Friday, March 27, 2009

As the New Testament was being written...how were the books selected for the canon?

As the New Testament was being written...how were the books selected for the canon?

This is an interesting and important question. Especially as we head into the "specials on Jesus and the Bible season" on Discovery, History Channel and the like. Good TV...but often bad or at least, less than truthful, history.

Well, this is a big topic, but here are the three primary criteria that were used to distinguish between which writings would or wouldn't become Bible.

1) Apostolicity – it was written by an Apostle or an associate of an Apostle (cf. Mark with Peter)

2) Orthodoxy – it conforms to the teachings / theology of the Apostles. (BTW Constantine had nothing to do with the selection of the biblical books. He convened the council of Nicaea in 325 - but that dealt with relationship of Jesus the son to the father).

3) Catholicity (or Universality) – accepted by churches throughout the region.

As Wallace et al conclude in their excellent book, Reinventing Jesus, “Eventually, three kinds of literature were decisively rejected as non-canonical: (1) those that were obvious forgeries (2) those that were late productions (2nd century or later) and (3) those that did not Conform to the orthodoxy of the core books already known to be authentic.”(149)

Regarding (2), NT scholar Darrell Bock reminds us “Orthodoxy is not the product of third-century theologians. Those theologians certainly developed and honed traditional teaching. They gave flesh to the bones and structure to the basic ideas. However, the core of ideas they worked with and reflected in their confessions can be found in the faith’s earliest works. These works embraced what the apostles passed on. The works that we find in the New Testament also testify to this faith. That is why they were recognized as special sources for this teaching, even seen as being inspired by God."(The Missing Gospels, p.213)

Conclusion. This wasn't a power play and this process was well thought out--though it took time. Remember this is in an Oral culture before the Printing press is invented. We know that 21 of the 27 NT writings were functioning authoritatively by 180 AD and the 4 Gospels and the major letters of Paul were in place around AD 130.

2 comments:

Marc_Newcomb said...

From this and what I've heard previously of the process of NT formation, I'm comfortable assuming your concluding paragraph is correct. This wasn't corrupt power play and there was a real attempt to pick out the most suitable and authentic books for the NT. The important question though is whether this honest attempt by fallible humans could and did succeed in its aims.

For example, you point out the importance of apostolicity, and the efforts made to determine if a book was apostolic. Letters like 2 Peter or the pastoral epistles are generally considered pseudepigraphical by modern scholars. Hence using the standard of apostolicity, these epistles shouldn't really belong in the canon.

Given the strong possibility of some NT books having been selected for the canon due to an honest error on the part of the fallible humans doing the selecting, how can you be confident that the NT includes only genuinely inspired books, containing only apostolic teachings?

blog admin said...

Thanks Mark.

I think we need to distinguish between historically reliable and inspired. They are--in their own way--two very different conversations.

Let's take your suggestion regarding 2 Peter,the Pastorals and you could even through in 2, 3 John and Jude here as well that they didn't belong.

My own view is that a case can be made for their acceptance (Paul or Peter's use of an amanuensis (Scribe) would certainly account for different style, grammar, and syntax among other considerations).

But for the sake of argument, I will grant that they aren't in the Canon. What follows from that? at most it affects the doctrine of inspiration.

What it does not affect is the historical nature of the earliest proclamation of Jesus, his resurrection, and his earliest followers devotion to him as a God--this is part of the oral tradition that goes back to within a year or two of the crucifixion (cf. Larry Hurtado's Lord Jesus Christ and Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses).

The historical core of Christianity, the person of Jesus, and his teachings remain untouched. So even if they picked second peter by mistake (which I don't think they did), that doesn't change the fundmaental nature or reality of historic Christianity. At most it leads to an interesting discussion about Inspiration.

Finally, we know that 22 of the 27 books of the NT were functioning as authoritative within the earliest Christian communities by the close of the 2nd century. Certain texts were to be read along side the Hebrew Scriptures, others were not.