History of the Bible, I: Toward Canonization

The Christian is fortunate to have the Word of God at his disposal. He is able to read the texts written by men of old inspired by God Himself. How did we get this text? Where did it come from? How can we be sure of its reliability?

The Biblical text was written over time between 1400 BC and 100 CE. The Old Testament was finally compiled just after the time of Christ, and we know of its reliability due to the proof of the events contained therein. Let us focus on the New Testament, written between 40 and 100 CE.

Immediately after the death of the Apostles, Christianity was still a “preaching” religion, one based more on oral preaching than on written text. Many so-called “church fathers” wrote texts, and we can see the influence of the books of the New Testament on these texts (a fuller description is available here). However, for two generations of Christians, the Word was mostly spoken. After all, these men had either heard the Apostles themselves or heard someone who had. Furthermore, with the low literacy rates and the expensive nature of writing materials, the spoken word was made much easier than the transmission of the written Word.

This oral tradition served its purpose in those two generations; however, by the end of the second century CE, the need for the text of the New Testament became very obvious. Multiple heresies had arisen, and many of them claimed authority from certain texts. The Gnostics, for example, wrote multiple texts espousing their doctrines of the “spirit” Christ, having no physical form. On what basis would the early Christians refute the Gnostics if they had no text to work with?

Furthermore, certain groups of Christians had broken off and established a form of the New Testament for themselves. The most notable group came from one Marcion, who had a very anti-Semite attitude. In his version of the New Testament, only Luke’s Gospel, the book of Acts, and some Pauline letters were included: he would have nothing to do with the works of Jews, having removed the Old Testament and any place where a Christian author would show any favor to Jews. In this atmosphere of textual tampering and heresy, Christians needed to establish which texts were inspired and should be used to refute such error. Thus, the New Testament came to be, with only a few changes in the list made in the next one hundred and fifty years.

By 200 CE, 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:

  1. Authorship. Who wrote these works? Were they inspired?
  2. Apostleship. Do the authors attest to the works of the Apostles? Are they Apostles themselves?
  3. Timing. Were they written during the time of the Apostles?
  4. Authority. Were they authoritative? Did they produce a message which would further exemplify the Gospel?

These questions were wrestled with from 200-400 CE.

These questions began to be answered with more uniformity by the fifth century CE. 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 CE) and attributed to the Christians of the second century CE. 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 time-frame, 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 CE, effectively “closing” the Canon of Scripture.

As we have seen, the canonization of the New Testament did not just occur in the fourth century CE, 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 CE, 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 CE.


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