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.
POTENTIAL ID'S: CANON, TENACH, ECCLESIASTICUS, TOBIT, JUDITH,
DEUTEROCANONICALS, APOCRYPHA, PSEUDEPIGRAPHA, ACTS OF PAUL AND THECLA,
GOSPEL OF THOMAS
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
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
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.
- The Wisdom of Solomon
- The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach (Ecclesiasticus)
- I and II Maccabees
- I and II Esdras (sometimes called III and IV Esdras)
- I Enoch
- The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
there anything to all this? To answer
that question, necessary to look at how and why early church came to
include books they did.
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
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).
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
if you like. It's amazing to me the way modern scholars champion
these books, sometimes even elevating them above the canonical
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
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
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.
(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,
lying. To 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
(also early 2nd century)
Another 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
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.
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
that emits a foul-smelling milk that turns to creepy crawlers that
the women and their accomplise husbands.
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.
Acknowledge books/Disputed books:
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
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