GENERALIZATION:  One task facing the early church was to decide what writings would and would not be accepted as authoritative scripture, "canonical." Many have argued that they made a mistake or two in their decisions, but, for the most part, it would be hard to improve on their choices.  Comment.


I.  Introduction

The Bible is the most revered book in the world, with good reason.  The book is so respected as to become *the* book.  "Biblos" is just the Greek word for book, and, just as, for Northern Californians, San Francisco is The City  and for Aquinas Aristotle is The Philosopher, for many, many people, the Bible is *the* book, the one that really counts.

We are so used to thinking of the Bible as *the* book, that it is hard to realize that it wan't originally one book, but many different books, books of different types and purposes.  HOw was it that these particular books came eogether into one book?  Why were other books excluded?  Were equally important books left out?  Are theres eome included books that should have been left out?

To answer these questions, it is important to look at the period in which these books came together as *the book, the period of the early church.  It was the task of these early Christians to decided what would/would not be accepted as authoritative scripture, "canonical."  Many have argued that they made at least a mistake or two in their decisions, but it would be hard to improve on their choices.

II. How the church did not decide on the canon

First of all, it's important to note what the church *did not* do.  The canon wasn't set by holding a great conference and taking a vote of assembled leaders.  No such conference or council could have met before the time of Constantine.  The first great ecumenical council was held at Nicaea in 325 AD, and, even then, ther question of the canon didn't come up.  Not until a council at Hippo in 380 AD was there any formal decision on the canon by a council.

It's important to understand that, when at last the Council of Hippo did talk about the canon, the assembled bishops by no means considered themselves to be "making" books authoritative. They were simply coming to agreement on uniformity: are we all on the same page as to what is authoritative and what is not? 

To think of the Council of Hippo as anything more than a "let's make sure we're on the same page" think is more than a bit misleading.  For the most part, the books of the Bible were authoritative from the moment they were written.  Paul's letters were authoritative immediately in the churches he sent them to, because those churches already recognized Paul's authority as an apostle.  The same think is true of the writings of the rest of the New Testament figures.  They came from the apostles themselves or (in the case of Mark and Luke) came from figures who worked directly with the apostles and had the apostolic seal of approval.  There was no need to wait for a council to decide on the authority of any of these works.

But there were some questions for early Christians.  One of the most important, to separate out the genuine from forgeries.  There were letter that claimed to be from Paul that weren't, gospels forged by heretical groups, and other problem works.  How does one sort this kind of thing out? 

And notice that separating the truly sacred from what wasn't was vitally important.  Roman authorities frequently demanded the surrender of sacred scripture: and to refuse meant death.  So, for early Christians, there was always a question of what books were worth dying for, and which were not.

III. The Old Testament Canon

Before the church had any other sacred books (while the gospel was still primarily a spoken message), the Christian Bible was pretty much what Jews call the Tanakh (Torah, Neviim, Kituvim: Law, Prophets, Writings), what Christians today call the Old Testament.

The decision here was none too difficult.  At a council in Jamnia (90 A.D.), the Jews got together to talk about the fate of their community.  The temple had been destroyed: no more sacrifice.  What was to be preserved?  Jamnia  reaffirmed that special status of the books now in our Old Testament.  But this wan't a new consensus by any means.  Josephus some years earlier and given the same list of sacred books.  The New Testament writers too seem to have this canon in mind.  They quote all the Tanakh books as authoritative (except Esther), and almost never cite anything else (Jude's reference to I Enoch is a rare exception, easily explained). 

But there were other Jewish books perhaps worth preserving as well.  During the intertestamental period (the period between Malachi, c. 400 BC, and the New Testament), the Jewish community created quite a few sometimes worthwhile books, books that make up what we sometimes call the Apocrypha.  Among these books:
There is much great practical advice in the first two.  Tobit is a great story with a great lesson.  Judith is likewise a great story, and focuses on an admirable woman as hero--something we don't see enough of.  I and II Maccabees provide a history of the period following Alexander's conquest of Judaea.

But these books come from a period where the Jews themselves believed the prophetic voice was silent.  Ecclesiasticus doesn't claim to be inspired scripture, just wisdom based on the study of the scripture.  Maccabees notes specifically that the stones of the desecrated altar had to be set asside to await the ruling of a "true prophet," so, apparently, affirming the idea that the intertestamental period was a time of prophetic silence.

So, what did Christians do?  They affirmed the Tanakh as sacred scripture, books they would die for, and books legitimate to use as conclusive authorities in addressing doctrinal issues.

They preserved many of the useful works.  In Catholic Bibles, these are included as Deuterocanonicals.

They rejected anything the works that claimed to be from ancient figures but weren't.  I Enoch, for instance, claimed to be orignially from the Enoch who lived before the flood and had seen visions of angels.  It had been lost, but found again.  Such a book is said to be a work of Apocrpyha (literally, something that has been hidden away).  Church writers saw through these claims, recognizing them as pseudepigraphal, i.e., a books that pretend to be written by authority figures but are really by someone else.  Such books the church rejected.  They weren't going to do much to preserve them, they wouldn't cite them in theological debate, and they certainly wouldn't die for them.

[Here's a clip from an earlier version of this material.  If the above isn't clear, maybe this will help.

    Last time, I made the generalization that it was the job of early church to decide what writings would and would not be accepted as authoritative scripture, i.e. canonical.  What I perhaps did not make clear is how this decision was made.  Not by holding a great conference and taking a vote of the assembled leaders.  No such conference or council could exist until after the time of Constantine.  First council Nicaea in 325 A.D.--and even at Nicaea, NT canon didn't come up.  Not until a council at Hippo around 380 A.D. was their any attempt to impose on all the churches a uniform canon.

    Now this idea a bit upsetting to some students, particularly Protestant students.  Hard to conceive the church without our Bible exactly as it stands, and the idea that there was no fixed canon as late as 380 A.D. seems to cast at least some doubt on Biblical authority.  What guarantee is there that conference at Hippo didn't make some mistakes?  Should all the books we currently have in our Bibles be there?  Were there equally important books left out?

    The scholarly community has often enough said yes to both these questions.  F.C. Bauer and the Tubingen types, for instance, get rid of all but a few of Paul's letters.  On opposite side, writers like Elaine Pagels who think that the gnostic scriptures are unfairly neglected by the church.  And then there's the extreme view that all sorts of books were left out that ought to have been included.  "Forgotten Books of Bible/Lost Books of Eden,"  "The Other Bible."  See these things all the time in book stores, Barnes and Noble catalogue, etc.  Must be fairly popular, and it's easy enough to understand why.

    It's exciting to think that one is discovering a great treasure of a book that everybody ought to read for its great spiritual insights, a book that will tell you everything you wanted to know about Jesus, or heaven, or angels, but that the canonical gospels don't tell you.

    But is there anything to all this?  To answer that question, necessary to look at how and why early church came to include books they did.

    Said a second ago that not until synod at Hippo did church decide on definitive canon.  That's a bit misleading, however.  In the case of most books of the Bible, the decisions were made much earlier.  Basically, when the books were written.  Paul's letters: authoritive immediately in the churches he sent them to, because the authority of Paul himself recognized.  Same true of Peter, Matthew, and John.  No need to wait for a council!  Authoritative right away.  Questions only arise later, as problem is complicated by forgeries/pseudepigraph and the fact that not all churches had all the books.  (Revelation: sent to seven churches--no guarantee there would be a copy at Rome.  Letter to Romans: no guarantee would be a copy at Ephesus).

    Now, what did church do?  As far as OT concerned, right from beginning our OT.  You see this in NT--NT writers quote every OT book except Esther and nothing else.  Makes it pretty clear that NT writers regarded those books and only those books as authoritative.  This general practice of later Christian writers as well.  Justin Martyr, Origen, Clement, etc. quote almost exclusively from what we call OT today, only occasionally from other books: then rather hesitantly (e.g. I Enoch: because of angels).

    But the early church also preserved other Jewish books (many of which were eventually included in Deuterocanonicals).  Not cited as authoritative sources, but used as historical sources (I and II Maccabees) or as edifying/inspirational literature.  My opinion pretty much the right thing to do.   Good church chose to preserve books.  One particularly important: Judith.  (Holofernes).]

With the New Testament Canon, the early church writers faced a similar task.  What books would be used for theological debate?  What books would be preserved?  What books were worth dying for? 

Eusebius' divisions are really helpful is showing what the state of affairs was just before the time of Constantine.  Here are his divisions in reverse order, along with some of the books he lists.

"Really spurious" books:

These books are dreary, poorly written, and, often, obviously made up to serve the purposes of one heretical group or another. Read these through and then try to argue church made a mistake in leaving these books out!  No, not worth dying for.  Burn these things if you like.  It's amazing to me the way modern scholars champion these books, sometimes even elevating them above the canonical scriptures.

    Infancy Gospel: events in Christ's life up to 30 years--p. 38, p. 39, p. 57 (ch. 19:22-24), p. 55 (18:14-19).  See also The Gospel of Philip.

The best of these books is the Gospel of Thomas (p. 529), but this is pretty clearly a Gnostic attempt to rewrite Jesus' message to support their body evil/soul good theology. 

Spurious books:

A bit different the "spurious" books.  These include some books that are useful but not Apostolic and some that pretended to be apostolic.  The useful books (the first three listed below) circulated for quite some time, though they were never used in doctrinal disputes.  Once again, the pseudepriphal books, those that falsely claimed to the authority of a figure like Peter, ended up neglected and regected.  These books include.

    Didache (c. 130 or earlier)

This is a good summary of Christian teaching contrasting the Way of Life and the Way of Darkness.  The first is the way of love and forgiveness.  The 2nd is the way of murder, adultery, covetousness, lyingTo this added lots of stuff on liturgical questions: baptism, fasting, eucarist, etc.  Much of it is a paraphrase of Gospel of Matthew.  It's not apostolic, though, nor does it claim to be. It's the  Teaching of Twelve only in sense that this was in accord with their teaching
    Barnabas (also early 2nd century)

two ways book, also good, but it's not apostolic.  We call it Barnabas, but the book itself doesn't claim to be written by Paul's companion.


Yet a third two ways book.  The author doesn't claim to be an apostle, but does claim a divine messenger sent to him with series of visions and warnings.  His sons not living the gospel: trusting to God's grace, they think they can live there lives anyway they choose.  The book deals with important questions: Can you sin and still be a Christian? How much can you sin and still be a Christian
Hermas compares the church to a building: sin, and your not fit, and your stone gets removed.  Perhaps your stone isn't yet too far away--but sin enough and there will be no chance of restoring you.  The "Two ways" idea is supplemented by belief in angelic forces: the good angel/bad angel forces around us.

    Apocalypse of Peter:

The alleged "Peter" gives us a tour of heaven and hell, the rewards to the just, punishements to the unjust.  Blasphemers are hung by their tongues over a fire. Women who entice men to sleep with them hung by the hair the use as an allurement. The men who sleep with them are hung by the thighs. Women who have committed infanticide have breasts that emits a foul-smelling milk that turns to creepy crawlers that torture the women and their accomplise husbands.
      Acts of Paul and Thecla

This book tells the story of Thecla, a beautiful young virgin who hears Paul: determines to devote herself to God and perpetual virginity.  This angers both her fiance and mother.  Thecla ends up on trial, sentenced to be burned to death.  God sends an earthquake and rain to deliver her.  Later, Thecla is stripped naked and offered to a lion.  Instead of devouring her, the llion licks her feet.  Later, Thecla is offered up to a lioness.  This one also becomes tame and defends Thecla against first a bear and then a male lion.  Thecla preaches the gospel for years, and at age of 90 one more trial.  She had performed healings wherever she went.  Her enemies think it's because of her virginity, so they send a band of thugs to rape her.  Thecla is delivered by stepping into a rock.

So what does one do with this book? 
A presbyter admitted he mad the story up "in honor of Paul."  He lost his position in the church, and the Acts of Paul and Thecla disregarded.
Acknowledge books/Disputed books:

All the books in Eusebius last two categories are in our current Bible.  There's not much need to justify the acknowledged books.  These were books that came from the apostles and those associated with them. They were orthodox in doctrine, and had been used widely from from the time they were written. 

The disputed books are James, II Peter, II and III John and Jude.  Almost certainly, these books were disputed only because they hadn't been widely circulated.  The last three are very short, and, while one can see why the people who received the letters valued them, they wouldn't have seemed vital to share widely.  John says specifically that, though he has a lot to say, he's not going to put it in writing.  His message can wait until he's present.

James would seem a bit more important to share, but he is writing to Christians of the Jewish diaspora, and the gentile churches may not have had this letter right away.


It's interesting that Revelation is on two different lists, but the acknowledge list and the spurious list.  It's *not* on the disputed list!  Eusebius elsewhere tells us that there was a dispute about the authoriship of Revelation.  If the book is from John the Apostle, it belongs on the acknowledged list.  If it's from a different John, that it's no more than (say) the Shepherd of Hermas.