.” As the title suggests, I deal with two major challenges two inerrancy: Do we have the right books? And do we have the right text?
The volume is set for release on March 31, 2016.
In the study of the New Testament canon, scholars like to highlight the first time we see a complete list of 27 books. Inevitably, the list contained in Athanasius’ famous Festal Letter (c.367) is mentioned as the first time this happened.
As a result, it is often claimed that the New Testament was a late phenomenon. We didn’t have a New Testament, according to Athanasius, until the end of the fourth century.
But, this sort of reasoning is problematic on a number of levels. First, we don’t measure the existence of the New Testament just by the existence of lists. When we examine the way certain books were used by the early church fathers, it is evident that there was a functioning canon long before the fourth century. Indeed, by the second century, there is already a “core” collection of New Testament books functioning as Scripture.
Second, there are reasons to think that Athanasius’ list is not the earliest complete list we possess. In the recent festschrift for Larry Hurtado, Mark Manuscripts and Monotheism (edited by Chris Keith and Dieter Roth; T&T Clark, 2015), I wrote an article entitled, “Origen’s List of New Testament Books in Homiliae on Josuam 7.1: A Fresh Look.”
In that article, I argue that around 250 A.D., Origen likely produced a complete list of all 27 New Testament books–more than a hundred years before Athanasius. In his typical allegorical fashion, Origen used the story of Joshua to describe the 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).
As one can see from the list above, all 27 books of the New Testament are accounted for (Origen clearly counts Hebrews as part of Paul’s letters). The only ambiguity is a text-critical issue with Revelation, but we have good evidence from other sources that Origen accepted Revelation as Scripture (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 6.25.10).
Of course, some have rejected this list and have argued that it reflects the views not of Origen but of Rufinus of Aquileia who translated Origen’s Homilies on Joshua into Latin. I respond at length to this claim in the above-mentioned article, arguing that Rufinus is much more reliable of a translator than prior scholars have supposed.
The reliability of Origen’s canonical list finds additional support in the fact that it fits with what Origen says elsewhere. For example, Origen enumerates all the authors of the New Testament in his Homilies on Genesis, and this proves to be a remarkable match with his list of New Testament books:
Isaac, therefore, digs also new wells, nay rather Isaac’s servants dig them. Isaac’s servants are Matthew, Mark, Luke, John; his servants are Peter, James, Jude; the apostle Paul is his servant. These all dig the wells of the New Testament (Hom. Gen. 13.2).
One can quickly see that this list of authors (again in classical allegorical style) matches exactly with his list of books. Although Rufinus also translated the Homilies on Genesis, are we really to think that he changed both passages in precisely the same way? It seems more likely that they match with one another simply because they both reflect Origen’s actual views.
Our suspicions are confirmed when we compare these two passages in Origen–the list of books in Homilies on Joshua and the list of authors in Homilies on Genesis–with Rufinus’ own list of canonical books. If Rufinus were guilty of changing Origen’s list to match his own, we might expect a lot of similarities in structure between all these lists. But, that is precisely what we do not find. In fact, Rufinus’ own list differs from Origen’s in a number of important ways (which I detail in the aforementioned article).
In the end, we actually have very good historical reasons to accept Origen’s list as genuine. And if it is, then we have evidence that (a) Christians were making lists much earlier than we supposed (and thus cared about which books were “in” and which were “out”); and (b) that the boundaries of the New Testament canon were, at least for some people like Origen, more stable than typically supposed.
Origen does not offer his list as an innovation or as something that might be regarded as controversial. In fact, he mentions it in the context of a sermon in a natural and matter-of-fact sort of way.
Thus, for Origen at least, it seems that the content of the New Testament canon was largely settled.
Over the last number of years, scholarly (as well as popular) interest in Christian apocryphal works has continued to grow. Folks just can’t seem to get enough of “lost” Gospels and other books that did not make it into the New Testament.
My own interest in this area goes back to my thesis at the University of Edinburgh under Larry Hurtado on the apocryphal gospel fragment P.Oxy. 840. That was published later as The Gospel of the Savior: An Analysis of P.Oxy. 840 and its Place in the Gospel Traditions of Early Christianity (Brill, 2005).
Because of my own interest in the subject, I was pleased that yesterday in the mail I received the new volume edited by Andrew Gregory and Christopher Tuckett, The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Apocrypha (Oxford, 2015). This volume includes a fine collection of scholars covering a wide range of topics related to apocryphal Christian works.
Here is the table of contents:
Part I: Introduction and overview
1. Introduction, Christopher Tuckett
2. Texts About Jesus: Non-canonical Gospels and Related Literature, Jörg Frey
3. Apocryphal Texts About Other Characters in the Canonical Gospels, Charlotte Touati and Claire Clivaz
4. Narratives About the Apostles: Non-canonical Acts and Related Literature, Richard Pervo
5. Non-canonical Epistles and Related Literature, Andrew Gregory
6. Non-canonical Apocalypses and Prophetic Works, Richard Bauckham
Part II: Key Issues and Themes
7. The Influence of Jewish Scriptures on Early Christian Apocrypha, Tobias Nicklas
8. Who Read Early Christian Apocrypha?, L. W. Hurtado
9. The Formation of the New Testament Canon and Early Christian Apocrypha, Jens Schröter
10. ‘Useful for the Soul’: Christian Apocrypha and Christian Spirituality, Francois Bovon
11. Christology and Soteriology in Apocryphal Gospels, Pheme Perkins
12. Christology and Soteriology in Apocryphal Acts and Apocalypses, Paul Foster
13. The Gospel of Thomas and the Historical Jesus, Stephen J. Patterson
14. Other Apocryphal Gospels and the Historical Jesus, Simon Gathercole
15. Christian Apocrypha and the Developing Role of Mary, J. K. Elliott
16. The Apocryphal Mary in Early Christian Art, Robin M. Jensen
17. The Role of the Apostles, Richard I. Pervo
18. Judaism and Anti-Judaism in Early Christian Apocrypha, Petri Luomanen
19. Eschatology and the Fate of the Dead in Early Christian Apocrypha, Outi Lehtipuu
20. Liturgy and Early Christian Apocrypha, Harald Buchinger
21. Roman Imperialism: The Political Context of Early Christian Apocrypha, Candida R. Moss
22. Encratism, Asceticism, and The Construction of Gender and Sexual Identity in Apocryphal Gospels, Judith Hartenstein
23. Encratism and the Apocryphal Acts, Yves Tissot
24. Early Christian Apocrypha in Popular Culture, Tony Burke
25. Early Christian Apocrypha in Contemporary Theological Discourse, Tony Burke
Tomas Bokedal, Lecturer in New Testament at King’s College, University of Aberdeen, has recently reviewed my book The Question of Canon (IVP Academic, 2013) in the latest issue of the journal Theology (118:65-66).
I have only briefly met Tomas on few prior occasions, but I know through his publications that he is a bright scholar who himself has done some very solid work in the area of the NT canon. You can see his list of publications here.
Given Tomas’ own good work on canon, I was grateful for what was a very positive review. He writes:
This second full-length monograph on the New Testament canon by Michael Kruger (President and Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina) will not disappoint the reader. From first to last page the argumentation is scholarly solid, intense and challenging…
Kruger here makes some constructive suggestions. In addition to the understanding of canon as a fixed and closed list of books (A. C. Sundberg’s ‘exclusive definition’) and canon as encompassing the entire process by which the formation of the Church’s sacred texts took place (Brevard S. Childs’s ‘functional definition’), Kruger adds a dimension that he labels ‘the ontological definition of canon’ (p. 40), which serves as a reminder that ‘books do not just become authoritative because of the actions of the church – they bear authority by virtue of what they are, books given by God’ (p. 43). This theological approach towards biblical canonicity, it is argued, complements the ‘exclusive’ and ‘functional’ definitions…
This book is not only an updated treatment of the emergence of the New Testament, it also contributes towards a new agenda in canon studies. I hope it will be widely read and received.
You can read the whole review here.
I was recently interviewed on the topic of the NT Canon by Matthew Barrett, editor of Credo Magazine. This magazine is excellent resource, committed to Christ, the authority of Scripture and the fundamental tenets of the Reformation. Here is their own description:
At its core, Credo Magazine strives to be centered on the gospel, confessing the substitutionary death and historical resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ for the salvation of sinners. In doing so, Credo Magazine not only draws upon the historic creeds and confessions of the faith, but especially the great pillars of the Reformation: sola scriptura, solus Christus, sola gratia, sola fide, and soli Deo gloria. Our desire is to see biblically-grounded, Christ-exalting reformation and transformation in the church today.
The latest issue of the magazine is entitled, “By the Book: How Well Do You Know Your Bible?”, and includes contributions from Robert Plummer, Kevin DeYoung, Doug Moo, Tom Schreiner, and others.
Here is Matt’s first question (in bold) and my answer:
Many scholars have approached the canon of Scripture thinking that they must find that special date in the early centuries of the church when the canon was finally closed and the church officially declared the books of the New Testament canonical. But you completely reorient our approach to the canon when you say in your book Canon Revisited, “From the perspective of God’s revelational activity, a canon exists as soon as the New Testament books are written—the canon is always the books God has given to the corporate church, no more, no less.” This sentence seems to get to the very thesis of your book. So tell us, what do you mean and why is this so different from how others have approached the canon?…Most modern approaches to canon are done on only a historical level, with no serious attention to the theology of the canon. Thus, when scholars want to investigate the “date” of the canon, what they are really investigating is the date of the reception of the canon by the early church. Investigating the date of the reception of the canon is entirely legitimate but it’s not the whole story. In addition to the date of the canon’s reception, there is also the question of the date of the canon’s existence. And this latter issue can only be discussed when theological considerations are allowed into the discussion (e.g., canonical books are given by the inspiration of the Spirit). One might say this is looking at the canon from a “divine” perspective, rather than just a human one.…
To read the full interview, go here (p.14-17).
Tim Ward, Associate Director of Proclamation Trust’s Cornhill training course in London, just published a very kind review of my book The Question of Canon (IVP Academic, 2013) over at Reformation 21. Of course, Tim is the author of his own book on Scripture (also with IVP), an excellent piece of work entitled Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God (IVP, 2009).
Tim’s review actually covers two books, first J. Merrick and Stephen M. Garrett, eds., Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Zondervan, 2013), and then The Question of Canon. As he observes, the first is a book on the theology of Scripture, the second is a volume on the history of Scripture.
Here are the first and last paragraphs of Tim’s review:
Michael J. Kruger’s The Question of Canon is an unqualified delight. It is clear-headed, attempts to be scrupulously fair to those with whom he disagrees, and is concerned to make no claims beyond what his arguments directly entail. It is a work of apologetics, responding to what Kruger takes to be the five most commonly held tenets of the liberal consensus on the history of the formation of the NT canon. This consensus view holds that the NT books were not written as canon but only became canon over time. Kruger calls this the ‘extrinsic’ model of the canon, as opposed to the evangelical ‘intrinsic’ model which sees canon as something inherent to the texts and in early Christianity themselves.…
Kruger’s overall conclusion is that canon is a seed evident in the church from the very beginning, which grew over time. He sees himself as having undermined the extrinsic model sufficiently to allow a fresh look to be given to the traditional intrinsic model.…Throughout, the author graciously finds as many positives as he can in the positions he critiques, while being clear about what he thinks is the solid ground for his own position. He thinks that his arguments hold water purely as history, quite apart from the views one holds on biblical inspiration. Any reader who has been taught the liberal consensus on the NT canon in a way which makes it appear to be the only viable option for a sensible historian will be hugely helped by the lucidity, charitableness and strength of the arguments implied in Kruger’s probing of its shaky assumptions.
Thanks to Tim for this very positive review. You can read the whole thing here.
On Christmas Eve, I wrote part one of my review of Kurt Eichenwald’s piece (see here), and highlighted not only the substantive and inexcusable litany of historical mistakes, but also the overly pejorative and one-sided portrait of Bible-believing Christians. The review was shared by a number of other evangelical sites and thinkers—including the Gospel Coalition, Tim Challies, Denny Burk, Michael Brown, and others—and ever since I have been digging out from under the pile of comments. I appreciate that even Kurt Eichenwald joined the discussion in the comments section.
But the problems in the original Newsweek article were so extensive that I could not cover them in a single post. So, now I offer a second (and hopefully final) installment.
False Claims about Christians Killing Christians
In an effort to portray early Christianity as divided and chaotic (not to mention morally corrupt), Eichenwald repeatedly claims that Christians went around murdering each other in droves. He states:
Those who believed in the Trinity butchered Christians who didn’t. Groups who believed Jesus was two entities—God and man—killed those who thought Jesus was merely flesh and blood…Indeed, for hundreds of years after the death of Jesus, groups adopted radically conflicting writings about the details of his life and the meaning of his ministry, and murdered those who disagreed. For many centuries, Christianity was first a battle of books and then a battle of blood.
Notice that Eichenwald offers no historical evidence about the mass killing of Christians by Christians within the first few centuries (we are talking about the pre-Constantine time period). And there is a reason he doesn’t offer any. There is none.
Sure, one can point to instances in the medieval period, such as the Inquisition, where Christians killed other Christians. But, Eichenwald claims that Christianity began this way: “for hundreds of years after the death of Jesus.” This is another serious historical mistake that needs correcting.
When it comes to who-killed-who in the earliest centuries of the faith, it wasn’t Christians killing Christians. It was the Roman government killing Christians.
Interestingly, the “heretical” groups like the Gnostics–whom Eichenwald presents as the victims–tended to avoid this government persecution. When the Roman officials looked to pour out their wrath on Christians, it was almost always those of the “orthodox” variety (although there were exceptions). Eichenwald either doesn’t know this, or just failed to mention it.
Portraying early Christians as mass murderers makes for great rhetoric. But it makes for lousy history.
Overstating the Popularity of “Other” Gospels
Continuing his portrayal of early Christianity as a movement in “chaos,” Eichenwald claims that other gospels were just as well-known as the canonical ones:
The reason, in large part, was that there were no universally accepted manuscripts that set out what it meant to be a Christian, so most sects had their own gospels. There was the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Simon Peter, the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Barnabas.
However, Eichenwald’s presentation here is enormously misleading. Apocryphal gospels were not nearly as popular, as wide-spread, or as well-established as the canonical ones. This can be demonstrated in a number of ways, but one simple way is just by observing how many manuscripts we possess of each gospel.
The physical remains of writings can give us an indication of their relative popularity. Such remains can tell us which books were used, read, and copied. When we examine the physical remains of the canonical gospels from the earliest centuries, we quickly discover that they were, far and away, the most popular.
For the gospel of John alone, we have approximately 18 Greek manuscripts from the second and third centuries. The most Greek manuscripts we have for any of the apocryphal gospels listed by Eichenwald is just two (Gospel of Mary). And the Gospel of Barnabas (a very late and notoriously unreliable “gospel”) has zero from this time period.
Blatant Exegetical Fallacies
Throughout the entire article, Eichenwald betrays his limited understanding of even the most basic interpretive and exegetical principles. He assumes that if the Bible really teaches a certain doctrine, then you will find chapter and verse stating that doctrine in a single passage. So, if the Bible really teaches the doctrine of the trinity, then we should find a verse using that word, or saying it succinctly.
So where does the clear declaration of God and Jesus as part of a triumvirate appear in the Greek manuscripts? Nowhere.
It is clear that Eichenwald wants a single passage that either says the word “trinity” or describes God directly in a tri-fold manner. But, Eichenwald is committing two fundamental exegetical fallacies. First, he is confusing word and concept—one of the most common exegetical mistakes. If a text does not contain certain wording, he assumes it means it doesn’t contain certain concepts. But, this is demonstrably false. A verse can refer to a concept without mentioning certain key words.
Second, Eichenwald assumes that doctrines have to be demonstrable all in a single passage. But, this is a profound misunderstanding of the way doctrines are derived from Scripture. Some of our most fundamental doctrines are pieced together from a variety of texts, in a cumulative fashion. The doctrine of the trinity is one of these.
Even more than this, Eichenwald seems completely unaware of the texts that do speak of the persons of the Godhead in a three-fold fashion. Take the words of Jesus in the great commission that baptism should be done “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19). Scholars have noted that the Greek construction uses the singular “name” followed by the threefold Father-Son-Spirit. Sounds pretty close to Eichenwald’s demand for a “triumvirate.”
Peter does something very similar in his first letter when he describes the doctrine of election as coming from “the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for the obedience to Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 1:2). All of these activities and attributes (election, foreknowledge, sanctification, one to whom we owe obedience) do not belong to merely human figures, but necessitate a divine one. And Peter describes this divine figure in a threefold manner.
And more passages like this can be added.
Eichenwald neither acknowledges nor addresses any of these texts (maybe he doesn’t know about them), but instead glibly declares the trinity to be an unbiblical concept. The audacity of such a conclusion is stunning. It requires us to believe that Christians have just tricked themselves about the trinity for thousands of years until finally, in the modern day, a Newsweek journalist uncovers the truth.
Confused about Contradictions
No critique of the Bible would be complete without the standard appeal to a laundry list of supposed contradictions. Eichenwald’s article is no exception. Instead of picking one contradiction and really developing the exegetical and historical case for his interpretation, he chooses instead to overwhelm the reader with a catalog of complaints ranging from the creation account to differences in the birth accounts to differences in the resurrection accounts.
Such a strategy has a twofold benefit for Eichenwald. First, the long list allows him to rattle off a variety of claims without actually having to do the hard work of demonstrating those claims. Thus, his accusations require him to offer no supporting evidence. Second, he knows no single individual could possibly respond to each of these claims in any level of detail (allowing him to potentially claim that Christians are unable or unwilling to respond).
Even so, there are numerous problems with Eichenwald’s approach. For one, he demonstrates hardly any awareness of the numerous evangelical responses to these problems (nor does he cite a single one). The reader begins to wonder whether he has even tried to find solutions, or whether he is just content to repeat back the arguments of critical scholars because they fit better into the purpose of his article.
In addition, Eichenwald repeatedly employs the fallacious argument from silence. He assumes that if one of the gospel authors doesn’t mention something then he must disagree with it. For instance, he observes that in Mark’s gospel Pilate doesn’t declare Jesus to be innocent, but in Luke’s Pilate does. Thus, voilà! A contradiction! But, this assumes that Mark’s account is exhaustive. Just because he doesn’t mention this part of the story does not necessarily mean he rejects it.
This sort of tendentious historical analysis isn’t designed to solve difficulties but is designed to find contradictions—whether they are there or not. Eichenwald should know better.
To cap it all off, Eichenwald even trots out the tiresome and oft-repeated claim that Jesus taught he was coming back in the lifetime of his disciples. Referring to Mark 13:30, he states:
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says of the Apocalypse, “This generation shall not pass, till all these things be done”—in other words, the people alive in his time would see the end of the world.
Eichenwald is happy to pluck this passage out of its context and interpret it for the reader: ”in other words, the people alive in his time would see the end of the world.” The problem is that his understanding of the text is directly in contradiction to the very passage he is citing from.
If Eichenwald had looked just one verse earlier, he would have realized that the “these things” the current generation would endure could not possibly refer to the second coming. Why? Because Jesus tells us the “these things” are what precedes the second coming! The prior verse states, “So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates” (Mark 13:29). This verse makes it plain that the “these things” is something distinguishable from the second coming–a likely reference to the trials of the church age.
Such surface-level exegesis gives the reader the impression that Eichenwald is more concerned to score points against the Bible than he is with really understanding the meaning of the passage.
For a more thorough treatment of supposed contradictions, see my blog series “Does the Bible Ever Get it Wrong” (first installment here).
Homosexuality and Obedience
Up to this point, Eichenwald’s article has been an epitomized by imbalanced and straw-man accusations against the Bible. Unfortunately, in the section on homosexuality Eichenwald reaches a new low. At no point is it more obvious that he is driven by his own entrenched ideological commitments and not by an honest attempt to understand what evangelicals believe.
Eichenwald begins with an analysis of 1 Tim 1:10 that is so blatantly fallacious and so critically flawed that it should be used as a textbook example of how exegesis is not to be done. He states:
But the translation there is odd, in part because the word homosexual didn’t even exist until more than 1,800 years after when 1 Timothy was supposed to have been written. So how did it get into the New Testament? Simple: The editors of these modern Bibles just made it up.
The reader is mystified by this statement. Of course, the word “homosexual” did not exist when Timothy wrote. It is an English word! But, that doesn’t mean there were not equivalent words and phrases in Greek that clearly referred to homosexuals. Indeed, we have extensive examples in ancient Greek works that refer to homosexuality and to homosexuals. Eichenwald’s point here is utter nonsense.
But suppose for a moment that 1 Timothy was written by Paul, and that “defile themselves” does refer to homosexuality. In that case, evangelical Christians and biblical literalists still have a lot of trouble on their hands. Contrary to what so many fundamentalists believe, outside of the emphasis on the Ten Commandments, sins aren’t ranked. The New Testament doesn’t proclaim homosexuality the most heinous of all sins. No, every sin is equal in its significance to God. In 1 Timothy, Paul, or whoever wrote it, condemns the disobedient, liars and drunks.
Eichenwald is correct that homosexuality is not ranked by the Bible as the most heinous of all sins. And he is correct that other sins are also serious problems. But it is unclear how this helps his case. Regardless of where one ranks homosexuality, the key point is that the Bible still clearly affirms it to be a sin. And just like other sins (whether greed, idolatry, or gossip), one needs to acknowledge it as a sin and repent of it.
And it is precisely here that the main debate over homosexuality lies. The homosexual community refuses to even admit it is a sin at all. On the contrary, they want Christians to embrace and affirm homosexuality as something good and right.
Thus, Eichenwald finds himself in a dilemma. He clearly wants to affirm the validity of many sins in the Bible (especially if he thinks they are committed by evangelicals). Is he willing to affirm that homosexuality is a sin? And if he is not, then he is the one who is “picking and choosing” what to follow in the Bible. Indeed, if he does not, then he is carving out a special exception for homosexuality. Isn’t that the same sort of thing that he condemned evangelicals for doing?
A Profound Misunderstanding of the Gospel
At the end of Eichenwald’s article, he deals what he believes is the fatal blow to evangelical Christianity:
Which raises one final problem for fundamentalists eager to condemn homosexuals or anyone else: If they accept the writings of Paul and believe all people are sinners, then salvation is found in belief in Christ and the Resurrection. For everyone. There are no exceptions in the Bible for sins that evangelicals really don’t like.
This is an outrageously misleading assessment of what Paul actually teaches. Indeed, after such a statement as this, one wonders whether Eichenwald has even read Paul (or Jesus).
Eichenwald makes it sound like evangelicals believe that homosexuals cannot be forgiven or that the gospel is not for them. That is simply not the case (and I notice that he cites no evangelicals that actually believe this). Evangelicals believe that even the most heinous sins can be forgiven.
But, here is the key. The gospel is for those who acknowledge their sins and turn away from them. Such an act is called “repentance.” And Jesus spoke of it often. Even in his very first sermon (Mark 1:15).
Of course, Eichenwald doesn’t mention this. It is much easier (and much more popular) to say that the gospel means you can live whatever lifestyle you want and still go to heaven. For Eichenwald, the main point of the gospel is that sins aren’t a big deal, no sin is worse than any other sin, and the main duty of a Christian is not to judge anyone else (which is why he ends his article with a monumental misunderstanding of Matt 7:1).
The truth is that Paul himself actually mentioned Eichenwald’s understanding of the gospel. And he condemned it. In Rom 6:1 he states, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”
The gospel is not for perfect people. But, it is for repentant people—people who hate their sins and strive to stop committing them. Repentance doesn’t somehow merit salvation; but it is a requirement of salvation because it is the corollary of faith. A person cannot embrace Christ by faith if they are still holding tightly to their sin.
So, for homosexuals who repent of their homosexuality, and for any sinner who truly repents of their sins, then forgiveness in Christ can be theirs.
By way of conclusion, it is hard to know what to say about an article like Eichenwald’s. In many ways, it embodies all the misrepresentations, caricatures, and misunderstandings of the average non-Christian in the world today. It is short on the facts, it has little understanding of interpretive principles, it assumes that it knows more about theology than it really does, and it pours out scorn and contempt on the average believer.
Nevertheless, in a paradoxical fashion, I am thankful for it. I am thankful because articles like this provide evangelicals with an opportunity to explain what Christians really believe, and what historical credentials the Bible really has. Eichenwald’s article is evidence that most people in the world understand neither of these things. With all the evangelical responses to this article, hopefully that is changing.
In the end, there is a rich irony to the title of Eichenwald’s piece: “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.” While he intended this to refer to evangelicals, I think it applies best to his own article.
It is not unusual for Newsweek, and other major media magazines, to publish critical opinions of Christianity and the Bible during major Christian holidays. I have lost count of how many March/April issues of such magazines have cast doubt on the resurrection, just in time for Easter.
However, the recent Newsweek cover article by Kurt Eichenwald, entitled “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin,” published intentionally (no doubt) on December 23rd, goes so far beyond the standard polemics, and is so egregiously mistaken about the Bible at so many places, that the magazine should seriously consider a public apology to Christians everywhere.
Of course, this is not the first media article critiquing the Bible that has been short on the facts. However, what is stunning about this particular article is that Kurt Eichenwald begins by scolding evangelical Christians for being unaware of the facts about the Bible, and the proceeds to demonstrate a jaw-dropping ignorance of the facts about the Bible.
Being ignorant of biblical facts is one thing. But being ignorant of biblical facts after chiding one’s opponent for that very thing is a serious breach of journalistic integrity. Saying Eichenwald’s article is an instance of “the pot calling the kettle black” just doesn’t seem to do it justice.
There are a variety of categories where Newsweek needs to give Eichenwald a serious slap on the journalistic wrist. Given the length of the article, I will have to deal with it in two parts. Here are some serious problems with part one:
Easy (and False) Caricatures
Eichenwald begins (not concludes, but begins!) his article by describing Christians:
They wave their Bibles at passersby, screaming their condemnations of homosexuals. They fall on their knees, worshipping at the base of granite monuments to the Ten Commandments while demanding prayer in school. They appeal to God to save America from their political opponents, mostly Democrats. They gather in football stadiums by the thousands to pray for the country’s salvation.
So, Eichenwald’s well-balanced journalistic understanding of the Christian religion is limited to street preachers who scream at people, those who demand the 10 commandments be posted in schools, and the tiresome trope that all Christians are part of the Jerry Falwell moral majority?
Anyone who has studied evangelical Christianity for more than 10 minutes, using more than internet articles from the Huffington Post, would know that the average believer in America is none of these things.
Such stock accusations and caricatures are just low-hanging fruit that are unworthy of serious journalism. Eichenwald should know better.
But, Eichenwald isn’t done. He is not nearly finished expressing his moral outrage against Christianity:
When the illiteracy of self-proclaimed Biblical literalists leads parents to banish children from their homes, when it sets neighbor against neighbor, when it engenders hate and condemnation, when it impedes science and undermines intellectual advancement, the topic has become too important for Americans to ignore, whether they are deeply devout or tepidly faithful, believers or atheists.
Notice that Eichenwald (still in his introduction) just tosses out these (very serious) accusations and generalizations with absolutely no evidence whatsoever. One wonders whether we are reading a news article or the editorial page. Could a journalist ever get away with such evidence-less accusations if it were made against Islam?
Take for instance the charge that Christians are all about “banishing children.” Seriously? If Eichenwald had actually investigated which part of the population is leading the way in adopting children without homes the answer would have been readily available. Evangelicals. Not Muslims. And certainly not liberal media elites.
But, even more than just being factually wrong, Eichenwald seems completely unaware that he is engaging in his own moralistic diatribe—the very thing he accuses Christians of doing. Remember, he complains that Christians are like the “Pharisees” always going around telling people they are wrong. Yet now Eichenwald is doing exactly the same thing. Why, then, is he not guilty of the very charge he levelled against Christians, namely “hate and condemnation”?
Apparently only Christian moralizing is “hate” whereas Eichenwald’s own moralizing is just fine.
Overplaying Transmission Problems
Eichenwald attempts to discredit the Bible by pointing out problems in its transmission. However, the real problem is not with the Bible but with Eichenwald’s misinformed accusations. For instance, he claims:
About 400 years passed between the writing of the first Christian manuscripts and their compilation into the New Testament.
This is patently false. Collections of New Testament writings were functioning as Scripture as early as the second century (and, to some extent, even in the first). For evidence of this, see my book, Canon Revisited.
Eichenwald tries again:
While there were professional scribes whose lives were dedicated to this grueling work [of copying manuscripts], they did not start copying the letters and testaments about Jesus’s time until centuries after they were written. Prior to that, amateurs handled the job.
Again, this is false. There is no evidence that the earliest Christian scribes were amatuers (whatever that means). On the contrary, the earliest evidence suggest Christian scribes were multi-functional scribes who were used to copying all sorts of literature from letters to literary texts and beyond (see chapter 7 of my book The Heresy of Orthodoxy).
Eichenwald is misinformed another time:
Not all of the amateur copyists spoke the language or were even fully literate. Some copied the script without understanding the words.
This is an egregious claim about earliest Christian scribes. There is no evidence that the earliest Christian copyists could be, in any way, characterized as illiterate. Eichenwald may be referring to a reference in the Shepherd of Hermas, a popular second-century text, where an individual was asked to copy a book who could not read. However, there is no indication that this individual was a scribe, nor that this was typical for scribes!
Again, another mistake:
But in the past 100 years or so, tens of thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament have been discovered, dating back centuries.
This is absolutely false. The number of NT manuscripts is a little more than 5,500 (and still growing), but not 10,000. In addition, Eichenwald mentions the high number of manuscripts as if it were a negative! Truth is that the more manuscripts we possess, the more certain we can be about the integrity of the NT text.
Moreover, Eichenwald never mentions (or perhaps doesn’t know) that the NT is in a class by itself when it comes to the number of manuscripts. Most other ancient texts from the first century (or thereabouts) are preserved in around 10-20 manuscripts (and some only in a single manuscript). Thus, the 5,500 NT manuscripts of the NT is impressive indeed.
Overplaying Textual Variations
In an effort to shock the reader, Eichenwald appeals to two significant textual variations in the NT, namely the long ending of Mark (16:9-20) and the pericope of the adulterous woman (John 7:53-8:11). These are the same ones that Ehrman highlights in his book Misquoting Jesus—which is evidently a big influence on Eichenwald.
But, Eichenwald only tells part of the story. First, he doesn’t tell the reader that these are the only two significant variations in the entire New Testament. He presents them like they are typical when they are not. Second, he doesn’t explain how text-critical methodologies allow scholars to identify these changes as later additions. And if they can be identified as later additions, then they do not threaten our ability to know the original text.
Even more, Eichenwald continues to make factual errors about these changes. He states:
Unfortunately, John didn’t write it. Scribes made it up sometime in the Middle Ages. It does not appear in any of the three other Gospels or in any of the early Greek versions of John. Even if the Gospel of John is an infallible telling of the history of Jesus’s ministry, the event simply never happened.
This statement is riddled with errors. For one, scribes probably didn’t make the story of the adulterous woman up—it probably circulated as oral tradition. Second, it was not added in the “Middle Ages” as he claims, but probably sometime between the second and fourth century. Third, we don’t know that “the event simply never happened.” On the contrary, scholars have argued it may be an authentic event that circulated in the early church for generations.
Overplaying Translational Issues
Eichenwald next hones in on the issue of translations, claiming that English translations are utterly unreliable and written simply to reinforce traditional Christian beliefs that, otherwise, have no support. He states:
And so each time προσκυνέω appeared in the Greek manuscript regarding Jesus, in these newer Bibles he is worshipped, but when applied to someone else, the exact same word is translated as “bow” or something similar. By translating the same word different ways, these modern Bibles are adding a bit of linguistic support to the idea that the people who knew Jesus understood him. In other words, with a little translational trickery, a fundamental tenet of Christianity—that Jesus is God—was reinforced in the Bible, even in places where it directly contradicts the rest of the verse.
This paragraph reveals a stunning misunderstanding of the way translations and texts really work. The fact that translators use different English words at different points is not due to some diabolical plot to trick people into believing in the divinity of Jesus, but is simply due to the fact that words mean different things in different contexts.
Moreover, Eichenwald is unaware that even the more progressive English translations do exactly the same thing! For instance, the NRSV of Matt 14:33 reads: “And those in the boat worshiped (προσκυνέω) him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’”
Overplaying Diversity in the Early Church
No critique of early Christianity would be complete without trotting out the standard claims that early Christians couldn’t agree on much of anything and everyone was busy fighting over early Christian doctrines. At this point, apocryphal gospels (such as Thomas and Peter) are often highlighted as evidence that Christianity was confused about what it really believed.
Eichenwald executes this part of the refute-Christianity-playbook perfectly. After repeating the standard trope about how “Christianity was in chaos in its early days,” he even offers the claim that Constantine (diabolical fiend that he was) really created modern Christianity as we know it:
And then, in the early 300s, Emperor Constantine of Rome declared he had become follower of Jesus, ended his empire’s persecution of Christians and set out to reconcile the disputes among the sects. Constantine was a brutal sociopath who murdered his eldest son, decapitated his brother-in-law and killed his wife by boiling her alive, and that was after he proclaimed that he hadconverted from worshipping the sun god to being a Christian. Yet he also changed the course of Christian history, ultimately influencing which books made it into the New Testament.
Eichenwald seems utterly unaware that this whole course of argument is incorrect and drawn directly from internet chat rooms and books like the Da Vinci Code. The truth is that Constantine had nothing to do with which books were placed into the New Testament, nor did the council of Nicea for that matter.
But, undaunted, Eichenwald digs his hole even deeper:
To understand how what we call the Bible was made, you must see how the beliefs that became part of Christian orthodoxy were pushed into it by the Holy Roman Empire. By the fifth century, the political and theological councils voted on which of the many Gospels in circulation were to make up the New Testament. With the power of Rome behind them, the practitioners of this proclaimed orthodoxy wiped out other sects and tried to destroy every copy of their Gospels and other writings.
Yet again, Eichenwald is flat out wrong. There was no fifth century “vote” about which Gospels would make it into the NT. On the contrary, the four gospels had been well-established in the church since the second century.
In sum, the first part of Eichenwald’s article is an unmitigated disaster. Its factual errors are legion, its bias against Christianity is palpable, it makes serious and yet unsubstantiated moral accusations against followers of Jesus, and, all the while, offers zero historical evidence backing up its claims.
This is not journalism. This is Eichenwald’s personal diatribe. Newsweek should really offer a formal apology.
Update: For part two of my review, see here.
There are so many historical details to manage in the study of the NT and OT canon, that it is often difficult to step back and get the big picture. Scholarly energies are typically preoccupied with whether a certain church father cited a certain biblical book, and thus the entire biblical collection is rarely viewed as a completed whole.
In short, we tend to study the canon one book at a time. But, as Walter Brueggemann observed regarding this approach, “That is problematic because one never gets a sense of the whole of the Bible” (Creative Word, 5).
When we take that step back, and examine the overall canonical structure, some fascinating details emerge. One noteworthy example is the fact that the complete biblical canon can be viewed in seven distinct units.
There are good historical reasons to think that the OT canon in the time of Jesus was divided into the standard tripartite structure: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. The structure finds confirmation in a number of historical sources that we cannot examine fully here (b. Bat. 14b; Josephus, Ap. 1.37-42; 4QMMT (95-96); Philo, Contempl. Life, 25. ). Jesus even seems to allude to this tripartite structure when he says, “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses, and the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).
When it comes to the structure of the NT canon, at least as it emerged within the early church, it seems to have been divided into four sections. David Trobisch has demonstrated that these four clear sub-sections—Gospels, Praxapostolos (Acts and Catholic epistles), Pauline epistles, and Revelation—as can be seen from the uniform witness of the manuscript collections themselves (The First Edition of the New Testament).
Thus, when the OT and NT canons are considered together, it seems the overall biblical canon would have had a seven-fold structure. Given the well-established biblical usage of the number seven as representative of completeness or wholeness, a seven-fold canonical structure would speak to the overall unity of the biblical canon and provides further reason to think that the New Testament canon we possess is the proper conclusion to the original books of the Old Testament.
Moreover, a structure that has Genesis and Revelation as the “bookends” is particularly fitting given the role the number seven plays in each of those books. Genesis begins the biblical witness with a seven-fold creative structure that provides the foundation for the seven-fold work week, and then Revelation recapitulates this attention to the number seven by having seven churches, seven angels, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, seven plagues, and so on.
Thus, in effect, the first and last books of the canon form an “inclusio” of sevens, functioning as appropriate bookends to the overall seven-fold canonical structure—with Revelation as an appropriate “sabbath.”
Of course, many of these connections are only apparent when we view the canon as a whole and therefore would not have been as accessible to the earliest Christians who did not yet possess a completed canon (or had the books in a different order, as some did). This fact reminds us again that some qualities of canonicity are synergistic—the whole can be greater than the constituent parts. It is like the “fifth voice” of a barbershop quartet; you only hear it when all four voices are joined together in harmony.
In the end, the canon’s seven-fold structure fits with the kind of structure we might expect God to give to his revelation, namely a structure that attests to the harmony, coherence, and unity of his Word.
It is well known that misconceptions and misunderstandings regarding the origins of the NT (and OT) canon abound on the internet. Da Vinci Code style claims are in plenteous supply–ranging from the claim that the Council of Nicea established the NT canon to the claim that apocryphal gospels were as popular (if not more so) than the canonical gospels.
Of course, if one were to respond to each and every erroneous claim on the internet there would be time for little else. But every now and then, an article combines so many misconceptions about the canon is a single place, that a response is warranted. This is the case with the recent article, “There is No ‘Bible’ in the Bible,” by Fr. Stephen Freeman.
Freeman, part of the Orthodox Church in America, has made what is essentially a Roman Catholic argument for the canon (but missing some key portions, as we shall see). His basic claim is that the Bible–as something that is an authority over the church–is a modern, post-Reformation invention. In reality, he claims, the church is the highest authority and the Bible is merely one of many tools used by the church.
Perhaps the best way to respond to Freeman’s article is just to quote it line by line (in italics below), offering a response to each statement as we go. For space reasons, we will not be able to cover every one of his claims, but we will cover the major ones.
1. The word “Bible” simply means “book.” Thus, it is a name that means “the Book.” It is a particularly late notion if for no other reason than that books are a rather late invention.
Freeman makes the claim here that the “Bible” must be late, because books are a late invention. This is stunning to say the least given that Israel had been using books as Scripture for more than a thousand years before Christ was even born. Moreover, early Christianity was a very “bookish” culture right from the start, with a keen interest in reading, producing, and copying books. For more on this point see my article here. Thus, books were not at all a foreign idea to the early Christian faith.
2. There are examples of bound folios of the New Testament dating to around the 4th century, but they may very well have been some of the earliest examples of such productions.
By the term “bound folios” I assume Freeman is referring to early Christian codices that contained multiple books in the same volume. If so, then the “earliest examples” do not derive from the fourth century, but much earlier. At the end of the second century/early third century we have all four gospels in a single volume (P4-64-67, P45), and most, if not all, of Paul’s epistles in a single volume (P46). These codices demonstrate a book consciousness very early in the life of the church.
But, perhaps Freeman mentions the fourth century because he is referring to codices that contain all 27 NT books. He is correct that the fourth century is the first instance of all 27 books bound together (e.g. Codex Sinaiticus; see photo above) But, one does not need all 27 books in a single volume in order to establish that the early church had a canon of Scripture. Books don’t need to be physically bound together in order to viewed as part of a scriptural collection. Indeed, this was precisely the case with the OT books. Individual OT books were often kept in separate rolls, even though they were clearly viewed as part of a larger biblical corpus.
3. The “Bible,” a single book with the whole of the Scriptures included, is indeed modern. It is a by-product of the printing press, fostered by the doctrines of Protestantism.
The discussion above has already refuted the notion that a complete NT canon does not come around until the printing press. In addition, Freeman does not mention the fact that we can determine the extent of the church’s canon in other ways besides the physical book. Early Christians drew up lists of their books from quite an early time. For instance, Origen lists all 27 books in a single list in the third century (see article here). Would Freeman suggest that Origen’s NT canon is simply the “by-product of the printing press fostered by the doctrines of Protestantism”?
4. There was no authoritative notion of a canon of the Old Testament. There were the Books of Moses and the Prophets (cf. Luke 24:27) and there were other writings (the Psalms, Proverbs, etc.). But writers of the New Testament seem to have had no clear guide for what is authoritative and what is not. The book of Jude makes use of the Assumption of Moses as well as the Book of Enoch, without so much as a blush. There are other examples of so-called “non-canonical” works in the New Testament.
This statement may be one of the most misleading in Freeman’s entire article. To suggest that first century Jews had no idea of what books are Scripture is patently false. For one, the frequent debates between Jesus and the Jewish leaders over various OT texts becomes unintelligible on Freeman’s view. How could they disagree over the meaning of Scripture, if they had no idea of what books were Scripture? Moreover, Jesus regularly holds his audience accountable for the teachings of the Scriptures–how could he do this if there was no understanding what was in the Scriptures? Even more than this, when Jesus and the Jewish leaders debate over the meaning of a scriptural text, it is always of a text from books in our current Old Testament (and not from books like 1 Maccabees or Tobit).
Jesus and the Jewish leaders debated many, many things. But one thing they never debated was which books were Scripture. This is certainly unexpected if the canon was as unclear as Freeman maintains.
Freeman’s observation that Jude refers to the Assumption of Moses and the Book of Enoch is also not as a decisive as he makes it seem. He leaves out a critical fact, namely that Jude never refers to these books as Scripture. Indeed, nowhere in the entire NT is a book referred to as Scripture that is not in our current Old Testaments. That fact needs to be given its due weight. Using a book, and using a book as Scripture are not the same thing. So, Freeman’s reference to examples of other “non-canonical” works mentioned in the NT is irrelevant.
For a lengthier account of the development of the OT canon, see the standard volume by Roger Beckwith.
5. The Scriptures as a place for creating and proving formal doctrine is something of a fiction. 2Timothy 3:16-17 is the primary verse trotted out in defense of Scriptural authority:
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2Ti 3:16-17 NKJ)
But this is a very troublesome and questionable translation. In Protestant usage, the key phrase is “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God.” But, in fact, the phrase “given by inspiration of God” is a single word (θεόπνευστος), just as accurately translated, “all Scripture that is inspired of God,” thus being a limiting phrase and not one that serves as an authoritative licensing of something later described as “the Bible.”
Freeman’s analysis of 2 Tim 3:16 is confusing to say the least. He rightly acknowledges the single Greek word (θεόπνευστος), but fails to address its implications. The term literally means “breathed out by God” or “God-breathed.” It is a way of saying that Scripture is the very breath of God himself. This suggests the absolute highest authority for Scripture, the authority of the divine voice. How can he conclude, therefore, that the Scripture lacks “authoritative licensing”?
In addition, it is actually Freeman who mistranslates this verse. Notice that he adds a relative pronoun to the construction: “all Scripture that is inspired of God.” He uses this to limit the extent of inspiration (implying that some Scripture may not be inspired). However, that relative pronoun is not in the text. And virtually all major English translations acknowledge this fact, using the verb “is” instead: “All Scripture is inspired by God.” Thus, it is clear that inspiration is not limited after all.
6. What we actually have in 2 Timothy is a very homely, parenetic expression in which the author suggests that reading the Scriptures is a good thing. It is not, despite its use as such, a foundational proclamation of the Bible as sole authority. For it is the Church that is described as the “Pillar and Ground of Truth.” (1 Tim. 3:15). . . The only “thing” approaching a “Bible” in the sense that has commonly been used in modern parlance, is the Church.
Here is where we come to the real issue with Freeman. One might wonder: Why is Freeman so intent on lowering the authority of Scripture? Every argument in his article, whether historical or theological, has one simple end in mind, namely to convince the reader that the Bible is a problematic construction with less authority than people think. So, why would Freeman, an Orthodox priest, do this?
The answer is simple. He wants to lower the authority of the Bible so that he can replace it with the authority of the church. He wants to convince Christians the Bible has problems, so that they will rely on the church instead.
But is the church a better option? If the Bible is problematic, then is the church problem-free? Freeman has jumped out of the biblical frying pan and into the ecclesiastical fire. Unless he wants to advocate for an inspired/infallible church as Roman Catholics do (something he is unprepared to do, I assume, since he is Orthodox), then he is asking Christians to trust a very fallible authority. He is asking Christians to put their trust in men, rather than in the word of God.
Yes, the church is the “pillar and ground of truth” (1 Tim 3:15), and has real authority. Freeman caricatures the protestant position by describing it as a belief in the Bible as the sole authority. But that is not (nor ever has been) the protestant position. Since the time of the Reformation, protestants have argued simply that the Bible is the highest authority (not the sole authority). And the church is one of the other authorities that we should follow. But that is not a declaration that the church is an authority over the Bible. On the contrary, the proper posture of God’s people (the church) is always one of submission to God’s word. There is no higher authority than God himself.
In the end, Freeman has lifted up the authority of the church at the expense of the authority of the Scriptures. And there is a sad irony in this. For one, such a position is vulnerable to the very critique that Jesus gave to the scribes and Pharisees: “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:8). Second, in order for Freeman to make his case, he is forced to make arguments against the authority of the Bible that are not all that different from the kind of arguments made by liberal critical scholars such as Bart Ehrman. Even though Freeman reaches very different conclusions than Ehrman, their methodology is the same: downgrade the authority of the Bible and replace it with something else. Ehrman has replaced it with agnosticism. Freeman has replaced it with the church. But, both have replaced it.
It is now public knowledge that there is a new Festschrift coming out for my friend and doktorvater at the University of Edinburgh, Larry W. Hurtado. It is entitled: Mark, Manuscripts, and Monotheism (T&T Clark, 2014). Originally the big announcement was going to be made at SBL this November (with all the contributors present), but the cat was accidentally let out of the bag early.
The collection of essays in this new volume, edited by my fellow Edinburghers, Chris Keith and Dieter Roth, are centered around the themes of the Gospel of Mark, ancient Manuscripts, and early Christology–three subject areas that have dominated Larry’s research. While most of the contributors are his former students, I was pleased to see contributions from other scholars in the field such as Richard Bauckham and Tommy Wasserman.
It is no surprise that Larry has had a big influence on my own research and writing. My Ph.D. thesis was on the apocryphal gospel fragment P.Oxy. 840 (see published version here), due in large part to his direction and expertise in ancient manuscripts.
My chapter in this Festschrift is entitled, “Origen’s List of New Testament Books in Hom. Josh. 7.1: A Fresh Look.” The subject of the development of the New Testament canon has been the focus of my research the last number of years, and has led to a closer look at Origen’s list in his Homilies on Joshua. I argue that this is the oldest complete list of the NT available to us (pre-dating Athanasius’ well-known list by more than a century).
Congratulations to Larry on this honorary volume! Here is the complete table of contents:
PART ONE: MARK’S GOSPEL
“Is It as Bad as All That?”: The Misconception of Mark as a Gospel Film Noir
Holly J. Carey, Point University
Early Christian Book Culture and the Emergence of the First Written Gospel
Chris Keith, St Mary’s University, Twickenham
Jesus as God’s Chief Agent in Mark’s Christology
Paul Owen, Montreat College
PART TWO: MANUSCRIPTS AND TEXTUAL CRITICISM
Mark, Manuscripts, and Paragraphs: Sense-Unit Divisions in Mark 14–16
Sean A. Adams, University of Edinburgh
From “Text-Critical Methodology” to “Manuscripts as Artefacts”: A Tribute to Larry W. Hurtado
Thomas J. Kraus, Independent Scholar
Origen’s List of New Testament Books in Hom. Jos. 7.1: A Fresh Look
Michael J. Kruger, Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte
P45 as Early Christian Artifact: Considering the Staurogram and Punctuation in the Manuscript
Dieter T. Roth, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz
P45 and Codex W in Mark Revisited
Tommy Wasserman, Ansgar Teologiske Høgskole
PART THREE: MONOTHEISM AND EARLY JESUS-DEVOTION
Who, What, and Why?: The Worship of the Firstborn in Hebrews 1:6
David M. Allen, The Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education
Devotion to Jesus Christ in Earliest Christianity—An Appraisal and Discussion of the Work of Larry Hurtado
Richard J. Bauckham, University of St Andrews and University of Cambridge
Hebrews and Wisdom
Mary Ann Beavis, University of Saskatchewan
Christology, Martyrdom, and Vindication in the Gospel of Mark and the Apocalypse: Two New Testament Views
Paul Middleton, University of Chester
This volume is an impressive piece of work, covering a wide range of issues related to Gospel origins. As can be expected with any book, I agreed with some parts, disagreed with others, and am still pondering a few things.
In particular, I was interested in Watson’s view of canon. Without diving into the details of the book, his canonical model is quite similar to the “Canonical Criticism” approach I outline in my book Canon Revisited (p. 48-59). Generally speaking, this was the view made popular by the works of Brevard Childs, Old Testament scholar from Yale. The Canonical Criticism approach highlights the role of reception in the canonical process, in effect making it the definitive factor in what determines canonicity.
While my overall perspective on Watson’s volume is relatively positive, I mention my concerns about his canonical model in the conclusion to my review:
While Watson is correct to remind us of the important role of reception in the canonical process, his approach effectively argues that canonicity, in some sense, is reception. But, making reception the determinative factor of canonicity runs into some serious difficulties. For one, this was not the view of the church fathers themselves. They believed there was something distinctive about the nature of the canonical gospels that set them apart from apocryphal ones, namely that these were the ones handed down by the apostles (e.g., Irenaeus, Haer. 3.1.1). Whether or not they were correct about the historical origins of these gospels is beside the point; the fact remains that the historical origins of these gospels, and not just their reception, was a substantive factor in their canonical status. Put differently, the attitude of early Christians suggests that they saw the process of reception not as something that creates canonicity, but the means by which it is recognized.
But, equating canonicity with reception creates an additional challenge. It runs the risk of putting the very concept of canon in jeopardy. If canon has nothing to do with the nature or character of the books themselves, then why should we have any concern about the extent of the canon at all? Indeed, why would we even need a canon if there are no meaningful differences between these various books? Inherent in the idea of canon, at least according to early Christians, is that some books are “Scripture” and others are not. The act of reception is not sufficient to make a book Scripture. A book is (or is not) Scripture regardless of human approbation. To suggest otherwise is to make the church an authority over (and a creator of) Scripture.
In the end, Watson has given us a stimulating, well-researched, and, in many ways, ground-breaking volume on the origins of the fourfold gospel. Despite the critical points of concern noted above, this volume is one of the most significant studies on this subject in the last fifty years and will certainly need to be consulted in any future discussions of gospel origins.
To read the whole review, you will have to get the latest issue of WTJ.
I am sure I am late to the game on this, but I just observed Al Mohler’s top ten books for preachers for 2013. It is an interesting and fascinating list:
1. John M. Frame, Systematic Theological: An Introduction to Christian Belief (P&R Publishing, 2013)
2. Tom Nettles, Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon (Mentor, 2013)
3. Michael J. Kruger, The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2013)
4. Thomas R. Schreiner, The King and His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Baker Academic, 2013)
5. John S. Feinberg, Can You Believe It’s True?: Christian Apologetics in a Modern and Postmodern Era (Crossway Books, 2013)
6. Douglas J. Moo, Galatians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Baker Academic, 2013)
7. Michael Horton, Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctrines for Christian Disciples (Zondervan, 2013)
8. John Elliot Gardiner, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven (Knopf, 2013)
9. Daniel Brook, A History of Future Cities (W.W. Norton & Company, 2013)
10. Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Reading for Preachers: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists (Eerdmans, 2013)
Of course, I was quite please to see Mohler included my recent book The Question of Canon. Here are his comments:
Those who take the Bible seriously must take the question of the canon seriously. During the past century (or longer), the question of the canon has become quite controversial in many academic circles, and the story of the canon and how it came to be recognized and affirmed by the church is a story many preachers do not know, though they undertake the task of preaching the Bible. As Michael Kruger observes, “The question of canon simply will not go away.” His new book represents an effort to answer many of the most pressing questions about the canon, and what Kruger describes as “this fascination with the canon,” with the work of solid scholarship that should interest every preacher.
Michael Kruger is a professor of New Testament and a seminary president, and this volume represents the kind of work his faculty should aspire to emulate. He takes the serious questions related to the canon head-on and helps the reader to work through these issues in order to gain a greater appreciation for and confidence in the canon as the correct shape of God’s written Word.In his defense of the New Testament canon, Kruger rejects many of the most dangerous and subversive assumptions that have surrounded the question of the canon in recent decades. He argues, for example, that the sharp distinction between Scripture and canon is false. Along with other false assumptions, Kruger addresses these long-dominant academic assumptions as being tied to an understanding of Scripture that actually does not fit either the nature or the role of Scripture in the early church.He corrects this approach by suggesting the canon is best explained by intrinsic needs and developments within the life of the early church. As he notes, this intrinsic model “argues that the phenomenon of canon was one that rose early and naturally within the first few stages of Christianity.” In other words, it was neither forced upon the church by controversy nor did it arrive late in the church’s developing consciousness. Instead, the phenomenon of canon was the developing shape of Scripture in the earliest experience of the church.As Kruger concludes, “In this sense, the canon was like a seedling sprouting from the soil of early Christianity—although it was not fully a tree until the fourth century—it was there…from the beginning.”
You can read Mohler’s entire article here.
In many ways, the book of James has not had an easy journey into the New Testament canon. We have few references to it in the earliest stages, it was doubted by some church fathers, and, of course, Luther himself referred to it as “an epistle of straw.”
However, we should be immensely grateful that God has preserved this book for us. Despite its detractors, the book of James provides essential theological balance for the key doctrinal debates in the church today. Several key contributions:
1. James reminds us that one can offer extended moral exhortations without being a “moralist.” In an effort to avoid the charge of “moralism,” many modern preachers hesitate to offer extended moral/ethical exhortations to their congregations. Indeed, sermons often focus on how the congregation cannot keep the law and that only Christ can keep the law for them.
While it is certainly true that we cannot be justified by the law, the book of James reminds us that there is a proper place for sermons that focus on our ethics. James offers five chapters of ethical applications and there is no extensive discussion of atonement, or original sin, or grace.
This doesn’t mean James rejects these truths, it simply means that one need not always include them explicitly for teaching to be regarded as “Christian.” Put simply, a sermon (or treatise, or letter) doesn’t always have to be about justification in order to be about Christ.
2. James reminds us that Christians should also view the Law of God positively. Compared to Paul’s insistence that the law is a “curse” that “imprisons” us (Gal 3:13, 22), James’ approach to the law is shockingly positive. He refers to the law as the “law of liberty,” or as the NIV puts it, “the perfect law that gives freedom” (Jas 1:25).
Do Paul and James contradict each other? Not at all. Paul is looking at the law from the perspective of justification–can I be saved by law-keeping? If you try this, says Paul, the law is only a curse. James is looking at the law through the lens of sanctification. From this perspective the law is a blessing. It is the way of righteousness. We can say with the Psalmist, “Oh how I love your law!” (Ps 119:97).
Paul reminds us that the law cannot save. James reminds us that we follow the law because we are saved. Both aspects are critical if we are to rightly understand justification and sanctification.
3. James reminds us that it is fine to use OT stories as moral examples. Again, some in the modern day, in an effort to avoid moralism, will insist that we can never preach an Old Testament story where the applications is “Be like [insert OT character]”. Instead, we can only point to these OT characters as a “type” of Christ.
The problem with this approach to the Old Testament is that it is not shared by the book of James. On the contrary, James is quite keen to use OT characters as moral examples. Indeed, he appeals to Elijah as an example of what can be done through a life of faithful prayer (Jas 5:17-18). We find this same pattern in Paul who blatantly states, “These things [OT stories] took place as examples for us” (1 Cor 10:6).
Of course, we can also look to these OT characters as a type of Christ–they point forward to the ultimate savior/deliverer. But, why must these passages be preached only as a type of Christ? Why can they not be preached as both a type of Christ, and as a moral example?
In the end, we can be thankful that we have the book of James in our NT canon. It provides a wonderful balance to our understanding of law, grace, justification, sanctification and more.
In this regard, Luther was mistaken. If justification is all that matters, then perhaps one might find James unnecessary. But, if sanctification also matters, then it is essential.
The story of the New Testament canon is a fascinating one, with many twists and turns. There are books that were accepted very quickly, almost from the start (e.g., the four gospels), and there are other books that struggled to find a home (e.g., 2 Peter).
And then there is the book of Revelation.
Few today would contest the claim that the book of Revelation stands as one of the most controversial, complicated, and esoteric books in the New Testament canon. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that its reception by the early church was equally complicated and controversial.
But, the story of the book of Revelation is not what one might expect. Other debated books tended to have a lukewarm reception at the earliest stages, only to gain more and more acceptance over time. Revelation, on the other hand, had nearly the opposite experience; it had a very early and positive reception in many parts of the church, only to run into serious challenges at a later point.
Lately, I have been doing a good bit of research on Revelation’s canonical history in preparation for writing an academic piece on the subject. Here are a few highlights about Revelation’s journey:
1. Revelation’s early reception was Outstanding. Perhaps as much as any other NT book, we have evidence for an early, widespread, and consistent reception of Revelation. Our evidence goes back as early as Papias (c.125) and also includes Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, the Muratorian Fragment, Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen. That is an impressive list.
In addition, it is worth noting that almost every one of these church fathers accepted the book of Revelation on the same grounds, namely the belief that the apostle John, the son of Zebedee was the author.
B.W. Bacon was so impressed with Revelation’s initial reception that he was able to say, “There is no book in the entire New Testament whose external attestation can compare with that of Revelation, in nearness, clearness, definiteness, and positiveness of statement” (The Making of the New Testament, 190).
2. Objections to Revelation were later and limited. Our first evidence of any real objection to the book of Revelation comes from the person of Gaius in the early third century who rejects the book on the grounds that it was a forgery of the heretic Cerinthus. Curiously, this is really the only specific objection were hear about from someone who rejected the book (most scholars agree that the so-called “Alogoi” mentioned later by Epiphanius is not a real group).
Dionysius of Alexandria, in the late third century, makes the argument that Revelation was written by another John besides the apostle. Eusebius appears to agree with him. But, it is worth noting that Dionysius does not reject the book on these grounds (despite the impression many give that he did), but still regards it as holy and inspired.
3. Objections to Revelation were Not Driven by Historical Matters. As we noted above, the main (and to some extent, the only) person who offered specific objections to Revelation in the early church was Gaius who believed it was a forgery of Cerinthus. But, what led him to this conclusion? It was not the historical merits of the book, but rather Gaius’ objection to chiliasm (the belief in a literal millennial reign of Christ).
Gaius opposed the chilastic teachings in the church, particularly the chiliasm he attributed to Cerinthus. There is little doubt that the reference to a millennium in Revelation 20 led Gaius to erroneously presume that Revelation was a product of Cerinthus’ pen.
4. Objections to Revelation Were Eventually Resolved. Even though Gaius is pretty much alone in his specific objections to Revelation, apparently it did have a negative affect in some quarters of the church. Particularly in the East, there was a resurgence of doubt about the book in the fourth century and later.
However, there were also many who supported the book. It was affirmed by the synods of Hippo (c.393) and Carthage (c.397). It was also received by Philastrius of Brescia (c.385), Rufinus of Aquileia (c.404), Jerome (c.414), and Augustine (c.426). And the reason why these groups accepted the book was simple: it was an ancient book quoted by the early church fathers as authoritative. And for this reason, eventually their view prevailed.
In the end, the problematic canonical journey of Revelation reminds us that the development of the NT canon was not always a smooth, pristine affair. However, it also remains that in the case of Revelation, the problems had little do with the historical merits of the book itself, but rather with the particular theological peccadillos of some in the early church. When the actual history of the book is understood, its canonical status stands in little doubt.
My new book, The Question of Canon, is designed to challenge a particular approach to the New Testament canon that is prevalent in the modern academy. It is the approach that suggests that in the earliest stages of Christianity the canon was in disarray; the canonical process was a wide-open affair where no one agreed on much of anything and no one was able to distinguish canonical books from apocryphal ones.
What is ironic about this critical approach is that it has an unexpected ally: Roman Catholicism. The Catholic claim is remarkably similar to the one of critical scholars (at least in its premise). Both claim that the canonical situation in early Christianity was in disarray and that there was no way to distinguish canonical books from apocryphal books. It’s just that modern scholars use this as a justification to reject the canon altogether, whereas Catholics use this as a justification for why we need an infallible church to tell us which books are in the canon. But, both groups share the same premise.
In my interactions with Catholics over the years, I have raised this issue. I have pointed out that many of the Roman Catholic apologists are essentially making the same argument as Bart Ehrman. They are trying to show that the canon was a mess so that they can argue the only solution is to lean on papal authority (of course, Ehrman doesn’t take this second step). Admittedly, this has been a bit discouraging. I would have hoped that Protestants and Catholics could at least team up to respond to the criticisms of scholars like Ehrman.
In order to address the difference between Protestant and Roman Catholic views of canon, I will be joining James White on his Dividing Line program today at 1PM EST. It is a live program, so tune in if you are able!
This is the fifth installment of a series of posts reviewing the new History Channel series entitled Bible Secrets Revealed (for others installements, see here, here, here, and here). I am now a few episodes behind due to (a) the holiday break, and (b) the fact that History Channel locked all their videos and restricted access. Not sure why they did this, but I have finally found a way to view them online.
The latest episode is entitled, “Mysterious Prophecies,” and examines the role of prophets in the history of Israel and the Church. Did these prophets really predict the future? Were the prophecies true? In particular, the documentary focuses on the prophecies regarding the coming of the Messiah.
This episode raised a number of intriguing issues and was more balanced than some of the prior ones. But, there are still some claims that need to be challenged.
1. Did the followers of Jesus misuse OT prophecies? Bart Ehrman and other scholars claim in this documentary that the earliest followers of Jesus simply looked into the OT in a desperate attempt to find something that could point to Jesus. Thus, the were just retroactively imposing their own messianic understanding onto OT passages that were never intended to be read this way.
Now, there is an element of truth in this reconstruction. It is certainly true that the earliest followers of Jesus saw OT passages in a fresh, new way that they never had before. They looked at the OT with a Christo-centric lens and made connections and links that they otherwise might not have made.
But, this does not mean their understanding of the OT was invalid. The coming of Jesus opened up all sorts of new understandings of the OT–and there is nothing scandalous about this. Moreover, it should be remembered that these messianic interpretations of the OT were not just due to the later disciples, but were initiated by Jesus himself who often claimed to be fulfilling the OT (e.g., Luke 4:21; 24:46), and even opened up the OT to his disciples in a fresh way (Luke 24:45).
2. Are promises of eternal life made up just to reduce present-day suffering? The documentary presents the prophetic passages of the Bible, particularly the ones that promise reward and eternal life, as merely a psychological move to alleviate people’s suffering in the present. These texts are not really prophecies, but a way to address people’s most basic need, namely to have hope in the midst of turbulent times.
The problem with this argument is that it confuses the result of these prophecies with the cause of these prophecies. The fact that prophecies may result in giving people hope in the midst of suffering, is not an adequate argument to prove that the prophecies are themselves caused by people’s need for hope. Indeed, this argument is dangerously close to Karl Marx’s maxim, “Religion is the opium of the masses.” A skeptic is free to have this opinion about religion, but that cannot be substituted for an actual argument.
3. Was the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius the motivation for the book of Revelation? One of the strangest suggestion of this documentary is that the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. was the impetus for John to write the book of Revelation. However, there is virtually no compelling evidence for this connection. Sure, Revelation refers to cataclysmic activities, but there is no reason in the text to think that John is referring to a volcanic eruption in his own day. Rather, he is drawing on cataclysmic imagery from the Old Testament in books like Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Isaiah. In other words, the main influence on John’s writing is not the present but the past–he is influenced by the writings of Scripture.
4. Does 1 Thess 4:16-17 teach that there will be a “rapture”? Curiously, a number of the scholars in this documentary argue that 1 Thess 4:16-17 teaches a “rapture,” namely that Jesus will come back and gather his people to him in heaven. Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman argue that this “rapture” contradicts the book of Revelation which teaches that Jesus will not bring his people back to heaven but instead will bring a new heavens and a new earth, destroying his enemies at the same time.
However, it is not at all clear that 1 Thess 4:16-17 teaches a “rapture” where people are taken back up into heaven. In fact, the text nowhere mentions going back to heaven. Instead, it says that Jesus will “descend from heaven.” Yes, the saints will “meet the Lord in the air” (v.17), but this is not Christ taking his saints back to heaven, but rather it is Christ gathering his elect to himself as he descends to bring final judgment. Thus, there is no contradiction between 1 Thess 4:16-17 and the book of Revelation.
In the end, this particular episode of Bible Secrets Revealed is marked by a pretty consistent theme, namely an attempt to find a naturalistic explanation for the Bible’s supernatural claims. OT prophecies, we are told, don’t really predict Christ; they are just texts which are manipulated by early Christians. Promises of eternal life, we are told, cannot really be trusted; these are just made up in order to placate the masses in the midst of their sufferings. The trials and tribulations of Revelation, we are told, are not really going to happen; they are just the musings of a primitive man (John) who was frightened by a volcanic eruption.
The problem, of course, is that it is not at all clear that these naturalistic explanations are superior to the supernatural ones. They are only persuasive to those who already hold to a naturalistic worldview from the start.
This is the third installment of a new series reviewing the History Channel series entitled Bible Secrets Revealed (for others, see here and here). The newest episode is entitled, “The Forbidden Scriptures,” as is definitely one of the most provocative so far. It is designed to argue that certain books were “banned” or “forbidden” from the New Testament.
This episode makes numerous claims about the development of the New Testament that, once again, prove not to be the whole story. Many such claims were made, but I will only mention a few of the key ones here.
1. Was the canon just a power-play? This episode repeats the standard narrative that the canon was chosen by men with an agenda trying to preserve the power of the church. The canon is just about politics, we are told.
Kathleen McGowan makes this point in the video: “There were a group of men with specific agendas determining what would and what would not become canon. And this agenda was about preserving the power of the church.”
But, there are problems with this sort of claim. One major problem is that there was no unified political or ecclesiastical infrastructures during the first centuries that could have accomplished such a feat. The church had no real political power until Constantine in the fourth century. And, the ecclesiastical structure of the church was quite undeveloped in the earliest stages. Even if a group wanted to force their books on others, it would have been difficult to pull such a thing off.
What is remarkable is that despite this lack of infrastructure, the church did seemed to have a “core” canon of books that they agreed upon by the middle of the second century. Thus, in the earliest phases of the church there are appears to be a canon of sorts that is decidedly NOT the result of politics.
There are also problems with referring to apocryphal books as “left out” or “banned”. While such terminology adds to the dramatic nature of the documentary, it is inherently misleading. Such books were not “left out” because they were never “in” to begin with. Take the Gospel of Thomas as an example. It was not “banned” from the canon because it was never a real contender in the first place. It never makes it into any canonical list anywhere. Indeed, when Thomas was mentioned by the church fathers it was most often done to condemn it!
It should also be observed that Kathleen McGowan is not even a biblical scholar. She is not a professor and has no advanced degrees in biblical studies (not sure she has any degrees in biblical studies). On the contrary, she is a popular novelist committed to discovering the “divine feminine” and believes she is descended from Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
Why in the world is she being presented as an expert on the NT canon? This raises series questions about the credibility of the History Channel in my opinion. But, the next point may provide an explanation.
2. Was Mary Magdalene an apostle? Next, the documentary turns to the Gospel of Mary in order to present Mary Magdalene as having the same level of authority as the twelve and to present Jesus as the first feminist. It is then suggested that the the authors of the canonical gospels “suppressed” this story of Mary in order to protect male authority in the church.
Aside from the fact that this sounds a lot like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, there are serious historical problems here. For one, there are very few reasons (if any) to think that the Gospel of Mary is representative of authentic Jesus tradition. It is clearly a second-century composition with no credible claim to be an eyewitness account, has been substantially influenced by the canonical Gospels, and is evidently a further development of traditional canonical material. Even Christophter Tuckett declares, “It seems likely that the Gospel of Mary is primarily a witness to the later, developing tradition generated by these [canonical] texts and does not provide independent witness to early Jesus tradition itself.”
As a result, the Gospel of Mary was so removed from the flow of early Christianity that it was never mentioned by any church father—not in their discussions of canon, nor even in their discussions of apocryphal gospels. Indeed, we would not have known of the gospel if not for the original manuscript discovery at the end of the nineteenth century. Thus we are hard pressed to think that this gospel represents a wide-spread and popular way of thinking in early Christianity.
The simple point is this: There is zero reason to think this inscription is representative of early Israelite beliefs. More likely, it is simply representative of the belief of the single author who wrote it.
In the end, we are again left with a very disappointing episode. Yes, it was entertaining. It was certainly provocative. Unfortunately, it is simply not not historically accurate. For a History Channel production, that proves to be sadly ironic.
Now, let me say that I really do enjoy documentaries on the Bible. They are usually done with very high quality, contain interviews of some of the world’s top scholars, and often raising intriguing and important questions. But, there are also dangers. Such documentaries run the risk of being overly sensationalistic, one-sided, and ultimately misleading.
Unfortunately, this new documentary from the History Channel tends to falter at precisely these points. While there are many positives–great production quality and intriguing content–this documentary quickly spins itself into some problem areas.
Thus, I am starting a new series here on my blog where I will review each new episode of Bible Secrets Revealed as it comes out. In regard to the first episode, Lost in Transmission, it is marked by the following characteristics.
1. Sensationalistic. Everybody loves a good conspiracy. It is built-in to the human (and particularly American) psyche. We love the idea that the truth has been suppressed for generations only to now be uncovered.
Unfortunately, the title of this new series feeds this conspiracy craving in all of us, and gives a sensationalistic feel to the whole enterprise. Bible Secrets Revealed. Really? This title implies that secrets have been kept from an unsuspecting public for two millennia (presumably by the church or other Christian leaders), only now to be graciously exposed by these noble scholars. Conclusion: you can trust secular scholars but not the church (or the Bible).
The sensationalism continues with overstated claims about the issues being “revealed” in this documentary. The narrator claims (with dramatic music in the background):
Now for the first time, an extraordinary series will challenge everything we think, everything we know, and everything we believe about the Bible.
To be sure, this documentary is decidedly not doing anything “for the first time,” but I suppose such claims are part of how such documentaries are promoted and sold. Moreover, it should be noted that when it says it will challenge what “we” believe about the Bible, what it really means it will challenge what evangelicals believe about the Bible. No liberal views are being challenged in this series (at least so far). Which leads to the next observation…
2. One-sided. This sensationalistic impulse naturally leads a documentary to want to prove that the traditional view is mistaken (after all, the traditional view is rather boring and unexciting). Thus, we are not surprised when we quickly realize that this documentary will not even be trying to present a balanced perspective. It is decidedly geared to disprove the Bible.
This direction is clear from the opening description of the series. The narrator states:
For centuries, men and women have argued over [the Bible’s] meanings, its lessons, and its historical accuracy. But, has the Bible been translated, edited, and even censored so many times, that its original stories have been compromised by time?
This is followed by a litany of scholarly quotes (again, with dramatic music in the background) that say the Bible cannot be trusted. Bart Ehrman states, “There are human fingerprints all over [the Bible].” Another scholar says, “It is very dangerous to use the Bible as a proof text for anything.” Elaine Pagels says, “We really don’t know who the people are who put the New Testament together.”
Does this sound like a video that is trying to present both sides?
Of course, a video series is not obligated to present both sides, one might argue. Why are they not free to argue for their position? Fair enough. The problem is that the video expressly states to be presenting multiple views! The caveat offered at the very start of the video is:
This program explores the mysteries of the Bible from a variety of historical and theological perspectives.
A variety of historical and theological perspectives? One finds this difficult to believe. Almost every view represented in this first video (with a couple of exceptions) is clearly designed to undercut the Bible’s credibility.
3. Over-stated Historical Claims. Time and time again, this opening installment in this new video series makes historical claims that are partially true, but also a bit misleading. I cannot mention all of these, but here are a few:
- As it pertains to the authorship of the four gospels, the video quotes scholars as absolutely certain that none of these were eyewitnesses. For instance, Candida Moss declares, “We have four gospels written by four different authors, written decades, maybe as long as a century after [Jesus] died, and none of these authors actually met Jesus.” But, this is a level of certainty that is not warranted by the evidence. She offers no indication that there is any scholarly debate about this (and there is), nor does she suggest there is any positive evidence for the traditional authorship of the gospels (and there is).
- As another example, Elaine Pagels declares, “We had Christianity for three-hundred years before we had a New Testament.” But, this is only partially true at best, and downright misleading at worst. Sure, the edges of the canon were not solidified until probably the fourth century, but the core of the canon (around 22 out of 27 books) was fairly well-established by the mid/late second century. Irenaeus, for example, was keen to use these books and to use them as Scripture. On a functional level, he did in fact have a New Testament.
- Incredibly, this documentary then trots out the Constantine-made-the-Bible argument, implying that he used his political power to makes sure the right stories were chosen. However, this absolutely zero evidence that Constantine had any influence/control over the canon of Scripture. This is more of a Dan Brown-Da Vinci Code style argument, than a historical one.
- Mention is made of the long ending of Mark (16:9-20) as evidence that Christians made up the resurrection because of Mark’s shorter ending. But, the documentary shows no awareness that there is good evidence that the long ending of Mark is actually drawing upon resurrection accounts in the other three gospels (see Kelhoffer’s works), thus showing that the idea of Jesus’ resurrection was not made up due to Mark’s truncated ending.
There are more examples that could be added, but this is sufficient to show that this video over-reaches at a number of points when it comes to the historical facts. Unfortunately, the average viewer, whom videos like this are targeted to reach, would have no basis for knowing this.
We shall offer more reflections on future installments of this series as they come out.
There has been a long-standing scholarly discussion about how far back we can trace the roots of the fourfold gospel. We certainly see it in Irenaeus, who is quite plain about his view, “It is not possible that the gospels can be either more or fewer than the number they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live and four principle winds… [and] the cherubim, too, were four-faced” (Haer. 3.11.8).
But, can we trace the fourfold gospel back even further? Justin Martyr, an early Christian apologist writing c.150-160, is a key player in this debate. He clearly knows the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke. But did he know John? Scholars disagree about this. But, I think there are good reasons to think that he did. Here are a few:
1. We should remember that Justin was the teacher and mentor of Tatian who was famous for producing a harmony of all four gospels known as the Diatesseron. It is noteworthy not only that John was included in Tatian’s harmony, but that John provided the central chronological backbone for his work. If Tatian valued John so highly, then it is difficult to believe that his mentor, Justin, would have been unaware of this gospel.
2. At one point, Justin indicates how many gospels he knows when he describes these gospels as “drawn up by His apostles and those who followed them” (Dial 103). Since such language indicates (at least) two gospels written by apostles, and (at least) two written by apostolic companions. Thus, Justin appears to receive (at least) four core gospels. Given that we know three of these gospels are Matthew, Mark and Luke, it seems only natural to think the last one would be John. And if it is not John, then which one is it?
3. Justin clearly knew other Johannine literature, such as the book of Revelation which he regarded as written by the apostle John (Dial 81.4). No doubt his familiarity with Johannine tradition is connected to the fact that he lived in John’s former residence of Ephesus during his dialogue with Trypho. His knowledge of other Johannine works is at least suggestive that he knew John’s gospel.
4. Justin is quite familiar with Johannine terminology like “logos,” as well as a number of themes distinctive to John’s gospel, and even seems to cite the gospel of John directly, “For Christ also said, ‘Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’” (cf. John 3:3; 1 Apol. 61.4).
Of course, these considerations cannot prove that Justin knew John’s gospel (but historical studies rarely are able to prove such things). Regardless, they give us very good reasons to think it is historically likely that Justin knew John’s gospel.
If so, then Justin provides good evidence that (at least) by the middle of the second century the fourfold gospel was received as authoritative in some parts of the early Christian movement. Indeed, Justin tells us the way the gospels (“memoirs of the apostles”) were valued in his day:
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, whenthe reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things (1 Apol 67.3).
Such a worship practice was not invented by Justin, but seems to be a practice with a lengthy historical pedigree. Thus, there are good reasons to think that the origins of the fourfold gospel May go back even further.
I was just informed by IVP-Academic that my book, The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate, is now out and available for purchase (see here). This was a bit of a surprise because I haven’t received my own copy yet! But, I am glad to know it is out.
Here is the description of the book:
Unlike many books on the New Testament canon, this book does not seek to explain why these books and no others. It asks the questions: Why is there a NT at all? Was the notion of a canon of literature out of sync with the earliest Christian movement? Michael Kruger challenges commonly held views on the emergence of the NT canon.
One of the most common misconceptions about the New Testament canon is that the authors of these writings had no idea that they were writing Scripture-like books. I dealt with this misconception on a general level here, showing that there was a clear apostolic self-awareness amongst the New Testament authors.
While this apostolic self-awareness may be easy to show for authors like Paul, what about the gospels which, technically speaking, are formally anonymous? Do their authors exhibit awareness that they were writing something like Scripture? To explore this further, let us just consider just one of our gospels, namely the Gospel of Matthew.
The first step is to get our expectations clear. We should not expect that Matthew would say something like, “I, Matthew, am writing Scripture as I write this book.” Gospels are a very different genre than epistles, and we would not expect the authors to provide the same type of direct and explicit statements about their own authority as Paul does in his letters. Indeed, the gospel authors are decidedly behind the scenes and only rarely make appearances within the flow of the story.
However, the formal anonymity of the gospels need not be taken as evidence that their authors did not view these texts as bearing authority. Armin Baum has argued that the historical books of the New Testament (gospels and Acts) were intentionally written as anonymous works in order to reflect the practice of the Old Testament historical books which were themselves anonymous (as opposed to other Old Testament writings, like the prophets, which included the identity of the author). Thus, the anonymity of the Gospels, far from diminishing their scriptural authority, actually served to increase it by consciously placing the Gospels “in the tradition of Old Testament historiography.”
Matthew itself contains fewer internal clues than other gospels that it is passing along apostolic tradition (Matt 9:9, 10:3). Nevertheless, there are still indications that this gospel was written with the intention to be a scriptural-like book. Most notable in this regard is the unique way that Matthew begins his gospel, with an opening “title” (v.1) followed by a genealogy (v.2-17). Davies and Allison argue that Matthew’s very first phrase, Βίβλος γενέσεως, is not so much a reference to the genealogy that follows but to the book as a whole. They comment, “Genesis was a Βίβλος , and its name was Ge,nesij. One is therefore led to ask whether the introductory use of Βίβλος γενέσεως would not have caused Matthew’s readers to think of the Torah’s first book and to anticipate that some sort of ‘new genesis,’ a genesis of Jesus Christ, would follow.”
Thus, the opening phrase of Matthew is best understood as “Book of the New Genesis wrought by Jesus Christ.” Such a beginning suggests that Matthew is intentionally writing in a scriptural style—he viewed his book, and wanted his audience to view his book, as continuing the biblical story.
The fact that Matthew appears to be molding his gospel after the pattern of Old Testament books is confirmed by the fact that he turns immediately to a genealogy, placing the Jesus story into the story of Israel, with a special emphasis on David. The genealogy, of course, is a well-known Old Testament genre that is frequently used to demonstrate the historical unfolding of God’s redemptive activities among his people. In this regard, Matthew’s closest parallel is the book of Chronicles which also begins with a genealogy that has an emphasis on the Davidic line.
If by the first century Chronicles was regarded as the final book in the Hebrew canon,as some scholars have argued,then Matthew’s gospel would certainly be a fitting sequel. An Old Testament canon ending with Chronicles would have placed Israel in an eschatological posture, looking ahead to the time when the messiah, the son of David, will come to Jerusalem and bring full deliverance to his people.
If so, then Matthew’s opening chapter would be a clear indication that he is intending to finish this story. He is picking up where the Old Testament ended, with a focus on David and the deliverance of Israel. Regardless of whether one accepts that Chronicles was the final book in the Hebrew canon, the close connections between Matthew and Chronicles remain. Indeed, on this basis, Davies and Allison conclude that Matthew “thought of his gospel as continuation of the biblical history—and also, perhaps, that he conceived of his work as belonging to same literary category as the scriptural cycles treating of the OT figures.”
As we have seen in prior posts, Harvey’s book is designed to critique the traditional Christian doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture. After arguing that (a) Scripture isn’t revelation anyway, only Jesus is God’s revelation; and (b) since humans were involved in writing and transmitting Scripture, then it is unreliable and likely corrupted, one might wonder whether Harvey tries to salvage any authority for the Bible at all.
At the end of chapter one, Harvey attempts to articulate how we humans might just be willing to allow the Bible to have some authority. Read carefully this remarkable statement:
[The Bible’s] credentials must be constantly reviewed, its exercise monitored, its place in the contemporary world of values seen to be defensible and appropriate. What this means, in the case of the Bible, is that…it must be show to have at least the credentials of other ancient historical writings; that as a foundation document for a religion it must have the necessary intelligibility and consistency; that for the nourishment of the liturgical and devotional life of the faithful it must have linguistic and imaginative depth; that to continue to be read as an ethical its stance on moral questions must continue to be found relevant. . . If a body of scripture is found to fail these tests, it must forfeit its authority. If it passes them, it may claim continuing authority subject to the vagaries of human transmission and application already mentioned (p.18).
This is a stunning statement for many reasons, but most of all because it doesn’t even seem to be aware of the philosophical problems it creates. Harvey has the hubris to lay out the credentials for why humans might be willing to allow the Bible to have authority without feeling any need to justify the criteria themselves. He mentions this long list without defense or explanation.
This is remarkable. If Harvey wants to ask, “Why should we follow the set of rules in the Bible as a standard for truth?” you think it might dawn on him that someone else might ask, “Why should we follow your set of rules as a standard for truth?” Or to put it another way, “What are the criteria for your criteria?” But, Harvey offers no explanation.
Aside from the arbitrariness of this list, there are additional problems. For one, Harvey shows little awareness that each and every one of these criteria is entirely dependent on the worldview one brings to the table. For instance, he claims the Bible must be authenticated as “historical.” Ok, that sounds fairly reasonable. But, eventually you have to define your terms. What counts as “historical”? And what does not? Do miracles count as historical?
One quickly realizes that the definition of “historical” is determined the worldview one brings to the table. But, that raises a question. If God’s Word is supposed to, in principle, challenge people’s worldviews, then how can we allow people’s (unchallenged) worldviews to determine what counts as God’s word? Harvey never seems to recognize this is an issue. He almost proceeds as if people were neutral—as if they had no worldview at all.
Or, as another example, Harvey claims that we cannot accept the Bible unless it ethical position is found to be “relevant.” But, again, Harvey never tells us what standard for morality he is using here. Where does he get these moral norms that the Bible must measure up to? Does he have another source of revelation from God he is not telling us about?
If he answers that it is just the opinion of society that determines what is morally “relevant,” then that raises an additional problem, namely why should society’s opinion determine what counts as God’s word? And since society’s opinion is always changing, does that mean our “Bible” changes along with it?
Of course, even if a book passes all Harvey’s personal tests, Harvey is still not done. He adds the extra caveat that such a book would still be “subject to the vagaries of human transmission and application already mentioned.” In other words, even if a book passed all these tests we can still avoid following all of it by claiming it has been corrupted by human transmission.
In the end, Harvey’s whole approach is a bit of a ruse. On the surface it seems like he is simply engaging in a neutral exploration of the Bible’s authority. But, in reality, he has rigged the game from the start by being able to control what the standards are for what counts as God’s word. As long as Harvey can determine the standards, he can determine the outcome.
It never seems to dawn on him (and probably doesn’t dawn on most readers) that setting up manmade criteria about what we will accept as God’s authoritative word simply gives you a book that is manmade. Thus, regardless of what divine revelation Harvey ends up with, it will not be divine. It will simply be a human creation. It will simply be Harvey’s.
Of course, this has been done before. Thomas Jefferson famously took scissors and cut out the parts of the Bible which he did not happen to like. But, we can all see through this exercise. In the end, the ultimate authority is not God. It is Thomas Jefferson.
Harvey’s book is a prime example of modern men setting themselves up as judges over Scripture. If Scripture requires a human stamp of approval to be believed, then it can never serve as an authority over humans.
C.S. Lewis captures well this approach of the “modern man”:
The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are quite reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge; if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the bench and God is in the dock.
In his latest volume, Is Scripture Still Holy? Coming of Age with the New Testament, A.E. Harvey tackles the thorny problem of whether Christians can still believe the Bible is, in some sense, a “Holy” book in light of the modern scholarly consensus which declares it to be quite ordinary. Given the problem of the canon, the disagreements over the Apocrypha, the various textual versions in the Dean Sea Scrolls, the existence of Q, and the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas, how can Christians still believe the Bible is special?
While the title of this volume implies that the author may still be presenting this as an open question, the first chapter makes it quite clear that the answer in this volume will be “no”—are at least “no” in regard to any historical, traditional sense in which Christians have regarded the Bible as God’s holy word. Here he offers a sustained critique of inspiration and concludes that the Bible is holy only in the sense that a divine experience of some sort was the occasion of its production.
This post is the first installment of a multi-part review of Harvey’s book. Throughout these posts, I will focus on the various arguments that he makes against the idea of inspiration and offer a response to each of them. Here I will focus on just one of them, namely Harvey’s argument that the true Revelation is Jesus, not the New Testament.
In a quasi-Barthian fashion, Harvey argues that it is not the New Testament itself that constitutes Revelation. Instead, “In Christian understanding, the revelation consists of the person of Jesus Christ.” He then proceeds to say that the New Testament writings “nowhere say, or even imply, ‘Thus, says the Lord’” (5).
This argument sounds pious on the surface—who wants to deny Jesus is the ultimate revelation?—but it runs into serious problems.
First, we have to ask about where Harvey is getting his definition of revelation, and his understanding of Jesus. How does he know revelation works the way he says it does? How does he know that Jesus is the true revelation? Notice that he claims that his argument is consistent with the “Christian understanding” of things. But, where does he look to get this Christian understanding?
Of course, this is where he reaches a bit of a dilemma. His entire book is designed to undermine the reliability of the New Testament as a faithful source of information about God, Jesus, and Christianity. After all, he claims the New Testament is subject to “the vagaries of human transmission and reception”—meaning that they are changed and manipulated by human interpreters over time.
If that is the case, then clearly the New Testament itself is not the source of Harvey’s understanding of Christian revelation (or Jesus). One might suppose he could appeal to the history of Christian teaching on these subjects. However, that will not fix the problem because (a) the historical Christian teaching on revelation and Scripture is not consistent with his own; (b) the historical Christian teaching on revelation is dependent on the very NT he rejects.
In the end, we must conclude that Harvey is just giving us his own personal opinion about the way revelation works (or ought to work). But, of course, there is no reason to think that his opinion is any more reasonable or compelling than the historical Christian position on the matter (not to mention the teaching of the NT itself!).
Second, Harvey claims that the NT does not even imply that it is divine revelation. But, this is an enormously misleading statement. Several things are true of the New Testament: (1) Jesus claims to speak the very words of God; (2) Jesus commissions the apostles to speak on his behalf, thus giving them the authority to speak the words of God; (3) Numerous books claim to be the writings of Jesus’ apostles.
Even if we adopt the critical consensus on the authorship of New Testament books (for the sake of argument), we are still left with very many books written by the apostle Paul. And the apostle Paul explicitly claims to be speaking for Jesus (Galatians 1), and even expressly states he is speaking the words of the Lord: “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized” (1 Cor 14:37-38).
Most noteworthy about this latter passage is that Paul directly addresses the precise nature of his writings and declares that they are a “command of the Lord.” Such a phrase is common throughout the Old Testament as a reference to either the commands that come directly from God himself or to the commands he has given to Moses. So confident is Paul of his authority to speak for the Lord that he declares that anyone who does not recognize the authority of his writings is himself “not recognized.”
Just this one verse (and there are others), demonstrates that Harvey’s claim that the NT does not understand itself as divine inspiration is patently false. He is free to reject the claims of the NT, but there is little doubt about what those claims are.
We shall continue to explore more of Harvey’s arguments against inspiration in further posts.
I want to thank Matt Smethurst over at The Gospel Coalition for posting my interview on the NT Canon with Mark Mellinger. I gave this interview back in April when I was at the TGC national conference participating on a panel discussion on the authority of Scripture (for that discussion, see here).
Mark and I had a fun and lively discussion on why the NT canon is reliable. Here it is:
Note: for the complete series see here.
How do we know which books are from God, and which are not? There are many answers to that question, some of which we have covered in prior posts. Certainly the apostolic origins of a book can help identify it as being from God (see post here). And, the church’s overall consensus on a book can be part of how we identity it as being from God (see post here).
But, it is interesting to note that the early church fathers, while agreeing that apostolicity and church-reception are fundamentally important, also appealed to another factor that is often overlooked in modern studies. They appealed to the internal qualities of these books.
In other words, they argued that these books bore certain attributes that distinguished them as being from God. They argued that they could hear the voice of their Lord in these particular books. In modern theological language, they believed that canonical books are self-authenticating. As Jesus said in John 10:27: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”
Origen is quite clear that the divine qualities of books play a role in their authentication: “If anyone ponders over the prophetic sayings…it is certain that in the very act of reading and diligently studying them his mind and feelings will be touched by a divine breath and he will recognize the words he is reading are not utterances of man but the language of God.”
Elsewhere Origen says similar things. He defends the canonicity of the book of Jude because “it is filled with the healthful words of heavenly grace” and defends the canonical gospels because of their “truly venerable and divine contents.” He even defends the canonicity of the book of Hebrews on the ground that “the ideas of the epistle are magnificent.”
Tatian is very clear about the role of the internal qualities of these books: “I was led to put faith in these [Scriptures] by the unpretending cast of the language, the inartificial character of the writers, the foreknowledge displayed of future events, the excellent quality of the precepts.”
Jerome defended the epistle of Philemon on the grounds that it is “a document which has in it so much of the beauty of the Gospel” which is the “mark of its inspiration.” Chrysostom declares that in the gospel of John there is “nothing counterfeit” because the gospel is “uttering a voice which is sweeter and more profitable than that of any harp or any music…something great and sublime.”
Right before citing Matt 4:17 and Phil 4:5, Clement of Alexandria says that you can distinguish the words of men from the words of Scripture because “No one will be so impressed by the exhortations of any of the saints, as he is by the words of the Lord Himself.”
These examples (and more could be added) are sufficient to show that the early church fathers believed that evidence for the canonicity of books can be found in the books themselves. In other words, canonical books are self-authenticating.
Of course, at this point one might object: “If the internal qualities of these books really exist, then how do we explain why they are rejected by so many? Why don’t more people see these qualities?”
The answer lies in the role of the Holy Spirit in helping people see what is objectively there. Due to the noetic effects of sin (Rom 3:10-18), one cannot recognize these qualities without the testimonium spiritus sancti internum, the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.
Needless to say, the non-Christian will find this explanation to be largely unpersuasive. “Isn’t a little suspicious,” he might object, “that Christians claim they are the only ones who can see the truth of these books and everyone else is blinded to it? That seems enormously self-serving.”
This objection is understandable. But, if Christian doctrines concerning the fall, original sin, and the corruption of the human heart are true, then it naturally follows that a person without the Spirit cannot discern the presence of the Spirit (such as whether He is speaking in a book).
Moreover, it is not all that different than the reality that some people are tone-deaf and therefore unable to discern whether a musical note is “on key.” You can imagine a tone-deaf person objecting, “This whole ‘on key’ thing is a sham run by musical insiders who claim to have a special ability to hear such things.” But, despite all the protests, the truth of the matter would remain: there is such a thing as being on key whether the tone-deaf person hears it or not.
In the end, the church fathers teach us a very important truth. The NT canon we possess today is not due to the machinations of later church leaders, or to the political influence of Constantine, but due to the fact that these books imposed themselves on the church through their internal qualities.
Back in April, I participated in a panel discussion at The Gospel Coalition national conference, moderated by Justin Taylor. The topic was the authority and reliability of Scripture, and included a number of RTS professors such as John Currid, Chuck Hill, and Bruce Baugus.
Below I have included the video of this discussion. I think it is a stimulating and wide-ranging discussion covering a variety of issues such as archaeology, manuscripts, and textual criticism. Enjoy!
Note: for the full series, see here.
When it comes to basic facts that all Christians should know about the canon, it is important that we recognize that the development of the canon was not always neat and tidy. It was not a pristine, problem-free process where everyone agreed on everything right from the outset.
On the contrary, the history of the canon is, at points, quite tumultuous. Some Christians received books that were later rejected and regarded as apocryphal (this was discussed in an earlier post). More than this, there was disagreement at times even over some canonical books.
For instance, Origen mentions that books like 2 Peter, 2-3 John, and James were doubted and disputed by some in his own day. Also, Dionysius of Alexandria tells us that some thought that Revelation was not written by the apostle John and should therefore be rejected.
It is important that we be reminded of such disputes and debates lest we conceive of the history of the canon in an overly-sanitized fashion. The canon was not given to us on golden tablets by an angel from heaven (as claimed for the Book of Mormon). God, for his own providential reasons, chose to deliver the canon through normal historical circumstances. And historical circumstances are not always smooth.
What is unfortunate, however, is that these disagreements amongst Christians are sometimes used as an argument against the validity of the 27-book canon we know today. Critics claim that such disagreements call into question the entire canonical enterprise. Why should we trust the outcome, it is argued, if some Christians disagreed?
Several factors should be considered in response. First, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that these disputes only affected a handful of books. Critics often present the history of the canon as if every book were equally in dispute. That is simply not the case. As we saw in a prior post, the vast majority of these books were in place by the end of the second century.
Second, we should not overestimate the extent of these disputes. Origen, for example, simply tells us that these books were disputed by some. But, in the case of 2 Peter, Origen is quite clear that he himself accepts it. Thus, there are no reasons to think that most Christians during this time period rejected these books. On the contrary, it seems that church fathers like Origen were simply acknowledging the minority report.
Third, we should also remember that the church eventually reached a broad, deep, and long-lasting consensus over these books that some disputed. After the dust had settled on all these canonical discussions, the church was quite unified regarding these writings. Of course, critics will suggest this is an irrelevant fact and should be given no weight. For them, the decisive issue is that Christians disagreed. But, why should we think that disagreements amongst Christians are significant, while unity amongst Christians is insignificant? The latter should be given the same consideration as the former.
But, even after offering these three responses, we should recognize that there is still a deeper issue in play for those who think disagreements amongst Christians invalidate the truth of the canon. Beneath this objection is a key (and unspoken) assumption, namely that if God were to give his church a canon he would not have done it this way.
Put differently, there is an assumption that we can only believe that we have the writings God intended if there are very few (if any) dissenters and if there is virtually immediate and universal agreement on all 27 books. But, where does this assumption come from? And why should we think it is true?
Indeed, there are many reasons to think it is false. For one, how does the critic know how God would give canonical books? This is a theological claim about how God works and what he would do (or wouldn’t do). But, how does the critic know what God would or wouldn’t do? To what source is he appealing? Surely, not the New Testament for that is the very source being criticized!
But, even more than this, we have good reasons to think that some dispute amongst Christians would be inevitable. Just the practical reality of giving books in real time and space, in real historical circumstances, spread out over different authors, on different continents, and at different times, would naturally create dispute in some places.
Whenever someone shows angst over these early canonical disagreements, I often ask a simple question: “What did you expect the process would be like?” It is at this point, that people often realize they have an overly-pristine expectation about how God would deliver his books—an expectation that is entirely their own and not derived from Scripture or from history.
All of this reminds us that God sometimes uses normal historical processes to accomplish his ends. And those historical processes are not always neat and tidy. But, this should not detract from the reality that the ends are still God’s.
Note: Full blog series can be found here.
For whatever set of reasons, there is a widespread belief out there (internet, popular books) that the New Testament canon was decided at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD—under the conspiratorial influence of Constantine. The fact that this claim was made in Dan Brown’s best-seller The Da Vinci Code shows how widespread it really is. Brown did not make up this belief; he simply used it in his book.
The problem with this belief, however, is that it is patently false. The Council of Nicea had nothing to do with the formation of the New Testament canon (nor did Constantine). Nicea was concerned with how Christians should articulate their beliefs about the divinity of Jesus. Thus it was the birthplace of the Nicean creed.
When people discover that Nicea did not decide the canon, the follow up question is usually, “Which council did decide the canon?” Surely we could not have a canon without some sort of authoritative, official act of the church by which it was decided. Surely we have a canon because some group of men somewhere voted on it. Right?
This whole line of reasoning reveals a fundamental assumption about the New Testament canon that needs to be corrected, namely that it was (or had to be) decided by a church council. The fact of the matter is that when we look into early church history there is no such council. Sure, there are regional church councils that made declarations about the canon (Laodicea, Hippo, Carthage). But these regional councils did not just “pick” books they happened to like, but affirmed the books they believed had functioned as foundational documents for the Christian faith. In other words, these councils were declaring the way things had been, not the way they wanted them to be.
Thus, these councils did not create, authorize, or determine the canon. They simply were part of the process of recognizing a canon that was already there.
This raises an important fact about the New Testament canon that every Christian should know. The shape of our New Testament canon was not determined by a vote or by a council, but by a broad and ancient consensus. Here we can agree with Bart Ehrman, “The canon of the New Testament was ratified by widespread consensus rather than by official proclamation.”
This historical reality is a good reminder that the canon is not just a man-made construct. It was not the result of a power play brokered by rich cultural elites in some smoke filled room. It was the result of many years of God’s people reading, using, and responding to these books.
The same was true for the Old Testament canon. Jesus himself used and cited the Old Testament writings with no indication anywhere that there was uncertainty about which books belonged. Indeed, he held his audience accountable for knowing these books. But, in all of this, there was no Old Testament church council that officially picked them (not even Jamnia). They too were the result of ancient and widespread consensus.
In the end, we can certainly acknowledge that humans played a role in the canonical process. But, not the role that is so commonly attributed to them. Humans did not determine the canon, they responded to it. In this sense, we can say that the canon really chose itself.
Full blog series can be found here.
For Christians struggling to understand the development of the New Testament canon, one of the most confusing (and perhaps concerning) facts is that early Christian writers often cited from and used non-canonical writings. In other words, early Christians did not just use books from our current New Testament, but also read books like the Shepherd of Hermas, the Gospel of Peter, and the Epistle of Barnabas.
Usually Christians discover this fact as they read a book or article that is highly critical of the New Testament canon, and this fact is used as a reason to think that our New Testament writings are nothing special. The literary preferences of the earliest Christians were wide open, we are told. Or, as one critic put it, early Christians read a “boundless, living mass of heterogenous” texts.
Because this fact is used to criticize the integrity of the New Testament canon, then all Christians should be keen to learn it. While the fact itself is true—early Christians did read and use many writings not in the canon—the conclusions often drawn from this fact are often not.
When scholars mention the Christian use of non-canonical writings, two facts are often left out:
1. The manner of citation. It is important to note that while Christians often cited and used non-canonical literature, they only rarely cited them as Scripture. For the most part, Christians were simply using these books as helpful, illuminating, or edifying writings. This is not all that different than practices in our modern day. A preacher may quote from CS Lewis in a sermon, but that does not mean he puts Lewis’s authority on par with Scripture itself.
A good example of this phenomenon is the use of the Gospel of Peter by the church at Rhossus at the end of the second century. Scholars often appeal to this story as evidence that early Christians had no established gospel canon. However, there is no evidence that the church there used the book as Scripture.
When we ask the question about which books early Christians cited most often as Scripture, then the answer is overwhelmingly in favor of the books that eventually made it into the New Testament canon.
2. Frequency of citation. Another often overlooked factor is the relative degree of frequency between citations of New Testament books and citations of non-canonical books. For example, scholars often appeal to Clement of Alexandria as the standard example of an early Christian that used non-canonical literature equally with canonical literature. But, when it comes to frequency of citation, this is far from true.
J.A. Brooks, for instance, has observed that Clement cites the canonical books “about sixteen times more often than apocryphal and patristic writings.” When it comes to gospels, the evidence is even better. Clement cites apocryphal gospels only 16 times, whereas, he cites just the gospel of Matthew 757 times.
In sum, Christians need to memorize this simple fact about the New Testament canon: early Christians used many other books besides those that made it into our Bibles. But, this should not surprise us. For, indeed, we still do the very same thing today even though we have a New Testament that has been settled for over 1600 years.
Note: See the full blog series here.
This series is designed to introduce lay Christians to the basic facts of how the New Testament canon developed. One of the key data points in any discussion of canon is something called the Muratorian fragment (also known as the Muratorian canon). This fragment, named after its discoverer Ludovico Antonio Muratori, contains our earliest list of the books in the New Testament. While the fragment itself dates from the 7th or 8th century, the list it contains was originally written in Greek and dates back to the end of the second century (c.180).
Some have argued that the list should be dated to the fourth century (e.g., Sundberg and Hahneman), but the consensus of scholars today still places the list in the second century. Joseph Verheyden sums up the modern debate, “None of the arguments put forward by Sundberg and Hahneman in favour of a fourth-century, eastern origin of the Fragment are convincing.”
What is noteworthy for our purposes here is that the Muratorian fragment affirms 22 of the 27 books of the New Testament. These include the four Gospels, Acts, all 13 epistles of Paul, Jude, 1 John, 2 John (and possibly 3rd John), and Revelation. This means that at a remarkably early point (end of the second century), the central core of the New Testament canon was already established and in place.
Of course, it should be acknowledged that the Muratorian canon also seems to affirm the Apocalypse of Peter. However, the author of the fragment immediately expresses that some have hesitations about this book. Those hesitations eventually won out, and the Apocalypse of Peter was never widely affirmed by the early church, and never earned a final spot in the canon.
The fact that there was some disagreement during this time period over a few of the “peripheral” books should not surprise us. It took some time for the issue of the canon to be settled. This occasional disagreement, however, should not keep us from observing the larger and broader unity that early Christians shared regarding the “core” New Testament books.
If there was a core canon from an early time period, then there are two significant implications we can draw from this. First, this means that most of the debates and disagreements about canonical books in early Christianity only concerned a handful of books. Books like 3 John, James, 2 Peter and so on. Early Christianity was not a wide open literary free for all, where there was no agreement on much of anything. Instead there was an agreed-upon core that no one really disputed.
Second, if there was a core collection of New Testament books, then the theological trajectory of early Christianity had already been determined prior to the debates about the peripheral books being resolved. So, regardless of the outcome of discussion over books like 2 Peter or James, Christianity’s core doctrines of the person of Christ, the work of Christ, the means of salvation, etc., were already in place and already established. The acceptance or rejection of books like 2 Peter would not change that fact.
Thus, the Muratorian fragment stands as a reminder of two important facts. First, Christians did disagree over books from time to time. That was an inevitability, particularly in the early stages. But this list also reminds us of a second (and more fundamental) fact, namely that there was widespread agreement over the core from a very early time.
Over the last month, I have offered an extended review of Hal Taussig’s A New New Testament (see here for the final post with all the links). Taussig tries to add 10 apocryphal books to the existing NT canon.
Over at the White Horse Inn Blog, Mike Horton and I have offered a tag team review of this book. Mike offered his own review yesterday (April 30), and then he has posted my review today (May 1). He tackles the book more from a theological perspective and I examine it more from a historical perspective.
Since my portion was already posted here on my own website, let me give a portion of Mike’s excellent review:
Only in America do scholars imagine that they can invent a new kind of Christianity by casting votes. Talk about a conspiracy of elites ignoring the voices of millions of believers from every continent and language! Contrast this with the reception of the biblical canon—early and geographically widespread—by the whole church.
It’s a simple point, but I think it goes to the heart of this whole genre of “Re-Imagining Christianity” as if early Christianity were an extended Oprah show. The point is this: certain canons give rise to certain communities. Representing the wider church (long before the rise of the Roman papacy), church councils met not to select texts for inclusion in the canon but to discern which texts were already canonical. As church historians like Eusebius recount, the church’s act was discernment and submission, not creativity and decision. There’s a reason you’ve heard of the 27 New Testament books we have.
If the church created rather than recognized the canonical Word as the voice of its Great Shepherd, then two problems arise. First, we must discount the way in which the earliest Christian writers appealed to Scripture, imposing the anachronism of a later (medieval) development. Second, we have little to say when writers like Hal Taussig, Elaine Pagels, Karen King, John Dominic Crossan, Bart Ehrman, and others claim that the only reason we have these 27 books is the arbitrary will of a circle of leaders claiming the mantle of the apostles.
Read the whole thing here.
Note: The review below was just published in the latest issue of Themelios.
I have enjoyed reading Lee McDonald’s many works on the NT canon. He has established himself as one of the leading voices in this area through his numerous books and articles. So I was pleased to see this latest volume, Formation of the Bible: The Story of the Church’s Canon (Hendrickson, 2012), which is intended to be a lay-level introduction to the origins of the Bible. There are very few introductory works on this subject matter (a point McDonald makes in the preface), so it is good to see something written for the person in the pew.
After an introductory chapter on “What is the Bible?”, McDonald divides the volume into approximately two halves with three chapters covering the story of the OT and three the NT. Throughout these chapters, he lays out all the standard historical facts about the development of these books, along with many charts, maps, and pictures. And he is quite thorough. Despite the fact that this volume is intended for a lay audience, it is thick with the relevant historical data.
As McDonald discusses the historical details, he is quite willing to lay (aspects of) his theological views on the table. He openly acknowledges the Bible as “word of God” (p. xi) and that it is “sacred and authoritative Scripture” (p. 17). He also offers a bit of an apologetic motive for his book when he says, “Given the current skepticism of many contemporary scholars about the origin of the Bible and its faith claims, it is important to answer recent challenges to the Bible and to aid those who recognize the Bible as a sacred book, but who do not regularly deal with its origins” (p. xi). So, on the one hand, it seems that McDonald is out to defend the authority of the Bible to the layman who may not be aware of the complex scholarly issues. I appreciate this dimension of his book and find it commendable.
However, on the other hand, it seems that the book runs into a number of problems when McDonald actually starts sifting through the historical evidence. Although most of the evidence McDonald reviews is fairly routine, there are a number of areas where the historical analysis proves to be problematic. Most of these issues arise in two main areas:
1. The Significance of Biblical Citations for Establishing the Canon. One of the main ways that we know whether an ancient author considered a book to be canonical is the manner in which he cited the book. If an ancient author explicitly referred to a writing as “Scripture” or used a standard introductory formula (e.g., “it is written”), then we have good grounds for thinking that the author regarded the book as having divine authority. However, it is important to recognize that ancient authors frequently used, cited, and appealed to books that were not necessarily part of their scriptural collection. In other words, mere use does not establish a book’s canonicity.
McDonald rightly recognizes this principle and goes out of his way to make it plain (p. 27). The problem, however, is that this principle does not seem to be consistently followed throughout the volume. For instance, in the discussion of the canon of the Qumran community, McDonald observes that many non-biblical texts were also found in the caves by the Dead Sea. Then, he argues, “The presence of many non-biblical books at Qumran, some of which may date from the late fourth century BC, suggests that the matter of the scope of the Jewish Scriptures was not settled in the time of Jesus” (p. 43). But how does the mere “presence” of other books in the Qumran library prove this? Sure, the presence of these books shows that they were used by the Qumran community. But as just discussed, mere use does not demonstrate that they possessed scriptural authority. Indeed, if one were to find a modern theological library buried in the sand a thousand years from now, it would contain more than just biblical books, but many other kinds of books as well. But this cannot be used as evidence that these books were all considered canonical.
This same issue comes up again when McDonald examines which books Jesus and his disciples considered scriptural (as witnessed in the NT writings). In an effort to show that there was no fixed canon during this time, he mentions, “Some of Jesus’ teachings have parallels in certain non-biblical books” (p. 56). McDonald makes the same argument when it comes to Jesus’ disciples. He argues there was no fixed canon because Jesus’ disciples “often cite other religious texts not in the Hebrew Bible” (p. 56). But again, how do these instances prove that there was no fixed canon? McDonald passes over the fact that Jesus and his disciples never refer to any of these non-biblical books as Scripture (Jude notwithstanding). Mere use of a book does not demonstrate that it has canonical status.
2. The Nature of Early Christian Book Production. I appreciate that McDonald spends a significant amount of time on the NT manuscripts themselves and what they can tell us about the origins of the canon-an area often overlooked in prior studies. However, there are also a number of concerns about the presentation of the data in this section.
First, McDonald regularly presents the earliest manuscripts as “poor in quality with many mistakes in them” (p. 122) and presents the scribes as “amateur copiers and not professional” (pp. 122-23). However, this is not quite an accurate presentation of the literary culture of early Christianity. While we would certainly agree that some Christian scribes were amateurs who produced a low-quality product, there are no reasons to think all Christian scribes were this way. In fact, when we look at the earliest NT manuscripts, a significant number of them have a high quality scribal hand, typical of those who have been trained to write and copy books. In fact, in Graham Stanton’s recent study on this question, he has shown that we have numerous early papyri written with professional book hands and “made with great skill and at some expense” (Jesus and Gospel [Cambridge University Press, 2004], pp. 192-206). Thus, it would be more accurate to characterize the quality of early Christian scribes as mixed-some were low quality, some average quality, and some high quality.
Second, McDonald addresses the special scribal abbreviations called the nomina sacra. While most scholars have considered these abbreviations as indicative of impressive scribal cooperation and organization, McDonald, surprisingly, sees them as indicative of the opposite, namely, that the scribes were unprofessional and “not conscious of copying literary, sacred texts” (p. 123). On what basis does McDonald make this claim? He does so on the basis that “abbreviations were not generally made in standard books or scrolls of a literary quality” (p. 123). But to compare the nomina sacra to standard scribal abbreviations is to seriously miss what the nomina sacra are. They were not created to save space but to show honor to the name of God and Christ. In other words, the nomina sacra were more about religious devotion than about punctuation. In this way, they were quite similar to the Tetragrammaton-the special writing of the divine name in the OT books. Surely, McDonald would not suggest that the existence of the Tetragrammaton is an indication of low scribal quality and a belief that those books were not Scripture. For these reasons, John Barton has made the opposite point of McDonald and has argued, “the existence of the nomina sacra indicates that for Christians as for Jews there were features of the text as a physical object that were used to express its sacredness” (The Spirit and the Letter: Studies in the Biblical Canon [SPCK, 1997], p. 123).
Third, when McDonald addresses the state of the earliest Christian papyri, there are additional problems in the presentation of the evidence. He indicates, “there are only two known manuscripts of the New Testament from the second century” (p. 137). But again, this is not the whole story. Manuscripts are often given dates in a range (usually about fifty years), and McDonald has chosen only the upper portion of that range. If one considers the whole range, then numerous manuscripts could fall into the second century (e.g., P104, P4-64-67, P77, P103, P75, P66, P46, P52, P90). In addition, when talking about the NT papyri, McDonald argues, “some contain New Testament books alongside the non-biblical books” (pp. 125-26). It seems that he raises this point to show that there was canonical diversity amongst early Christians. As an example, he mentions P72 where 1 and 2 Peter occur alongside some extrabiblical books. But he never mentions that this is the only example of this phenomenon amongst the papyri! There are not “some” papyri that do this, but only one. P72 is not the norm, but the exception.
In sum, this volume has a number of positive features as it covers a variety of complex historical topics for the layman, but it also runs into some difficulties as it evaluates some of the historical evidence. The repeated theme of the book, to which McDonald regularly returns, is that of canonical diversity. He seems intent to show that there was no fixed canon at an early point and that there was significant disagreement over these books. While this is partially true, the arguments of the book could be more nuanced and rounded out in the ways that I indicate above.
Nevertheless, McDonald has provided a positive contribution to the field of canonical studies and a helpful introduction for a lay audience. And I particularly appreciate the way he ends the book. Regardless of all the complexities of the canonical process, argues McDonald, we still must ask the most important question of whether we are willing to follow the canon: “We do not have a biblical canon unless we are willing to follow its guidelines for ordering our lives” (p. 161). Thus, McDonald rightly reminds us that the most important issue regarding the canon is not academic, but practical. The canon is not just something to investigate but something to obey.
For most of us, the key question about the NT canon is “Why these books and no others?” But, I think there is another, more foundational question (that is asked much less frequently), and that is, “Why is there a New Testament at all?”
The answer, according to some scholars, is not to be found in the first-century—there was nothing about earliest Christianity (or the books themselves) that would naturally lead to the development of a canon. Instead, we are told, the answer is to be found in the later Christian church. The canon was an ecclesiastical product that was designed to meet ecclesiastical needs. Sure, the books themselves were produced at a much earlier point, but the idea of a canon was something that was retroactively imposed upon these books at a later time. Books are not written as canon—they become canon.
This idea that the New Testament canon was not a natural development within early Christianity, but a later artificial development that is out of sync with Christianity’s original purpose, is, in my opinion, a central framework that dominates much of modern canonical (and biblical) studies.
This same framework was observed by Brevard Childs,
It is assumed by many that the formation of a canon is a late, ecclesiastical activity, external to the biblical literature itself, which was subsequently imposed on the writings.
It is this overall canonical approach (which I call an “extrinsic” model of canon) that I address in my forthcoming book: The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013). Are we really to think that “nothing dictated that there should be a NT” prior to these later ecclesiastical actions? Was there nothing about earliest Christianity that might have given rise to such a collection? Was the idea of new Scriptures entirely foreign to the early followers of Jesus?
The goal of my book is to offer a well-intended corrective to the extrinsic model’s assessment and interpretation of some of the historical evidence. Paradigms always need adjustments and refinement and this volume hopes to take a helpful step forward in that direction. It is not designed to offer the final word on the very complex subject of canon, but to reopen dialogue on a number of key topics where the dialogue, at least in appearance, seems to be closed.
The table of contents is as follows:
1 The Definition of Canon: Must We Make a Sharp Distinction between the Definitions of ‘Canon’ and ‘Scripture’?
2 The Origins of Canon: Was There Really Nothing in Early Christianity That May Have Led to a Canon?
3 The Writing of Canon: Were Early Christians Averse to Written Documents?
4 The Authors of Canon: Were the New Testament Authors Unaware of Their Own Authority?
5 The Date of Canon: Were the New Testament Books First Regarded as Scripture at the End of the Second Century?
The book is due out in November, 2013.
This will be the last installment of my extended review of Hal Taussig’s A New New Testament (Houghton Mifflin, 2013) which attempts to create a new canon, with 10 “new” apocryphal books added to the traditional 27-book corpus.
In prior posts, I have examined the overall purpose of the project, the promotional language on the cover flap, and the apologetic offered in the introduction. In this final post, I will make some observations about the last part of the book entitled, “A Companion to A New New Testament.”
The problems in this section are no less abundant than in other sections, so we will only be able touch on them briefly. We can divide our discussion into three sections: (1) historical problems, (2) methodological problems, and (3) theological /philosophical issues.
There are many historical/factual statements throughout this section that are highly questionable. Let me just mention three.
1. On p.484, Taussig claims that we have fragments of the Gospel of Thomas “from the first hundred years after Jesus died.” In other words, prior to c.130. Curiously, he never mentions which fragment he has in mind. The only options are P.Oxy. 1, 654, and 655, but these are all third century. To suggest there is a Thomas fragment from the early second century is shockingly inaccurate.
2. On p.501, Taussig claims that Clement of Alexandria rejected the gospels of Mark and Luke and “accepted only Matthew and John.” But, this simply isn’t true. Clement affirmed four and only four gospels as authentic. At one point he dismisses a passage in the Gospel of the Egyptians on the grounds that “We do not have this saying in the four gospels that have been handed down to us.” Eusebius agrees and says that Clement affirmed all four gospels.
3. On p.506, Taussig argues that there was no New Testament in “the first five hundred years of ‘Christianity’” because “the technology of book production was such that combining all twenty-seven texts into one was more or less impossible.” I find this statement to be incredible. The technology for large codices was in place long before the year 530 (five hundred years after Christ). Not only do we have full NT and OT codices in the 300’s (e.g., codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus), but we have multi-quire codices all the way back in the second century (e.g., P66), suggesting that the technology for larger books was in place quite early.
When it comes to choosing the books for this “new” canon, it is clear that Taussig is using a particular methodology. Let me just mention one aspect of this issue.
When describing how these new books were chosen, Taussig says they were “selected in a manner similar to the way historical Christianity made many of its crucial choices: by a collective decision-making process” (512). But, this modern “council” does not function at all like the ancient ones. Taussig gives the impression that ancient councils actually chose books and decided the canon. But that is a misleading way of describing the process. The ancient councils did not just “pick” books they happened to like, but affirmed the books they believed had functioned as foundational documents for the Christian faith. In other words, these councils were declaring the way things had been, not the way they wanted them to be.
In contrast, this modern New Orleans council, is simply picking the books they prefer, not the books that have historically functioned as foundational to the Christian faith. For example, this new council included a bizarre and esoteric poem entitled The Thunder: The Perfect Mind. Was this a foundational document for early Christianity? Not at all. For one, it is not necessarily even a Christian document, never mentioning the name of Christ or any distinctively Christian doctrine. Moreover, as Taussig himself admits, “There is no mention of Thunder in any other known piece of ancient literature”(179). Is this a foundational document? Hardly.
Finally, it should be noted that Taussig, in this final section, reveals a little of the theological motivation for this book. There is nothing wrong with having a theological motivation, but it is still worth pointing out.
Taussig offers a reason for adding these documents, namely that they “can make a real difference in the spiritual lives of ordinary people” (489). What kind of difference? “[The Gospel of Mary] inspired women to think of themselves as real leaders in conventionally male-dominated situations. The Gospel of Thomas proclaims the radical availability of God inside people, and The Thunder: Perfect Mind reframes what it means to be men and women” (489).
It is here that we come to the heart of this book’s theological aims. In fact, Taussig even admits, “These kinds of significant meanings in the lives of real people are at heart of what the New Orleans Council…wanted for the public” (489).
Thus, this book is not about history but theology. Not about the past, but the present. It is a book designed to change our conceptions of gender and to make it more egalitarian. And it is a book designed to give us a Gnostic version of God, a God found inside of us.
In sum, Taussig has produced a new set of Scriptures to accommodate his new theology. And thus he has reversed the normal order of things. While theology usually comes from Scripture, Taussig has used his theology to create a new Scripture. It’s man-made religion at its best.
Note: This is the fifth installment of a blog series announced here.
When it comes to basic facts about the NT canon that Christians should memorize, one of the most critical is the statement by Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, around A.D. 180: “It is not possible that the gospels can be either more or fewer than the number they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live and four principle winds… [and] the cherubim, too, were four-faced.”
Here Irenaeus not only affirms the canonicity the four gospels, but is keen to point out that only these four gospels are recognized by the church. Indeed, Irenaeus is so certain that the canon of the gospels is closed that he can argue that it is entrenched in the very structure of creation—four zones of the world, four principle winds, etc.
In an effort to minimize the implications of Irenaeus’ statement, some scholars have suggested that only Irenaeus held this view. He is thus portrayed as lonely, isolated, innovator who is trying to break into new and uncharted territory. This whole idea of a fourfold gospel, we are told, was invented by Irenaeus.
But, does this Irenaeus-as-innovator approach fit the facts? Not really. There are several considerations that raise doubts about it:
1. Irenaeus’ own writings. When Irenaeus talks about the fourfold gospel in his writings, he gives no indication that he is presenting a new idea, or that he is asking the reader to consider a new concept. On the contrary, he speaks in a manner that assumes the reader knows and follows these same gospels. He speaks of them naturally and unapologetically. In short, Irenaeus does not write like a person advocating the scriptural status of these books for the first time.
2. Irenaeus’ contemporaries. The idea that Irenaeus was alone runs into a serious challenge, namely that there were other writers at the end of the second century that affirmed these same four gospels as exclusive. The Muratorian fragment, Clement of Alexandria, and Theophilus of Antioch are examples. Apparently, Irenaeus was not the only one under the impression that the church had four gospels.
In addition, one should consider Tatian’s Diatesseron—a harmony of the four gospels written c.170. The Diatesseron not only tells us that these four gospels were known and used, but it tells us that they were seen as authoritative enough to warrant harmonization. After all, why would one bother harmonizing books that were not authoritative? If they weren’t authoritative, then it wouldn’t matter if they contradicted each other.
3. Irenaeus’ Predecessors. Although the evidence prior to Irenaeus is less clear, we can still see a commitment to the fourfold gospel. For instance, Justin Martyr, writing c.150, refers to plural “gospels” and at one point provides an indication of how many he has in mind when he describes these gospels as “drawn up by His apostles and those who followed them.” Since such language indicates (at least) two gospels written by apostles, and (at least) two written by apostolic companions, it is most naturally understood as reference to our four canonical gospels.
This is confirmed by the fact that Justin cites from all three Synoptic Gospels, and even seems to cite the gospel of John directly, “For Christ also said, ‘Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’” (cf. John 3:3). The fact that Justin was the mentor for Tatian (who produced a harmony of the four gospels) provides yet another reason to think that he had a fourfold gospel.
In the end, there are ample reasons to reject the idea that Irenaeus was the inventor of the fourfold gospel canon. Not only did his contemporaries have this same view, but this view was even shared by those before him. Thus, we must consider the possibility that Irenaeus was actually telling the truth when he says that the fourfold gospel was something that was “handed down” to him.
 Haer. 3.11.8.
 1 Apol. 66.3.
 Dial. 103.
 G. Stanton, “The Fourfold Gospel,” NTS 43 (1997): 317–346.
 E.g., Dial 100.1; 103.8; 106.3-4. Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels, 38, declares that the citations in Justin “derive from written gospels, usually from Matthew and Luke, in one instance from Mark.”
 1 Apol. 61.4.
 Haer 3.1.1.
I have been working through an extended review of the new book by Hal Taussig called A New New Testament (Houghton Mifflin, 2013) which adds 10 “new” apocryphal books to the existing 27 books of the New Testament. In my prior post, I examined the promotional language on the inside cover flap. In this post, I will focus on the introduction to the book (xxxiii-xxvii) where Taussig offers his apologetic for this ambitious project.
1. Taussig opens his defense with the following statement:
This New New Testament is not simply the produce of one author. The ten added books have been chosen by a council of wise and nationally known spiritual leaders (xxiii).
One gets the sense that Taussig is well aware that creating a new scriptural canon will seem a bit audacious to the reader. But his attempt to alleviate this concern is stunning. Does he really think 19 hand-picked “spiritual leaders” are in a position to do such a thing? Really? Moreover, Taussig is even bold enough to call this a “council.” No doubt, the use of this term is an intentional effort invoke memories of prior church councils that discussed the canon (e.g., Hippo and Carthage).
The problem, of course, is that this “council” is nothing like those in the early church. For one, it is not a council called by the church. Indeed, it even includes members who are not even Christians (it includes two rabbis). In addition, where are the representatives from the evangelical and Roman Catholic communities? These do not make up an insignificant part of global Christianity today. Taussig calls his council “eclectic” (xxiii), but it is nothing of the kind. It should be called a “council of liberal, progressive folks unhappy with the current make-up of the canon.”
2. When Taussig addresses the question about the origins of these books, and their respective dates, a bit of terminological sleight of hand becomes immediately evident. Despite the fact that all of these books are second century or later (see here for more on this topic), he repeatedly refers to them as books from “the first centuries” of Christianity (xxiii) or “from the beginnings of Christianity.” At first glance, such phrasing makes it sound like these books are from the “first century” (singular) or from the “beginning” (singular), when in fact they are not.
The necessity for such elusive language is obvious. If he just came out and told the reader that all these “new” books are later productions, not written by apostles, then the reader would see little need to add these books to the canon.
3. Taussig then states,
There is no reason, then, to think that the Gospel of Thomas, which is not in the traditional New Testament, was ready any less in the first and second centuries than the Gospel of John (xxvi).
But, this statement is loaded with problems. First, Taussig implies that the Gospel of Thomas was read in the first century. But, this is simply not the case. Thomas was not a first century gospel. Second, the popularity of a book is not a determiner of canonical status. The Shepherd of Hermas was widely popular in early Christianity, certainly more than some canonical books, but it never had any real chance of making it into the canon, and was expressly rejected by the Muratorian fragment. Third, and most importantly, it is patently false to say that Thomas was as popular as John’s gospel. Since I have already dealt with this issue elsewhere, I point you to my article here.
4. In an effort to portray apocryphal and canonical books as equal to one another, Taussig states:
The New Testament did not exist for at least the first three hundred, if not five hundred, years after Jesus (xxvi).
But, again, this is substantially misleading. It depends entirely upon what one means by the term “New Testament.” If one insists that we cannot use the term until there is a final consensus, even on the peripheral books, then we don’t have a canon until the fourth century. But, left out of such usage is the fact that there was a “core” canon of New Testament books in place even during the second century. When one considers just Irenaeus and the Muratorian fragment, it is clear that the four gospels, Paul’s letters, and a handful of other books were widely received as “Scripture.” For more on this point, see here.
5. In order to defend the inclusion of new books into the canon, Taussig is forced to argue that there is no qualitative distinction between canonical books and apocryphal books. He states,
The common assumption holds that the books that became the New Testament must have been in some way more true, more divinely inspired, or more historically accurate than the ones that weren’t. One goal of A New New Testament is to rethink that misconception. The Gospel of Truth contains poetry about Jesus that is as beautiful as anything found in the traditional New Testament (xxvii).
There are a number of problems with this statement, but I will focus on just one. If it is true that there is nothing qualitatively distinctive about the books we include in the New Testament, then the whole concept of a New Testament evaporates. The whole idea of a “canon” is that some books are in, and some books are out, and that there is a reason for such distinctions. But, Taussig is basically arguing there are no differences between books. But, if there are no differences, then why bother having a canon at all?
For that matter, why limit the “new” books to the canon to just the ten in this volume? Why not add Martin Luther King’s, “Letter from Birmingham Jail”? Is it not just as inspiring, if not more so, than some of Paul’s letters? Indeed, why doesn’t Taussig even add his own writings to the canon? On what grounds could he exclude them?
All of this highlights the absurdity of this entire volume. The title proposes to create a “New New Testament” when that is not at all what is happening. Instead, this volume is designed to do away with the concept of a New Testament altogether. A canon is not being constructed. A canon is being deconstructed. The canon, we are being told, is whatever we want it to be.
In a prior post, I responded to Brice Jones’ original critique of my chapter in The Early Text of the New Testament. He has taken a moment to respond on his website here. I want to thank Brice for this interesting and stimulating interaction. Certainly anyone should be thanked who is willing to read and interact with a $140 book! I will offer just a few final reflections here.
I only want to address the following paragraph where Brice summarizes his complaint:
The main difficulty that I find with your essay is your move from a few select passages that do not refer to attitudes toward reproduction of the NT text, to the conclusion that early Christians “as a whole” had a strict attitude to NT textual reproduction, and that only “some early Christians changed the NT text and altered its wording” (p. 79, emphasis mine). Christian “attitudes” toward textual reproduction is one thing, and what scribes did in actual practice is another. I would argue that the NT manuscripts themselves offer a completely different story, even if we do have a handful of statements to the contrary.
Several comments about this statement should be made:
1. Brice says that I base my conclusions about early Christian attitudes to textual reproduction on “a few select passages that do not refer to attitudes toward the reproduction of the NT text.” But, this is simply not the case. My essay dealt with more passages than just the Galatians and Barnabas texts he contends. What of Dionysius of Corinth? Irenaeus? The anonymous author cited by Eusebius? These all deal directly with the NT text. But, there is a bigger issue here. Brice cannot seem to grasp the implicit implications of some of the passages I addressed. For example, returning again to Gal 3:15, I readily acknowledged that this passage did not address a NT text directly. But, it is relevant for the point of the essay because it addresses Christian attitudes to the textual reproduction of Scripture. How can it then be so easily dismissed?
2. Brice complains that I move from these select historical examples to conclusions about what Christianity “as a whole” might have been like. But, last time I checked, that it was historical study inevitably must do. We always have limited historical examples from which we try to map out the larger picture. And my essay is particularly limited because I restricted my time frame to before c.200 (a point which should be remembered). Of course, such conclusions should be tentative and drawn with caution due to the limited nature of the evidence, but that is precisely what I said repeatedly throughout the essay.
In Brice’s rebuttal, he acknowledged that I expressed appropriate caution on p.71 after the section on whether some Christians viewed some NT books as Scripture. But then Brice says: “I would argue, as most do, that we must use the same caution when assessing attitudes about NT textual reproduction.” But I did this on p.79! There I said: “It is difficult to know whether this testimony is representative of early Christianity as a whole.” Again, I am not sure how this could have been more plainly stated.
3. Finally, Brice states that “Christian ‘attitudes’ toward textual reproduction is one thing, and what scribes did in actual practice is another. I would argue that the NT manuscripts themselves offer a completely different story, even if we do have a handful of statements to the contrary.” But, this critique misses the whole point of my essay. I argued in the opening paragraphs that we can learn something about early Christian attitudes toward textual reproduction from the manuscripts themselves. And I acknowledged in the opening paragraphs that many manuscripts exhibit significant scribal alterations. But, this fact does not mean we should not consider what early Christians actually said about textual reproduction. And my essay was only dealing with the latter. The issue of how we harmonize what Christians said about textual reproduction, and how they actually did textual reproduction is a complex matter. But both should inform our understanding of the process of textual reproduction.
Thanks again to Brice for his interaction with the book. The clarifications I have offered above show, I think, that our two positions are much closer than they might appear at first glance.
Over at his website, Brice Jones just reviewed The Early Text of the New Testament (Oxford, 2012), edited by myself and Chuck Hill. In general, he offers a positive summary, “Overall, this book is an important addition to our field and thus is to be recommended to anyone interested in the text of the New Testament.”
However, Brice was critical of my own essay, “Early Christian Attitudes to the Reproduction of Texts,” arguing that it had a “theological agenda.” Not sure what he meant by theological agenda, since he never gets specific about where I do this in the article. He does, however, express disagreement over my analysis of some of the historical evidence. I certainly welcome disagreement and discussion over the historical evidence, but I am not sure such disagreement necessitates that either party has a theological agenda.
As for Brice’s critique, he says the following:
Co-editor Michael Kruger’s essay attempts to combat the view that the early text was unstable and corrupt by showing that “this is not necessarily how early Christians viewed these texts or how they approached their transmission” (p. 65). Kruger provides several examples from early Christian writings as evidence, such as the Didache, Revelation, Irenaeus, Dionysius, etc.; however, not all of the examples he provides are as “express” as he claims. For example, in Gal 3:15, Paul’s reference to the annulment of a covenant does not refer in any way to the text of the New Testament, yet Kruger lists it in his “select examples” (p. 73) that are said to reflect the attitude toward the reproduction of the New Testament. He also cites (p. 75) as another example a passage from the Epistle of Barnabas (19.11), which states “You shall guard what you have received, nor add or take away.” Kruger then argues that that which is received “likely” signifies written traditions about Jesus; Kruger alludes to Barn. 4:14 as an example of written Gospel tradition in Barnabas (cf. the discussion of Barnabas in Foster’s essay at 294-296). However, it is not at all clear that the phrase “what you have received” is referring to a New Testament text. It could just as well (and more likely does) refer to some kind of catechetical teaching, extant or otherwise, written or oral. We simply do not know to what the phrase is referring.
I appreciate Brice’s comments here, but I really do think he has misunderstood my argument. Let me try to offer some clarifications. It is important to note that the section where I deal with Galatians and Barnabas is a section about the OT principle “neither adding or taking away” (Deut 4:2). I this section I am simply asking whether we see this principle continue into early Christianity. Galatians and Barnabas don’t have to be explicitly referring to the NT text to show that this principle was still valued by early Christians. In fact, at the top of p.73 I acknowledge that this evidence may only apply to the NT text “implicitly.”
For example, in Galatians 3 Paul is clearly talking about OT covenant making and then appeals to a general principle about covenantal texts: “no one annuls or adds to it once it has been ratified” (3:15) This is an obvious allusion to the Deut 4:2 principle. Is Paul referring to the NT text here? Of course not. But that is not my argument. I am arguing that Gal 3:15 does tell us about the way one of the earliest Christians (Paul) viewed scriptural texts, namely that they were not to be altered. And therefore it is relevant for our discussion. It tells us about early Christian attitudes toward Scripture. Thus, if some Christians began to regard some NT writings as Scripture (which was the point of the first section of my essay), then it is reasonable to conclude that the Deut 4:2 principle would still be in play.
In regard to Barn. 19.11, “You shall guard what you have received, nor add or take away,” Brice says that I think this passage is “likely” referring to the NT text. I said nothing of the sort. On the contrary, I expressly stated, “It is unclear whether Barnabas is referring to the preservation of oral or written tradition” (75). I am not sure how I could have said it more plainly. Then I go on to say, “but, as argued above, the author likely cites from written Jesus tradition, ‘It is written, “many are called but few are chosen”’ (75). It is clear that when I use the term “likely” it is not referring to whether Barn 19.11 is referring to the NT text (as Brice maintains). Instead, the term “likely” is referring whether Barn 4.14 cited a NT writing as Scripture (as I argued in the prior section). In sum, Brice has misread my use of the term “likely.”
Brice also alludes to Paul Foster’s treatment of Barnabas on p.294-296. But, I am not sure why he alludes to Foster’s treatment because Foster actually supports my view. Foster acknowledges that Barn. 4.14 seems to be citing Matt 22:14 as Scripture and then says that all other explanations to avoid this conclusion “are unconvincing” (295).
If Barnabas knew the Gospel of Matthew and thought it was Scripture then Barn 19.11 suddenly becomes more relevant to our discussion when it says, ““You shall guard what you have received, nor add or take away.” Does this prove that Barnabas was referring to the NT text. Of course not. But neither does it make it irrelevant.
In all of this, I don’t expect every scholar will agree with my arguments or my reading of the evidence. It is understandable that people will view the evidence differently and will weigh it differently. But I would hope that such disagreements can be just that, disagreements, without having to invoke claims that any particular individual has an agenda one way or the other.
There has been much chatter recently about the new book by Hal Taussig called A New New Testament (Houghton Mifflin, 2013). It intends to combine the traditional 27 books of the New Testament along with 10 apocryphal writings from early Christianity. As I observed in a prior post, there is nothing particularly “new” about this sort of project—it has been tried again and again since the time of Marcion.
This post is the first installment of my review of this book, with many more to come. We will focus here just on the promotional description on the inside cover flap. This is an unusual place to begin a book review, I know, but it is warranted by the imprecise and sometimes false statements contained there. And these statements serve to frame the entire book.
The inside flap begins with the following:
Over the past century, numerous lost scriptures have been discovered, authenticated, translated, debated, celebrated.
Notice that right from the beginning these apocryphal writings are described as “lost scriptures.” Thus, it is already assumed from the outset that these books are scripture, but somehow they have been left out of the canon (no doubt by those pesky, narrow orthodox folks).
The problem with this language, of course, is that the scriptural status of these books is precisely what is in dispute. If one is writing a volume about why apocryphal literature should be regarded as scriptural, it is hardly appropriate (or persuasive) to just assume your conclusion before you even begin.
Next we read the following:
Many of these documents were as important to shaping early-Christian communities and beliefs as what we have come to call the New Testament;
Again, this is misleading. Although some communities no doubt where influenced by some of these books, they were not nearly as influential as the books of the New Testament. I have argued elsewhere (see here), that apocryphal writings are not nearly as popular within early Christianity as often claimed. Thus, there is little reason to say they are “as important” as the canonical books.
The next sentence reads:
These were not the work of shunned sects or rebel apostles, not alternative histories or doctrines, but part of the vibrant conversations that sparked the rise of Christianity.
Again, this is simply not true. None of these “new” documents were written in the first century. None have any claim to be original or early. And none were written by apostles. And yes they were shunned. The Gospel of Thomas, for example, was widely and broadly condemned by early Christian leaders and never made it into any NT lists, nor is it ever found in manuscripts alongside any other New Testament writings. Thus, one could hardly say the Gospel of Thomas was one of the books that “sparked the rise of Christianity.”
Finally, we read:
Why should these books be set aside? Why should they continue to be lost to most of us? And don’t we have a great deal to gain by placing them back into contact with the twenty-seven books of the traditional New Testament—by hearing, finally, a full range of voices that formed the early chorus of Christians?
Here we finally come to the plea for inclusiveness—a plea that will no doubt ring true in many postmodern ears. These apocryphal writings are presented to us as the unfortunate victims of exclusion and oppression, and now finally in the modern day we have the opportunity to right the wrongs of the past and let these writings have their rightful place.
Notice that such language entirely skips the issue of the historical merits of these books. What matters is not so much the books themselves, but the principle that no books should be privileged over any other. This is 21st century relativism at its best.
In the end, the promotional description of the book actually reveals a lot about this project. While this book has the guise of neutral scholarship, it is, at its core, a book with a clear religious commitment. To be sure, it is not the religious commitment of historical Christianity. Instead it is the religious commitment of postmodernity. But it is a religious commitment nonetheless.
Now, there is nothing wrong with writing a book that has a religious commitment. But it should at least be acknowledged when it is done.
My email inbox has been flooded over the last day or so with queries about the recent book by Hal Taussig called A New New Testament (Houghton Mifflin, 2013). I have to admit, I love the title. When it comes to sensationalistic claims about the New Testament canon, modern publishers know what sells. This volume has bypassed the normal catchwords found in the titles of such books—words like “lost”, “forgotten”, “secret”, or “banned”—and has set a new standard for marketing apocryphal writings.
This volume also sets itself apart by the grandiosity of its claims. Here is the promo for the book:
To create this New New Testament, Hal Taussig called together a council of scholars and spiritual leaders to discuss and reconsider which books belong in the New Testament. They talked about these recently found documents, the lessons therein, and how they inform the previously bound books. They voted on which should be added, choosing ten new books to include in a New New Testament.
It’s one thing to suggest apocryphal books are early, or that they contain some true historical nuggets, but it is quite another to pick an entirely new canon on the basis of some arbitrarily chosen council of modern “scholars and spiritual leaders.” Do we really think these 19 people are in a position to decide such things? Is that the way we know which books are Scripture and which are not?
But while such grandiose claims about the New Testament canon may seem entirely new, it is in fact a very, very old idea. For one, there are other modern examples of such activity. The book The Five Gospels (Harper One, 1996), effectively rewrote the 4-Gospel canon by adding a fifth gospel, The Gospel of Thomas. Moreover, the book included the results of the votes of members of the “Jesus Seminar” about which sayings/stories of Jesus were authentic and which were not.
In the end, we were left not with a New Testament, but with the Jesus Seminar’s personal, private New Testament. And that is something entirely different.
But, the idea of rewriting the canon according to one’s personal preferences goes back even further. In fact, this was a challenge faced by the very earliest Christians. In the 140’s, a wealthy ship-owner named Marcion decided that the canon of the church was not the one he preferred and proceeded to offer his own—a truncated canon composed of only Luke and 10 epistles of Paul. But, Marcion went even further. In addition to selecting his own books, he took out the scalpel and edited these books, attempting to take out as much of the “Jewish” aspects as he could.
Marcion’s actions were widely condemned by the early church. He was condemned not only for his heretical views, but for his willingness to reshape and rewrite the New Testament canon according to his own personal preferences. The canon is just not something that one person (or 19!) can create.
Thus, despite the claims of this modern book to be doing something new and original, it is nothing of the sort. The idea of a New New Testament, is an old, old idea. One that has already been tried, and already been rejected.
Over the next few months, I will offer an extended review of Taussig’s new book, spread over a number of different blog posts. And I want to assure my friend Michael Bird that I will take a “nice deep breath” before I do so!
For the last month or so, I have been working through a new series on the NT canon designed to help Christians understand ten basic facts about its origins. This series is designed for a lay-level audience and hopefully could prove helpful in a conversation one might have with a skeptical friend.
Given that there are already four installments in this series, I thought would be helpful to have them listed all in one spot. Thus, I will list the current installments below, and plan to update this list as the series progresses. Also, note that the bottom left of my website has a link to all my blog series.
Note: This is the fourth installment of a new blog series announced here.
One of the most controversial issues in the study of the New Testament canon is the date when these books were regarded as Scripture. When were these books first used as an authoritative guide for the church? Critical scholars will argue that these books were not written to be Scripture and were not even used as Scripture until the end of the second century.
But one of the most basic facts that Christians should know is that some New Testament writers actually quote other New Testament writers as Scripture. This demonstrates that the concept of a new corpus of biblical books was not a late development, but one that seems to be present in the earliest stages of Christianity.
The most obvious example of this phenomenon is 2 Pet 3:15-16 where Peter refers to Paul’s letters “Scripture” on par with the books of the Old Testament. It is noteworthy that Peter mentions multiple letters of Paul, indicating that he was aware of some sort of collection. And, even more importantly, he assumes his audience is aware of this collection as well. There is no indication that the scriptural status of Paul’s letters is a new or novel idea—Peter mentions it quite casually and naturally.
The implications of Peter’s statement should not be missed. It shows that apostolic letters (in this instance Paul’s) had a scriptural status in early Christianity. If so, then it hard to imagine Peter would not have expected his own letter to be received with the same authority. After all, just a few verses earlier Peter made it clear that the teachings of the apostles were on par with the Old Testament itself (2 Pet 3:2).
Another example of this phenomenon is found in 1 Tim 5:18 which says: “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle the ox while it treads out the grain’ and ‘the laborer deserves his wages.’” While the first quote comes from Deut 25:4, the latter quote is an exact match with Luke 10:7. Although one might suggest that Paul is citing oral Jesus tradition, that option is precluded by the fact that he introduces the saying with “the Scripture says.”
Although Paul might be citing some unknown apocryphal gospel (that just happens to have the exact same wording of Luke 10:7), why should we prefer an unknown hypothetical source over a known source? We know that Luke actually was used as Scripture in the early church—the same cannot be said of this hypothetical apocryphal gospel.
Of course, because these two passages seem to cite other NT books as Scripture, scholars have argued these books are forgeries, having a late date probably around the turn of the century (c.100). We cannot delve into these academic debates here, but it should be noted that these debates are by no means settled. Moreover, even if one concedes the late date for these books (for the sake of argument), that still puts the date of the canon at a remarkably early time.
If the NT writers were citing other NT writers as Scripture, then that suggests the canon was not a later ecclesiastical development, but something early and innate to the early Christian faith. And that is a basic fact that all Christians should know.
Note: This is the third installment of a new blog series announced here.
One of the most basic facts about the New Testament canon that all Christians should understand is that the canon is intimately connected to the activities of the apostles.
Jesus had commissioned his apostles “so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority” (Mark 3:14–15). When Jesus sent out the twelve, he reminds them that “For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matt 10:20). Thus, he is able to give a warning to those who reject the apostles’ authority: “If anyone will not receive you or listen to your words…it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” (Matt 10:14).
In sum, the apostles had the very authority of Christ himself. They were his mouthpiece. As such, their teachings, along with the prophets, were the very foundation of the church. Paul describes the church as “built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets” (Eph 2:20). If the church wanted to know the true Christian message, they would always need to look back to the teaching of the apostles.
But, the apostles didn’t just teach about Jesus orally. At some point—a very early point—the apostolic message was written down. Often it was written down by the apostles themselves. At other points it was written down by companions of apostles who were recording their message. Either way, the authoritative apostolic message found its way into books.
For obvious reasons, the church would value apostolic books over and above other type of books. And this is exactly what happened. The books that the church regarded as apostolic were the books that were read, copied, and used most often in early Christian worship. These are the books that eventually became the New Testament canon. The canon is the byproduct of the ministry of the apostles.
In fact, the church’s overt dependence on apostolic writings is precisely why we see a proliferation of “apocryphal” books in the second century (and later) that were named after apostles. We have the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Acts of John, and even the Gospel of the Twelve! Rather than raising doubts about the apostolic nature of the New Testament, these apocryphal writings actually serve to confirm it. They show that the early church valued apostolic books so much that forgers had to try and mimic the genuine ones in order to get a hearing. For more on the late date of these apocryphal writings, see prior post here.
Of course, some modern scholars dispute the apostolic authorship of some of the New Testament books, claiming they were written by later authors only pretending to be the apostles. However, these claims are by no means proven, and many other scholars dispute them. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that the early church was in a better position to ascertain the authorship and origins of these books than are modern scholars two thousand years later.
In the end, the New Testament canon exists because of an early Christian belief that the apostles spoke for Christ. That belief led Christians to value apostolic books. And those apostolic books eventually formed the New Testament that we know today.
My recent book (c0-edited with my friend Chuck Hill) is The Early Text of the New Testament (Oxford, 2012). That volume is a collection of essays designed to address the state of the NT text at the earliest observable stages. Unfortunately, one might have to mortgage their home to purchase it at $140 (ouch). Sorry, seminary students.
As a result of the high price, I am particularly grateful when someone takes the time to get a copy and review it. Ben Witherington has recently reviewed the book over at his website and I am appreciative of his kind remarks. Here are some excerpts:
Technical monographs are important, not least because they are usually repositories of detailed information that you can’t very easily get elsewhere, or would have to get from a variety of sources. The new volume just published by Oxford U. Press entitled The Early Text of the New Testament (eds. C.E. Hill and M.J. Krueger, 2012) is such a work. What we have in this important work is a detailed study of the manuscript evidence for all the books of the NT up to and including the period of the great codexes (Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, etc.). The evidence presented is up to date (the authors take into account the latest edition of Nestle-Aland, and recent papyri finds) and generally speaking the assessments of the evidence is fair and balanced.
While pp. 81-413 provide us with a series of chapters on the state of the text of all the NT books followed by the citation of said books in other early Christian literature (e.g. the apocryphal Gospels or Barnabas etc.) for me the most helpful portions of the book are found in the first 80 pages where we have excellent essays by Harry Gamble, Larry Hurtado, and Michael Kruger.
Gamble’s essay entitled ‘The Book Trade in the Roman Empire’ reviews briefly the usual evidence for said trade in Rome (see the previous reviews of the works of William Johnson on this blog), and then he goes on to discuss the Christian book trade…Even so, as Gamble goes on to point out, there are remarks both about copying and sharing the documents, and also about not altering the documents (see Rev. 22.18-19). Despite all this, Gamble admits that there is clear evidence that these documents were widely disseminated within Christian circles.
Hurtado hypothesizes, perhaps rightly, that the codex form was chosen in part because even literate non-elite persons (e.g. educated slaves) would be expected to read these texts, at least to the other members of their Christian household. Hurtado in fact produces startling evidence of the ubiquity of the codex in Christian circles— of 41 Christian mss. from the second century, 77% are codexes only 23% rolls (which is about the opposite of the case with pagan documents). While Christian documents make up only about 2% of all second century documents, they make up 27% of all the codices and in the third century 38% of all the codices. Hurtado is able to show as well that Christians used the codex for their scriptures, but were o.k. with using rolls for for non-scriptural Christian texts. Further, he points out how Christian documents do not reflect a professional hand, by and large. A fair copy yes, a calligraphic one, not so much. There was much more concern about the content being clear than the form being aesthetically pleasing. The use of abbreviations of sacred names for Jesus and God (the nomina sacra) show as well that these are insider documents, documents not meant for the world in general, but for those within the Christian circles who would know what the abbreviations stood for.
There is much more of this sort of fascinating data in this book, and it is a great pity that you would need to take out a bank loan to buy it (on sale at Amazon, it’s $140 large). Nevertheless, this book is yet further proof that while real education is expensive, ignorance is even more so.
You can read the whole review here.
Note: This is the second installment of a new blog series announced here.
In the prior post, we discussed the first basic fact about the New Testament canon, namely that the New Testament writings are the earliest Christian texts we possess. We were careful to make clear that the early date of these books does not make them canonical, but the early date does show that these books were written during a time period when eyewitnesses of Jesus were still alive.
In this current post, we address the issue of “apocryphal” New Testament writings. These are writings that were not included in the New Testament, but have a similar genre (gospels, acts, letters, apocalypses, etc.). And these writings are often attributed to famous individuals; e.g., the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, the Acts of John.
While we cannot go into extensive detail about these various apocryphal writings, we can at least note one basic fact that is often overlooked: all of these apocryphal writings are dated to the second century or later. Thus, this post is the corollary of the prior one. Not only are all New Testament writings from the first century, but all apocryphal writings (at least the ones that are extant) are from the second century or later. And many are from the third or fourth century.
What is particularly noteworthy about this fact is that even critical scholars agree. While there is dispute over the dating of some New Testament books (e.g., 2 Peter, the Pastoral Epistles), there is virtual unanimity over the late date of apocryphal books. There are, of course, fringe attempts to place some apocryphal writings into the first century—e.g., Crossan argues that a “cross gospel” embedded in the Gospel of Peter is from the first century—but these suggestions have not been widely received.
The observation of this simple fact quickly calls into question sensationalistic claims about how these “lost” books contain the “real” version of Christianity.
Of course, one might argue that later texts can still preserve authentic first-century Christian tradition. After all, a text doesn’t have to be written in the first century to contain material from the first century. True. But, we would still need to have a compelling reason to accept these later texts over our earlier ones. And when it comes to these apocryphal writings, compelling reasons are in short supply.
For one, we know that many of these apocryphal writings are outright forgeries, pretending to be written by someone who was clearly not the author. That fact alone raises serious questions about the reliability of their content. Second, many of these apocryphal writings contain obvious embellishments and legendary additions. For example, in the Gospel of Peter, Jesus emerges from the tomb as a giant whose head reaches the clouds, and he is followed by the cross itself which then speaks (!). And third, many of these apocryphal writings contain a Gnostic-style theology that did not even emerge until the second century, and therefore could not represent authentic first-century Christianity (e.g., Gospel of Philip).
To be clear, this does not suggest that it is impossible, in principle, for an apocryphal writing to be first century (it’s just that we have not found one yet). Nor does this suggest that apocryphal writings could not (or did not) ever contain reliable Jesus tradition. We know that early Christians sometimes appealed to apocryphal gospels as containing some true material (more on this in a later post). But, and this is the key point, the scraps of apocryphal literature that may be reliable do not present a version of Christianity that is out of sync with what we find in the New Testament books, and are certainly not in a position to supersede what we find in the New Testament books.
In the end, apocryphal writings constitute an interesting and fascinating source for the study of early Christianity. But, largely due to their late date, they do not offer a more compelling version of Christianity than the New Testament writings themselves.
Note: This is the first installment of a new blog series announced here.
This new blog series is designed to help the lay believer learn some basic facts about the New Testament canon—the kind of facts that might be helpful in a conversation with a skeptic or inquisitive friend. The first of these facts is one that is so basic that it is often overlooked. It is simply that the New Testament books are the earliest Christian writings we possess.
One of the most formidable challenges in any discussion about the New Testament canon is explaining what makes these 27 books unique. Why these and not others? There are many answers to that question, but in this blog post we are focusing on just one: the date of these books. These books stand out as distinctive because they are earliest Christian writings we possess and thus bring us the closest to the historical Jesus and to the earliest church. If we want to find out what authentic Christianity was really like, then we should rely on the writings that are the nearest to that time period.
This is particularly evident when it comes to the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These are the only gospel accounts that derive from the first century. Sure, there are a few scholars have attempted to put the Gospel of Thomas in the first century, but this has not met with much success. After all the scholarly dust has settled, even critics agree that these four are the earliest accounts of Jesus that we possess.
Now, a few qualifications are in order. First, it should be noted that there are disagreements about the dating of some New Testament books. Some critical scholars have argued that some New Testament books are forgeries written in the second century. Meanwhile, other scholars have defended the authenticity (and first-century date) of these books. This is a debate that we cannot delve into here. However, even if these debated books are left aside in our discussions, we can still affirm that the vast majority of the New Testament writings (including the four gospels) still remain the earliest Christian writings we possess.
Second, some may point out that 1 Clement is a Christian writing that dates to the first century, and it is not included in the New Testament canon. True, but the consensus date for 1 Clement is c.96 A.D. This date is later than all our New Testament books. The only possible exception is Revelation which is dated, at the latest, around 95-96 A.D. But, some date Revelation earlier. Even so, this does not affect the macro point we are making here.
Just to be clear, we are not arguing here that books are canonical simply because they have a first century date. Other Christian writings existed in the first century that were not canonical—and perhaps we will discover some of these in the future. Our point is not that all first century books are canonical, but that all our canonical books are first century. And that is a point worth making.
In the end, every Christian should remember one basic fact, namely that the New Testament books are distinctive because, generally speaking, they are the earliest Christian writings we possess. None are earlier. If so, then it seems that the books included in the New Testament are not as arbitrary as some would have us believe. On the contrary, it seems that these are precisely the books we would include if we wanted to have access to authentic Christianity.
Almost every couple of years it happens. Usually it occurs around Christmas or Easter. And it is typically associated with a massive media blitz. I am referring to sensational claims, made by either scholars or laymen, that something definitively “new” has been discovered about the historical Jesus.
Examples of such claims abound in just the last number of years. The so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife was “discovered” last year and purportedly taught Jesus had a wife. The Gospel of Judas was all the talk in 2006, as were told that the traditional Gospels may have not given the whole story. And, of course, we all remember the Da Vinci Code phenomenon in 2003 and after.
Our modern culture loves “new” things. They don’t want to hear the same old stories again and again—particularly when it comes to religion. They want something fresh and exciting. They want something different. This fascination with the “new” is why people feel they must reinvent church (or Christianity) for each generation. People like to believe they have discovered something that no one has ever discovered before.
While this regular pattern of sensational claims about Jesus is quite well-documented, there is another pattern that is also well-documented, namely Christians being unprepared to respond. As each new claim about Jesus is made, most believers in the pew find themselves inadequately equipped to provide an answer. For whatever set of reasons, the church has not adequately taught its members about the origins and reliability of the Scriptures.
Thus, it seems like the Christian church is having a hard time learning its lessons. Even though each new dramatic claim about Jesus sends shock waves through the church, there has been little done to inoculate congregations against this same thing happening in the future.
Of course, this problem cannot be solved by a blog article. It will require a revamping of the way many of us think about church. While many congregations are about fellowship and worship (and rightly so), we need more congregations that are also about serious teaching. We need to remember that the Great Commission charges us not only to reach people for Christ, but to be busy “teaching them” as well (Matt 28:20). And such teaching can prepare them to withstand these dramatic new claims about Jesus.
In an effort to make a small contribution to that cause, over the next few months I will offer a new blog series for lay people entitled, “Ten Basic Facts about the NT Canon Every Christian Should Memorize.” Since most of these new claims about Jesus involve the reliability of the New Testament documents themselves, I thought it would be useful to give people basic data points about the canon that they could memorize and use in future conversations and discussions.
These basic facts about the canon will not be able to address every possible issue. But, they at least will provide a starting point. And that is what most people need.
When it comes to the study of the New Testament canon, few questions have received more attention than the canon’s date. When did we have a New Testament canon? Well, it depends on what one means by “New Testament canon.” If one is simply asking when (some of) these books came to be regarded as Scripture, then we can say that happened at a very early time. But, if one is asking when we see these books, and only these books, occur in some sort of list, then that did not happen until the fourth century. To establish this fourth-century date, most scholars will appeal to the well-known canonical list of Athanasius, included in his Festal Letter in 367 A.D.
But, is Athanasius really the first complete New Testament list? Despite the repeated claims that he is, we have a list by Origen more than a century earlier (c.250), that seems to include all 27 books. Origen, in his Homilies on Joshua, writes:
So too our Lord Jesus Christ…sent his apostles as priests carrying well-wrought trumpets. First Matthew sounded the priestly trumpet in his Gospel, Mark also, and Luke, and John, each gave forth a strain on their priestly trumpets. Peter moreover sounds with the two trumpets of his Epistles; James also and Jude. Still the number is incomplete, and John gives forth the trumpet sound through his Epistles [and Apocalypse]; and Luke while describing the deeds of the apostles. Latest of all, moreover, that one comes who said, “I think that God has set us forth as the apostles last of all” (1 Cor 4:9), and thundering on the fourteen trumpets of his Epistles he threw down, even to their very foundations, the wall of Jericho, that is to say, all the instruments of idolatry and the dogmas of the philosophers.
This is a fascinating passage. A reasonable interpretation of Origen’s words would leave us with a list of 27 books (he obviously puts the book of Hebrews with Paul’s letters). There is the question of whether the book of Revelation was original to this list—some manuscripts have it, some do not. But even if we assume it was not original, this list is remarkably complete at such an early date.
Of course, some have objected to this list, arguing that Rufinus (who made the Latin translation of Origen’s homilies) simply changed it to fit his own preferences. However, there are few reasons to think this list is the result of Rufinus’ tampering. On the contrary, Rufinus has been shown to be quite reliable in his representation of Origen’s positions.
In addition, the manner in which this passage describes the authors of the New Testament in allegorical language—like priests blowing trumpets—is the classic style of Origen. Origen also describes the canonical authors elsewhere with allegorical language. He describes the New Testament authors as Isaac’s servants who help him dig new wells. And when he does so, Origen mentions the exact same group of New Testament authors: “Isaac, therefore, digs also new wells, nay rather Isaac’s servants dig them. Isaac’s servants are Matthew, Mark, Luke, John; his servants are Peter, James, Jude; the apostle Paul is his servant. These all dig the wells of the New Testament.”
This confirms that Origen has a New Testament canon that contains books authored by these eight men. And these eight men are the authors of the 27 books in our New Testament. But, even beyond this, Origen seems to indicate that this list is closed and complete. After comparing the Scriptures to a net (yet another classic Origen allegory), Origen declares that “before our Savior Jesus Christ this net was not wholly filled; for the net of the law and prophets had to be completed…And the texture of the net has been completed in the Gospels, and in the words of Christ through the Apostles.”
This language suggests not only that Origen had a 27 book canon, but that, in his mind at least, that canon was closed. Moreover, he mentions this quite naturally in a sermon, suggesting that his audience also would have known and accepted these books. And all of this is more than a century before Athanasius’ Festal Letter.
Although most discussions about the development of the canon focus on the patristic period (second century and later), there is much canonical gold yet to mine from the pages of the New Testament itself. One passage that I think contains a number of intriguing clues is 2 Cor 3:14 when Paul says, “When they read the Old Covenant, that same veil remains unlifted.”
Often overlooked in this passage is that Paul understands a covenant to be something that you read; i.e., covenants are written documents. When we look at Paul’s Jewish context this should come as no surprise. So close is the relationship between the covenant, and the written documentation of the covenant, that Old Testament authors would frequently equate the two—the covenant, in one sense, is a written text.
For instance: “Then he took the book of the covenant and read it” (Ex 24:7; cf. 1 Macc 1:57); “And he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant” (2 Kings 23:2; cf. 2 Chron 34:30); “He declared to you his covenant…that is, the Ten Commandments, and he wrote them on two tablets (Deut 4:13); “He wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant” (Ex 34:28); and “The covenant written in this book” (Deut 29:21). These passages indicate that covenants were largely conceived as something written or read; i.e., something in a book. It is precisely for this reason that warning were given not to change the text of the covenant (Deut 4:2), and there were concerns about it being in the proper physical location (Ex 25:16).
If so, then what shall we make of Paul’s statement in 2 Cor 3:6 that he and the other apostles are “ministers of a new covenant”? Given Paul’s statement in 2 Cor 3:14 that we just noted, it would be natural to think that Paul has in mind a new set of written documents that testify to the terms of the new covenantal arrangement in Christ. As Carmignac argues, “In order to use the expression ‘Old Testament’ he [Paul] must also be aware of the existence of a ‘New Testament.’” Carmignac even goes further and suggests that this ‘New Testament’ may have had contained a number of books in order for it to be parallel with the Old.
The likelihood that Paul views the new covenant as having written documents increases when we make the simple observation that Paul is claiming for himself this distinctive covenantal authority within a written letter to the Corinthians. And scholars have observed how this very letter functions as a “covenant lawsuit”against the Corinthians. Thus, one could hardly fault the Corinthians if they regarded the letter itself as bearing some sort of covenantal authority.
All in all, 2 Cor 3:14 provides a number of curious clues about the origins of a new canon of Scripture.
A number of years ago, Albert Sundberg wrote a well-known article arguing that the early church fathers did not see inspiration as something that was uniquely true of canonical books. Why? Because, according to Sundberg, the early Church Fathers saw their own writings as inspired. Ever since Sundberg, a number of scholars have repeated this claim, insisting that the early fathers saw nothing distinctive about the NT writings as compared to writings being produced in their own time period.
However, upon closer examination, this claim proves to be highly problematic. Let us consider several factors.
First, the early church fathers repeatedly express that the apostles had a distinctive authority that was higher and separate from their own. So, regardless of whether they viewed themselves as “inspired” in some sense, we have to acknowledge that they still viewed the inspiration/authority of the apostles as somehow different.
A few examples should help. The book of 1 Clement not only encourages its readers to “Take up the epistle of that blessed apostle, Paul,” but also offers a clear reason why: “The Apostles received the Gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ, Jesus the Christ was sent from God. The Christ therefore is from God and the Apostles from the Christ.” In addition the letter refers to the apostles as “the greatest and most righteous pillars of the Church.”
Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, also recognizes the unique role of the apostles as the mouthpiece of Christ, “The Lord did nothing apart from the Father…neither on his own nor through the apostles.” Here Ignatius indicates that the apostles were a distinct historical group and the agents through which Christ worked. Thus, Ignatius goes out of his way to distinguish own authority as a bishop from the authority of the apostles, “I am not enjoining [commanding] you as Peter and Paul did. They were apostles, I am condemned.”
Justin Martyr displays the same appreciation for the distinct authority of the apostles, “For from Jerusalem there went out into the world, men, twelve in number…by the power of God they proclaimed to every race of men that they were sent by Christ to teach to all the word of God.” Moreover, he views the gospels as the written embodiment of apostolic tradition, “For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them.”
Likewise, Irenaeus views all the New Testament Scriptures as the embodiment of apostolic teaching: “We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.” Although this is only a sampling of patristic writers (and more could be added), the point is clear. The authoritative role of the apostles was woven into the fabric of Christianity from its very earliest stages.
Second, there is no indication that the early church fathers, as a whole, believed that writings produced in their own time were of the same authority as the apostolic writings and thus could genuinely be contenders for a spot in the NT canon. On the contrary, books were regarded as authoritative precisely because they were deemed to have originated fom the apostolic time period.
A couple of examples should help. The canonical status of the Shepherd of Hermas was rejected by the Muratorian fragment (c.180) on the grounds that was produced “very recently, in our own times.” This is a clear indication that early Christians did not see recently produced works as viable canonical books.
Dionysius of Corinth (c.170) goes to great lengths to distinguish his own letters from the “Scriptures of the Lord” lest anyone get the impression he is composing new canonical books (Hist. eccl. 4.23.12). But why would this concern him if Christians in his own day (presumably including himself) were equally inspired as the apostles and could produce new Scriptures?
The anonymous critic of Montanism (c.196), recorded by Eusebius, shares this same sentiment when he expresses his hesitancy to produce new written documents out of fear that “I might seem to some to be adding to the writings or injunctions of the word of the new covenant” (Hist. eccl. 5.16.3). It is hard to avoid the sense that he thinks newly published books are not equally authoritative as those written by apostles.
Third, and finally, Sundberg does not seem to recognize that inspiration-like language can be used to describe ecclesiastical authority—which is real and should be followed—even though that authority is subordinate to the apostles. For instance, the writer of 1 Clement refers to his own letters to the churches as being written “through the Holy Spirit.” While such language certainly could be referring to inspiration like the apostles, such language could also be referring to ecclesiastical authority which Christians believe is also guided by the Holy Spirit (though in a different manner).
How do we know which is meant by Clement? When we look to the overall context of his writings (some of which we quoted above), it is unmistakenly clear that he puts the apostles in distinct (and higher) category than his own. We must use this larger context to interpret his words about his own authority. Either Clement is contradicting himself, or he sees his own office as somehow distinct from the apostles.
In sum, we have very little patristic evidence that the early church fathers saw their own “inspiration” or authority as on par with that of the apostles. When they wanted definitive teaching about Jesus their approach was always retrospective—they looked back to that teaching which was delivered by the apostles.
A number of years ago my wife purchased a Kindle e-reader from Amazon. Now, she reads a number of her books digitally. And she is not alone. It seems like our modern world has become to digest books more and more in a digital format–e-readers, ipads, digital phones, etc. Much of this technical innovation is positive. People can easily access material in ways never before available.
However, in the midst of this technological innovation, our modern concept of the “book” has been transformed. It has largely ceased to be a physical object that you can touch, hold, and smell, and now has become entirely digital. Books are merely words, and forgotten is the vehicle by which those words were delivered.
It is perhaps for this reason that the study of ancient biblical manuscripts is a lost art in many circles today. We tend to forget that it was these manuscripts that delivered God’s word to us. And rather than being a “husk” around the word that can be easily discarded, these manuscripts hold intriguing clues about the origins, development, and reliability of these books which we hold so dear. To study them is to study the history of God’s word.
It is for this reason that I wrote the article, “Manuscripts, Scribes, and Book Production in Early Christianity” which has just now come out in the newly released volume Christian Origins and Greco-Roman Culture: Social and Literary Contexts for the New Testament (eds. Stan Porter and Andrew Pitts; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2012). This article is designed to introduce the reader to the world of ancient Christian manuscripts and to demonstrate their value for understanding the transmission of the New Testament writings.
I trust it will be useful for seminary students, pastors, and other scholars. I plan to assign it for my own classes here at RTS (so let my students take note!). Also, don’t forget to check out the many other fine articles in this new volume.
One of the most commonly made claims regarding the canonical gospels is that they were not written by the individuals named in their titles. Instead, we are told that these gospels were written later in the first century by anonymous individuals outside of Palestine who were not eyewitnesses of any of the events that they record. After all, the text of the gospels themselves offers no indication of their authorship. And the gospel titles, it is argued, were added at a later point—probably the middle of the second century—in order to bolster the credibility of these anonymous texts.
Now it should be noted from the outset that we have too little space here to offer a full scale investigation into the authorship of these four gospels. Moreover, the authorship of ancient books is a tricky matter and not always easy to ascertain. So, we will narrow our focus here on the issue of the gospel titles themselves. Although the titles themselves don’t guarantee the authorship of a book, they are key piece of historical evidence about who early Christians understood the authors to be. So, were the titles added late in the second century as some scholars maintain? We shall argue here that there are good reasons to think the titles were included at a very early point
1. The manuscript evidence. Although we possess a limited number of gospel manuscripts from the second and third centuries that preserve the title pages, the ones we do possess have the title present. In other words, we do not find “title-less” gospel manuscripts from this time period. Examples of early gospels manuscripts with titles are P66 (John), P4-64-67 (Matthew and Luke) and P75 (Luke and John). Put simply, as far back as we can see in the manuscript tradition the titles are present.
2. The uniformity of the titles. Perhaps one the most compelling reasons to think the titles were added early is the fact that there is such uniformity in these titles within the early centuries of the faith. If the titles were added late, we would have expected a substantial amount of diversity to have developed. After all, the users of these gospels had to have called them something (especially if they had more than one gospel), and since they were anonymous it is reasonable to think they would have called these gospels by different names. In fact, when the ancient writer Galen published his works without a title, he acknowledges that “everyone gave them a different title.” But, incredibly, the titles of these four gospels are consistent—Mark is always called “Mark,” Luke is always called “Luke,” etc. Such uniformity cannot pop into existence over night. It suggests these titles had been there a while.
3. The inclusion of Mark and Luke. If the titles were added in the late second century, as some suppose, then it is difficult to imagine that Mark and Luke’s names would have been included. If names were arbitrarily chosen, we would hardly expect these two. If one wanted to get quick credibility for a gospel, it would have been named after an apostle—indeed, this is what happened with so many of our apocryphal gospels (e.g., Thomas and Peter). Yet, here we have two gospels named after non-apostles. It would have been especially easy to name Mark’s gospel after Peter, given the historical connections between the two men, but the early church resisted. This, I would suggest, is a sign of authenticity.
All of these factors suggest that the titles were added very early—if not from the very beginning. If so, then we have very good reasons to think these titles reflect the actual authorship of these books.
But, this still leaves the question of why the gospel writers didn’t just include their names in the actual gospels accounts themselves. Why write a gospel that is formally anonymous? For one, this did happen from time to time with Greco-Roman biographies. We do have examples of formally anonymous biographies, so this would not have been unheard of (e.g., Lucian’s Life of Demonax, Secundus the Silent Philosopher, Lives of the Prophets, Arrian’s Anabasis, and Sulpicious Severus’ Life of St. Martin ). But, Armin Baum has suggested another, and even more fundamental reason. Baum has argued that the Gospels were intentionally written as anonymous works in order to reflect the practice of the Old Testament historical books which were themselves anonymous (as opposed to other Old Testament writings, like the prophets, which included the identity of the author). Such a stylistic device allowed the authors of the gospels “to disappear” and to give “highest priority to their subject matter.” Thus, the anonymity of the Gospels, far from diminishing their scriptural authority, actually served to increase it by consciously placing the Gospels “in the tradition of Old Testament historiography.”
In the end, we have little reason to doubt the titles of these gospels and thus little reason to doubt the authorship of these books. The evidence still suggests that the most likely authors are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
I just noticed that the most recent print edition of World Magazine had a write up on the recent “discovery” of the so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, a purportedly fourth-century Coptic gospel where Jesus refers to “my wife.” The online link can be found here.
The World Magazine article referred to my original discussion of this fragment published on the TGC website here. The article picked up on one of the most critical points I was trying to make in my original discussion: “of all the known ‘gospels’ of Christ, ‘only Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are dated to the first century.'”
This is a rather simple, but often overlooked fact. And if it were remembered more often, then sensationalistic claims about early gospels would be regarded as, well, less sensational. And that would be a refreshing change.
Yesterday, during the break for my Gospels class (and ironically just prior to my lectures on apocryphal gospels), I received the big news about the discovery of a new apocryphal gospel fragment. This fragment—aptly named The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife—contains a story where Jesus refers to “My wife” and is dated to the fourth century. No doubt this will reignite the firestorm felt during the release of The Da Vinci Code many years ago, and the major media outlets will be asking again about whether Jesus was married.
Since yesterday’s announcement, I have been inundated with emails and phone calls asking for my assessment of this new fragment. So, I have written my initial assessment which will be posted on The Gospel Coalition website sometime tonight. So keep an eye out for it. UPDATE: Here is the link to my article.
A couple of weeks ago I did an interview with Brian Auten over at Apologetics 315 ministries. We discussed early Christianity, canon formation, apocryphal gospels, heresy and orthodoxy, and a number of other important matters related to the origins of the New Testament. Much of the discussion centered on my recent book, Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books.
You can check out the interview here.
One thing that I have observed over the years is that major media outlets love apocryphal gospels. Whenever the person of Jesus is discussed–usually at Easter and Christmas–there is always a discussion about how the real story of Jesus has been suppressed and can only now be found in these lost gospels. Sweeping claims are then made about how there was no agreement on much of anything in the first four centuries of the faith and that other stories of Jesus circulated by the thousands. Only after Constantine came along does the church decide which books to accept (and then subsequently denies all other books admission to the club).
When you think about it, this sort of historical reconstruction makes for an attractive magazine article or newspaper story for our modern media. The public loves a good conspiracy theory. People want to believe that there are “secret,” “hidden,” “lost,” or “forgotten” (the four most common words used in such stories) accounts of Jesus that will finally reveal the truth once and for all. And, of course, everyone likes to believe that the Church is just like all institutions–corrupt, authoritarian, and concerned only about preserving its own power.
In a recent blog article, Phillip Jenkins has pointed out that a major media outlet (the UK Daily Telegraph) has followed the apocryphal gospel playbook step by step. The Telegraph, when discussing the death of NT Professor Marvin Meyer, gives this assessment of gospels in early Christianity:
What we know as the New Testament – the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles, and the Book of Revelation – was actually born of thousands of texts and gospels circulated among the early Christians. Members of the new faith were subject to persecution, and the Church fathers felt that for the faith to survive, there had to be a unified belief system. Some time around AD 180, Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon denounced all gospels but Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as heretical. Later, about 50 years after Constantine’s conversion early in the fourth century, the New Testament became Christianity’s official text.
This sort of assessment is packed with misconceptions, many of which I dealt with in an article here. There were not “thousands” of gospels in early Christianity. Irenaeus was not responsible for oppressing these other gospels and choosing the canonical four. And the fourth century was not the time when Christianity first considered the New Testament books to be their Scriptures. Jenkins also provides a response:
Contrary to the Telegraph account – and good grief, this is a conservative paper – the reason early church leaders privileged those particular four gospels was that they were so evidently the earliest and most authoritative texts, without serious competition. No body of cranky patriarchs sat around and said, “Well, we have to vote out Mary because it’s, um, a tad sexual. John can stay because it spiritualizes everything, and that’ll be useful in a century or so when we get political power.” If you read the actual church debates over which texts should be canonized or excluded, you will be deeply impressed by the historical logic and good sense they demonstrate, and their powerful sense of history and chronology.
The bottom line is that the earliest Christians didn’t really have to “choose” the four gospels from among all the others. Rather the four canonical gospels were simply the ones that had been there from the very beginning. The early church didn’t pick the gospels, but inherited them.
When it comes to these sorts of questions, I like to remind my students of a very simple (but often overlooked) fact: of all the gospels in early Christianity, only Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are dated to the first century. Sure, there are minority attempts to put books like the Gospel of Thomas in the first century–but such attempts have not been well received by biblical scholars. Thus, if we really want to know what Jesus was like, our best bet is to rely on books that were at least written during the time period when eyewitnesses were still alive. And there are only four gospels that meet that standard.
When this fact is kept in mind, the early church’s reception of just these four gospels doesn’t seem so arbitrary. Indeed, it seems to make perfect sense.
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.
- The Term “Canon” Can Only Refer to a Fixed, Closed List of Books
- Nothing in Early Christianity Dictated That There Would be a Canon
- The New Testament Authors Did Not Think They Were Writing Scripture
- New Testament Books Were Not Regarded as Scriptural Until Around 200 A.D.
- Early Christians Disagreed Widely over the Books Which Made It into the Canon
- In the Early Stages, Apocryphal Books Were as Popular as the Canonical Books
- Christians Had No Basis to Distinguish Heresy from Orthodoxy Until the Fourth Century
- Early Christianity was an Oral Religion and Therefore Would Have Resisted Writing Things Down
- The Canonical Gospels Were Certainly Not Written by the Individuals Named in Their Titles
- Athanasius’ Festal Letter (367 A.D.) is the First Complete List of New Testament Books
Note: this is the eighth installment of a blog series announced here.
Recent years have seen a flurry of scholarly activity focused on the oral transmission of Jesus material within early Christianity. Scholars (ranging from Gerhardsson to Dunn to Bauckham) have explored different models for how this oral tradition would have been preserved and delivered to each new generation.
Out of this discussion, however, a new objection to the origins of the New Testament canon has arisen. The earliest Christians are now portrayed as being so committed to oral modes of delivery that they would have had an aversion to the written text. Indeed, this entrenched resistance to the written word is used as an argument for why the idea of a NT canon must have been a late one—something that really didn’t take shape until the middle/end of the second century. Robert Funk uses this argument to push the date of the canon further and further back, “The aversion to writing persisted in the early [Christian] movement well into the second century.”
Although the perception that Christians were averse to writing may be widespread amongst some scholars, we must ask whether there is sufficient evidence to justify such a position. What are the reasons that scholars think Christians resisted the written word? Let me mention three:
1. Early Christians were (largely) illiterate.
The most common argument that Christians were averse to written texts is based on their socio-historical background, namely that most of them were unable to read or write. Such claims are based on the seminal study of William Harris which argues that the average extent of literacy in the Greco-Roman world of the first century was 10-15%, and some have suggested that for Jewish Palestine the rate was actually lower.
Although Harris’ numbers have been critiqued by some, I will not challenge them here. I think he is probably correct in regard to the big picture—generally speaking, the average Christian was illiterate. But, here is the key question: Is broad-based illiteracy a sufficient argument for showing that Christians were averse to written texts? I think not. And here’s why: even cultures that were largely illiterate could still be very connected to, and very influenced by, written texts. Put differently, the lack of literacy is not the same thing as the lack of textuality.
Keith defines textuality as “the knowledge, usage, and appreciation of texts regardless of individual or majority ability to create or access them via literate skills.” This reminds us that a culture can appreciate and value written texts even though it is largely illiterate. The lack of literacy does not necessarily mean the lack of textuality. We must not confuse a mode of transmission with a cultural disposition.
Was early Christianity a culture of textuality (even though most were illiterate)? Absolutely. For one, it was defined by and founded by the Old Testament writings. Christians were committed these books from the very beginning. Even illiterate Christians could receive these written texts when they were orally proclaimed—through preaching, teaching, and catechetical instruction. Indeed, oral proclamation is the primary means that written texts were delivered. There was a symbiotic relationship between the two.
2. Early Christians said they were averse to writing.
A second argument used to show that Christians were averse to writing is to claim that early Christians actually said as much (ironically in their own writings!). A key example is Papias, writing c.125: “I did not suppose that information from books would help me so much as the word of the living and surviving voice.” However, does this quote really indicate that early Christians were averse to written texts? Hardly. For one, Papias was busy constructing his own written account of the sayings of Jesus, Interpretations of the Sayings of the Lord. Not only that, but as Bauckham has shown, it misses what Papias is really trying to say. Papias is not addressing oral tradition at all but is simply noting a truth that was commonplace in the ancient world at this time: historical investigations are best done when one has access to an actual eyewitness (i.e., a living voice). Bauckham declares, “Against a historiographic background, what Papias thinks preferable to books is not oral tradition but access, while they are still alive, to those who were direct participants in the historical events—in this case ‘disciples of the Lord.’”
Others have appealed to 2 Cor 3:6 when Paul speaks of the new covenant as “not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” But is the contrast between letter and Spirit here a contrast in terms of the instrument of revelation used by each covenant—as if the Old used written texts and the New used only oral tradition? Not at all. Instead, it is a contrast in regard to the nature of the covenants themselves—one was clearly a covenant focused on law (i.e., the “letter”) and one was focused more on the heart (i.e, the “Spirit”).
This distinction is confirmed by Paul just a few verses later when he makes the same point using slightly different terminology; he calls the old covenant the “ministry of condemnation” (3:9) and contrasts it to the new covenant as a “ministry of the Spirit” (3:8). Clearly, the point of Paul’s contrast in these verses is not that one covenant liked to write things down and the other prefers to keep things oral. This understanding is confirmed by the many other biblical texts that make this same sort of contrast between the two covenants: Ezek 36:26; John 1:17; Rom 2:29, 7:6, 8:2; Gal 3:17-18, 4:24-26; etc. Overall, this language in 2 Cor 3:6 is just an application of Jer 31:33 to the era of Christ: “I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts.”
3. Early Christians thought the world would end in their own lifetime.
One of the most-oft repeated ideas about the earliest Christians is that they believed that the Kingdom of God would come (apocalyptically) within their own lifetime. If Christians thought the world would end in their own lifetime, then, it is argued, they would not have been interested in composing new scriptural books. Thus, the idea of a canon must be a later ecclesiastical development.
Now, I already addressed this issue in a previous blog post here. But, I will repeat some of it for this post. First, it is by no means evident that early Christians believed Jesus would necessarily return in their own lifetime. Schweitzer’s views have been largely rejected–and rightly so. But, let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that Christians did have this apocalyptic mentality. Does that mean they would have resisted the composition of new books, focusing instead on only oral methods of delivery? There appears to be little reason to think so.
Ironically, Paul is put forth as one who believed that Jesus would return in his own lifetime (as supposedly indicated by texts like 1 Thess 4:15-17), but yet we only know about this belief because Paul wrote it down in a letter! And Paul viewed this letter, as all his letters, as authoritative (2:13) and to be read publicly to the church (5:27). Such a scenario indicates that apocalyptic beliefs are not necessarily incompatible with the production of written, authoritative texts. Moreover, we have examples of apocalyptic communities that were prolific producers of literature, namely Qumran. On the basis of Qumran, David Meade argues that apocalypticism in the early Christian communities, far from preventing literary activity, actually “provides the ideological basis for the extension of Scripture” (“Ancient Near Eastern Apocalypticism,” 308).
In conclusion, there are few reasons to think that the earliest Christians were averse to written documents. Sure, they transmitted Jesus tradition orally. But, they were also marked by a distinctive textuality—they were committed to written documents as the foundation for their religious devotion.
 R.W. Funk, “The Once and Future New Testament,” in The Canon Debate (ed. L.M. McDonald and J.A. Sanders; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), 544.
 W.V. Harris, Ancient Literacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989).
 Meir Bar-Ilan, “Illiteracy in the Land of Israel in the First Centuries C.E.,” in Essays in the Social Scientific Study of Judaism and Jewish Society (ed. S. Fishbane, S. Schoenfeld, and H. Goldschläger; Hoboken: KTAV, 1992), 46–61; and Catherine Hezser, Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001).
 Keith, Jesus’ Literacy, 87.
 Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.39.4.
 Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 24.
In a prior blog post, I mentioned the publication of a new book edited by David Garner entitled, Did God Really Say?: Affirming the Truthfulness and Trustworthiness of Scripture. This book is a compilation of papers originally given at the 2011 PCA General Assembly by scholars from Reformed Theological Seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Covenant Theological Seminary. Participants included Scott Oliphint, Michael Williams, Robert Yarbrough, Vern Poythress, John Frame, and myself. David Garner also included a summary chapter.
I noticed in the Aquila Report today that there was a helpful review of the book by Aimee Byrd. In particular, she notes a thread running through a number of the chapters, namely a “covenantal understanding of Scripture.” She comments:
There are seven chapters in all, and I don’t have space to discuss every one in detail. One theme that was mentioned by at least three authors was the covenantal understanding of Scripture. Michael Williams discusses B.B. Warfield’s understanding the Bible this way in the second chapter, Michael Kruger discusses it in his chapter, “Deconstructing Cannon”, and I remember Frame touching on it in his chapter. I actually would have loved to see a full chapter dedicated to this theme because I think it is so important to our relationship with Scripture. Kruger’s essay was very good for his purpose, but my favorite part was on the “Structure of the Covenant” (Loc. 1077). He explained how covenant and canon go together. Ancient Near Eastern treaties always had written texts confirming the terms of the covenant relationship. This emphasizes Kruger’s point that the cannon of Scripture was “not an after-the fact development, but something woven deep into the fabric of God’s redemptive plan” (Loc. 1088). I think this is a strong point, and really one worthy of a lecture/essay of its own.
I appreciate this observation and agree that this topic needs additional attention. I’ve tried to address it in more detail in my recent book Canon Revisited and plan to do so again in my forthcoming book The Question of Canon (IVP Academic). But, I think more work still needs to be done. Meredith Kline brought attention to this issue a number of years ago (though he was not the first to observe it either) in his wonderful book The Structure of Biblical Authority.
For those interested in doing a bible study, small group, or Sunday School class on the doctrine of Scripture, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Did God Really Say? It provides a good starting point for many of these sorts of discussions.
Perhaps no book in the history of the world has received as much scrutiny and criticism as the Bible. For generations, scholars have picked apart every aspect of this book: its history, its transmission, its veracity, its theology, its morality, etc. It has been criticized, ridiculed, mocked and condemned. However, in their haste to heap criticism on the Bible, occasionally critics offer arguments that actually prove to be inconsistent with one another. They make accusations against the Scripture that are mutually exclusive—they cannot all be true. Of course, such inconsistencies are rarely noticed. If a scholar is intent to find contradictions in the Bible, he will rarely find contradictions in his own arguments.
When it comes to the New Testament, there are two criticisms that have been used for years, and often at the same time. The problem, however, is that upon closer examination they prove to be largely incompatible with one another. Let us examine each in turn.
1. “The New Testament is filled with competing theologies that contradict one another.”
Ernst Käsemann, in his famous essay “The New Testament Canon and the Unity of the Church,” argued that, “This variability [of doctrine] is already so wide in the New Testament that we are compelled to admit the existence not merely of significant tensions, but, not infrequently, of irreconcilable theological contradictions.” Käsemann was simply building on the claims of F.C. Baur (and others) that the New Testament was filled with disparate theologies and that each New Testament book was constructed as a “party document” and motivated by a particular theological agenda, or Tendenz. Some books were Jewish-Christian (Matthew, James), some were Gentile-Christian (Pauline epistles), and some were a synthesis (Acts, Hebrews, John). Put simply, the New Testament is filled with theological diversity. Robinson and Koester refer to this phenomenon as “trajectories” within the New Testament.
2. “The New Testament canon was formed by the ‘winners’ of the theological battles within early Christianity and therefore is filled with their preferred books.”
Walter Bauer’s book Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity made the argument that the canon as we know it cannot be trusted because it is simply the canon of one particular group—the proto-Orthodox. This group was just one theological faction among many in early Christianity and happened to be the one faction that prevailed in the theological battles and thus was able to determine the content of the canon. But, asks Bauer, why should we take this particular group of books as normative? The books (or “canons”) of other theological groups should be given equal weight. In fact, Ehrman raises the provocative question, “What if some other form of Christianity had become dominant, instead of the one that did?” The answer is that we would likely have “an entirely different set of books.” Our current canon therefore represents a loss of “the great diversity of the early centuries of Christianity.” Put simply, our current canon consists of the books of just the theological group that won.
These two criticisms of the New Testament—that of F.C. Baur and that of Walter Bauer—are widespread and often held together. But, this is where the problem lies. Both of these criticisms cannot both be true. If F.C. Baur is correct and the New Testament representing competing and contradictory theologies, then how can Walter Bauer be correct when he argues that the New Testament represents the preferred books of the theological victors? In other words, how can the New Testament be representative of great theological diversity (Baur), and then, at the same time, be representative of a great loss of diversity (Bauer)? Which one is it?
Now I suppose one could respond by arguing that even a collection of books representing a single theological camp could still contradict themselves at a minor level. But, such a response is shifting the terms of the debate. F.C. Baur, and most modern critics, are not arguing that the New Testament just possesses some minor theological variations here and there, but instead are arguing that it possesses entirely different theological systems that fundamentally contradict one another. Indeed, it is the existence of these different systems within the NT that is regularly used as evidence that early Christianity was so diverse (cf. Dunn). Thus, one would still have to abandon F.C. Baur’s main thesis (at least in any recognizable form) if one wants to hold Walter Bauer’s main thesis.
In the end, I think this an example of scholars wanting to have their critical cake and eat it too. Critiques of the New Testament are so easily and so frequently offered that no one really is too concerned about whether the critiques themselves are compatible with one another.
Of course, even if some critics were willing to throw F.C. Baur overboard and argue that the New Testament is theologically unified, this does not thereby prove Walter Bauer’s theory. There is another explanation for the canon’s theological unity that does not entail appeals to early church conspiracies, namely that these books all have the same ultimate, divine author. But, it is unlikely that modern enlightenment scholarship will ever let that idea on the table.
 Ernst Käsemann, “The Canon of the New Testament and the Unity of the Church,” in Essays on New Testament Themes (London: SCM, 1964), 100. See also Ernst Käsemann, “The Problem of a New Testament Theology,” NTS 19 (1973): 235-245.
 F.C. Baur, Paul, the Apostle of Jesus Christ, His Life and Work, His Epistles and Teachings (London: Williams and Norgate, 1873-1875), 1:113-116.
 James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester, Trajectories Through Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971).
 Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 5.
 Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 6.
 Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 4.
This is the seventh installment of a blog series announced here.
Ever since Walter Bauer published his now famous Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity there has been a widespread obsession amongst modern scholars with the theme of early Christian diversity. Study after study has explored how different, contradictory, and divergent early Christian beliefs were. And it is on this basis that the terms “heresy” and “orthodoxy” are declared to be unintelligible prior to the fourth century. After all, we are told, there was no Christianity (as we know it) prior to this time period, but only a variety of different Christianities (plural) all claiming they are the true and original version. Thus, on what basis could the earliest followers of Jesus have ever adjudicated such varied claims? How could they ever have known who was right and who was wrong? It wasn’t until the fourth century, when a particular version of Christianity “won” the theological wars and declared their books were declared to be canonical, that we really can begin to speak of heresy and orthodoxy in a meaningful way.
But is it really the case that pre-fourth century Christians had no basis or standard by which they could distinguish heresy from orthodoxy? Were they really wandering around blind without a reliable guide? There are good reasons to doubt these claims. On the contrary, we shall argue here that early Christians would have had three solid guideposts as they navigated the doctrinal complexities of their faith:
a. The Old Testament. Routinely overlooked by those in the Bauer camp—ironically in a Marcionite fashion—is the decisive role played by the Old Testament amongst the earliest Christians. M.F. Wiles once declared, “There was never a time when the Church was without written Scriptures. From the beginning she had the Old Testament and it was for her the oracles of God.” Aside from the numerous examples of Old Testament usage within the New Testament itself, quotations from the Old Testament are abundant within the writings of the apostolic fathers and other early Christian texts. Thus, right from the outset, certain “versions” of Christianity would have been ruled as out of bounds. For example, any quasi-Gnostic version of the faith which suggested the God of the Old Testament was not the true God but a “demiurge”—as in the case of the heretic Marcion—would have been deemed unorthodox on the basis of these Old Testament canonical books alone. As Ben Witherington has observed, “Gnosticism was a non-starter from the outset because it rejected the very book the earliest Christians recognized as authoritative—the Old Testament.” So, the claim that early Christians had no Scripture on which to base their declarations that some group was heretical and another orthodox is simply mistaken. The Old Testament books would have provided that initial doctrinal foundation.
b. “Core” New Testament Books. Although all New Testament books are orthodox, not all of them needed to have this expressly established prior to their recognition by the early church (or at least portions thereof). As we discussed in a prior blog post, some New Testament books, especially Paul’s major epistles and the four gospels, would have been recognized as authoritative from a very early time period. They were received not so much because they measured up to some standard of orthodoxy but primarily on the basis of their obvious apostolic origins—these were the books that were “handed down” from the apostles. Gamble notes, “The letters of Paul and the Synoptic Gospels…had been valued so long and so widely that their orthodoxy could only be taken for granted: it would have been nonsensical for the church to have inquired, for example, into the orthodoxy of Paul!” Thus, there appears to have been a collection of core New Testament writings that would have functioned as a norm for apostolic doctrine at quite an early point. This explains why the vast majority of later “disagreements” about the boundaries of the New Testament canon appear to be focused narrowly on only a handful of books; apparently the core of the New Testament was intact from a very early time period.
c. The “rule of faith.” The authoritative apostolic tradition in the first century came to be summarized and known by a number of names such as the regula fidei (“rule of faith”), or “the canon of truth”). This summary was used as a key weapon in the early church’s battle against heresy by church fathers such as Dionysius of Corinth, Hipploytus, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen. The rule of faith was a particularly effective weapon because it was oral (in a mostly illiterate world), it was relatively brief (and therefore easily employed), and it was widespread (and thus available to a broad range of churches). The rule of faith did not contain new teachings or doctrines that were not found in the Scriptures, nor was it unduly separated from the Scriptures as if they were two entirely independent sources for orthodox teaching. Instead, it was understood to be “a summary of Scripture’s own story line” or “the principle and logic of Scripture itself.” Or, as Irenaeus put it, the rule is “the order and the connection of the Scriptures.”
In sum, we can agree that the earliest Christians did not have a completed New Testament canon from the start. It took time for this to fully develop. However, this does not mean that early Christians were drifting aimlessly in the theological ocean of the first few centuries. They had the Old Testament, the earliest “core” of the New Testament, and the rule of faith to guide them.
 M.F. Wiles, “Origen as Biblical Scholar,” in The Cambridge History of the Bible: From the Beginnings to Jerome (ed. P.R. Ackroyd and C.F. Evans; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 454.
 Ben Witherington, The Gospel Code: Novel Claims About Jesus, Mary Magadelene, and Da Vinci (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2004), 115.
 Gamble, The New Testament Canon, 70.
 Vanhoozer, The Drama Of Doctrine, 206.
 John J. O’Keefe and R. R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 120.
 Haer 1.8.1.
The perennial question in the debate over sola Scriptura is whether the church is over the Bible or the Bible is over the church. If you take the latter position, then you are (generally speaking) a Protestant who believes the Scriptures, and the Scriptures alone, are the only infallible rule and therefore the supreme authority over the church. But, here is the irony: Roman Catholics also claim to be “under” the authority of the Bible.
The Roman Catholic church insists that the Scripture is always superior to the Magisterium. Dei Verbum declares, “This teaching office is not above the Word of God, but serves it” (2.10), and the Catholic Catechism declares: “Yet, this Magisterium is not superior to the word of God, but its servant” (86). However, despite these qualifications, one still wonders how Scripture can be deemed the ultimate authority if the Magisterium is able to define, determine, and interpret the Scripture in the first place. Moreover, the Magisterium seems to “discover” doctrines that are not consistent with the original meaning of Scripture itself—e.g,, the immaculate conception, purgatory, papal infallibility and the like. Thus, despite these declarations from Rome, residual concerns remain about whether the Magisterium functionally has authority over the Scriptures.
My friend and colleague James Anderson has written a helpful blog post that brings even further clarity to this issue. He begins by observing the judicial activism that happens all too often in the American political system. Judges go well beyond the original intent of the constitution and actually create new laws from the bench. He then argues:
What has happened in the US system of government almost exactly parallels what happened in the government of the Christian church over the course of many centuries, a development that finds its fullest expression in the Roman Catholic Church.
The Bible serves as the constitution of the Christian faith. It is the covenant documentation. It defines the Christian church: what constitutes the church, what is its mission, who runs the church and how it should be run, what are the responsibilities of the church, what is the scope of its authority, what laws govern the church and its members, and so forth. Once the constitution has been written, the task of the ‘judges’ (the elders/overseers of the church) is to interpret and apply it according to its original intent. Their task is not to create new laws or to come up with “interpretations” that cannot be found in the text of the constitution itself (interpreted according to original intent) and would never have crossed the minds of the “founding fathers” (Eph. 2:20).
Yet that’s just what happened over the course of time with the development of episcopacy, the rise of the papacy, and the increasing weight given to church tradition. To borrow Grudem’s phrasing: If the Bible didn’t say something something that the bishops wanted it to say, or thought it should say, they could claim to “discover” new doctrines in the Bible — purgatory, indulgences, apostolic succession, papal infallibility, etc. — and no one would have power to overrule them.
Adapting the candid statement of Chief Justice Hughes, today’s Roman Catholic might well put it thus: “We are under the Bible, but the Bible is what the Pope says it is.” In fact, that’s exactly how things stand in practice. Functionally the Pope has become the highest governing authority in his church: higher even than the Bible. The church has been derailed by “ecclesial activism”.
Thus, even though Rome claims that the Bible is its ultimate authority, practically speaking it is the church that is the ultimate authority. Rome is committed to sola ecclesia. And this clarifies the real difference between Protestants and Catholics. Something has to be the ultimate authority. It is either Scripture or the church.
This is the sixth installment of a blog series announced here.
One of the most common claims by some critics of the NT canon is that apocryphal writings, particularly gospels, were as common and as widely-used as the NT writings. Helmut Koester is a good example of this trend. He laments the fact that the terms “apocryphal” and “canonical” are even used by modern scholars because they reflect, according to him, “prejudices of long standing” against the authenticity of these apocryphal texts. Koester then argues, “If one considers the earliest period of the tradition, several apocryphal gospels are as well attested as those which later received canonical status.” William Petersen offers a similar approach when he says that apocryphal gospels were so popular that they “were breeding like rabbits.”
But, is it really true that apocryphal gospels were as popular and widespread as the canonical gospels? Were they really on equal footing? Three pieces of evidence suggest otherwise:
1. Extant manuscripts. The physical remains of writings can give us an indication of their relative popularity. Such remains can tell us which books were used, read, and copied. When we examine the physical remains of Christian texts from the earliest centuries (second and third), we quickly discover that the New Testament writings were, far and away, the most popular. Currently we have over sixty extant manuscripts (in whole or in part) of the New Testament from this time period, with most of our copies coming from Matthew, John, Luke, Acts, Romans, Hebrews, and Revelation. The gospel of John proves to be the most popular of all with eighteen manuscripts, a number of which derive from the second century (e.g., P52, P90, P66, P75). Matthew is not far behind with twelve manuscripts; and some of these also have been dated to the second century (e.g., P64-67, P77, P103, P104).
During the same time period, the second and third centuries, we possess approximately seventeen manuscripts of apocryphal writings such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Peter, the Protevangelium of James, and more. The Gospel of Thomas has the most manuscripts of all, with just three.
The implications of this numerical disparity has not been missed by modern scholars. Hurtado argues that the low number of apocryphal manuscripts “do not justify any notion that these writings were particularly favored” and that whatever circles used these writings “were likely a clear minority among Christians of the second and third centuries.” Similarly, C.H. Roberts observes, “Once the evidence of the papyri is available, indisputably Gnostic texts are conspicuous by their rarity.” Charlesworth agrees, “If the ‘heterodox’ were in the majority for so long, the non-canonical gospels should have been preserved in greater numbers in Egypt.”
2. Frequency of Citation. While scholars typically focus on whether apocryphal books are cited, they have not paid sufficient attention to how often they are cited in comparison to the canonical writings. When that data is considered, the disparity between apocryphal and canonical writings becomes even more evident.
Take, for example, Clement of Alexandria, who is often mentioned as an early church father who prefers canonical and apocryphal writings equally. However, when the frequency of citations are considered, this claim proves to be unfounded—Clement vastly prefers the New Testament books, over and above the apocryphal literature or other Christian writings. J.A. Brooks has observed that Clement cites the canonical books “about sixteen times more often than apocryphal and patristic writings.” This disparity is thrown into sharper relief when we consider just the four Gospels. According to the work of Bernard Mutschler, Clement references Matthew 757 times, Luke 402 times, John 331 times, and Mark 182 times. Comparatively, Clement cites apocryphal gospels only 16 times. Apparently, Clement was not in doubt about which books he regarded as canonical.
3. The Manner of Citation. If indeed apocryphal writings were valued equally with canonical writings, we would expect such a fact to be reflected in the way these books are cited. Do the early church fathers cite apocryphal writings as Scripture? Only very rarely. In a few instances, it seems that books like the Shepherd of Hermas or the Epistle of Barnabas were regarded as having a scriptural status. But, this was quite the minority view. When we examine which books early Christians were not simply using (see prior post on this issue here), but books they actually regarded as Scripture, then the canonical books are far and away the most popular. This is confirmed by the fact that there was a “core” canon of books in place by the middle of the second century (for more on that issue, see here).
In addition, it should be noted that a number of these apocryphal writings were expressly condemned by the earliest Christians. Take, for example, the oft-discussed Gospel of Thomas. This gospel is never mentioned in any early canonical list, is not found in any of our New Testament manuscript collections, never figured prominently in canonical discussions, and often was condemned outright by a variety of church fathers. Thus, if Thomas was a widely-read and widely-received gospel account, then it has left very little historical evidence of that fact.
Everybody loves a good conspiracy theory. It would certainly be far more interesting and entertaining if one could show that apocryphal books were really the Scripture of the early church and that they have been suppressed by the political machinations of the later church (i.e., Constantine). But, the truth is far less sensational. While apocryphal books were given some scriptural status from time to time, the overwhelming majority of early Christians preferred the books that are now in our New Testament canon. Thus, we are reminded again that the canon was not something that was arbitrarily “created” by the church in the 4th or 5th century. Rather the affirmations of the later church simply reflected what had already been the case for many, many years.
 H. Koester, “Apocryphal and Canonical Gospels,” Harvard Theological Review 73 (1980): 106.
 Koester, “Apocryphal and Canonical Gospels,” 107.
 W.L. Petersen, “The Diatesseron and the Fourfold Gospel,” in The Earliest Gospels (ed. C. Horton; London and New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 51.
 Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts, 21-22.
 Roberts, Manuscript, Society and Belief, 52.
 Scott Charlesworth, “Indicators of “Catholicity” in Early Gospel Manuscripts,” in The Early Text of the New Testament (ed. C.E. Hill and M.J. Kruger; Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).
 Brooks, “Clement of Alexandria,” 48.
 Bernard Mutschler, Irenäus als johanneischer Theologe (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 101.
 Brooks, “Clement of Alexandria,” 44.
 E.g., Hippolytus, Ref. 5.7.20; Origen, Hom. Luc. 1; Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.25.6.
It was the conviction that the Scriptures alone are the Word of God and therefore the only infallible rule for life and doctrine—known as sola Scriptura—that provided the necessary fuel for the Reformation to ignite. Indeed, it was regarded as the “formal cause” of the Reformation (whereas sola fide was regarded as the “material cause”). The sentiments of this doctrine are embodied in Luther’s famous speech at the Diet of Worms (1521) when he was asked to recant his teachings:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience… May God help me. Amen.
For Luther, it is the Scriptures, and the Scriptures alone, that are the final arbiter of what we should believe.
Of course, like many core Christian convictions, the doctrine of sola Scriptura has often been misunderstood and misapplied. Unfortunately, some have used sola Scriptura as a justification for a “me, God, and the Bible” type of individualism where the church bears no real authority and the history of the church is not considered when interpreting and applying Scripture. Thus, many churches today are almost ahistorical—cut off entirely from the rich traditions, creeds, and confessions of the church. They misunderstand sola Scriptura to mean that the Bible is the only authority, rather than understanding it to mean the Bible is the only infallible authority. Ironically, such an individualistic approach actually serves to undercut the very doctrine of sola Scriptura it is intended to protect. By emphasizing the autonomy of the individual believer, one is left with only private, subjective conclusions about what Scripture means. It is not so much the authority of Scripture that is being prized, but the authority of the individual.
The Reformers would not have recognized such a distortion as their doctrine of sola Scriptura. On the contrary, they were quite keen to rely on the church fathers, church councils, and the creeds and confessions of the church. Such historical rootedness was viewed not only as means for maintaining orthodoxy, but also as a means for maintaining humility. Contrary to popular perceptions, the Reformers did not view themselves as coming up with something new. Rather they understood themselves to be recovering something very old—something that the church had originally believed but later twisted and distorted. The Reformers were not innovators, but were excavators.
It is on this note, that I am looking forward to Carl Trueman’s new book, The Creedal Imperative (Crossway: Sept, 2012). Here is the description:
Recent years have seen a number of high profile scholars converting to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy while a trend in the laity expresses an eclectic hunger for tradition. The status and role of confessions stands at the center of the debate within evangelicalism today as many resonate with the call to return to Christianity’s ancient roots. Carl Trueman offers an analysis of why creeds and confessions are necessary, how they have developed over time, and how they can function in the church of today and tomorrow. He writes primarily for evangelicals who are not particularly confessional in their thinking yet who belong to confessional churches—Baptists, independents, etc.—so that they will see more clearly the usefulness of the church’s tradition.
No doubt this volume will be a welcome correction to common misunderstandings of sola Scriptura. It is my hope that it will aid the church in returning to a robust and well-balanced appreciation of tradition and creeds.
A favorite topic of modern critical scholars is the role of apocryphal books in early Christianity. How often were these books used? And did Christians regard them as Scripture? Bart Ehrman’s book Lost Christianities is typical in this regard. Ehrman explores a number of books that did not make it into the canon and argues that Christians originally regarded these books as part of God’s word.
One critical piece of evidence for Ehrman is that the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas were both included in one of our earliest complete NT manuscripts, the fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus (p.245). He also appeals to the fact that 1&2 Clement were included in the fifth century Codex Alexandrinus (p.142).
Now, to be sure, the inclusion of these apocryphal books in Sinaiticus and Alexandrinus is interesting. And it certainly attests to the popularity of these books. But is it necessarily evidence of their scriptural status? One key fact that Ehrman does not mention in his discussion is the location of these apocryphal books within the codices. They all occur at the end of the codex, even after Revelation. This is certainly noteworthy since Revelation is uniformly regarded as the final book in the NT corpus.
Moreover, if a book like 1 Clement or the Epistle of Barnabas were regarded as scriptural, then surely it would have been placed among the other General/Catholic epistles, which contain letters from a variety of different authors. Even Hebrews, with its disputed authorship, is not placed after Revelation, but was included (in these codices) amongst Paul’s letters.
But, if these books are not regarded as Scripture, then why are the included in these codices at all? One possible explanation, suggested by William Horbury, is that early canonical lists would include all the received books first and then, at the end, it would name “disputed” books and/or books that were deemed useful or edifying but not necessarily canonical. This pattern is visible in the Muratorian fragment which includes the Apocalypse of Peter and the Shepherd at the end. Whereas the former is regarded as disputed, the latter is rejected outright and is mentioned only because it can still be read in the church (for edification, not as Scripture).
Athanasius’ Festal Letter (c.367) also lists both Old and New Testament books and then, at the end, lists the books which are not canonical but nevertheless useful, such as the Wisdom of Solomon and the Shepherd amongst others. Likewise, Eusebius, Codex Claromontanus, and Epiphanius, exhibit a similar structure in their canonical “lists.”
Thus, it seems that Codex Sinaiticus and Alexandrinus are simply following the standard structure of canonical lists in their time period. Given the location of these apocryphal books in these codices, they are best understood not as Scripture, but as helpful/edifying books that can be read in the church.
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.”
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.” However, Hahnemen then draws an unexpected conclusion from this fact: “This would seem unlikely if the Fourfold Gospel canon had already been established.” 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.” 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.”
Last year at the 2011 General Assembly for the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), I participated in a conference on the authority of Scripture that was sponsored by Reformed Theological Seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Covenant Theological Seminary. Two scholars from each institution were asked to present papers on a variety of different topics. The idea behind the conference is that the church is never finished waging the battle over the authority of the Bible–each new generation needs to do its part to address contemporary issues.
Those papers have now been gathered together in a book edited by David Garner: Did God Really Say? Affirming the Truthfulness and Trustworthiness of Scripture (P&R, 2012). In fact, I received complimentary copies of the book today and it looks great. Here is the table of contents:
Foreword: Robert C. (Ric) Cannada Jr., Bryan Chapell,
and Peter A. Lillback ix
1. Because It Is the Word of God
K. Scott Oliphint 1
2. The Church, a Pillar of Truth: B.B. Warfield’s Church
Doctrine of Inspiration 23
Michael D. Williams
3. Deconstructing Canon: Recent Challenges to the Origins
and Authority of the New Testament Writings 49
Michael J. Kruger
4. Inerrancy’s Complexities: Grounds for Grace in
the Debate 71
Robert W. Yarbrough
5. God and Language 93
Vern S. Poythress
6. N.T. Wright and the Authority of Scripture 107
John M. Frame
7. Did God Really Say? 129
David B. Garner
This a great book for addressing the authority of Scripture with your church, Sunday School class, or home Bible study. It would be ideal for a group of folks to work through together, chapter by chapter. Thanks to David Garner for taking the initiative and putting this project together. Great work!
A number of years ago, Stan Porter and I founded a new study group at the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS): New Testament Canon, Textual Criticism, and Apocryphal Literature. Although issues related to text and canon were quite prevalent at the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), and other related academic societies, we realized that ETS did not have a centralized place where these issues could be explored. Since the group began we have had five years of excellent papers on a variety of topics. And the coming 2012 ETS meeting in Chicago is no different. The theme this year for the invited session is “Implications of Canonical Formation on Interpretation.” Here is the lineup:
Details: 11/15/2012, 8:30 AM-11:40 AM, Frontier Airlines Center : 203 D
Armin Baum, Freien Theologischen Hochschule, Geissen, Germany
Does the Pericope Adulterae (John 7:53-8:11) have Canonical Authority? An Interdenominational Approach
Tomas Bokedal, University of Aberdeen
Implications of Canonical Date for Scriptural Interpretation
David I. Yoon, McMaster Divinity College
Canonical Criteria: A Diachronic Analysis of the Early Church’s Recognition of the New Testament Canon
Let’s just admit it. We rarely pay attention to the final greetings that Paul offers at the end of his letters. Such personal statements are, well, too personal—they just don’t seem meant for us. However, our unfortunate neglect of these passages can leave a variety of treasures undiscovered. One such passage may even bring unexpected illumination about the origins of the New Testament canon.
In 2 Tim 4:13 Paul says to Timothy, “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.” Paul makes a curious distinction here between “the books” (ta biblia) and “the parchments” (tas membranas), suggesting they are two different kinds of writings. Scholars widely regard the first of these as a reference to books of the Old Testament, most likely on scrolls. We do not know how many of these Old Testament books Paul had in mind, but it must have been limited to a reasonable number that Timothy could have borne during his travels.
But, what is Paul referring to when he mentions “the parchments”? The term membranas is significant because it is not a Greek word, but a loan word transliterated from the Latin membrana. The history of this term in the first century makes it clear that it is a reference to a parchment codex. The codex book format was different than that of a scroll. Whereas the latter had writing on only one side (and was rolled up to protect that writing), the codex had writing on both sides of the page and was bound at the spine—like our traditional leaf books today. What is interesting about early Christians is that they vastly preferred the codex book format over the scroll even though both the Jewish world and the Greco-Roman world preferred the scroll. Indeed, the reason for the widespread and early use of the codex amongst Christians is a great mystery that scholars have sought to solve for a very long time.
As for the content of the codices which Paul mentions in 2 Tim 4:13, a number of suggestions have been made over the years. Given that Paul distinguishes these codices from the Old Testament writings, many scholars have rightly argued that they likely contained some sort of Christian writings. This may have included a variety of things such as excerpts of Jesus’ teachings or early Christian testimonia (Old Testament proof texts supporting Messianic claims about Jesus). Given the fact that Paul appears to cite Luke’s gospel elsewhere (1 Tim 5:18), and has an established relationship with Luke (Col 4:14, 2 Tim 4:11), we must even consider the possibility that these codices contained the gospel of Luke (!).
However, one of the most compelling possibilities is that these notebooks contained (among other things) copies of Paul’s own letters. It was not at all unusual in the Greco-Roman world to keep copies of (and even publish) one’s own letters. Cicero exemplifies this practice as his personal secretary, Tiro, kept extensive copies of his letters. Cicero would occasionally receive a complaint from friends that one of their letters (from Cicero) was lost or damaged; on such occasions Cicero would quickly dispatch a replacement copy from his own collection. And where did Cicero make/keep copies of his letters? He tells us: “I am jotting down a copy of this letter into my notebook.” In other words, Cicero kept copies of his letters in a codex.
If these “parchments” in 2 Tim 4:13 contained copies of Paul’s letters in a codex, then this opens up fresh insights the development of the New Testament canon. Such a scenario might begin to answer the question of why early Christians preferred the codex over the scroll. Since Paul had already begun to use the codex to contain his letters it is not difficult to imagine that early Christians would have retained that format when it became desirable to circulate a defined Pauline letter collection more broadly to the churches. Moreover, this scenario provides a compelling explanation for why some letters of Paul were preserved for the church and some letters were ultimately lost (1 Cor 5:9). The answer appears to be that some letters were lost because Paul, for whatever reasons, did not make a personal copy of them before sending them out. Thus, they were not available when Paul’s completed letter collection was circulating more broadly to the churches.
Most importantly, 2 Tim 4:13 provides additional support to the idea that, at a very early time period, Christians conceived of their religious writings in two parts: the Old Testament writings (ta biblia) and their Christian writings (tas membranas). In Paul’s day the latter would have still been fairly undefined, including not only copies of his own letters, but possibly excerpts of Jesus tradition, Christian testimonia, and the like. However, even though the content was undefined, there are hints here of a “proto-canon” of sorts, where valuable Christians texts are gathered into one place, in the form of a codex, with some even written by apostles.
If so, then perhaps the beginnings of the New Testament canon can be traced back to Paul himself.
 If Acts is dated before Paul’s death (given the odd, truncated ending), then it is reasonable to put Luke in the early to mid 60’s. This would allow Paul to know about it before writing 1 Timothy.
 E. Randolph Richards, “The Codex and the Early Collection of Paul’s Letters,” BBR 8 (1998): 151-166; David Trobisch, Paul’s Letter Collection: Tracing the Origins (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994); Gamble, Books and Readers, 100-101.
 Fam. 9.26.1.
Note: This is the fourth installment of a blog series announced here.
The date of the NT canon is one of the most controversial questions in biblical studies today. As a prior post indicated, part of the answer to the question of date is dependent upon one’s definition of “canon.” But, even if we take the functional definition of canon—books are canonical when they are being used as Scripture—there is still debate about how early this took place.
In recent years, however, somewhat of a quasi-consensus has been building that the canon was first regarded as Scripture at the end of the second century (c.200). McDonald is representative of this view, “[New Testament] documents were not generally recognized as Scripture until the end of the second century C.E.”
The reason for this focus on the end of the second century is not hard to find. It is at this point that the major figure Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (see inset picture!), offers some of the clearest and most comprehensive statements on the canon to date. Most notable is his affirmation that the four gospels were so certain that their existence is entrenched in the very structure of creation, “It is not possible that the gospels can be either more or fewer than the number they are.” Because of Irenaeus’ confident language about the NT canon, Scholars have sought to paint Irenaeus as an innovator. Up to this point, supposedly no one else was concerned about such things. Ireneaus broke new ground and, in essence, single-handedly created the NT Canon.
But, was Irenaeus really alone? Was he the innovator scholars have made him out to be? Let us consider a number of historical sources which show that others during this same time frame (and earlier) also regarded NT books as Scripture. As we briefly examine these sources, we should remember that we are concerned here not with the extent of canon but with the existence of canon. Although the boundaries of the canon had not yet solidified at this point, it is still clear that many of these books were viewed as Scripture long before 200 AD.
In terms of Irenaeus’ contemporaries, two key sources tell us that he was not alone. The Muratorian fragment (c.180) is our earliest canonical list and affirms approximately 22 of the 27 books of the NT, remarkably close to Irenaeus’ own position. Moreover, writing just slightly later than Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria (c.198) had a remarkably similar position, affirming the 4 gospels, 13 epistles of Paul, Hebrews, Acts, 1 Peter, 1&2 John, Jude, and Revelation. Such a widespread affirmation of these books could not have happened overnight (sort of a “big bang” theory of canon), but would have required some predecessors. Let us examine who some of those predecessors were (and here we must be brief):
- Justin Martyr (c.150): He refers to plural “gospels” and at one point provides an indication of how many he has in mind when he describes these gospels as “drawn up by His apostles and those who followed them.” Since such language indicates (at least) two gospels written by apostles, and (at least) two written by apostolic companions, it is most naturally understood as reference to our four canonical gospels. The fact that he actually cites from the Synoptics and John shows that he had a fourfold gospel in mind.
- Papias (c.125): As mentioned in another post, Papias tells us that the early church had received the gospels of Mark and Matthew and valued because of their apostolic status. In fact, Papias even affirms that Mark received his information from Peter himself—a very ancient tradition of the church. Although Papias writes c.125, he actually refers to an earlier time (c.90) when he received this information from “the Elder” (who is no doubt John the Elder, one of Jesus’ disciples). Papias also knew 1 Peter, 1 John, Revelation, and some Pauline epistles.
- Barnabas (c.130). The Epistle of Barnabas (4.14) explicitly cites Matt 22:14: “Many are called but few are chosen.” Barnabas clearly regards Matthew as Scripture because he introduces his citation with “It is written” (the same language he uses when citing OT books).
- 1 Clement (c.95). 1 Clement charges the church to “Take up the epistle of that blessed apostle, Paul… To be sure, he sent you a letter in the Spirit concerning himself and Cephas and Apollos.” Scholars agree that Clement is referring here to the letter of 1 Corinthians which he said Paul wrote “in the Spirit,” no doubt showing the high authority he gave to the book. 1 Clement also makes likely allusions to other epistles of Paul including Romans, Galatians, Philippians, Ephesians; and also Hebrews.
- 2 Pet 3:16 (c.65). One of the earliest examples comes from the well-known passage in 2 Pet 3:16 where Paul’s letters are regarded as on par with “the other Scriptures” of the Old Testament. Most notably, this passage does not refer to just one letter of Paul, but to a collection of Paul’s letters (how many is unclear) that had already begun to circulate throughout the churches—so much so that the author could refer to “all his [Paul’s] letters” and expect that his audience would understand that to which he was referring.
This is a very brief sampling of the use of NT books as Scripture within the first and second centuries. But it is sufficient to show that the NT canon did not pop into existence at the end of the second century in a “big bang” sort of fashion. Instead, we have solid evidence that NT books were used as Scripture from a very early time period (according to 2 Peter, even in the first century itself). Despite the fact that boundaries of the canon were not solidified until a later time, it is clear that a “core” canon was present from nearly the very beginning.
If so, then there are two significant implications we can draw from this. First, this means that most of the debates and disagreements about canonical books in early Christianity only concerned a handful of books. Books like 2-3 John, Jude, 2 Peter and so on. Early Christianity was not a wide open literary free for all, where there was no agreement on much of anything. Instead there was an agreed-upon core that no one really disputed.
Second, if there was a core collection of New Testament books, then the theological trajectory of early Christianity had already been determined prior to the debates about the peripheral books being resolved. So, regardless of the outcome of discussion over books like 2 Peter or Jude, Christianity’s core doctrines of the person of Christ, the work of Christ, the means of salvation, etc., were already in place and already established. The acceptance or rejection of books like 2 Peter would not change that fact.
 L.M. McDonald, The Biblical Canon: Its Orgin, Transmission, and Authority (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007), 359.
Reformation 21, the website of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, just posted my interview with Derek Thomas on my new book, Canon Revisited. I appreciate Derek’s invitation to do this interview–it was an interesting discussion on a number of important topics related to canon.
Here is an excerpt:
[DT] What are the most crucial issues relating to a conservative/reformed defense of the canon today?
[MK] I think one of the critical weaknesses in modern canonical studies is that Christians often have no theology of canon. We have a lot of historical facts–anyone who has read the fine works of Metzger and Bruce will have plenty of patristic data to work with. But, a pile of historical facts is not sufficient to authenticate these books. We need a framework for understanding what the canon is, how God gave it, and what means God gave for believers to identify these books. And those issues are inevitably derived from our theological beliefs. Thus, the canon is ultimately a theological issue. This does not mean that historical data play no role (it plays a very significant role), but that historical data is not self-interpreting. When it comes to the canon question, theology and history need to be dialogical partners, not adversaries.
Read the whole thing here.
I’ve spent the last week or so diving deeply (again) into the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. The Apostolic Fathers are an informal collection of early Christian writings, roughly 95-150 AD, which include books like the Didache, 1 & 2 Clement, the Epistle of Barnabas, and letters from Polycarp and Ignatius.
In recent years, scholars have expressed increased skepticism about whether these writings can inform our understanding of the development of the canon. What appear to be citations of and allusions to New Testament books are not that at all, we are told, but instead are best explained by these authors drawing upon oral tradition. This preference for oral tradition is based on the belief that Christians were not really concerned about written documents yet–that doesn’t come about until the end of the second century.
Now much of this approach is certainly correct. Early Christians did use and value oral tradition well into the second century. And certainly it can explain many of the citations/allusions in the Apostolic Fathers. But, must we insist that it can explain all of them? Did early Christians really have an aversion to written texts? These questions are too big to answer in a single blog post, but I think one of the Apostolic Fathers challenges this thinking head on: Papias.
Papias was Bishop of Hierapolis and wrote around 125AD (see inset picture!). He tell us plainly about the written gospels of Mark and Matthew:
The Elder used to say: Mark became Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all that he [Peter] remembered. . . . Matthew collected the oracles in the Hebrew language, and each interpreted them as best he could.
What’s particularly noteworthy is that Papias received his information directly from “the Elder” who is no doubt “John the Elder” he mentions elsewhere as a follower and disciple of Jesus himself. Thus, although Papias is writing around 125 AD he is actually referring to a much earlier time when he received this tradition, probably around 90AD.
Here, then, is the key point: Papias attests to the fact that at the end of the first century, one of the primary ways Christians were receiving Jesus tradition was through written gospels, two of which were named Matthew and Mark (!). This fact alone should challenge the notion that only oral tradition can/should explain citations in the Apostolic Fathers.
 For a discussion of what is meant by the “Hebrew language”, and how this does not mean something other than Matthew is in view, see R.T. France, Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher, 53-66.
 Of course, some have tried to counter this point by pointing out that Papias seems himself to prefer oral tradition (Hist. eccl. 188.8.131.52). But, a number of scholars have pointed out that this statement by Papias is widely misunderstood. But, we shall have to address that further in another post!
Note: This is the third installment of a new blog series announced here.
Sometimes, even in the academic world, things get said so many times that people assume they are true. And when that happens, no one bothers to look at the historical evidence in a fresh way. This has certainly been the case when it comes to this third misconception about the New Testament canon. It is routine these days to assert that the New Testament authors certainly did not think they were writing Scripture, nor had any awareness of their own authority. Mark Allan Powell, in his recent New Testament introduction, affirms this view plainly, “The authors of our New Testament books did not know that they were writings scripture.” Gamble takes the same approach, “None of the writings which belong to the NT was composed as scripture…[they] were written for immediate and practical purposes within the early churches, and only gradually did they come to be valued and to be spoken of as ‘scripture’.”
Now, from one perspective, I understand what these authors are trying to say. Certainly none of the NT authors wrote with an awareness of a 27 book canon and understood their place in it. They could not have fully foreseen the shape and scope of this collection. But, these scholars imply that there was no authoritative intent when the NT authors wrote—and that is a very different thing. McDonald even declares, “[Paul] was unaware of the divinely inspired status of his own advice.”
But, is it true that the NT authors had no awareness of their own authority? My contention here is simple: the NT authors show evidence that they understood their writings to contain authoritative apostolic tradition. Since the apostles were commissioned by Christ to speak for him, and were empowered by the Holy Spirit to do so, then these writings would have borne the authority of Christ himself. Thus, whether we call these books “Scripture” is a bit beside the point. To the earliest Christians, they were “the word of God.”
Now, in a blog post such as this we can hardly work through each book of the NT (nor would we need to do so in order to establish the overall point). So, we will offer a brief comment on a few select passages:
1 Thess 2:13. In perhaps Paul’s earliest letter, he is explicit about his own authority as an apostle of Jesus Christ when he reminds the Thessalonians, “You received the word of God, which you heard from us, and accepted it not as the words of men but as what it really is, the word of God” (2:13). By the phrase “word of God” (λόγον θεοῦ), Paul is no doubt referring to the authoritative “apostolic tradition” which they had already passed to the Thessalonians through their oral teaching and preaching. But, if Paul’s apostolic instruction bears divine authority, are we to think that the instruction contained in 1 Thessalonians itself does not? Is this letter somehow exempt from that very authority? Paul acknowledges elsewhere that the mode of delivery for his apostolic instruction is secondary, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thess 2:15). Thus, commenting on 1 Thess 2:13, Ernest Best is able to say, “Paul makes here the daring claim which identifies his words with God’s words.”
1 Cor 14:37-38. This passage is one of the most explicit about Paul’s apostolic authority, “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized” (1 Cor 14:37-38). Most noteworthy about this passage is that Paul directly addresses the precise nature of his writings and declares that they are a “command of the Lord” (κυρίοu ἐντολη,). Such a phrase is common throughout the Old Testament as a reference to either the commands that come directly from God himself or to the commands he has given to Moses. So confident is Paul of his authority to speak for the Lord that he declares that anyone who does not recognize the authority of his writings is himself “not recognized.” Fee calls such a pronouncement a “prophetic sentence of judgment on those who fail to heed this letter.” In light of such statements from Paul, we don’t have to wonder how the Corinthians would respond if we were able to ask them “So, do you think that Paul was aware of his own authority when he wrote you that letter?” Perhaps Paul himself understood the way his authority would be perceived when he wrote the Corinthians a second time and said, “I do not want to appear to be frightening you with my letters” (2 Cor 10:9).
Luke 1:1-4. Luke makes express claims to be passing down apostolic tradition. In his prologue, Luke claims that the traditions included in his gospel have been “delivered” to him by those “who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.” Most scholars view the “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” as a clear reference to the apostles. And the term “delivered” is a standard reference to the way that authoritative apostolic tradition is passed along. Thus, Luke understood his gospel to be the embodiment of the authoritative apostolic “Word” that had been delivered and entrusted to him. Craig Evans comes to the same conclusion about the prologue, “Luke does not see himself primarily as a biographer, nor even a historian. The Lukan evangelist is a writer of Scripture, a hagiographer who is proclaiming what God has ‘accomplished among us.’”
Rev 1:1-3. The most explicit claim for a book’s authority no doubt comes from the author of Revelation. The opening line of the book directly claims that it is the inspired prophecy of Jesus Christ delivered to John by an angel (1:1). Consequently, there is a divine blessing attached with this book: “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near” (1:3). Moreover, the authority of this book is heightened by the inclusion of an “inscriptional curse” at the end, warning the reader not to add nor take away from this document lest they suffer divine judgment (22:18-19). On the basis of these explicit statements, even McDonald is willing to acknowledge that Revelation “claims for itself such a lofty position that [it] would come close to the notion of inspiration and Scripture.”
This has been a very quick sampling of NT passages, fitting for a blog post like this. However, even this brief glance raises questions about the contention that the NT authors were unaware of their own authority. It matters not whether we want to use the term “Scripture” to describe these books; if they bore apostolic authority then they bore Christ’s authority and would have been viewed as the very words of God. N.T. Wright sums it up well,
It used to be said that the New Testament writers “didn’t think they were writing ‘Scripture.’” That is hard to sustain historically today. The fact that their writings were, in various senses, “occasional”…is not to the point. At precisely those points of urgent need (when, for instance, writing Galatians or 2 Corinthians) Paul is most conscious that he is writing as one authorized, by the apostolic call he had received from Jesus Christ, and in the power of the Spirit, to bring life and order to the church by his words.
 Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 50. See also McDonald, The Biblical Canon, 249.
 H.Y. Gamble, The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 18.
 McDonald, The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon, 9.
 E. Best, A Commentary on the First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), 111.
 Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 712.
 Evans, “Luke and the Rewritten Bible,” 201. It is worth noting that there is some evidence Luke was regarded as “Scripture” quite early. 1 Tim 5:18 cites “the laborer deserves his wages” and introduces it with “For the Scripture says.” Although it’s possible that 1 Tim 5:18 may be citing some apocryphal source, the only known match for this citation is Luke 10:7. One must at least consider the possibility that 1 Timothy is citing Luke’s gospel as Scripture. See discussion in J.P. Meier, “The Inspiration of Scripture: But What Counts as Scripture?,” Mid-Stream 38 (1999): 71-78.
 McDonald, The Biblical Canon, 31.
 N.T. Wright, The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), 51.
Over at the Parchment and Pen blog, Michael Patton has objected to the statement of faith of Together for the Gospel (T4G), particularly as it pertains to the relationship between tradition and canon:
Think of it another way: Without tradition being an authority we would not even have the Scriptures themselves, as it is only through tradition that we know what Scripture is actually Scripture. The Scriptures have no place where there is an inspired list telling us which books belong in the Scripture (we call this the “canon” of Scripture). It is through the traditions of the church that we know which books are the final authority. Therefore, tradition must be an authority to some degree.
I imagine that Patton is quite aware of the similarities this argument has with standard Roman Catholic formulations. In fact, this is precisely the argument used by modern Roman Catholic apologists. For example, Patrick Madrid challenges the Protestant position on canon on the grounds that Christians do not have an “inspired table of contents” that would reveal “which books belong and which books do not.”
Now, I think much of what Patton is striving for is commendable. After all, doesn’t the uniform witness of the church (what we might call tradition) play some role in helping us know which books are canonical? Yes, I think it does and I appreciate Patton’s emphasis in this regard (and I cover this in my forthcoming book, Canon Revisited). However, I think the way that Patton has framed it is still problematic. Steve Hays over at Triablogue has offered some helpful responses here. I will offer a couple of my own:
First, would an “inspired table of contents” really solve the problem as Patton (and Catholics) maintain? Let us imagine for a moment that God had inspired another document in the first century which contained this ‘table of contents’ and had given it to the church. We will call this the 28th book of the New Testament canon. Would the existence of such a book satisfy Catholic concerns and thus eliminate the need for an appeal to church tradition? Not at all. Instead, they would simply ask the next logical question: “On what basis do you know that this 28th book comes from God?” And even if it were argued that God had given a 29th book saying the 28th book came from God, then the same objection would still apply: “Yes, but how do you know the 29th book came from God?” And on it would go.
The Catholic (and Patton’s) objection about the need for a ‘table of contents,’ therefore, misses the point entirely. Even if there were another document with such a ‘table of contents,’ this document would still need to be authenticated as part of the canon. After all, what if there were multiple table-of-contents-type books floating around in the early church? How would we know which one was from God? In the end, therefore, the Roman Catholic objection is, to some extent, artificial. Such a ‘table of contents’ would never satisfy their concerns, even if it existed, because they have already determined, a priori, that no document could ever be self-attesting. In other words, built into the Roman Catholic model is that any written revelation (whether it contains a ‘table of contents’ or not) will require external approval and authentication from church tradition.
This leads naturally to my second concern. As I have already noted, I think the consensus eventually reached by the church on the books of the NT can help us know which books are from God. However, I would disagree with Patton (and the Catholics) that this is the only way to know (Patton said, “it is only through tradition…”). Entirely overlooked in this regard is the intrinsic authority built into these books and how that intrinsic authority could play a role in their authentication. The Catholic model so over-emphasizes church tradition as the only means of knowing that, at least in practice, they ignore the internal qualities of the books themselves.
The protestant reformers referred to this as the self-authenticating (autopistic) nature of Scripture. It is simply the idea that the books themselves bear the qualities and attributes that can identify them as having come from God. This is not the place to offer a full defense of this idea; my point is simply that it has been a standard part of Reformed/protestant theology throughout church history and thus must be considered.
In sum, I believe that the consensus eventually reached by the church (what one might call ‘tradition’) is a way to know which books are canonical, but certainly not the only way. As far as the protestant reformers were concerned, these books could speak for themselves. After all, Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me” (John 10:27).
 Patrick Madrid, “Sola Scriptura: A Blueprint for Anarchy,” in Not By Scripture Alone: A Catholic Critique of the Protestant Doctrine of Sola Scriptura, ed. Robert A. Sungenis (Santa Barbara: Queenship Publishing, 1997), 22.
Note: This is the second installment of a new blog series announced here.
Contemporary challenges to the New Testament canon have taken a number of different forms over the years. For generations, scholars have mainly focused upon the problem of the boundaries of the New Testament. The perennial question has usually been “How do we know we have the right books?” But, in recent years, a new challenge has begun to take center stage (though it is really not new at all). While the validity of the canon’s boundaries is still an area of concern, the attention has shifted to the validity of the canon’s very existence. The question now is “Why is there a New Testament at all?”
The answer, according to critics of the canon, is not to be found in the first-century—there was nothing about earliest Christianity (or the books themselves) that would naturally lead to the development of a canon. Instead, we are told, the answer is to be found in the later Christian church. The canon was an ecclesiastical product that was designed to meet ecclesiastical needs. Thus, the New Testament canon was not a natural development within early Christianity, but a later, artificial development that is out of sync with Christianity’s original purpose—it was something imposed upon the Christian faith. Gamble argues this very point: “There is no intimation at all that the early church entertained the idea of Christian scriptures…Therefore, the NT as we think of it was utterly remote from the minds of the first generation of Christian believers.”
However, are we really to think that there was nothing about earliest Christianity that might have given rise to a new collection of scriptural books? I will argue here that the earliest Christians held a number of beliefs that, especially when taken in tandem, would have naturally led to the development of a new collection of sacred books—what we could call a “canon.” In other words, the theological matrix of first-century Christianity created a favorable environment for the growth of a new written revelational deposit. Let us consider what three of these theological beliefs might have been.
1. The earliest Christians believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the eschatological fulfillment of foundational Old Testament promises about God’s redemption of his people. It is important to remember the Jews of the first century period were in a state of anticipation—waiting and longing for God’s redemptive deliverance of Israel. In other words, Jews of this period viewed the story of the Old Testament books as incomplete. When the Old Testament story of Israel was viewed as a whole, it was not viewed as something that was finished but as something that was waiting to be finished. N.T. Wright observes, “The great story of the Hebrew scriptures was therefore inevitably read in the second-temple period as a story in search of a conclusion.” What made the earliest Christians unique is that they believed that the story of the Old Testament had been completed. It was finished and fulfilled in the coming of Jesus of Nazareth. The long-awaited redemption of God had arrived.
If so, it is not difficult to see how this belief might impact the production of new scriptural books. If Christians believed the OT story had now been completed, then it reasonable to think that the proper conclusion to the Old Testament might then be written. Otherwise the OT Scriptures would be a play without a final act. This possibility finds confirmation in the fact that some of the New Testament writings seem to be intentionally completing the Old Testament story. It is noteworthy that the first book of the New Testament begins with a genealogy with a strong Davidic theme (Matt 1:1), and the (likely) last book of the Hebrew canon begins with a genealogy that has a strong Davidic theme (1 Chronicles 1-2). This structural feature led D. Moody Smith to declare, “In doing so, Matthew makes clear that Jesus represents the restoration of that dynasty and therefore the history of Israel and the history of salvation. Thus, Jesus continues the biblical narrative.” Davies and Allison agree that Matthew “thought of his gospel as a continuation of the biblical history.”
2. The earliest Christians believed that Jesus inaugurated a new covenant. We must remember that the Jews of the first century were covenantally oriented. N.T. Wright has observed that “Covenant theology was the air breathed by the Judaism of this period.” And it is clear that the earliest Christians were also covenantally oriented, as they saw Jesus as ushering in a new covenant (Luke 22:20; cf. Matt 26:28; Mark 14:24; 2 Cor 3:6; Heb 7:22, 8:8). What implications does this belief have on canon?
The answer lies in the very close connection between covenants and written texts. It is well-established by now that the very concept of ‘covenant’ (or treaty) was drawn from the ancient near eastern world where a suzerain king would often make a treaty-covenant with his vassal king. And here is the key: when such covenants were made, they were accompanied by written documentation of that covenant. It is not surprising then that when God made a treaty-covenant with Israel on Sinai, he gave them written documentation of the terms of that covenant. Indeed, so close was the connection between the covenant and written texts, that Old Testament language would often equate the two—the written text was the covenant!
If this is the background of early Christian understanding of covenants, then the implications are easy to see. The earliest Christians were themselves immersed in the covenantal structure of the Old Testament and thus would have understood this critical connection between covenants and written texts. Thus, if they believed that through Jesus Christ a new covenant had been inaugurated with Israel (Jer 31:31), it would have been entirely natural for them to expect new written documents to testify to the terms of that covenant.
In other words, this Old Testament covenantal background provides strong historical reason for thinking that early Christians would have had a predisposition towards written canonical documents and that such documents might have arisen naturally from the early Christian movement. At a minimum, the covenantal context of early Christianity suggests that the emergence of a new corpus of scriptural books, after the announcement of a new covenant, could not be regarded as entirely unexpected.
This appears to find confirmation in 2 Cor 3:6 when Paul refers to himself and the other apostles as “ministers of the new covenant”—and Paul makes this declaration in a written text that bears his authority as a minister of the new covenant. Thus, one could hardly fault the Corinthians if they understood Paul’s letter as, in some sense, a covenant document.
3. The earliest Christians believed in the authority of the apostles to speak for Christ. Jesus had commissioned his apostles “so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority” (Mark 3:14–15). When Jesus sent out the twelve, he reminds them that “For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matt 10:20). Thus, he is able to give a warning to those who reject the apostles’ authority: “If anyone will not receive you or listen to your words…it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” (Matt 10:14).
Given this background, we come to the key question: what would happen if the apostles put their authoritative message in written form? How would such documents be viewed? Initially, of course, the apostles delivered their message orally through teaching and preaching. But, it was not long before they began to write their message down. And when they did so, they also told Christians “Stand firm and hold to the traditions you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thess 2:15). And again, “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person and have nothing to do with him” (2 Thess 3:14).
It is here that we see the obvious connection between the role of the apostles and the beginnings of the canon. If apostles were viewed as the mouthpiece of Christ, and they wrote down that apostolic message in books, then those books would be received as the very words of Christ himself. Such writings would not have to wait until second, third, or fourth-century ecclesiastical decisions to become authoritative—instead they would be viewed as authoritative from almost the very start. For this reason, a written New Testament was not something the church formally “decided” to have at some later date, but was instead the natural outworking of the redemptive-historical function of the apostles.
In sum, these three theological beliefs of the earliest Christians should, at a bare minimum, make us hesitant about confident proclamations from modern scholars that early Christians had no inclinations toward a canon. On the contrary, these beliefs suggest that the development of a new corpus of scriptural books would have been a natural, and to some extent even inevitable, part of early Christianity.
 H.Y. Gamble, The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 57.
 Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 217.
 D.M. Smith, “When Did the Gospels Become Scripture?,” JBL 119 (2000): 7.
 W.D. Davies and D.C. Allison, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (ICC; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997), I: 187.
 Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 262.
I just discovered today that my forthcoming book, Canon Revisited, is now available on Kindle. Perhaps this has been true for a while, but I hadn’t noticed. The hard copy is due out by April 30th.
Note: This is the first installment of a new blog series announced here.
Graham Stanton has correctly observed, “In discussions of the emergence of the canon, whether of the Old or the New Testament writings, definitions are all important, and the devil is in the detail.” Indeed, one’s definition of canon drives one’s historical conclusions about canon–particularly regarding its date. And precisely for this reason, there has always been a vigorous debate amongst scholars over what we mean by the term “canon.”
However, in recent years, that debate has taken an interesting turn. One particular definition of canon has begun to emerge as the dominant one. In fact, scholars have suggested that we must all use this definition lest the entire field of canonical studies be thrown into confusion and anachronism. And that definition is the one that says canon only exists when one has a closed, final, fixed list. You can have “Scripture” prior to this time, but not a “canon.” This can be called the exclusive definition.
The impact of this new “consensus” has been profound on canonical studies: If you cannot have a canon until books are in a closed, final list, then there could not be a canon until the fourth or even fifth century at the earliest. Thus, this definition has been used to push the date of canon further and further back into the later centuries of the church. Remarkably, then, the date for canon has become later and later while the historical evidence hasn’t changed at all.
But, is the exclusive definition the best definition for canon? And are we obligated to use it to the exclusion of all others? Although this definition rightly captures the fact that the boundaries of the canon had fluid edges prior to the fourth century, I think it creates more problems than it solves. A number of concerns:
1. It is difficult to believe that the sharp Scripture-canon distinction drawn by modern advocates of the exclusive definition would have been so readily shared by their historical counterparts in the second century. Would early Christians have regarded Scripture as fluid and open-ended and only canon as limited and restricted? If they were able to say that certain books in their library were Scripture, then that implies they would have been able to say that other books in their library were not Scripture. But, if they are able to say which books are (and are not) Scripture, then how is that materially different than saying which books are in (or not in) a canon? Thus, it seems some degree of limitation and exclusion is already implied in the term “Scripture.”
2. While the exclusive definition insists the term canon cannot be used till the New Testament collection has been officially “closed,” significant ambiguity remains on what, exactly, constitutes this closing. If it is absolute uniformity of practice, across all of Christendom, then, on those terms, there was still not a canon even in the fourth century. Indeed, on those terms we still do not have a canon even today! If the closing of the canon refers to a formal, official act of the New Testament church then we hard pressed to find such an act before the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. The fact of the matter is that when we look into the history of the canon we realize that there was never a time where the boundaries of the New Testament were closed in the way the exclusive definition would require.
3. This leads us to arguably the most foundational problem for this definition. Inherent to the exclusive definition is an insistence that the fourth century represents such a profoundly different stage in the development of the New Testament that it warrants a decisive change in terminology. But, was the canon so very different in the fourth century? While a broader degree of consensus was no doubt achieved by this point, the core books of the New Testament—the four gospels and the majority of Paul’s epistles—had already been recognized and received for centuries. Whatever supposedly happened in the fourth century neither altered the status of these books nor increased their authority. The abrupt change in terminology gives the impression that these books bore some lesser status prior to this point; it communicates that Christians only had Scripture and not a canon. Or, as one scholar put it, prior to the fourth century Christian only had a “boundless, living mass of heterogenous” texts. But this is misleading at best.
In light of these concerns, we should not be forced to use just this single definition. If we are to fully appreciate the depth and complexity of canon, we must also let other definitions have a voice. Brevard Childs has highlighted what we might call the functional definition which suggests we have a canon as soon as a book is used as Scripture by early Christians. On this definition, we would have a canon at least by the early second century. And I have argued for a third definition in my forthcoming article for Tyndale Bulletin that would define canon as the books God gave his corporate church (what I call the ontological definition). One might say this views canon from a divine perspective. On this definition, we would have a “canon” as soon as these books were written.
Ironically, then, perhaps the debate over canon is best addressed not by choosing one definition, but by allowing for the legitimacy of multiple definitions that interface with one another. If canon is a multi-dimensional phenomenon, then perhaps it is best defined in a multi-dimensional fashion.
Over the next month or so I plan to write a new blog series on 10 common misconceptions (or misunderstandings) about the origins and development of the NT Canon. These are misconceptions that are not only held by the average layman, but are often shared by those in the academic community as well.
It is always difficult to know how such misunderstandings develop and are promulgated. Sometimes they are just ideas that are repeated so often that no one bothers (anymore) to see if they have merit. In other cases, these ideas have been promoted through popular presentations of the canon’s origins (e.g., The Da Vinci Code). And in other cases, scholars have made sustained arguments for some of these positions (though, in my opinion, those arguments are not, in the end, convincing). Either way, it is time for these issues to be dusted off and reconsidered.
Given that this is a blog, and not an academic monograph, my posts on these issues will not be overly technical. Nor will they be overly lengthy. Nonetheless, I hope these posts will serve to reinvigorate a much-needed discussion over these matters.
Here are the 10 misconceptions:
- The Term “Canon” Can Only Refer to a Fixed, Closed List of Books
- Nothing in Early Christianity Dictated That There Would be a Canon
- The New Testament Authors Did Not Think They Were Writing Scripture
- New Testament Books Were Not Regarded as Scriptural Until Around 200 A.D.
- Early Christians Disagreed Widely over the Books Which Made It into the Canon
- In the Early Stages, Apocryphal Books Were as Popular as the Canonical Books
- Christians Had No Basis to Distinguish Heresy from Orthodoxy Until the Fourth Century
- Early Christianity was an Oral Religion and Therefore Would Have Resisted Writing Things Down
- The Canonical Gospels Were Certainly Not Written by the Individuals Named in Their Titles
- Athanasius’ Festal Letter (367 A.D.) is the First Complete List of New Testament Books
Of course, this list is not exhaustive. Nor are these necessarily the MOST common misconceptions. Thus, I welcome more suggestions!
One of the most-oft repeated ideas about the earliest Christians is that they believed that the Kingdom of God would come (apocalyptically) within their own lifetime. In fact Schweitzer famously argued that Jesus himself thought the world would end in his own lifetime; of course the world didn’t end and Jesus died disillusioned on the cross saying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).
In recent years, some have suggested that this belief in early Christianity would even have affected the development of the canon. If Christians thought the world would end in their own lifetime, then, it is argued, they would not have been interested in composing new scriptural books. Thus, the idea of a canon must be a later ecclesiastical development.
But, this argument simply doesn’t hold. First, it is by no means evident that early Christians believed Jesus would necessarily return in their own lifetime. Schweitzer’s views have been largely rejected–and rightly so. But, let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that Christians did have this apocalyptic mentality. Does that mean they would have resisted the composition of new books, focusing instead on only oral methods of delivery?
There appears to be little reason to think so. Ironically, Paul is put forth as one who believed that Jesus would return in his own lifetime (as supposedly indicated by texts like 1 Thess 4:15-17), but yet we only know about this belief because Paul wrote it down in a letter! And Paul viewed this letter, as all his letters, as authoritative (2:13) and to be read publicly to the church (5:27).
Such a scenario indicates that apocalyptic beliefs are not necessarily incompatible with the production of written, authoritative texts. Moreover, we have examples of apocalyptic communities that were prolific producers of literature, namely the Qumran group at the Dead Sea (see main photo above). On the basis of Qumran, David Meade argues that apocalypticism in the early Christian communities, far from preventing literary activity, actually “provides the ideological basis for the extension of Scripture” (“Ancient Near Eastern Apocalypticism,” 308).
Gerd Theissen sums it up well, “The thesis about the imminent expectation of the end as a factor impeding literary creation is false. Jewish apocalyptic writing is full of imminent expectations and yet attests to a flourishing literary production” (The New Testament, 10).