Archive for March, 2013

So, I couldn’t find where I ever posted this, and since it is relevant to a conversation I am having now I here post it (perhaps for the second time, I’m not sure) for your review.  As always, I have not altered it from its original for as written by me in the summer of 2010.

Development of the Canon of Scripture

It is a cultural reality that many consider the Bible to be a flawed collection of man-written books whose meaning and contents has been changed to suit the will and whim of man.  It is because of this issue, combined with personal experience that most would not set foot into a church much less engage in meaningful dialogue with a dreaded Christian.  Instead of the bearers, keepers, and announcers of truth, Christians have, by design, become the whipping boys of our modern pluralistic culture.  The design of our culture is such that it turns propositional truth in to a fantasy, history into a fairytale.

Since we boldly claim to have direct access to ultimate truth in the pages of the Bible we must know for certain where it has come from if we are to preserve that truth with any effectiveness.  In an attempt to do exactly that, this will be a brief description of the process by which the Bible we hold in our hands today came to be.  While some would tell a story about the many books written as gospels that are not included in the modern day Bible, or the story about how the council of Nicea (A.D. 325) was convened to “write” the Bible (actually convened to address Arianism)

, these stories are by no means supported by any evidence that would stand up to serious inquiry.

So as not to perpetuate more stereotypes, let us start with the apostolic period.  This period spans the entire first century on into the second, though not completing the second.   During this time all the books of the New Testament (NT) were already in existence.

This is evidenced by the fact that there are references to other books of the NT within the pages of NT books that are verifiably dated to the first century.  If these books make reference of the other NT books, it is safe therefore to assume that the authors couldn’t have quoted those books had they not existed.  Also, it is important to point out that the apostles themselves, in their writing, used the heading “scripture” when talking about Deuteronomy as well as Luke,  Psalms as well as Ephesians, etc.  The apostles own testimony substantiates the ascription of the title of scripture to at least the gospels, but perhaps more likely the entire NT writings as we know them today.  This is significant because it shows that the apostles themselves held certain NT writings to be as authoritative as the Old Testament (OT) scriptures.  This was the beginning of the Canon of NT scripture.

Even earlier than this (A.D. 95)

was a letter from Clement of Rome to the Christians in Corinth on behalf of the Roman Christians.  There is evidence that suggests Clement was familiar with, and sometimes quoted, Mark, Luke, Hebrews, Romans, Corinthians, 1 Timothy, Titus, 1 Peter, and Ephesians.  The application of this finds its worth in modern apologetics to counter the claim that the Bible was written too long after the events it describes to be at all accurate.  We have sufficient evidence to reasonably prove that these scriptures were penned perhaps even when Jesus was alive, if not then certainly by eye witnesses and/or within one generation.  There is no other ancient document that can even remotely claim such a thing.

From the apostolic period we see the upholding of the Gospels as authoritative scripture, and perhaps the epistles as well.  The next period rounds out the second century and moves almost half way into the third.  We enter this period with the Canon of the Gospels firmly settled amongst the churches as well as the epistles and Acts; here referent to Irenaeus who considered all these just as much scripture as the OT.  Testimony of Clement and Irenaeus represents the wide spread acceptance of these books as scripture, encompassing eastern and western kingdoms.  It is not because of these men that the Canon was determined, but they were simply the most vocal ones talking about what was already happening.  More and more people were accepting these books as authoritative.  Irenaeus and Clement simply said out loud what everyone else was demonstrating.  The most empirical evidence available testifying to what was considered Canon in this period is represented in the Muratorian Fragment.  In this document we have a list encompassing the Gospels, Acts, all the Pauline epistles, Apocalypse (Revelation), 1 and 2 John, and Jude.  This is important because it gives us a snap-shot of sorts of the Canon at the close of the second century.

As we progress through the centuries there is slower movement and less to tell about by means of major developments because the bulk of scripture had already been affirmed as Canonical.  I would be remiss in my exposition here if I did not mention Origen.  Although he was the most prolific figure of the third century in the context of the third century church, he did not further the development of the Canon, suffice to say that he did affirm, almost exactly, what was already considered authoritative.  Through such notable figures as Dionysius, Cyprian, and Eusebius, what was considered scripture had not changed very much at all and was essentially the same books as Origen listed.  It was not until Athanasius (A.D. 367)

that we see the affirmation of all 27 books of our modern day NT, though there was much debate over the apocalypse.  How could there not be debate over a book of such a nature as Revelation.

The Council of Carthage convened at the end of the fourth century and presented a list of, now declared to be, Canonical books of the NT.  Thereafter was some divergence between east and west as to what was accepted as scripture but the influence of Constantine in the east, and Jerome/Augustine in the west, using different methods, largely settled the matter for both regions.

So what we see here is a gradual recognition, even from the beginning, of the entirety of scripture being touted as such, at least by Christians, if not by religious figure heads as well.  The authoring of these books, therefore, seems to be the criteria of consideration, and the application the judge.  As these books and letters were written they were added, one by one to the Canon of scripture.  “Let it suffice to say that, from the evidence of the fragments which alone have been preserved to us of the Christian writings of that very early time, it appears that from the beginning of the second century a collection of “New Books”, called the “Gospel and Apostles”, was already a part of the “Oracles” of God, or “Scriptures”, or the “Holy Books” or “Bible”.”

It seems, therefore, that the trouble with the development of the Canon was that of persecution and time.  To explain that, let us think of the context surrounding all this empirical history.

Christianity, no matter how beloved or condemned, has always been, more or less, persecuted.  Within that context we see untrained yet faithful believers laboriously working to painstakingly copy the volumes of text any one church may possess so as to bring other letters of verifiable apostolic origin to another church, perhaps their home church.  I have stated above, essentially that the books of the Bible as we have them today were all in existence by the end of the first century, however they existed in different areas.  As believers traveled amongst churches, such as we see with Paul’s missionary journeys, they also copied whichever letters and/or books they did not yet possess.  In this way, the rapid, uncontrolled dispersal of God’s message of salvation was guaranteed in such a way as to ensure its sincerity and adherence to the originals.  As a side note, the mistakes we observe in these copies are therefore understandable given the context.  So if we approach this from a multifaceted view, we can see how the entire testimony of NT scripture, as we have in our modern day Bibles, was present in the first century and all books were considered, at different locations, to be authoritative.  Therefore, the development and agreement upon what is scripture becomes merely a function of time and location.  As the documents spread, along with corresponding verification of authenticity, the scriptures as we know them took shape.

Just as it is observed in the issue of transmission of the text of scripture, there is one story the world tells, and then there is the plain empirical truth.  There is the story of how the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325)

convened to settle the Canon and some would say “write” the scriptures.  There is also the story of how all these other gospels were left out simply because they did not represent convenience to the Council that defined the Canon (most will say Nicea), while the rest that spoke to the Council members’ pet motivations were kept.  We can see how this is a creation of modern speculation and a withholding of truth.  Just as some will say, in regards to transmission of the text, that the Bible has been changed far too much and those changes have been far too drastic for it ever to be seriously considered reliable.  This is a more complex lie but a lie none-the-less.  The fact that there was never any one person in control of even a fraction of the existent Bible refutes that claim at the outset.  Likewise, the claim that any one Council, or fallible, man-made institution or system somehow determined what was God’s word and what was not, is utterly untrue.  The truth is evident.  The documents we know to be modern scripture existed at the same time, though in different locals, and were credited with the same authority: God’s.

It is evident to me that in all things authoritative, God does not use people to decide on anything.  God did not let people determine who would get the scriptures, nor did he let people determine what was going to be considered scripture.  In a very real sense, through circumstance, God worked his creation in such a way that his word was made inescapably sacred.

Part of believing is obedience.  If we can trace the Canon of God’s word back to any human authority to choose, then there is essentially no enduring call to obedience, and certainly no conviction of perseverance of such obedience.  In God’s wisdom He has beautifully orchestrated our role in his design, aptly as audience members.  We can, by observing history, view God’s character.  We are merely objects of His work and recipients of His grace if we believe.

Bibliography accessed on 3 June 2010 accessed on 4 June 2010 accessed on 3 June 2010

Jonathan Hill, Handbook to the History of Christianity (Lion Publishing Plc., England 2006) 80