Summary of the Problem of the Biblical Canon
There are many disparate worldviews in the separate denominations of Christianity. When one reads the Bible, they bring presuppositions and different interpretations of Scripture. James Sanders offers that “different faith communities bring different understandings to the biblical text.” The result is a large variety of denominations that practice hermeneutics according to these presuppositions. Cultural traditions impact the decision to accept books as canon and the narrative particular to those traditions. Initially, the term canon was used by Paul to refer to a standard of Christian behavior (Gal. 6:16). Only later did the term refer to a collection of writings.
To appreciate the Bible, we must examine the history and canonical process of how the books of the Bible came to be accepted by their approving councils. In learning about the canon of Scripture, we gain insight into the methodology of how the New and Old Testaments reflect the unity of God’s message.
By understanding that the Bible contains the authority of God, we can better apply theological thought and observation when considering the 66 books in their proper context. The canon that the Holy Spirit has inspired guides us to use our reason and minds, thus fulfilling the instructions to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37 ESV).
The Solution to the Problem – Focusing on Agreements in Established Canon
Initially, the main criteria for inclusion in the biblical canon are the apostles’ authority. However, some heretical writings played a role due to the rise of their respective movements in history. If a canonical book was written or dictated by a direct eyewitness of Jesus’ life, it is canonical according to the definition of church councils. The authority of the resource is only one of the qualifiers for inclusion in the biblical canon. Different criteria and sometimes conflicting results were utilized in the formation of the Old and New Testaments as currently seen in the sixty-six books of the Bible.
In addition to apostolic authority, the unity of the Bible is a crucial criterion of the canon. Canon is a theory of religion combined with the “psychological consciousness of grace” that is the reality of Christ. It’s critical to distinguish that not all Scripture is canon. Books become canon where they are analyzed and confirmed as inspired. Only then are they accepted as authentic Christological references. The interpretive unity is central to Jesus’ appearance in human history and the proper interpretation of what he gave to the world. This unity does not preclude diversity. Many different expressions of faith represent the myriad differences in disparate congregations.
The establishment of the biblical canon resulted from consistent criteria in apostolic inclusion and a continuing process. McDonald and Sanders also note that “The Christian movement, contrary to popular opinion, was not a religion of the book from the beginning. It was, in fact, a movement of the spirit.”
The establishment of the biblical canon resulted from consistent criteria in apostolic inclusion and the evaluation of inspiration in the books.
Analysis of the Ecumenical Process of Establishing Biblical Canon
There was no unilateral or universally agreed-upon process in establishing biblical canon—no one council government. Instead, the canonicity of texts finds its realization in their common usage and authority. Individual churches held their collections of scrolls in no specific order, thus establishing their local canon. Early Christian churches were unorganized, lacking a central authoritative rule, so different books differed in various churches. The main difference for early Christians was in the Old Testament canon: “The protestant Old Testament includes fewer books than the Old Testament canons of other Christian groups.“
The Apocrypha is a group of books that are still Catholic Bibles. These books represent extant writings from the Old Testament, which mainly address the future of Israel and Messianic hope. Protestant Bibles have excluded the Apocrypha. The New Testament Apocrypha was different from the Old Testament Apocrypha. The NT Apocrypha contain writings that the early Christian churches universally rejected due to their authorship or viewpoint.
It is essential to distinguish the nature of authority between the church and the canon. The church is not the determiner of the doctrine but the discoverer. The church comes from the doctrine and should never assume an authoritative or absolute role or rule over the canon. The proper context is for the church to be the witness and servant to God’s inspired Word.
Additional criteria for inclusion in canon other than the acceptance of apostolicity are:
- Is the book written by a spokesperson for God confirmed by an act of God?
- Did the book tell the truth in the power of God?
- Did the people of God accept the book as genuine?
- Is the book divinely inspired?
- Is the book factual and consistent with established Scripture?
In the case of known books written by apostles, there was immediate acceptance by the church’s people.
The acceptance by the congregation and the referencing of biblical passages as Scripture is an additional factor for the inclusion of canonical books. Paul refers to the book of Luke as Scripture in 1 Tim. 5:18. Paul’s letters are referenced as Scripture by the apostle Peter in 2 Pet. 3:16. In AD 125, Polycarp quotes Ephesians two times and refers to it as part of the Sacred Scripture. The focus on the criterion of acceptance also appears in 1 Thess. 2:13, in “We also constantly thank God that when you received from us the word of God’s message, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God.”
Acceptance by the congregation and apostolicity were not the only factors deciding what the early church would include as canonical. Churches receive preference that was in large urban and cultural centers. The Churches of Rome, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Constantinople, and Antioch are among these.
Justin Martyr, in AD 150, refers to “memoirs of the apostles” in his book for Emperor Antoninus Pius. While Justin doesn’t mention the memoirs as Gospel, it does contain details of early Christian worship. In AD 180, Irenaeus refers to the “four-fold Gospel about the Synoptic Gospels. The acceptance and use of early worship documents lend credence to their establishment as canonical.
After the time of Justin, the influence of Emperor Constantine comes into focus and scrutiny by current scholars. Constantine directed Eusebius to produce 50 copies of Christian Scripture in 332 AD, but establishing the compiled words remained with Eusebius. Eusebius’ resulting list of books did not become influential on the future establishment of canon, and Constantine himself had only administrative influence, none in the contents.
In most cases, the local church was aware of the significance of the apostle’s writing, but this wasn’t true for all churches. In the case of Mark and Luke, there was immediate acceptance by the congregations that were aware of the respective author’s witness and reputation. There was reluctance to receive books whose authorship was in question in some cases, such as the Gospels, Hebrews, and Acts. The reluctance to establish books as canon was necessary to ensure proper scrutiny. Later in the formation of councils, Paul is acknowledged to be canon. As Geisler notes, “certain books hovered for a long time on the fringe of the canon.” The overall process in accepting and using canonical books would take centuries. Some key milestones in this process receive mention below.
There was a gradual process in what is defined as sacred books, with the first document of twenty-seven books of the current New Testament declared as canonical by Athanasius’s Easter letter in 367. Gregory of Nyssa in 390 AD and St. Jerome were additional church acknowledgments of canon in AD 394. In AD 395-400, Augustine recognized the acceptance of the twenty-seven modern books.
In early lists of manuscripts and even today, there is no proper order of New Testament books. These early lists first appeared in the 4-5th century, contained authoritative Christian literature that was allowed to be read in the church. As mentioned previously, Athanasius’s twenty-seven texts differ from the current order of books that Amphilocius of Iconium provided in 380. History has shown more than “284 different sequences of biblical books (Old and New Testament) in the Latin manuscripts.” There are more than twenty arrangements of Paul’s letters.
How this set of books found a conclusion in only twenty-seven books remains. And why and with what reason were these books placed next to the Hebrew Old Testament? Craig Allert offers those historians have cited three potential answers to this question:
1. The New Testament was a spontaneous occurrence.
2. The New Testament was formed in the second century.
3. The New Testament was formed in the fourth century.
Tradition has taken all these questions to be mutually exclusive. However, John Barton refers to this as a false problem, and the issue is one of perspective. Allert suggests that “according to Sunberg, “Scripture” should be conceived of as writings authoritative to religion. “Canon” are books that are authoritative concerning all other books.” The correct approach is consistent with Sanberg’s view; canonical books establish their inclusion by standing with Scripture and being divinely inspired.
The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha
The Pseudepigrapha contained extant writings by or about prominent Old Testament figures, but they are not in any Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, or Roman Catholic Old Testament canons. In either case, books that were not included were determined not to be written by a prophet of God. Only prophetic writings are kept as canonical. Pseudepigrapha is a term to refer to false papers of a noted historical figure. The Apocrypha lacked authenticity due to their inaccurate historical information and moral contradictions. For example, “the noncanonical books lacked power; they were devoid of the dynamic aspects found in inspired Scripture.”
Influencing the extant potentially noncanonical books was the hermeneutical methods that harmonized the Old Testament books relevant to Jewish Christian converts. The author Najman offers that since “the noncanonical texts are referred to as pseudepigraphic, the biblical texts are not given that label.” This observation is even though the biblical texts share the features of pseudepigraphal texts.
Najim also brings us the issue of Scripture being generative. If the biblical texts provide new life, can this new life assume authority over the parent? The result would be a threat to the power of older works. For this reason, figures like Athanasius petitioned for a closed canon. Athanasius’ attempt did not come to pass since his concern that offspring might threaten the scriptural authority did not override the vitality of Scripture. Scripture finds new ways of expressing itself.
Criteria – Historical Theological Sources for Standards in the Formation of the Canon
By following the apostles’ words and their first-hand eyewitness accounts with Christ, we can find a solution to which books should be under consideration for inclusion in the Holy Bible. Even the Old Testament has come under the judgment of Christ. Essential to this understanding is that without the Old Testament, Jesus is not the fulfillment of Scripture but merely the innovator. Including the Old Testament and New Testament is crucial for having Christ as the Savior. Without the Old Testament prophecies, can the Messiah be known by what criteria? The Old Testament is Christ, as is the entirety of the Bible. The story of God’s relationship with humanity.
There is no formal list of criteria in establishing the Old and New Testament canon. As covered so far, the acceptance of the apostle’s eyewitness accounts and direct quotations from the life of Jesus are considered canonical without hesitation. Books under questionable authorship included in the canon are taken as canon using their respective church congregations.
Early congregations saw a mixture of Jewish and Gentile converts, but the New Testament sacred books distinguished themselves by ignoring a large portion of Jewish law as the centuries progressed. Old Testament legal concerns were modified allegorically to harmonize with Jesus’ teachings. The interpretation of the law’s meaning changed with Christ fulfilling the law. The increasingly Gentile church congregations, along with Justin and others, accepted the new covenant definition of the law.
Through the second century, the oral tradition of the “living witness” of Jesus was also given through the apostles, then prophets, and teachers. This was mainly due to Jesus having never written down his words and the sometimes covert operations of the early persecuted church. Indeed, “(the) idea of a Christian faith governed by Christian written holy Scriptures was not an essential part of the foundation plan of Christianity; instead, there was an oral tradition and memorization of Christ’s words at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.” We must also consider that the Old Testament was the only existing authoritative text of Christians since they reflect the converted Jewish community’s traditions.
A critical fact to consider establishing the canon of the New Testament is the historical acceptance of apostolicity. Apostolicity has always been a crucial factor in past rulings of doctrine, but should we still consider this a legitimate criterion? The answer in modern interpretations is no since divine inspiration and relevance to Scripture have been prioritized. But this demonstrates that the church does consider its effect on congregations when establishing canon. Evaluating the impact on congregations can partially account for different denominations, including apocryphal books. Currently, books in the Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate but not in the Hebrew Bible are apocryphal according to the polemics of each denomination.
Inspired status was not only claimed by the book of Revelation as in Rev. 22:18-19. We also see a claim for inspiration in John 20:30-31 and Paul in 1 Cor. 7:40. In the fourth century, the first distribution of a single volume of the Bible was possible. The printing of books acted as a powerful catalyst for the distribution of the Bible in a single volume.
Analysis of the History of Canonical Books
In the history of the New Testament canon, In AD 350, Cyril of Jerusalem acknowledged twenty-seven books, but they are not the same group as we have now. Cyril was the only one to recognize the Gospel of Thomas as canonical while also not acknowledging the book of Revelation. The Gospels and the Pauline letters found acceptance as closed collections even in the early church. The first set of closed lists of books is to have started with Eusebius soon after these lists appeared in the East and West.
It was also critical to document the policy of the growing church as it expanded into new territories, necessitating the recording of the early Christian tenets. An example of this policy is in the Pauline letters. Even Paul could not personally visit all the saints in all the churches. Old Testament evidence for an established canon is found as far back as Sirach. Regarding the testimony of Jesus Ben Sirach from 200-180 BCE in Jerusalem.
The Negative Responses in the Reception of the Canon
Eusebius questioned certain books such as James, Jude, 2 Peter, and 2,3 John as to their authorship. Even today, many of the early texts find scrutiny on their canonical status where questions of writing style exist. One standard theory is scribes or assistants’ use in dictation and literary liberties with the specific words used. The Carthage Synod of AD 397 accepted only twenty-six books, also doubting John’s authoring of Revelation. When the Synod met again in AD 419, they reconsidered and included Revelation.
There is further evidence of the ongoing process and careful evaluation of the canonical books. By default, the exclusion of new books was the default policy until they could be determined to be authentic and authoritative. There was doubt that the book of Hebrews was Pauline, with many early church fathers accepting the fact while the African Canon rejected Hebrews.
The book of Thomas stands unique in the history of the canon. While accepted by some early scholars, the book of Thomas is primarily Gnostic. Gnosticism is a heresy in which all of God’s physical creation is regarded as evil. The book of Thomas does not presuppose the Hebrew scriptures or the Gospels. In addition, the book appears in the second century, too long after the Gospels, and without an apostolic witness. The book of Thomas does not meet any of the criteria for inclusion in the canon.
Despite the efforts of early councils to agree on a biblical canon, the acceptance of their churches on their authority lagged or was not known. The lack of acceptance regarding council decisions is due to the early church’s lack of doctrine and boundary definitions.
The Apocrypha’s Relationship to the Bible
There were many more books in antiquity than are included in our modern bibles. The Apocrypha was a large corpus of works whose contents were determined by the books a local congregation possessed. McDonald offers that the study of apocryphal and pseudepigraphal texts can offer insights into the faith and practices of the early church. Careful research and consideration can reveal unique insights into the teachings of Christ. While these books remain noncanonical, they still can be a valuable resource.
The Historical Context of the Extant Biblical Books
The book of Revelation stands out as one whose canonicity received doubt. Initially, church leaders doubted the authorship of John. Revelation remains distinct as being the only book that claims itself as a revelation from God. Even the Gospels did not contain a self-reference for their recognition as divinely inspired.
Popularity and acceptance of a canonical or noncanonical book did not mean distinction as having divine authority. Authority remains a necessary criterion for canon acceptance. The early Christian church adopted the concept of sacred Scripture from the Judaism example. It would not be until the 4th century AD that the Nicene Church closed the New Testament canon.
Old and New Testament Apocryphal Books
The term apocryphal primarily applies to the Old Testament extant documents not included in the modern protestant Bible. Roman Catholic Bibles retain some books from the Old Testament Apocrypha, which early councils approved. The use of any apocryphal books that a New Testament writer refers to did not immediately make them canon. Apocryphal books received quotations and references, but that did not indicate sacred texts.
The Old Testament books received recommendations for their reading from early church fathers such as Cyril, Nazianzus, and Epiphanius and are included in their respective canon lists. These early church fathers followed the tradition of listing the number of Old Testament books to equal the letters in the Hebrew language.
In the end, the Apocryphal books remain in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Bibles due to the decisions of the Council of Trent in 1546. The Apocrypha remain a valuable resource for Historical Theology in studying the lives of lesser-known biblical characters.
The closure of the Jewish canon is primarily associated with Jamnia in the year 90. The closure of the Jewish canon did not affect the early Christians from adopting the complementary to Christianity aspects only as canonical for inclusion in Christian bibles. Since our modern Bible combines unity and diversity, various inclusions of disparate books remain different in Orthodox and Protestant Bibles.
Conclusion (The Canon of Scripture)
Whether in the Old or New Testaments, the process of establishing the canon was never one method or set of reasoning or fixed process. Many factors over the prevailing centuries determined the outcome for inclusion in the modern Protestant Bible. The first century saw the closure of the Jewish canon, while the New Testament until the mid-4th century AD by the Nicene Church. The Ante-Nicene Church has previously settled doctrine in AD 100-325 but was amended in a subsequent meeting. Athanasius’s Easter letter is when we receive the current twenty-seven books of the New Testament in 367 AD. The process was slow to accept and distribute newly printed bibles and wouldn’t be complete until 150 years later.
Today the issue of canonicity is discussed mainly in the historical context. Translations are the exception. In the criticism of contemporary translations, the issue of authentic authority is challenged in many forms of the modern protestant Bible.
See also: Simulation and Simulacra
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