by Dr. Richard F. Wilson, February 2014
The New Testament is a collection of 27 pieces of literature held sacred by Christians and regarded as a significant document in western culture that has influenced the shape of art, music, literature, politics, society, commerce, and more. The process that culminated in the collection of these pieces of literature in the order now found in the majority of the English-speaking world spans nearly 400 years. The annotated timeline below is not exhaustive, but it does indicate the major dates or periods that prompted the ecclesiastical consensus to accept these 27 pieces of literature as “canon.”
The word “canon” has a semitic origin meaning “reed” (as in a woody plant growing wetlands). The word came to mean “authority” or “rule” when means of measurement, such as the span or the cubit, were transferred from a physical human authority or rule (e.g., a king) were marked on a reed or a stick.
In the centuries before standardized weights and measures, the handspan (or span) of a ruler would be marked on a reed or stick as an authoritative guide for builders and craftsmen. Likewise, the length of a ruler’s arm from elbow to the end of the middle finger was marked on a stick as a “cubit” (Latin for “elbow”).
Common standard measures in our day echo the curious history of how a human authority became the source of an inanimate object—like a ruler or a yardstick—used in many kinds of building and craftwork.
It was inevitable that “canon” also would become a way to refer to authoritative collections of literature in areas of religion, literature, music, and law, among other areas.
What follows is a “back-to-front” summary of the process by which the New Testament came to be recognized.
Held in the North African city of Carthage, this synod is the first documented affirmation of the “New Testament” catalogued as the 27 books—in the same order—as found in the commonly-used Christian Bible in the English-speaking world.
Athanasius was the bishop of Alexandria who came to prominence at the Council of Nicæa in 325 in a dispute over Arianism, declared by the council to be a heretical. Forty-two years later Athanasius still exerted significant authority over the Church. He had developed the custom or writing a circular letter each Easter. In 367 the main topic of the letter was the content of Christian scripture, Old and New Testaments. The letter is the first extant evidence of a New Testament with 27 pieces of literature, but the bishop’s letter had a different arrangement from the current New Testament in the English-speaking world. Also of note is his attribution of the Epistle to the Hebrews as a work of Paul, which the Church later rejected as such, including Hebrews among the loosely-identified Catholic Letters.
Eusebius is widely regarded as “the father of church history” because of his work for Emperor Constantine, cataloguing the early church, including making extensive comments about what literatures were being used (or not used) throughout the empire. In the third book (click and scroll down to 3.25.1-5) of his work, Eusebius made four lists: accepted works, disputed works, rejected works, and heretical works. In the first list he included 22 of the pieces of literature now found in the New Testament. The second list included 5 works (James, Jude, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John); there were, according to Eusebius, because of suspicions about their apostolic authority. The third list included The Revelation (and it was on the first list, too!) The final list did not contain any works now regarded as part of the New Testament.
Equally important is Eusebius’s analysis of why some works were embraced and others not. He developed three criteria (click and scroll down to 3.25.6) that seemed to come into play for accepting pieces of literature: (1) apostolicity—did the literature come from the pen or witness of an apostle?; (2) orthodoxy—did the content of the literature conform to the emerging traditions of the church and, therefore, did it cohere with accepted understandings?; (3) endurance or utility—had the piece of literature been broadly used among the churches over time (see 3.25.6).
As the early church was adjusting to the passing of the apostles and the Church Fathers, so-called, the mid-to-late second century was a hotbed for a wide array of heterodox groups. Ireneaus and his contemporaries took up the tasks of refuting the groups and their leaders. In addition to taking on a variety of Gnostic sects, the bishop specifically addressed what he considered to be an inadequate use of Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses; many such texts are extant and make up an intriguing collection of non-canonical literatures that are of interest to many.
In response to the heretical groups—Ireneaus singled out Marcion and the Ebionites—the bishop crafted an argument for four and only four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (click and scroll down to 3.11.8)
c. 140 Marcion, Bishop of Pontus
Marcion is widely regarded as the first professed Christian to propose a canon. It was his attempt that set in motion the long process in the church that ended with the New Testament we have today.
This fragment, apparently originally written in Greek, was discovered as a Latin document in the 18th century in an 8th century library. The document is incomplete and lacks any solid attestation prior to its discovery. While the fragment is interesting to scholars, it sheds little light on the process of canonization. It contains twenty-two works now in the New Testament, but is also includes works that the church later abandoned as authoritative.