New Testament Canon

The need for a canon was realized when various religious sects (Gnostics, Marcionites, and Montanists) distorted and fabricated religious ideas pertaining to Jesus and the Hebrew Bible. Some heresies that influenced the development of a canon were: Marcion and the Marcionite canon, Gnostics and their document the Nag Hammadi, Montanus and the two prophetesses. An origin of authority could be used as a guide and applied externally to heretics and internally within Christianity. Eventually, the worthiness of certain books emerged from a process. The developmental process partially rested on historical and theological tradition from early accounts—the apostles. The development of the New Testament canon was not merely the nature of dogmatic assertion; it was a gradual process that eventually disclosed the worthiness of certain books based on orthodoxy, apostolicity, and consensus among the churches.[1]

The developmental process involved choosing and excluding certain books. For example, the Nag Hammadi document which includes authors claiming to be apostles were not included in the canon because they were deemed unworthy for various reasons: not adhering to orthodoxy, not having characteristics of apostolicity, or they created other problems—late dates compared to the Gospels in the Christian canon, that is, the list of books the church fathers had in their possession but not yet approved. The Gnostics used their document to support their semblance of a Christian religion. They also claimed to have secret teachings passed down from the apostles. The Church fathers developed their canon to rebuke the heretic’s version. They refused to allow Scripture to be interpreted in a random fashion; it was crucial for Scripture to be interpreted within the context of orthodoxy and historical continuity of the Christian church.[2] Thus, revealing an important interrelation between the approval of books and the developmental process.

Among the list of unapproved books, the church fathers possessed, Didymus provides basically the same list of books as Athanasius. This suggested a criterion for consensus among the churches. Marcion—who was not considered fully Gnostic, developed a canon but it was selective and based on Gnostic influences.[3] The church fathers responded to heresy with their list of unapproved books, that would eventually become the New Testament canon. They gradually came to an agreement of specific books found to be worthy of the canon based on orthodoxy, apostolicity, and consensus.

Apostolicity and Orthodoxy:

Eventually, the churches most likely would have officially confirmed a list of canonical Christian writings on their own.[4] Bruce Metzger, former professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, has written extensively on the influences and development of the New Testament canon. Metzger’s work is still considered among the most influential in New Testament scholarship. Metzger used the texts from the Nag Hammadi, discovered in 1945, in Egypt, along with the knowledge of Gnosticism derived from patristic writers to extract the Gnostic religious belief system. It turns out, the documents from the Nag Hammadi verified what the church fathers had expressed in their writings regarding the Gnostic’s view. These discoveries present a detailed account of the problems the orthodox churches faced.[5]

The Gnostics rejected the Old Testament. Furthermore, they produced texts which they claimed were the apostle’s report of a secret communication from the Lord exclusively for them along with alleged oral traditions passed down from the apostles to them. The Church contested Gnostic views by pointing out nothing in their claims can be found in the four Gospels. The Gnostics responded by directing them back to their source—secret traditions. The critical issue for the Church was to determine what constituted as true gospel and legitimate apostolic writing. The church fathers initiated a process of extreme caution; not to accept anything unless it revealed genuine apostolic characteristics. Their decision restricted the Gnostics from exploiting claims of secret traditions. This decision also impacted the orthodox churches’ oral tradition which they sometimes preferred to books. However, to prevent the Gnostics from distorting Scripture the Church insisted on the rule of faith for biblical interpretation.[6]

The books found in the Nag Hammadi documents failed to specifically match the criteria set by the church fathers. The Gospel of Thomas is one example. Unlike the four Gospels, the Gospel of Thomas is not a narrative, it is a collection of the sayings of Jesus.[7] The strongest rebuke of Gnosticism was prevalent in Irenaeus’s writings who may have assisted in establishing the acceptance of orthodoxy regarding the four Gospels. Irenaeus was familiar with a wide range of early Christian literature.[8] He appealed to symbolism found in creation, evident in his writings. Irenaeus insisted that there are only four Gospels just as there are four winds, and four corners of the universe, no more, no fewer.[9] This was not the only reason to reject the Gospel of Thomas. For example, orthodoxy pertaining to apostolicity was solidified by Clement of Rome. Clement held that the apostles were made evangelists by Jesus Christ; Jesus was sent by God. In short, Christ is from God and the apostles are from Christ, and they are the foundation of the Church.[10] There are a few scholars that contest the dating of the Gospel of Thomas, but most agree it was compiled about A.D. 140.[11] Thus, the primary reason to reject the Gospel of Thomas was that it failed to present authentic apostolic characteristics (the late date indicates it was a forgery). Metzger points out other issues with the false gospel. The examples used by Metzger revealed that although the Gospel of Thomas had passages that parallel the Church’s gospel, it contained a severe Gnostic twist to the canonical sayings of Jesus.[12] Below is an example provided by Metzger from a passage in the Gospel of Thomas:

“Simon Peter said to them: Let Mary go away from us, because women are not worthy of life. Jesus said: Lo, I shall lead her in order to make her a male, so that she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself a male will enter into the kingdom of Heaven.”[13]

It was not easy for the Church to defend against Gnosticism; to compound the problem a wealthy Christian ship-owner named Marcion had adapted some of the Gnostic’s views. 

Marcion was a respected member of one of the churches in Rome. He was known to have contributed large financial sums to the church. In A.D. 144, Marcion appeared before the clergy in Rome to present his teachings in hopes of winning over others to his point of view. Since none of Marcion’s original work on his ideas have survived, that is, what he called Antitheses, Metzger extracted contents found in Tertullian’s writings against Marcion which consisted of five volumes. Marcion’s primary ideas included the rejection of the entire Old Testament, two gods—one of the Old Testament and one of the New Testament, an edited version of Paul’s Epistles, and a selective Gospel of Luke. Paul was viewed as the only apostle to understand the significance of Jesus Christ’s role in Maricon’s Gnostic religious ideas. Thus, after editing any references to the Old Testament, he accepted Paul’s writings as authoritative. Marcion rejected nearly all of the Gospels that the orthodox church had in their possession. Luke was the only Gospel that Marcion trusted because he was Paul’s disciple; after some editing and omitting most of the first four chapters, (for the sake of conforming to Marcion’s ideas) the Gospel of Luke was included in Marcion’s canon. The presbyters were stunned to hear Marcion’s radical views. The assembly ended with the excommunication of Marcion and his money was returned.[14]

Gnosticism and the Marcion controversy demonstrate two things. 1. It revealed that Marcion developed his canon out of a more comprehensive lists of books that the Church already had in their possession. 2. The authority of apostolic writings was placed alongside the Gospel writings—this was seen through the contestation of Gnosticism by the Church pointing out Gnostic ideas are not found in any of the four Gospels. Thus, these heresies were not directly responsible for the New Testament canon, which have led some to mistakenly believe the development of the canon was merely a counterweight to the heresies of the day. The heresies were indirectly responsible because they accelerated the process of developing a formal canon forcing the church to state more clearly what they already believed. It also disclosed a criterion for the canon’s development, apostolicity and orthodoxy.  Orthodoxy and apostolicity came into focus through the Churches’ charge that Gnosticism ideas are absence in the Scriptures. Although Marcion developed Scripture based ideas from apostolicity, borrowed from the Christian Church’s list of books, it was proven to be severely lacking and distorted because of selective passages and major edits.[15]

Consensus:

Another influential movement that re-enforced the Church Fathers’ position for the need of a canon of the New Testament was Montanism. Originating in Asia Minor, it spread through the whole Church—East and West. Montanism claimed to be a religion of the Holy Spirit. Montanus was the religions founder; after his conversion he fell into a trance and began to speak in tongues. He claimed to be inspired by a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit. He used the Gospel of John as a reference for his claim. Two married women, Prisca and Maximilla, left their husbands to join with Montanus and spread his message. The essence of the New Prophecy was that the Heavenly Jerusalem would soon descend upon earth to the Phrygian town the three founders had settled in; here they uttered prophecies while conducting eccentric ceremonies. Didymus, the monk appointed by Athanasius as head of the Alexandrian catechetical school reported some of the sayings of Montanus. These reports revealed that Montanus believed (or claimed) it was God who was speaking through him. Other reports disclosed that his two companions also believed they were an instrument that God used to speak through. The common theme was apocalyptic in nature—they were the final prophecy before the end.[16]

Initially, the Church was confused as to how the movement should be handled. Montanus’ preaching did not appear to be the work of the Spirit. A decision was made by bishops in Asia Minor that the new prophesy was the work of demons and should be cut off from the fellowship of the Church. However, it was not a unanimous decision. The Church experienced decades of uncertainty before a consensus emerged among them. Eventually, the bishop of Rome, Carthage, and the remaining African bishops, declared the Montanists a heretical sect. The Montanist movement created a mistrust of prophetical and apocalyptic literature among the Church; leading to the discredit of several apocalypse that were in the possession of various churches. More importantly, the foundation of the Montanist movement, which insisted there was a continuous and ongoing inspiration of prophesy, initiated the first steps toward a closed canon by the Church.[17]

Earlier Didymus was mentioned. He was used as a source that reported the sayings of Montanus to disclose the characteristics of the Montanist religion. Didymus was an important figure who can also be used to disclose a consensus among the churches pertaining to the list of books they possessed. Bart Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Ehrman argues not enough attention has been given to the status of the canon in Alexandria during the fourth century. Ehrman used Athanasius’s thirty-ninth Paschal letter to disclose the list of twenty-seven books Athanasius listed as canonical that would become universally accepted by the Church. Ehrman then turns to the writings of Didymus which reveal the methods he used to independently produce a list of books he considered canonical. Didymus viewed the canon as a collection of books which had been divinely inspired. Further, the divine authorship of these books is what produces unity among them. Therefore, the canon must not be a diverse collection of books that create tension, but a unified collection that reveal the teachings of God. This was part of the process Didymus used to discern which books should be included in the New Testament canon. Ehrman emphasized that not every piece of literature that Didymus quoted from functioned as a verifiable interpretation of Scripture, only canonical books were used for this purpose. Didymus did use non-canonical literature. For example, historical accounts written by the Jewish historian Josephus were used by Didymus. Josephus recorded the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem and noticed it was the fulfillment of prophecy. Although, true in the historical sense there was nothing inspirational or authoritative that Didymus considered canonical. Unlike other books, inspired books could be used to verify or support the passages of other inspired books—self authenticating.[18] Didymus accepted most of the twenty-seven books Athanasius listed as canonical. This indicates a consensus derived independent from each source. However, there were a few additional books Didymus viewed as inspired and authoritative which were not part of the twenty-seven books Athanasius listed in his letter. The non-canonical books Didymus occasionally quoted from was in passing. Ehrman argues that Didymus referenced other non-canonical books “because they independently concur with a theological or exegetical insight, in which case they are correct but not authoritative, or because they have something of philosophical or historical interest to say.”[19] Note, the description of Didymus’s reference to non-canonical books is not to prove he was in complete agreement on a New Testament canon. Didymus did fully accept most of Athanasius’s list. Still, there were a few books not part of the twenty-seven which Didymus viewed as inspired and authoritative. The primary purpose for analyzing Didymus’s distinction between canonical and non-canonical is to show a separation in the process of assertation. This is because the determination process Didymus used resulted in a close consensus with Athanasius. Later, Rufinus, who studied under Didymus, produced a nearly exact list of canonical books as Athanasius’s list.[20] However, this consensus among the three did not confirm a canon for the Church. The confirmation process of twenty-seven books that make-up the current New Testament began at the Synod of Hippo Regius.

In 393, the synod of Hippo was the first to formally accept a canon of the books of the New Testament. The synod at Hippo made a decision on the canon based off the criterion presented above—orthodoxy, apostolicity, and consensus among the churches. The synod of Hippo decreed that: “Beyond the canonical scriptures nothing is to be read in church claiming to be divine scripture.”[21] They called on the bishop of Rome, Boniface, and other bishops to confirm the canon of books listed in the decreed. Although, the confirmation process began at the Synod of Hippo Regius in 393, it was not finalized until the Council of Cartage in 397.[22]

 Conclusion

There are no formal universally accepted criteria for admitting a book into the canon. A decisive criterion simply does not exist. The existing historiography pertaining to the development of a canon is fragmented and scattered.[23] However, the criterion extracted from the records shows an emerging pattern of consistency that was used by the church fathers. The lag in the developmental process was expedited by various heretical movements. The developmental process eventually disclosed the worthiness of certain books.

The rejection of the Old Testament by the Gnostics proved to be a mistake. The church fathers understood that surrendering the Jewish foundation provided by the Old Testament was self-defeating. Thus, they accepted the Jewish Scriptures along with their Christian Scriptures. This was a lesson Marcion failed to recognize when he developed his heavily edited version of a canon. The Montanist movement had a different effect than that of Marcion. The former made known the need to emphasize the final authority of apostolic writing, whereas the latter motivated the Church to state more clearly what they already believed through the development of the breadth of Christian literature they had in their possession. The first complete list of books that make-up the current New Testament canon were found in an Easter letter written in 367 by Athanasius. The same list was published by the councils in North Africa at Hippo in 393, and finalized at Carthage in 397.[24] 

Much could be said theologically regarding the role inspiration played in the New Testament’s development. However, from a historical perspective the evidence shows that the Christian Church created the canon, but it was not a matter of dogmatic assertion. The canon was a recognition of the writings that made their authority known based on the reoccurring theme seen throughout the period—orthodoxy, apostolicity, and consensus among the churches. If the books in question contained two of these characteristics—orthodoxy and apostolicity and the churches agreed they did, they were recognized as canonical. 


[1]  Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 251-254.

[2] Alister E. McGrath, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought, 2nd ed.(Oxford, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2013), 37-38.

[3] Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and

Significance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 98.

[4] Bruce L. Shelley, Church History: In Plain Language, rev. ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 69.

[5] Ibid., 76.

[6] Ibid., 77-78.

[7] Marvin W. Meyer, The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The Revised and Updated Translation of Sacred Gnostic Texts, Intern. ed. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009), 8.

[8] Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers in English, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic,

2006), 93.

[9] Marvin W. Meyer, The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The Revised and Updated Translation of

Sacred Gnostic Texts, Intern. ed. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009), 7.

[10] Bruce L. Shelley, Church History: In Plain Language, rev. ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 69.

[11] Metzger, The Canon, 86.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 90-93.

[15] Ibid., 99.

[16] Ibid., 101.

[17] Ibid., 106.

[18] Bart D. Ehrman, “The New Testament Canon of Didymus the Blind,” Vigiliae Christianae 37, no.1 (1983): 1-6,

https://www.jstor.org/stable/1583151.

[19] Ibid., 6.

[20] Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and

Significance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 233-234.

[21] Kilian McDonnell, “Canon and Koinonia/communion: The Formation of the Canon as an Ecclesiological Process,” Gregorianum 79, no. 1 (1998): 45. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23580300.

[22] Ibid., 46, 48.

[23] Kilian McDonnell, “Canon and Koinonia/communion: The Formation of the Canon as an Ecclesiological Process,” Gregorianum 79, no. 1 (1998): 51. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23580300.

[24] Bruce L. Shelley, Church History: In Plain Language, rev. ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 74.

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