Previously we examined the history of the Biblical text to 200 AD, focusing on the New Testament. We saw that while the text existed, and was used by many of the more scholarly Christians, the lack of general literacy and the paucity of writing materials along with the second or third-hand witnesses to the Apostles led to a more oral-based Christianity, where preaching was key. The arrival of many heresies, however, demonstrated the need for a closed listing of what was to be considered Scripture, so that heresies may be refuted. The story continues today, and the determination of this listing is its focus.
By 200 AD, there was generally unanimous understanding of what the New Testament would be. Only a very few dared to question the authority and authorship of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1/2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1/2 Thessalonians, 1/2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, James, 1 Peter, and 1 John. The rest of the works which we consider to be in the New Testament, Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2/3 John, and Revelation, along with other works which were later denied, including 1/2 Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, and others.
These works were considered on the basis of a few guidelines:
- Authorship. Who wrote these works? Were they inspired?
- Apostleship. Do the authors attest to the works of the Apostles? Are they Apostles themselves?
- Timing. Were they written during the time of the Apostles?
- Authority. Were they authoritative? Did they produce a message which would further exemplify the Gospel?
These questions were wrestled with from 200-400 AD.
These questions began to be answered with more uniformity by the fifth century AD. By this time, 1/2 Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, and many others were rejected because they did not meet most of the criteria for canonization. They were not written by Apostles, only one of the works could be directly attributed to someone who was with the Apostles (1 Clement), and most all of them seemed to have been written later (around the third century AD) and attributed to the Christians of the second century AD. Finally, they also were not written during the time of the Apostles; thus, these works were not considered for canonization.
This leaves the rest of the New Testament books, Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2/3 John, and Revelation. Some questioned the authorship of 2 Peter and 2/3 John; these naysayers were silenced, and due to their authoritative nature and their Apostolic authorship and timeframe, they were accepted into the Canon of the New Testament. The lack of a clear author of the book of Hebrews prevented the Western part of the Catholic church from accepting the book as inspired; however, while the author is not specifically known, the work makes it obvious that he is part of Paul’s entourage, and the superior language and message of the work propelled it into the Canon. Revelation was challenged by the Eastern part of the Catholic church not under any doubt of its authorship or authority, but the way it was being abused by heretics of the day (Montanism, among others). This objection, however, was not sufficient for removing it from the canon.
In 367, Athanasius, “Bishop” of Alexandria, sent out a Festal letter to the Catholic churches of the west and east, and within its pages set out the books of the New Testament, correlating with our own today. This same list was “ratified” by a Catholic church council meeting in Carthage in 397 AD, effectively “closing” the Canon of Scripture.
As we have seen, the canonization of the New Testament did not just occur in the fourth century AD, but was a gradual process with only a few works ever questioned. With Eusebius of Caesarea’s commission to create seven complete Bibles for the Emperor Constantine in the 360s AD, we begin a new chapter of our examination of the history of the Bible: the faithful transmission of the New Testament text from the time of the Apostles to the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century AD.
Ethan R. Longhenry