Christian Churches of God
(Edition 3.0 19960518-19990920-20090707)
Is the Christian Bible the inspired word of an all-powerful, loving God as some people claim, or is it merely a collection of writings of wise men as some others claim? This paper is a response to an enquiry from a guild of the Roman Catholic Church which teaches that the Bible is not the sole rule of faith.
We were contacted by members of a guild of the Roman Catholic Church. They seemed to think that those who believed that the Bible was the inspired word of God had it wrong. The spokesperson wrote:
Do you have information on why you believe that the Bible is inspired? (Our position on its inspiration will no doubt, be different.) We would also like to know the biblical evidence for the Bible being the sole rule of faith, and why this doctrine was not believed by anyone until Martin Luther proclaimed it 1500 years after Christ. Did everyone get it wrong for 1500 years? If the Bible is the sole rule of faith, how did the early Christians who lived before the New Testament was made official at Constantinople in 381 know what the teachings of Christ were? We assert that this doctrine is not biblical but is, instead, the doctrine of Luther.
This letter also contained the interesting statement that:
The Catholic Church, in its teaching, does not claim the authority to change biblical teaching, nor has it ever done so. As to the question of the changing of the Sabbath, we believe that there is no doctrine of Christ that requires it to remain on the Saturday. As Catholics, we hold that, because it is not a doctrinal matter, the Church has the authority to change it and that this authority has been given to her by Christ. The Resurrection of Christ and all that it encompasses is the central reason for the change.
This is the classic position spoken of by the prophet Daniel when he spoke of the fourth beast, which was to be the Roman system that succeeded the Greek system which was the third beast. The fourth [Roman] beast sought to change times and the law.
Daniel 7:19-28 Then I would know the truth of the fourth beast, which was diverse from all the others, exceeding dreadful, whose teeth were of iron, and his nails of brass; which devoured, brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with his feet; 20 And of the ten horns that were in his head, and of the other which came up, and before whom three fell; even of that horn that had eyes, and a mouth that spake very great things, whose look was more stout than his fellows. 21 I beheld, and the same horn made war with the saints, and prevailed against them; 22 Until the Ancient of days came, and judgment was given to the saints of the most High; and the time came that the saints possessed the kingdom. 23 Thus he said, The fourth beast shall be the fourth kingdom upon earth, which shall be diverse from all kingdoms, and shall devour the whole earth, and shall tread it down, and break it in pieces. 24 And the ten horns out of this kingdom are ten kings that shall arise: and another shall rise after them; and he shall be diverse from the first, and he shall subdue three kings. 25 And he shall speak great words against the most High, and shall wear out the saints of the most High, and think to change times and laws: and they shall be given into his hand until a time and times and the dividing of time. 26 But the judgment shall sit, and they shall take away his dominion, to consume and to destroy it unto the end. 27 And the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the most High, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him. 28 Hitherto is the end of the matter. As for me Daniel, my cogitations much troubled me, and my countenance changed in me: but I kept the matter in my heart. (KJV)
There are, from this text in Daniel, two elements to the works of this beast. They seek, firstly, to change times and, secondly, the law. The system was given into their hands to wear out the Saints of the Most High for a time, times and half a time which is 1,260 prophetic year days. This time frame reached its peak of power from 590 CE with the declaration of the Holy Roman Empire and lasted until 1850 when the empire was dissolved by the revolutionary wars in Italy. This system was to be consumed and destroyed unto the end. This is now accelerating.
We are concerned here with the implications for the Bible texts. The concepts behind these statements are circular in their process but basically stem from the inability to understand the nature and activities of God through His Messiah and His servants the prophets. The fact that the fourth commandment of God can be held to be other than biblical teaching is, for someone unacquainted with Catholic reasoning, simply breathtaking in its heresy.
The statements also show a lack of understanding of the position of the Roman Church in relation to its perceived power to change the laws of God because of the authority allegedly given to it by Christ. This stems from the doctrinal position of the Trinity which seeks to elevate Christ with God, and is the precise motive of the production of trinitarian doctrine from its inception by the Cappadocians. As we know, and as Bacchiocchi has pointed out, the change from Sabbath to Sunday rests on the authority of the councils of the Catholic Church, both Roman and Greek Orthodox, to change the day of worship of the church from the Sabbath as laid down in the commandments to Sunday, which stems from other influences. This change rests on the Councils and no other authority. Indeed, Protestants would have the most difficulty with the claims of this Catholic organisation as they seek to claim some biblical basis for the change, of which there is none. To be dependent upon the authority of the Councils of the Catholic Church in its various forms of Orthodox, Roman and Anglican Churches is anathema to most Protestants.
Martin Luther was a Protestant from Athanasian Catholicism, and thus not part of the Church of God. The Church has held the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture since it was given by Christ with the apostles. The Church at the time of the Reformation did not regard Luther as being part of it. Indeed he and the Protestant Reformation came to be a serious problem for the Church of God because of its superficial anti-Catholicism which failed to go back beyond the teachings of Augustine and hence failed in its purpose.
The teaching that the view of Scripture is developed is a modern view based on the theory of developing religions. The argument that the Bible is a developed work comes from modern text criticism. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Abingdon, Nashville, 1962, Vol. 1, art. “Canon of the Old Testament”, pp. 498f.) says that no book was ever regarded as God’s word before 621 BC based on the text on 2Kings chapters 22 and 23. This view seems to be based on the finding of the Book of the Law in the Temple by Hilkiah the priest who gave it into charge of the Scribes for the king, which then resulted in Josiah’s reformation. The view seems to be based on the fact that the Book of the Law was not being followed. This is sheer nonsense. The Bible explains in 2Kings 23 just the levels of idolatrous degradation to which the nation had sunk. The priests were sacrificing to Baal and for Asherah and the Temple had become full of idols and Asherah, and the male prostitutes lived in houses in the Temple and the women weaved there for Asherah or phalluses (2Kgs. 23:7). The defilement continued throughout Judah and the children were being sacrificed to Molech at Topheth in the valley of Ben-hinnom (2Kgs. 23:10). The explanation is more correctly seen as being that the Law and the Texts up to that time were already ancient and placed in the Temple for safe-keeping. The general populace had sunk to extraordinary levels of depravity and idolatry. The priest Hilkiah was a faithful servant who protected the texts and brought them to the attention of Josiah, via the Scribes, whom he hoped would act upon them. Josiah’s restoration involves the elements of the entire law including Deuteronomy and thus we know that at the time of Josiah, the Pentateuch was a complete book.
The modern developmental view, which denies the early completion of the Pentateuch, is perhaps illustrated best in the comments from the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (at p. 500).
The earliest literature of the Israelites, dating from the time of Moses or earlier, consists of poems (Gen. 4:23-24; Exod. 15:21; Num. 21:17-18) and of laws of the desert (Exod. 21:12; 15-17; 22:19; Lev. 20:10-13) or of Canaan (the Covenant Code: Exod. 21:2-11,18-22; 21:26-22:17; and the ritual dialogue: Exod. 23:12,15-17; 22:29-30,18-19).
Between Moses and Solomon The Song of Deborah (Judg. 5) and other poems, such as David’s two elegies (II Sam. 1:18-27; 3:33-34), were composed; and the stories of Adam, the patriarchs, and the judges were circulated orally. Prose writing at its best began in the time of Solomon (ca. 975-935 B.C.) and reached from fiction (the stories about Samson in Judg. 13-16) to brilliant historical writing (the biography of David, written probably by Ahimaaz son of Zadok). The best poems from this time are Gen. 49; Ps. 24:7-10.
The best literature of the Northern Kingdom (935-722) is scantily preserved in some poems (Num. 23:7-10,18-24; Deut. 33; Ps. 45), in remnants of the History of the Kings of Israel, in the stories of Elijah and Elisha, in the E Document of the Pentateuch, in the late source of Joshua and Judges and in the prophetic oracles of Hosea. At the time, with the exception of the J Document and some superb prophetic oracles (Amos, Isaiah, Micah), the literature of the Southern Kingdom was not equally brilliant. The classical period came to an end in Judah with the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., but it still includes a poetic masterpiece (Nah. 1:10 ff) and the earliest and wittiest part of Proverbs (chs. 25-27).
After Jeremiah, prophecy began to decline (Zephaniah, Habakkuk), but inspired the Book of the Law (Deut. 5-26; 28), found in the temple in 621 B.C. The parts of the Pentateuch and of the historical books written at this time are likewise inferior to the earlier prose.
With the exception of Job and the Second Isaiah (Isa. 40-55), the sixth century lacks outstanding works: some psalms, proverbs, and the book of Lamentations illustrate the prolix and pretentious poetry of the times; Ezekiel, Haggai, and Zechariah illustrate the decline of prophecy; the Holiness Code (Lev. 17-26) illustrates the law of this period.
The two following centuries lack literary masterpieces - the best prose is found in Nehemiah, Ruth, and Jonah; the Priestly Code (ca. 450) and the final edition of the Pentateuch (ca. 400) were epoch-making, and proved fatal to prophecy (Isa. 56-66; Obadiah; Malachi; Joel; and additions to the prophetic books), which at the end of this period became apocalypse. The poetry (Deut. 32; Exod. 15:1-8; Nah. 1:1-9; Hab. 3; 1 Sam. 2:1-10; many psalms and proverbs) is more and more elaborate and pompous.
In the third and second centuries the best poetry is in the Song of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Ecclesiastes, and the late psalms; the best prose is in Chronicles and Esther; Daniel is the outstanding apocalypse (besides Isa. 24-27; Zech. 9-14); the final edition of the prophetic books (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the minor prophets) ca. 200 B.C. marks the death of prophecy.
The assertions that Jeremiah inspired the book of the law is outrageous conjecture. It should be taken as obvious that Josiah’s restoration involved elements of the law which were contained in each of the texts including Deuteronomy.
What is the Bible position? What does God say through His servants, the prophets?
The Bible is God-breathed (SGD 2315). All Scripture is given by the inspiration of God (2Tim. 3:16). Job 32:8 shows the activity of the inspiration of God. Understanding is given to man by the inspiration of God. You cannot understand the Bible unless your mind is opened to the mysteries of God. Unto the elect is given the understanding of the mysteries of the Kingdom of God and of heaven (Mat. 13:11; Lk. 8:10). The elect, from their baptism, and with the elders, are made stewards of the mysteries of God (1Cor. 4:1; 13:2) (see the paper The Mysteries of God (No. 131)).
Christ taught that Scripture cannot be broken (Jn. 10:35). It has to be fulfilled (Acts 1:16). Christ himself was part of its fulfilment (Jn. 13:18; 17:12; 19:24,28,36-37; 20:9). Christ said that not one jot (dot) or tittle (stroke) (smallest parts of the Old Testament texts) would pass from the law until all was accomplished (Mat. 5:18; Lk. 16:17). The royal law is according to the Scripture (Jas. 2:8,23) and the Scripture is not in vain (Jas. 4:5). Peter spoke regarding the Scripture (1Pet. 2:6) and held that prophecy or Scripture was not of any private interpretation (2Pet. 1:20).
Does this then give the compilation of the Bible to other authorities? When did the teaching against the inspiration of the Bible and its position as the basis of the faith become established?
We know that the Old Testament canon was revered as the word of God from the earliest times. The placement of the Tablets of the law within the Ark of the Covenant and the writings of the law by the side of the Ark were instructions that were followed by Israel and were already ancient by the time of Josiah.
The ancients took it as fact that the heavenly beings could and did reveal themselves to men (Ex. 33:11; Iliad 1:193-218 etc; Gilgamesh Epic, bk. 6). God also revealed Himself in visions (1Kgs. 22:19-22; Isa. 6; Job 4:12-17) and dreams (Gen. 28:12-15). This capacity was given also to the Host by the ancients (Iliad I:63; II:5-15; Gudea Cylinder A, cols I-VII). More usually the deity spoke through His servants, the prophets (e.g. biblically Amos 3:8; 7:15-17 etc.). This function was also understood from Vergil (Aeneid VI:45-97 etc.). Divination, in both natural means, that is, under divine inspiration and artificial means using omens, was also used to determine the will of God (1Sam. 28:6) and also of the Host (see Cicero On Divination II:26).
Thus inspiration was taken for granted by the ancients but divine inspiration of Yahovah or His angel was distinguished (e.g. for the tablets of stone (Ex. 31:18)). Yahovah was also distinguished from the utterances of a seer from the text in 1Samuel 9:9 and the practitioners of magic denounced in Deuteronomy 18:9-12.
Canonical Scripture has its origin in the prophets and is ratified by the King, the priests and the congregation. The word for prophet means that which is entered often for unpopular messages (Jer. 20:7-9). The first person (the I) in these texts is Yahovah (Amos 4:6-11; 5:21-24 etc.). The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Vol. 1, p. 501) holds that the entire book of the prophet Amos (c. 750 BCE) did not come to be regarded as inspired until five centuries later. Some extraordinary care was taken of a work that was not inspired if that is the case. Such comments, however, do not do credit to the structure of the congregation of God nor of His interaction with them.
The inspired canon arose from Moses and ended with Ezra and Nehemiah (Jos. Apion I:viii; 2Esdras 14:44-46; cf. Ps. 74:9; 1Macc. 4:46; 9:27; 14:41; cf. Interp. Dict., p. 501). The Apocryphal writings were not regarded as part of the canon until the Roman system included them. The Jewish canon was finally determined and closed for all time from 90 CE (see Interp. Dict., p. 514).
The Old Testament began with the history of the nations in Genesis and found its first form as a book with the law both inside (Deut. 10:5) and outside of the ark (Deut. 31:26).
The Hebrew Canon consists of a series of categories:
1. The Law or Torah
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.
2. The Prophets or the Nebhi’im
Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings.
Latter Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the twelve minor prophets.
3. The Writings or the Ketubbhim
Poetry: Psalms, Proverbs, Job.
The Five Scrolls: Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther.
History: Ezra-Nehemiah, 1-2 Chronicles.
In the Talmud (Baraita B.B 14b) the order is as follows: Pentateuch, the Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, the minor prophets), the Writings (Ruth, Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra [plus Nehemiah], Chronicles).
For divergent orders in books and manuscripts, see S. Singer, ed., The Jewish Encyclopedia, III, 144. For the order in the LXX see H. B. Swete, Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek (1914), pp. 201-214 (cf. Interp. Dict., p. 514).
These Old Testament books were called by the Jews the Oracles of God (Theou Logia) (Aristeas 177). Philo terms them the Divinely revealed oracles (Legation to Caius 31 [II, 577, Mangey]). He says Moses wrote the Pentateuch under divine inspiration (Life of Moses II.2 [II,136, Mangey] III.23 [II,163 Mangey]). Josephus calls them decrees of God (Apion I, viii).
This follows the sentiment within the Bible itself that it is the word of God (Ex. 20:1,22; 21:1; 25:1; Lev. 1:1; 4:1; 6:1; 8:1; etc.; Jer. 1:1-2; Ezek. 1:3).
The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible holds, from the text of Josiah’s restoration, that the prophets decided whether a book was divinely inspired or not (2Kgs. 22:14-16), and they were declared canonical by king and people (2Kgs. 23:2-3) or by clergy and people (Neh. 10:28-29). This is a fiction. Josiah and the people repented of their sin when they saw that the nation had fallen into so great an apostasy. They renewed the covenant that their fathers had made with God under the ancient Book of the Law. This makes nonsense of the developmental hypothesis and so another case must be made for the text, other than its plain words, which is absurd. There is no doubt that the canonicity of the texts was accepted or ratified by king and people but that did not modify the ancient nature of the text, or its prior canonicity (Ps. 119 refers). The test of canonicity was contained in Isaiah 8:20; i.e. that it must be according to the law and the testimony. Thus nothing can be an inspired work that contradicts the law or previously accepted inspired canonical texts.
The rabbinical authorities held that the law or Torah together with repentance, paradise (Eden), Gehenna, the throne of glory, the heavenly Temple, and the name of Messiah were created before the world. The proof text is Proverbs 8:22. Wisdom is held to be identical with the Torah (Baraita Pesakhaim 54a). This is necessarily so as the law proceeds from the nature of God (see the paper Distinction in the Law (No. 96) and the Law series generally). The law is thus held to precede the physical creation. It is linked together with the problems that we see with the fallen Host, from its relationship with the heavenly Temple. Eden, or paradise, is also a celestial thing as well as the physical thing we saw with Adam.
For Judaism, the Torah is the inner body of the canon. Nothing is revealed through the prophets that is not contained in the Torah. This is essentially the same sentiment expressed by Christ at Matthew 22:40.
Matthew 22:38-40 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (KJV)
Thus the two great commandments underpin the Ten Commandments. They become the central core of the faith. The Ten Commandments become the pivot upon which the law is given and developed. All of the law and the testimony are in accordance with these principles and there can be no contradiction. No prophet can speak against them and still be a prophet (Isa. 8:20). The king was exercising the function of a supreme court (2Sam. 15:2-6), but he himself was not beyond the law, being bound by it (2Sam. chs. 11-12).
The traditions (B. B 14b-14a) attributes important roles in canonisation to Hezekiah and his college in the compilation of Isaiah, Proverbs (cf. Prov. 25:1), the Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes. The men of the Great Synagogue are credited with compiling Ezekiel, the twelve minor prophets, Daniel, and Esther. Nehemiah is credited with completing the Old Testament (cf. 2Macc. 2:13), which is also attributed to Judas Maccabeus (2Macc. 2:14) and also to Ezra (2Esdr. 14). It is assumed that the whole of the Old Testament was completed and canonised at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah in the reign of Artaxerxes (Jos. Apion I. viii) (incorrectly held as Artaxerxes I, e.g. by Interp. Dict. – see the paper The Sign of Jonah and the History of the Reconstruction of the Temple (No. 13)). The closure is also held to be at the time of Alexander the Great (Seder Olam Rabba 30). Thus the last prophets were Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Ezra and Nehemiah were God’s agents. Nehemiah was the first anointed one of Daniel 9:25 (see the paper The Sign of Jonah and the History of the Reconstruction of the Temple (No. 13)).
With Nehemiah and Ezra, the Scriptures were finally and completely canonised and the time scale then continued until the seventy weeks of years ended with the destruction of the Temple and the dispersal of Judah and its authority. The traditions hold that the Holy Spirit departed from Judah at the time of Ezra/Nehemiah and prophecy ceased. Of course, this attempts to reduce the impact of John the Baptist and the Messiah and the apostles. But in the sense that Judah was no longer dealt with by God other than through the Baptist, and then the Church from Christ, this is true.
The decision to close the canon for all time was made in 90 CE (Interp. Dict., ibid., p. 514), twenty years after the destruction of the Temple effectively terminated Judah’s responsibility for the oracles of God, and God revealed all prophecy through the Church which He had been doing with the apostles and did with John about 95 CE.
The Old Testament was considered as inspired Scripture by Judaism (Philo, On Flight and Finding I. 4 ; On the Special Laws 39, ss 214 ; I Clem. 45.2; 53:1) and the apostles and the Church generally up until the time of Origen (Jn. 2:22; Acts 8:32; 2Tim. 3:16 etc. Interp. Dict., p. 499). Paul refers to them as both Holy and Sacred (Rom. 1:2; 2Tim. 3:15). These were also the writings (Jn. 5:47). This is merely the accepted view of all Israel and the Church up until the apostate factions at the time of Origen (see also Philo, The Life of Moses 2.51 ss 290,292 ; Josephus Antiq. I. iii. 13; X. iv. 210, etc.). Its compilation and acceptance by the Church as a book was beyond doubt (Mk. 12:26; Lk. 3:4; 4:17; 20:42; Acts 7:42; Gal. 3:10 etc; see also I Clem. 43:1; M. Yadaim 3.2, 5; 4:6; Shab. 16:1; ‘Er. 10:3; etc.).
The Jews later referred to the text as What is read (cf. Koran) also What is written, the book and also the twenty-four books. The Hebrew Bible counts twenty-four books and makes three divisions, The Law, The Prophets and the Writings, as we have seen. These three divisions were the accepted form and appear in the Greek translation of the work Ecclesiasticus (c. 132 CE) as The law and the prophets and the other books of our fathers.
The Christian Bible follows the Greek and Latin divisions arranging the 39 books (counting Samuel, Kings, Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah as two books, and the minor prophets as twelve books. The Apocryphal works were not included or accepted by the early Church until the later councils and then only accepted by some Athanasians.
The writings of the New Testament were put together by the Church as a collection of the views of the apostles regarding what constituted the inspired will of God. This was added to the Old Testament to form what we know as the Bible. This was based on a certain view of the Old Testament and the laws of God – that is: that it was the inspired will of God as revealed through His servants the prophets.
Davies says in his summary of the question of the Law in the NT (Interp. Dict., Vol. 3, p. 102) that:
They all affirm that the law, insofar as it is the expression of the holy will of God, remains valid, radicalized, and at the same time relativized, by the absolute claim of love.
The history of the Bible canon can be found in Bishop Westcott’s work on the History of the Canon. The claims that the Church came to vest in the New Testament as being superior over the Old Testament are false. The Church came to view the New Testament as a continuation of Scripture and the revelation of God. It held authority with the Old Testament but neither contradicted it nor eliminated its force. The later orthodox system came to hold such views but that was neither commenced by nor given support by the early Church.
Claims are made by some modern Catholics that the Council of Constantinople established the Bible from its deliberations and that before that date there was no established Bible text in total. This is utterly false. The Quinisextine Council of Constantinople of 642 is referred to below in context.
The churches of the modern era are in substantial agreement as to what constitutes the canon of the New Testament, in all of its twenty-seven books, and that has held constant through the incredible schisms that has rent the orthodox church since the fifth century, into the ninth century and on into the Protestant Reformation. The Churches of God have also been in agreement over the two thousand years as to what constitutes the New Testament canon.
The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, in its article Canon of the NT at pages 520ff. says:
This agreement was attained in substance by the end of the second century; for by that time the four gospels, the book of Acts, The Pauline letters (including the Pastorals but usually not Hebrews) and two or more of the Catholic (sic) letters (I John, I Peter and sometimes others) were acknowledged as Holy Scripture in every part of the church. There remained on the margin a number of books whose canonicity was still in dispute. Hebrews, James, II and III John, II Peter, Jude and Revelation were destined eventually to win general acceptance; and a somewhat larger number of other Christian writings enjoyed a temporary or regional canonicity but proved unable to maintain their high position. By the end of the fourth century, the limits of the collection were irrevocably fixed in the Greek and Latin churches of the Roman Empire.
The Canon of the Syrian church still exhibited some major differences, but these were largely surmounted in the Peshitta (early fifth century), and entirely in the Philoxenian (508) and the Harkleian (616) revisions of the Syriac NT (see Versions Ancient § 4). It must be said that these revisions did not supplant the Peshitta in the major part of the Syrian church, which therefore still limits its canon of the NT to twenty two books, rejecting Revelation and the four minor Catholic (sic) letters (II and III John, II Peter and Jude). The Ethiopic canon, on the other hand was enlarged to include eight additional books; and the Gothic NT never included Revelation. But these three churches were separated from the general body of Catholic christendom by differences far more profound than marginal disagreements over the limits of the canon.
Note the Peshitta is not placed before the fifth century and is made to appear distinct from the early Syriac lineage from which it was produced. The distinction between the two categories of the apostolic letters is religio-politically based and we will examine the reasons below.
Let us now examine the process of the development of the canon of the New Testament. In doing so we will more or less follow the traditional approach of the divisions so as to make other arguments more coherent with the process we shall develop.
The first point is that Christ never left any writings. His sayings were compiled by the apostles. This process took a number of years, but perhaps not as many as modern scholarship would like. The canon was divided into three stages:
1. The apostolic age (to 70 CE)
a. The writings prior to the fall of the Temple;
b. The writings after the fall of the Temple.
2. Collection of the canon (70 CE -150 CE)
a. Collection of the Pauline letters;
b. The writing of the gospels:
(i) The one gospel and the many gospels
(ii) The emergence of the four gospels
(iii) uncanonical gospels;
c. Other Christian writings of the period:
(i) Writings which became canonical (as per 1b above)
(ii) Writings which were eventually rejected.
3. Emergence of the New Testament canon (150-200 CE)
a. The growing veneration of the apostles;
b. Earliest witnesses to the gospels;
c. Marcion’s canon;
d. Effects of conflict with Gnosticism and other problems;
e. Apologists and martyrs (165-180 CE);
f. The Old (so-called) Catholic Canon;
g. Effects of the Introduction of the Codex.
4. The fixing of the canon (c. 200-400 CE)
b. Dionysius of Alexandria;
c. The persecution under Diocletian;
d. Eusebius of Caesaria;
e. Other Greek lists of the fourth century;
f. Latin writers of the third and fourth centuries.
5. The growth of the canon in the Syrian Church to 616 CE.
This period was the period of infancy of the church. Judah was still under judgment for the seventy weeks of years from Daniel 9:25-27.
Daniel 9:25-27 Know therefore and understand that from the going forth of the word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of an anointed one, a prince, there shall be seven weeks. Then for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with squares and moat, but in a troubled time. 26 And after the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off, and shall have nothing; and the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war; desolations are decreed. 27 And he shall make a strong covenant with many for one week; and for half of the week he shall cause sacrifice and offering to cease; and upon the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator." (RSV)
The judgment of Judah was not yet complete and the destruction of the physical Temple had not as yet taken place. Nehemiah was the first anointed one after the seven weeks of years. The restoration under Artaxerxes II saw the canon finalised with the restoration and the walls of Jerusalem rebuilt. The second anointed one was at the end from 63 CE and the final period was to end with the Temple from 70 CE. This saw the production of the early New Testament canon.
As we saw, the early church had the oracles of God which were the sacred books (Rom. 3:2). These works were entrusted to Judah until their rejection and dispersal from 70 CE. This became the demarcation point for the care of the oracles of God which had originally been entrusted to Judah (Rom. 3:2) and also, from the expansion of the church, we saw the later writings become distinct from these early texts because of the effects of the heresies that entered the church such as Modalism and Gnosticism. Thus, the early period prior to 70 CE did not deal with the same issues with which the later ones dealt. This very reason saw a resistance to the writings of the apostles. In fact, part of the text of 1John was actually rewritten to overcome the objections of the heretics concerning the doctrine of Antichrist before it could be accepted in the so-called orthodox canon.
The primary basis of the early church was the Old Testament. Jesus held that the Old Testament Scriptures cannot be broken and that they expressed the will of God (see above).
The Old Testament is divided as to the source of authority also. The Hebrew text is the source of the references of Christ and the twelve apostles. This also perhaps indicates that the early texts of the apostles may have involved Aramaic. The other New Testament texts written by Paul, Barnabas, Philip the Evangelist and others quote the LXX, and this work is exclusively the reference text of the later New Testament church. Perhaps this was used for ease of translation and sometimes without concern for the Hebrew meaning of the text which the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (p. 521) held to have no bearing on the point in issue. This comment is important because it shows that the understanding of the points being made by the early church were out of the context and paradigms of the twentieth century writers and thus they could not understand the real point being made by the leaders of the Diaspora churches. The Old Testament canon was the basis of the faith. This view was constant in the early church. In fact, if one did not hold that view it was not possible to be accepted as a Christian.
In addition to these writings, we have the incidence of the Apocryphal works (some of which were from the Septuagint and were originally composed in Greek) and Pseudepigraphical works being cited by writers of the early church in support of their positions. This became a factor that we shall examine below.
We can conclude from this position that the original church was a church based on writing from its inception and which canon it held was long since determined and fixed as holy inspired Scripture, reflecting the will of God expressed in prophecy, poetry and law.
The church, however, had distinct aspects which caused it to reject Judaism and also to be rejected by it. The first aspect was that it placed the Holy Spirit and a spiritual emphasis above the physical aspects which had crippled Judaism. Secondly, it rejected the scribal tradition which had been so instrumental in elevating this crippling physical legalism (2Cor. 3:6) above the simple plan of salvation God had established within His law and His Sabbath and Holy Day systems. He established this system in order to reveal His plan to humanity, which He did through His chosen vessel, as both the elohim of Israel who was both the Great Angel of the Old Testament and the Messiah of the New Testament, as foretold from the Old Testament. All members of the New Testament church were regarded as being inspired in different ways by one and the same Spirit by which means the gifts were apportioned individually according to the will of God (1Cor. 12:4-11).
These men were not in bondage to the written word. They were liberated by the perfect law of liberty (Jas. 1:25; see the paper Distinction in the Law (No. 96)). They rejected the traditions which made void the word of God (Mk. 7:13). Christ abolished in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances which separated the Gentiles from Israel through his sacrifice. He made them all saints and members of the household of God so that they would all become a dwelling place of God in the spirit (Eph. 2:14-22). That, in essence, was the New Testament church – a dwelling place of God in the spirit being under grace (Rom. 6:14). The view that the early church sought to be free from the Old Testament law from grace is an incorrect view of the church and the writings of Paul (see the paper The Works of the Law Text - or MMT (No. 104)). The church saw itself as free from the sacrificial system, but it still held to the plan of salvation and it kept the Food Laws, Sabbaths, New Moons and Feasts and Holy Days. It was, however, free from the restrictions and Paul enjoined them to let no man judge them in questions of food or drink, Sabbaths, New Moons or Feasts (Col. 2:16) being a shadow of what is to come. The canon was thus seen as the indicator of a system that was greater than the physical things which portrayed it.
The divisions in the church and the ultimate rejection of the Old Testament Scripture by the so-called orthodox faction is merely indicative of the failure to understand the role given to the church by the Scriptures and the way in which God is operating. The real burden of the church was the revelation of the Scriptures as it came to be expressed in the suffering of Christ and his subsequent glory (1Pet. 1:11 cf. Lk. 24:25-27). This became the cause of the problems that the canon faced in some areas with the book of Hebrews. This text carried on the message of the Old Testament concerning Christ as Elohim and Messiah from the Psalms (e.g. Ps. 45:6-7 in Heb. 1:8-9 and Zech. 12:7-8).
The sayings of Jesus Christ became the guiding interpretation of the early church (Acts 20:35). These understandings were nothing like that which is ascribed to them by modern Christianity. They interact with and interpret the Old Testament texts. At no stage do they do away with them.
The sayings of Messiah were regarded as holy. The gospels were records of the holy sayings. They were committed to memory and written by those who were involved with Christ or his immediate successors (e.g. Luke).
The writings of the apostles before the fall of the Temple were: The Pauline Epistles, i.e. (in their published order) Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1Peter, 1John.
The two letters to Timothy and the one to Titus are held to be, in their current form, rewrites of the originals (see Annotated RSV, Introduction to 1 Timothy). This is because Paul does not use his terms as previously (concerning freedom from the law, the union with Christ, the power and witness of the Spirit). The use of the term faith has a different meaning from his customary usage (e.g. as a synonym for the Christian religion rather than a believer’s relationship to Christ). This is traditionally attributed to changes in his environment and hence vocabulary, style and thought. It is also possible that the message in Galatians and Colossians was misunderstood by modern scholarship, as is indeed the case (see the paper The Works of the Law Text - or MMT (No. 104)). Because they did not understand Paul in those texts, they assume that the message in Timothy is of a different style and hence written by a disciple of Paul using several previously unpublished works of Paul and expanding them to deal with conditions confronting the church a generation after Paul’s death.
They are assumed to have been issued under the name of Paul to combat the heresies prevalent at the time and are generally dated around the beginning of the second century and by some as late as 150 CE. The collection of the Pauline letters is dated at the end of the first century and their acceptance is based on their incorporation into the latter (Interp. Dict., ibid., p. 524). Marcion’s canon did not contain them and they are not contained in the earliest manuscript of the letters of Paul (P46) (c. 200).
This pseudonymous authorship is also attributed to 2Peter. The reality is that modern scholarship is dependent upon the same anti-nomian considerations as were the original Gnostic disciples, and the understanding of the Miqsat ma’ase ha-torah or MMT was lost until it was excavated in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Hebrews is held by modern scholars to be the work of a contemporary of Paul. The Councils have decreed that Paul was its author although he may not have given it its final form. This is assigned to Appollos or Luke or others.
In the Alexandrian schools it was given a place among the Pauline letters before the end of the second century, and in the Beatty papyrus (P46) it stands in second place immediately after Romans; but in the West despite its extensive use in I Clement (c. 95) and the strong advocacy of Tertullian, who attributed it to Barnabas, it did not attain general acknowledgement as canonical until late in the fourth century (Interp. Dict., ibid.).
The problems that arose with Hebrews were because Paul seems not to have given Hebrews its final form. The real reason is as described above. It was used extensively from 95 CE and appears next to Romans in the order of one of the most ancient papyrus. How then did it achieve extensive early recognition and then face opposition? The reason is that the message is absolutely subordinationist creationist and that did not suit the Modalists and Gnostics. It was not until the position of Christ had been securely elevated from the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople that it could be safely declared canonical. It is a troublesome text for Modalists, Gnostics and their successors, the Trinitarians. The real objective of Gnosticism was the elimination of the Old Testament law and this objective was hampered by the texts of Hebrews, James, Jude and the writings of John and Peter. For this reason they were resisted in all areas where the Modalist/Gnostics had sway. The trouble with the New Testament canon is a reflection of the Christian/pseudo-Christian disputes of the early church.
The letter of James is attributed by modern scholars to a Jewish Christian steeped in Hellenistic literature and philosophy and may be dated fairly early in the second century (Interp. Dict., p. 524). The attribution to such a person is based on the fact that the letter is in the form of a diatribe constructed after the model employed by Stoic teachers. Thus, James is precluded because he was a Hebrew assumedly not well versed in Stoic philosophy or diatribes. At any rate, it was absent from some early canons. The objections are largely based on the fact of the defence of the law which the Gnostics and later anti-nomians wanted eliminated from the writings of Paul, and James modifies Paul perfectly. Thus it is attacked as spurious. It is not referred to in Christian literature until the third century (Interp. Dict., ibid.).
The mindset can be seen from this comment in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible:
I Peter is a pseudonymous work published in Asia Minor, though perhaps emanating from Rome, early in the second century. It is used by Polycarp and other Eastern churchmen of the second century, but did not find recognition in Rome and the West (except for Irenaeus and Tertullian) until much later. I John is closely related to the Fourth Gospel and may be by the same author; aided by this association it won early and broad recognition. The four minor letters (Jude, II Peter, II and III John) were never widely used, and their canonicity remained in dispute in the Greek churches as late as the fourth century (ibid.).
The reasons why this position should be so are obvious. The disciples were dead when Polycarp was writing. Polycarp was the direct disciple of John. He was the most authoritative disciple alive at the time. He had trained the mission to Lyon of which Irenaeus was one. Irenaeus sent reports to Smyrna and not to Rome.
This faction was in disagreement with Rome and the Easter faction generally. The heresy of the Easter system was about to enter the church. This division led ultimately to Sunday worship and the passages and letters which supported the Polycarp faction were ignored or attacked. Irenaeus mediated in this dispute. The law papers of James, Peter’s views of the faith and the wresting of Paul’s writings and Scripture were all diminished. This process began from 70 CE.
Just prior to the fall of Jerusalem, the church was scattered and protected. From the fall of the Temple, the canon began to be collected from the letters of the church but also new problems in the church required new texts. John was faced with serious heresy regarding the Godhead. The precursors to the Trinitarians, the Modalists, had penetrated the churches and they caused a severe split with what John identifies as the doctrine of Antichrist. Originally the dispute affected the text of 1John at 1John 4:1-2. The original text identified the doctrine as follows:
Hereby know ye the spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth Jesus Christ came in the flesh is of God; and every spirit which separates Jesus Christ is not of God but is of Antichrist (reconstructed from Irenaeus, Ch. 16:8) (ANF, Vol. 1, p. 443).
Socrates the Historian says (VII, 32, p. 381) that the passage had been corrupted by those who wished to separate the humanity of Jesus Christ from his divinity.
We are thus faced with the early influences on the biblical text to influence the early doctrines so that Christ could be said to have not truly died but that he was part of the Godhead so that such part remained separate and did not die. This was held by the Modalists who stated that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were aspects of the one being that achieved manifestation in these forms for express purpose. This came to be modified to the three persons distinct in the Godhead, which by Constantinople had been advanced but the actual role of the Spirit was not yet accepted in the forms that Athanasius had hoped. However, at this early stage the arguments were crude and still being developed by the pseudo-Christians under Gnosticism.
John had to be rejected as did some other texts. The text of 1John is similar to the gospel of John and, although John does not use his name but refers to himself in the third person, this is consistent with his style in the gospel. 1John is believed to have been written towards the end of the first Christian century which is indeed the time that John was in exile and writing from Patmos. 1John is seen as an accompaniment to the gospel and is acknowledged as being directed at Gnostic heretics who denied the absolute nature of the incarnation (see Annotated RSV).
2John is argued as coming from the same pen as the author of the Gospel and 1John. Unlike 1John, which was a general epistle, this text was written to one specific church, probably in Asia Minor.
It was also written towards the end of the first century, in other words, at the end of John’s life. 3John is written to an individual. The loose organisation of the church here shows that it may have occurred early in the history and its rank as 3John no doubt stems from the significance of the previous letters.
The book of Jude is attributed as being written by Jude, the brother of James and of Christ, about the year 80 CE. James was killed in 62/63 CE in Jerusalem and Jude is thought to have assumed a leadership position. This seems borne out by the role of the family of Christ in the Judean church for some time afterwards. The assumed dependence of 2Peter on Jude is given as reason for the authorship of 2Peter in Peter’s disciple. The relationship between 2Peter 2:1-8 and Jude 4-16 has a similarity of reference to the sequence of God activities but there is little doubt that this message would have been developed and punched out by the disciples in all directions. This is insufficient of itself to attribute other authorship. Be that as it may, the case for inspiration is not diminished by reiteration through a disciple. Polycarp was the disciple of John and his stand in the quarto-deciman controversy on the Passover was correct.
The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible refers to the work of Edgar J. Goodspeed who attempts to show that the author of Ephesians was not Paul but that he was also the collector and publisher of the Pauline letters, using Ephesians as a general introduction to the collection (see p. 522). It is suggested that he was Onesimus, the onetime fugitive slave. This Onesimus is identified by some as the one known by Ignatius as bishop of Antioch some fifty years later (see also Philemon).
2Peter is attributed to another because of the message. It has two purposes:
1. to emphasis the faith in the second coming of Christ; and
2. to warn against false teachers.
In this text he emphasises the apostolic witness as the basis of the church’s proclamation. He does this by referring back to the Old Testament prophecies. He explains why the second coming is not imminent but delayed by the patience and forbearance of God. This was necessary because the false teachers were disrupting the church and turning doctrine to their own gain (2Pet. 2:2,10,13-14). Here the concept of the world going into tribulation with the elect saved, as was Lot, becomes a teaching point. This emphasises the small nature of the elect and the extent of destruction which was not acceptable to the society then as it is not accepted now.
The letter was questioned in early times and is accepted now by some (e.g. Oxford Annotated RSV; see Introduction) as not being the work of Peter. The scholars hold that:
It is dependent upon the Letter of Jude (compare 2:1-8 with Jude 4-16) and the author refers to all the letters of Paul (3:15) in a way that presupposes not only that they had been collected into a corpus, but that they were regarded as equal to “the other scriptures” - conditions which did not exist in the lifetime of Peter. Most scholars regard the letter as the work of one who was deeply indebted to Peter and who published it under his master’s name early in the second century. In this connection the following considerations should be borne in mind. (1) In antiquity pseudonymous authorship was a widely accepted literary convention. Therefore the use of an apostle’s name in reasserting his teaching was not regarded as dishonest but merely a way of reminding the church of what it had received from God through that apostle. (2) The authority of the New Testament books is not dependent upon their human authorship, but upon their intrinsic significance, which the church, under the guidance of the spirit, has recognised as the authentic voice of apostolic teaching. For this reason therefore, what is traditionally known as the Second Letter of Peter was included in the canon of ancient Scripture (ibid.).
The Oxford Annotated RSV says of the canon (p. 1170) that:
The Bible of the earliest Christians was the Old Testament (2 Tim. 3.15-17). Of equal authority to these writings were the remembered words of Jesus (Acts 20.35; 1 Cor. 7.10,12; 9.14; 1 Tim. 5.18). Parallel with the oral circulation of Jesus’ teaching were apostolic interpretations of his person and significance for the life of the church ...
During the course of the second century most churches came to acknowledge a canon which included the present four Gospels, the Acts, thirteen letters of Paul, 1 Peter, and 1 John. Seven books still lacked general recognition: Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude and Revelation.
We have examined the reasons for the contention of the texts above. The disputes were religio-political. Even Jude was representative of a Judaic system that the Gnostics sought to eliminate.
The elimination of Revelation from the canon was a classic example of the reactions to Messianic Judaism by Gnosticism.
Revelation, probably composed towards the end of the first century, quickly achieved a widespread popularity; but its authorship was disputed by Alexandrian critics, it was handicapped for a long time by the reaction against chiliasm, and its canonicity was still in dispute in the East in the fourth century (Interp. Dict., p. 524).
The reason it was composed at the end of the first century was that it was given to John in exile on Patmos at that time, and spread rapidly throughout the church along with the fourth gospel and his letters. Alexandria was the home of the Gnostics and they had to attack Revelation because it was the culmination of Messianic Judaism as the Messiah of God and it enshrined the commandments of God as the basis of and central to that of the testimony of Jesus (Rev. 12:17; 14:12; 22:14 (KJV)).
The elimination of the book of Revelation from the canon was motivated by two other factors. The first factor was a fear of persecution by Rome when the faith was in subjection. That motivation turned to one of protection of privilege when the Emperors espoused the faith. The Gothic version (c. 350) did not have Revelation because it was clearly anti-Roman and they and the Vandals, Alans, etc. were converted by the empire. So that even though they were Unitarians, the emperors could not tolerate challenge to the empire. Thus, these later converts would have been viewed suspiciously by the early apologists.
As late as 135 or even 140 the evidence of Papius, bishop of Hierapolis, makes it clear that in some circles the evidence of the oral tradition based on a living chain of testimony had greater weight than any book. We know from this time that Papius had Mark, Matthew and John at his disposal, if not also Luke (Interp. Dict., ibid., p. 523). Yet he, himself, questioned the elders when he met the disciples. He said:
If I met with a disciple of the elders, I questioned him about the words of the elders - what Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip or by Thomas or by James... or by any other of the disciples of the Lord, and which things the elder Aristion and the elder John, the disciples of the Lord say. For I did not think that what was to be gotten from the books would profit me as much as what came from the living and abiding voice (Euseb. Hist. III.xxxix.4).
This view stems from the premise that the Holy Spirit speaks out of the mouth of the elect. The written oracles are thus inspired, but the spoken words of the disciples can explain also the meaning of much of the texts. This luxury was lost as they died. Papius was one of the last of those who had access to the witness of the disciples. This is important in that we can, in this way, ensure that what was written in the gospels that is referred to by Papius and the others in their writings are in fact the accurate words of the Messiah and, thus, we can ensure the continuation of the nature of God-breathed Scripture which is consistent with the Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament.
This process was reversed in a few short years. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible says, in commenting on this transition from the view of Papius, that:
The evidence of Justin Martyr shows that passages from the “memoirs of the apostles, which are called gospels” were being read liturgically in church, along with, or even in place of, readings from the Prophets; and this would certainly indicate that the gospels were being consciously or unconsciously regarded as holy scripture. But there were still wide varieties of attitude and practice with respect to them, nor is it certain which gospels or how many of them were in use at any given locality (p. 523).
This view is not correct as we know from 2Peter that the works of Paul were also being read in church and that they were regarded as Scripture along with the prophets. They were being wrested by the ignorant to their own destruction. Now, whether this was written by Peter or his disciple in his name, we see from Papius’ own statement that it had equal weight with the text and at any rate could not be older than this period in which case the canon is much larger and fixed much more precisely than modern scholars would have us believe.
The four gospels are works of the second Christian generation (c. 70-100 CE) (Interp. Dict., ibid.). The earliest gospel was Mark which appears to have been produced in Rome under Nero (c. 64 CE). This gospel can be taken to represent the oral tradition, as it existed in the Roman church at 64 CE.
In about 80 CE, it became the basis for the gospel of Matthew which is held to have been composed in Palestine at that time (ibid.). Mark is also held to be the basis for the gospel of Luke which, together with Acts, was published in the Eastern Mediterranean around the close of the first century. Luke 1:1-2 shows that the work was undertaken by many. The earliest manuscript of the gospels (P45) is also accompanied by the book of Acts.
Luke 1:1-2 Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, 2 Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word; (KJV)
Hence the gospels were compiled from many eyewitnesses and thus rest on the weight of the testimony of the church. Luke claims no special authority (Lk. 1:3). The authority of the gospels rested on the words of the Messiah and not on any canonicity. This is the evidence of the inspiration of the prophets, as it was understood by the disciples and the church. There is no doubt that they regarded the word of God as a living-breathing thing which incorporated the Old Testament as its nucleus. Scripture up until the second century was the Old Testament plus the words of Christ. The Epistles were then incorporated within the churches under the Ephesus and Smyrna apostolic system. The systems in Alexandria and then Rome commenced to remove epistles from the lists of inspired works as they interfered with the doctrines they were trying to implement. After they had consolidated their position the works were admitted to the canon. This process will be examined further.
The gospels that exist from the time that are uncanonical are clearly from sources that are Gnostic with Docetic leanings and which seek to reduce Christ’s life to a phantasmal structure which separated the heavenly aeon Christ from the earthly body which he inhabited (see Interp. Dict., p. 524). You will recall that this is the doctrine of Antichrist and that this doctrine came to be modified into the structure which is understood as the Trinity which holds that the system is distinct but not separate (the Monarchia and the Circumincession) (see the paper Consubstantial With the Father (No. 81)). From this position it is often held that Christ, as part of this Triune system, did not fully die and was not fully resurrected by direction of the One True God alone, which is the Father (see Jn. 10:18; 17:3; 1Jn. 5:20). The Apocryphal writings of the New Testament sometime flow from real works and others not so real.
There are other non-canonical texts which nevertheless are genuine and are of importance to the early history. 1Clement is a text which appears to have been written from Rome to Corinth at about 95 CE. This text was never cited as Scripture but it was allegedly read in public worship in Corinth c. 170 CE. It is included in the Codex Alexandrinus (c. fifth century). The later works named 2Clement (an anonymous homily c. 150 CE, also in the Codex Alexandrinus) and the Clementine Recognitions show that this work must have had some recognition.
The Epistle of Barnabas is a pseudonymous pamphlet of the early second century which probably originated from Alexandria. It is found in the Codex Sianaticus of the fourth century. Both Clement of Alexandria and Origen, his successor, treat this work as Scripture. It was, however, never acknowledged elsewhere and not by the later Alexandrians. Clement of Alexandria was influenced by Gnosticism, and Origen was also tainted by Gnosticism. Alexandria was its home.
The Didache “The Teaching of Jesus Christ through the Twelve Apostles” is a small manual which, although of uncertain date, is generally held to come from the early second century. It was used by the early Alexandrians as Scripture and was so used in the Egyptian churches throughout the third century. It seems to have been used in Syria as late as c. 400 CE (in the Apostolic Constitutions), and appears in some Greek lists of the fourth century. It was translated into both Latin and Georgian which indicates extensive use. The Shepherd of Hermas was widely used in the early church for a century or so. It was referred to by Irenaeus and shortly by Tertullian who treated it as Scripture. Origen also regarded it as apostolic and it is included (incomplete) in the Codex Sinaiticus. According to the Muratorian canon it was composed c. 150 CE by Hermas, a brother of the Roman bishop of that time but many investigators date it some decades earlier (see Interp. Dict., pp. 524-525).
The Letters of Ignatius and the Epistle to Diognetus were never cited as Scripture.
At least five books were attributed to Peter during the early years. However, only the two letters were recognised. We know from their acceptance by Polycarp and Smyrna that they were regarded as Scripture from the earliest times and by disciples of the apostle John.
The Gospel of Peter, The Preaching of Peter and the Apocalypse of Peter all had some early use. The Apocalypse of Peter was espoused by Clement of Alexandria and appears in the Muratorian canon which means that it was sponsored by the Roman church of the time, and Methodius (c. 300). This period was where the Modalist/Gnostic assaults were being made on the theology through the canon: hence, the Alexandrian and Roman support.
The Acts of Peter and The Acts of John are works of a follower of the Gnostic Valentinus (ibid., p. 525).
The Acts of Paul was composed by an Asian presbyter about the middle of the second century. Of all the pseudomymous Acts, it alone gained some ecclesiastical support. The author was deposed for the forgery but nevertheless it still had support in Alexandria (Interp. Dict., p. 525).
This body of literature up until the middle of the second century seems to have been treated succinctly by the Ephesian and Smyrna groups of John in a fairly consistent manner. The Old Testament was the body of the canon with the gospels and epistles being recognised and distinct very early. The Alexandrian and Roman systems suffered a wide diversity of opinion until fairly late for the reasons expressed above. The Syriac was very conservative because of the problems experienced above. Thus the canon was centred on 22 books there, with the other later canon being used in Asia as perhaps semi-canonical, although they were referred to as Scripture by the Asian church from Ephesus and Smyrna.
The Church was thus built upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets (Eph. 2:20). The Ephesian church regarded all the prophets as the foundation of the faith. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible adds quite incorrectly the term Christian before the word prophets as though Ephesians 2:20 was really confining the basis of the faith to the New Testament. This is the basic lie that underpins all modern Christianity. Revelation is not seen as the revelation of God to Jesus Christ but that of an inspired seer (seemingly not even John) (ibid., p. 525). The endorsement of the twelve apostles in Revelation 21:9-14 is seen as a later development of the church. Therein lies the basic problem of the faith.
The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible correctly draws attention to the emphasis on the oral accounts and teachings that were committed to the church by the apostles (e.g. 1Tim. 6:20; 2Tim. 1:13; 2Tim. 2:2) from childhood (2Tim. 3:15).
The general view is that the decisive development took place in the second half of the second century. The canon then emerged. Firstly, the gospels are cited in the ecclesiastical writings and the liturgy; then, the writings of Paul are cited.
By the end of the second century the other materials were then recognised. The rule became quite simple – what is apostolic is canonical; what is not apostolic is not canonical. This had already been done in Ephesus and Smyrna under the direction of John and his immediate disciples such as Polycarp and thence Irenaeus, Polycrates etc. The canon was never in doubt in the church as it was established by the apostles. The Old Testament was, however, the real holy Scripture as explained by the teachings of Christ and the apostles.
The earliest usage of the gospels as recorded, and as holy Scripture, is about c. 150 in 2Clement iv, quoting Matthew 9:13. Justin Martyr (in Apology, I. 67) (c. 150) also says, in describing Christian service, that the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as time permits. The term memoirs refers to the phrase apomnemoneuata used by the Greeks for their understanding. He elsewhere says the apostles were those who have written memoires of all things concerning our Saviour Jesus Christ and also the memoirs made by (the apostles) which are called gospels (Apol., I. 33, 66).
Thus Justin is witness that in the second century the gospels are being read interchangeably with the Old Testament prophets in the liturgy. This is the controlling basis of Christianity. The Old Testament canon is thus mediated by the gospels.
This was seen to also extend to the Epistles as we see from Marcion’s canon. Son of the bishop of Sinope, he came to Rome from Pontus c. 150. Marcion came under so-called Gnostic influence. He taught that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, known as creator and God of justice, was an inferior deity and that Jesus revealed the supreme God, the God of love who had previously been unknown. This view is perhaps similar to the modern view that the Father was not revealed in the Old Testament Scriptures but rather that it was Christ who was the God of the Old Testament. The fact of the matter is that both were evident from the Old Testament and Messiah was the elohim anointed by his elohim above his partners (Ps. 45:6-7; Heb. 1:8-9). Thus Marcion and some of the Churches in the twentieth century have a similar or confused view. That is assuming that Marcion is faithfully recorded. This view led Marcion to reject the Old Testament Scriptures outright and compose a canon consisting solely of Christian books. He thought that the twelve apostles had utterly corrupted the doctrine of Christ. He held that Paul alone had stood faithful to the gospel of Christ. Thus, he established the ten letters of Paul with the gospel of Luke which he held was the work of an associate of Paul. He excised some sections of Galatians and Romans and severely mutilated the text of the gospel so that it fitted with his ideas. He is incorrectly accused of altering the text of the Pauline letters, although we now know that these were merely minor variations in the manuscripts. This is the first recorded canon we have, even though it is incorrect and did not reflect the true canon as recognised. It is thus more correct to say that the canon was not reduced to explicit lists being understood as the apostolic works including the Pauline letters. 2Peter was included, as we have seen. The texts of the entire New Testament, as we know it, were preserved and referred to by the church from the time they were set down by the apostles, assisted perhaps by their scribes in the church.
It is probable that Marcion forced the other elements of the church to view a separate canon of the New Testament. Up until that time the writings were merely additions to the Old Testament canon. His rejection of the Old Testament canon is the central key of the Gnostic doctrines that seek to eliminate the God and His law from the so-called Christian faith. This Gnostic doctrine is the most prolific and insidious doctrine extant in the twentieth century. In fact, if the early church writers were asked to view the twentieth century, they would say without doubt that the Gnostic faith as practised from Alexandria, together with the mysteries as practised from Rome, had usurped the faith. Moreover, they would be hard pressed to find their original brand of apostolic Christianity and its view of Scripture, and its cosmology, alive on the planet.
Marcion is alleged to have exalted Paul to equal honour with the twelve apostles and so that legacy also is seen as his (Interp. Dict., p. 526). Paul was, however, accorded such honour from 2Peter and thus we know that it was a view of the early church also.
The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible holds that the pastoral letters may have even been edited to be able to deal with the heresy of Marcion and that, in this way, the Catholic canon was developed primarily as an anti-Marcionite reaction (ibid.). This view attributes a clear Catholic position as extant at this time and that is simply too great a construction to be put on the matter. The church could not be seen to be in existence as a Catholic entity at this time. Indeed that position was not to be reached until Constantinople in 381 when the Athanasian faction finally gained their first baptised emperor and, with that, lasting patronage. It was the decidedly non-Catholic Polycarp who denounced Marcion as the “firstborn of Satan”. Marcion was the most organised of the non-Roman (and non-Modalist) false Christians, having some hundreds of churches in both east and west, and a line of bishops that was commenced by him. Gnostics generally were not as organised and existed within the Christian church and ultimately exerted great influence on it. Their doctrines were in line with the thought of the age, which sought to avoid the law of God. They were the true anti-nomians and their successors are the grace-not-law charismatics of the modern age.
The arguments occurred among the quasi-Gnostic and Modalist schools and continued among those schools up until the fourth century. Each of these groups espoused the more fabulous of the writings which, in the main, were written to support their contentions but attributed to the saints of the early church. They wrote the gospels of Peter, of Thomas, of Philip and of Truth and also the Acts of Peter, Thomas and John etc. They had no difficulty when free from Old Testament Scripture of wresting the New Testament, particularly in its difficult passages (2Pet. 3:16). The rejection of these false works was expressed in writing by Serapion, bishop of Antioch, in his letter to the church at Rhossus where he said, in rejecting the spurious gospel of Peter: We receive both Peter and the other apostles as Christ, but we reject the writings falsely attributed to them, for we know that such were not handed down to us (Euseb. Hist., VI. 12.3).
It is thus clear that there was handed down to the church in Asia Minor by the early church and the apostles a canon of Scripture to which Serapion could refer as early as the middle of the second century. This accords with the texts we have seen from Justin, Polycarp and Irenaeus. Thus the Apostolic or Unitarian and Sabbatarian Church had an early consistent view. The so-called Orthodox church, which at this time was rejecting the Passover in favour of Easter and was on its way to Sunday worship, had other views.
In orthodox circles the elevation of the Pauline letters occurred more slowly and less clearly. Ca. 180, Melito of Sardis made a list of the “old books,” which he named “the books of the Old Testament” - a phrase which implies that there was something in the way of an aggregation of “new books” or “books of the New Testament”; but he did not himself coin the latter phrase, nor does he indicate at all clearly what books he would have included under such a description. Theophilus of Antioch, his contemporary, quotes from Matthew and John, and mentions the latter as one of the “Spirit-bearers” [pneumatophoroi]; but while he makes free use of the Pauline letters, the Pastorals, Hebrews and 1Peter, he does not appear to treat them quite as holy scripture. Athenagoras, an Athenian apologist of the same time, appeals to the gospels under the same formula [phesin] as to the Prophets and cites sentences from Paul in such a way as to suggest that the words of the apostle carry the same divine authority as the Hebrew books. Tatian in preparing his harmony of the gospels, the Diatessaron (ca. 170), appears to have employed our four gospels and no other - an indication that since the time of Justin, the four had acquired an undisputed pre-eminence (Interp. Dict., p. 527).
The view that the four gospels assumed a pre-eminence from the time of Justin is made on no certain foundation. From the comments of Justin, there appears to be no doubt as to the supremacy of the four gospels. Indeed, there seems to be no doubt in those apostolic churches as to what constituted the Scriptures from the times that they were written. The key point is that the Old Testament was always the centre of the New Testament exposition. The Old Testament was never diminished in the early apostolic church. The moves to assert the New Testament as Scripture alone was always, and is, inherently anti-nomian Gnostic, and is false Christianity.
Writers rejected some as they became more influenced by the Gnostics and the Roman/Alexandrian nexus. Jerome records (c. 390) that Tatian rejected two of the Pauline letters (probably 1 and 2 Timothy) but accepted Titus.
F.W. Beare in his work in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible records that the martyrs of Scilla in North Africa told the magistrate that they keep in their cabinet:
“… our books and the epistles of the holy man Paul”. These books would appear to include OT scriptures and gospels which are thus grouped together; the epistles are not counted among the “books” but are accorded a place in the same cabinet (p. 527).
The Old so-called Catholic or Universal Canon
We are concerned here with a number of elements: The Muratorian Fragment, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus and Tertullian.
By the end of the second century we see that a canon was extant and with only minor variations was recognised in all quarters of the church. This gave rise to the earliest Roman list which is known as the Muratorian Canon. It is important to note that Irenaeus came to Rome from Polycarp in Smyrna before going on to become bishop of Lyons (see the paper General Distribution of the Sabbath-keeping Churches (No. 122)). From an examination of his writings, and those of Clement of Alexandria and the schools there, together with those of the Carthaginian Tertullian, who was both lawyer and presbyter, hailed as the first great representative of Latin Christianity who became a Montanist in his later life, we get a view that there was an underlying commonality. All these writers together with the Muratorian Canon are held to be in remarkable accord and show the amazing continuity of ideas extant at the time. However, the views of the early apologists such as Irenaeus are decidedly Unitarian subordinationist and can hardly be described as Catholic because the doctrines they espouse are at complete variance with that which came to be held by the Athanasian faction and what we understand as Catholicism from the Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople and Chalcedon (see the paper Early Theology of the Godhead (No. 127); cf. Interp. Dict., p. 527).
The Muratorian Canon is a list of books of the New Testament with brief remarks about their origins and authenticity. It was found in manuscript form in Bobbio in the eighth century and was preserved in the Ambrosian library at Milan. It was published by Ludovico Antonio Muratore in 1740. It is a translation into barbarous Latin of a Greek original, which was drawn up at Rome some years before the end of the second century (Interp. Dict., p. 527),
Whilst the beginning is lost, there is no doubt that it deals with the gospels of Matthew and Mark as Luke and John are listed as the third and the fourth among the gospels. It has this to say of the gospels, which shows that it was the view in the second century that the gospels were the inspired work of the Holy Spirit.
Although various fundamentals [principia] are taught in the several books of the gospels, nevertheless this makes no difference to the faith of believers; for in all of them all things are declared by the one guiding Spirit concerning the Nativity, the Passion, the Resurrection, the converse with his disciples, and his twofold coming. (cf. Interp. Dict,. p. 527)
Beare holds that the divine inspiration and the essential unity of the four gospels could not be more explicitly affirmed (ibid.).
The list then proceeds to Acts and then lists the thirteen letters of Paul, the three pastorals along with Philemon. It declares that these are written pro affectu et dilectione [out of personal affection and love]: held sacred in the esteem of the catholic church in the ordering of ecclessiastical discipline (Interp. Dict., ibid.).
The canon here uses the term catholic in its sense of universal rather than Roman Catholic as it is understood today.
Beare notes the canon makes reference to certain letters forged under the name of Paul by the Marcionites, and “several others which cannot be received into the catholic church for gall ought not to be mixed with honey” (ibid., quoting the canon).
It then affirms the epistle of Jude and two epistles of John (apparently 1 and 2John but bear in mind all three are anonymous). It also affirms the apocalypse of John and also of Peter but states the Shepherd of Hermas cannot be read aloud to the congregation in services either among the prophets or among the apostles; for Hermas wrote it:
… quite recently, in our own times, in the city of Rome, during the episcopate of his brother Pius (ibid.).
This canon recognises twenty-two of the existing canon including the gospels the thirteen letters of Paul, three of the so-called Catholic letters (1 and 2John and Jude), and Revelation. It includes two apocryphal works the Wisdom of Solomon and the Apocalypse of Peter, which it admits some bishops will not allow to be read in the churches.
The acceptance of Wisdom even recognised as being Pseudonymous was made on the age of the text (Beare, Interp. Dict., ibid.).
Clement of Alexandria shows the acceptance of the four gospels, the Egyptian gospel (Strom. II. 93. 1; cf. ibid.), fourteen Pauline works which include Hebrews, following his master Pantaenus. He quotes Paul not as Scripture but in concert with the teaching of Christ as interpretation of Old Testament Scripture. He also uses 1Peter, 1 and 2John, and Jude (Eusebius says he commented on all of them) and Revelation. He also uses the apocryphal works of the Apocalypse of Peter, the Shepherd, the Preaching of Peter, Barnabas and 1Clement but these are not what he views as the substance of the canon.
The most authentic and extensive compilation of Scripture compiled in the second century was by Irenaeus. By examination of his works we can detect quotes from all four gospels, from twelve Pauline letters and no doubt Philemon is omitted by sheer chance (Beare, op. cit.). He quotes from 1Peter and 1 and 2John. The omission of 3John again is not significant (Beare, ibid.), no doubt omitted under the same circumstances as Philemon. He also quotes from Revelation. He quotes from Hebrews; but Beare seems to think that his quotes indicate lesser esteem. His teacher Polycarp quoted also from Peter. We know that Hebrews was part of their canon. We can thus deduce that the Unitarian quarto-decimans of the second century descending from the Apostle John had a complete canon, as we know it today. They also accepted the Shepherd of Hermas as teaching. The alteration to the doctrine of Antichrist can be corrected and understood from Irenaeus as we have seen above.
Irenaeus holds the gospels are the four pillars of a God given unity.
As there are four quarters of the world in which we are, and four universal winds, and as the church is scattered over all the earth, and the gospel is the pillar and bulwark of the church and the breath of life, it is seemly that it should have four pillars, breathing immortality from all sides and kindling men to new life. From this it is evident that the Word, the Fashioner of all things, ... having been manifested to mankind, gave us the gospel in a fourfold shape held together by one Spirit (Iren., Her. III.11.8).
Irenaeus says quite distinctly, that The Scriptures are perfect inasmuch as they were uttered by the word of God and His Spirit. (Iren., Her. II. 28.2)
Thus the doctrine of the inspiration of the Holy Scripture is seen as being the doctrine of the early church. The inspired and perfect Scripture was the Old Testament, inseparable from and interpreted by the New Testament.
Irenaeus also assigns the symbolism of the Cherubim to the apostles as: the man being Matthew, the calf Luke, the eagle Mark and the Lion John. (These are assigned differently by later writers (see also the paper The Meaning of Ezekiel’s Vision (No. 108).)
The canon is thus a product of the apostolic church which was transferred to Rome.
From here the first exponent of Latin Christianity and its vocabulary emerges in the form of Tertullian. He followed Irenaeus and for twenty years he espoused Latin Christianity before turning to Montanism and denouncing the moral laxity of the Latin Church as it was emerging from Rome. He regarded the gospels as the theological Instrument (rather than Testament) being a legal term and hence having the force of law. They were written by apostles or their direct disciples. The authority of the latter rests on that of their masters, “which means that of Christ, for it was that which made the apostles their masters” (Tert. Marcion, IV. 2). He regarded a single gospel as not authoritative in itself and certainly not Luke’s gospel in itself as chosen by Marcion.
“Luke was not an apostle, but only an apostolic man; not a master, but a disciple and so inferior to a master....Indeed had Marcion published his gospels in the name of Paul himself, the single authority of the document, lacking all support from preceding authorities, would not be a sufficient basis for our faith (ibid., cf. Beare, p. 528).
Hence the gospels cannot stand alone, and they must be supported by the Old Testament Scripture which they interpret. That was the view of all sections of the church. The view of the authority of the church vested in succession is derived from this logic expressed in the first element but ignoring the sentiments Tertullian made in the second element above. Thus the church can only speak according to the law and the testimony (Isa. 8:20) and cannot change it at all.
Tertullian held the canon as being the four gospels, Acts, the thirteen Pauline letters, Revelation, 1John, 1Peter, and Jude. Hebrews he ascribes to Barnabas and is of sufficient authority. He has thus twenty-two books of the central canon with Hebrews added and the Shepherd of Hermas included as a reference while a Latin but rejected once he rejected Rome.
Tertullian in his early optimism expressed the view that Rome held an important place in the faith. Rome:
… mingles the law and the prophets in one volume with the writings of evangelists and apostles, from which she imbibes her faith (Tert., Presc. Her. XXXVI).
If I fail to settle this article of our faith by passages...out of the Old Testament, I will take out of the New Testament a confirmation of our view...Behold, then, I find both in the gospels and in the apostles a visible and invisible God (Adv. Prax. XV).
Here we see the subordinationism that he was gradually evolving into the Triune structure which would ultimately become the Trinity. Yet here he upheld the supremacy of Old Testament Scripture and the two deities, the visible and the invisible. Thus at this time we see the Bible as one volume based on the law and the prophets. Tertullian became disillusioned with the immorality at Rome and their failure to adhere to the tenets of the faith contained in the law that he denounced them and became a Montanist.
In the second century, scribes began using a codex instead of a papyrus roll which required that strips be glued together end to end and thus conveniently could not be more than thirty feet long. This was about sufficient to contain a single gospel or other large work, e.g. Revelation. With the codex, the sheets were folded together in quires of three or four sheets and then sewed together quire by quire. Thus the fourfold gospel probably emerged from a single codex. This is probably the one volume system that we have referred to above. This was the beginning of the concept of the Bible as one book. This also took effect from the second century thus emphasising the unity of Scripture. The rolls could be discarded: the codex could not. They were bound together until the volume wore out. Thus the canon as a fixed list was important to the compilation of the texts.
The Canon for the Greek and Latin Churches
By the third century the canon had come into being. There were only minor areas of disagreement. The Apostolic Unitarian Quarto-decimans were clear on their canon from Smyrna into Lyon. Hebrews was also secure in Alexandria. 2 and 3John were not, and nor was 2 Peter, in that they were not recognised everywhere.
The Syrian church was still fixed into the twenty-two books of the central canon and the other works as addendums. This situation was not finally resolved there until the fifth and sixth centuries.
Origen succeeded Clement as head of the school in Alexandria and contributed to the controversy around the canon within the Alexandrian/Latin fellowship. He finished his work in Caesarea in Palestine after he had a dispute with his bishop in Alexandria. He held that there were spiritual meanings in the Scriptures by which we may “ascertain a meaning of God in those Scriptures which we believe to be inspired of Him” (On First Principles, IV. 15-16).
Thus the inspiration of the Scriptures was held in the Alexandrian school as well as in Smyrna and the Apostolic schools in the West. Origen compiled a list of those texts he considered to be acknowledged by all schools and those he considered to be in dispute. Of the acknowledged, he includes the four gospels and the Pauline letters (fourteen), including Hebrews (even though he knows it is not by Paul and is in dispute in some quarters), Acts, 1John, 1Peter and Revelation. He includes among the disputed works, James, 2Peter, 2 and 3John. He apparently listed the Shepherd of Hermas amongst the disputed works also (Beare, ibid., p. 529). The canon is thus known. It was set in the apostolic churches as we saw in the second century but here in Alexandria and in comparison with the other eastern churches there is still dispute concerning these few texts. He cites the Epistle of James and has no doubt that Jude is by the Lord’s brother. He accepts Revelation but his statement that John the son of Zebedee: “wrote the Apocalypse, though he had been commanded to be silent and not write the utterances of the seven thunders” (Beare, ibid.).
This sentiment came to fruition as wholesale rejection of Revelation in Alexandria shortly afterwards. This stems entirely from the Gnostic influences on the cosmology of the sects then developing in Alexandria and Rome. He uses the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas although he does not regard them as canonical.
We then proceed to Dionysius of Alexandria concerning the questioning of Revelation.
Dionysius became head of the Alexandrian school in c. 231 CE and afterwards was made bishop. He called into question that it was written by John but did not question its right to be in the canon. He held that it was so completely different to the style of John that it had another author. That sentiment is true because it is the Revelation of God to Jesus Christ and we might expect some difference in style being based on the utterances of a third party. Most of the other disciples of Origen rejected it entirely. Many of these men became the most influential bishops of the time. Many who rejected it attributed it to the heretic Cerinthus. The real reasons for the rejection of Revelation lay in the fact that the millennial structure of the work was at odds with the Gnostic anti-nomian legacy of Alexandria and the concept of celestial ascent to the heavens which Justin Martyr had said earlier was the means by which you could tell the non-Christians who claimed to be Christians. This school was joined by the school of Lucian of Antioch in rejecting Revelation. The Lucianists had Arius and Eusebius of Nicomedia among many others and perhaps this rejection of Revelation was contributory to their failure to fully comprehend the Unitarian structure and also to argue it compellingly at Nicaea in 325 CE.
Revelation was upheld by Methodius of Olympus and in the West the book remained unchallenged both in Rome and its dependencies and in the non-catholic system (see the paper General Distribution of the Sabbath-keeping Churches (No. 122)). The Greek churches admitted it to their canon finally but it is missing from a third of the extant manuscripts of the New Testament. In the Syrian churches it was never admitted to the canon at all, except among the Monophysites (Beare, ibid.).
From 303 the Emperor Diocletian undertook the most systematic persecution of the church. It lasted three years in the West but some ten years in the East. The church was faced with the fact of wholesale destruction of their buildings and their libraries both common and personal. Thus they had to decide what could be handed over and what was the most sacred or canonical works which could not be handed over. One party regarded the handing over of any works as impermissible and labelled those who did as traditores. This led to the bitter Donatist dispute. Thus the persecution helped determine those books which were held in the most esteem as the sacred or canonical works. The others were systematically eliminated such that they became available to scholars.
It should be remembered that the disputes were largely conducted among what we would consider the non-apostolic elements. But even there the consolidation was inevitable. The ecclesiastical history, which Eusebius of Caesarea completed about 325 or the time of the council of Nicaea, still reflected more or less the position as noted by Origen. He mentions the seven so-called Catholic epistles but he notes that James and Jude are disputed (II. xxiii. 25) and also elsewhere classes James, Jude, 2Peter, and 2 and 3John among the “disputed writings which are nonetheless known to most” (III. xxv. 3). He lists Revelation as acknowledged “if perchance it seem correct” and then lists it a few lines later among the spurious books. This view is perhaps derived from the difficulty most had in understanding the text. Today, with the benefit of history, we still find it difficult and the so-called Orthodox church ignores it where possible and has delineated its interpretation by council.
Eusebius’ views on the canon were of extreme importance as Constantine charged him with the preparation of 50 copies of the Scriptures on vellum be sent to him at Constantinople. Unfortunately all of those copies were lost.
Other Greek lists of the canon were available in the fourth century. Cyril of Jerusalem lists twenty-six of our twenty-seven books. He excluded Revelation. This exclusion of Revelation in fact is the same structure as the Gothic Bible. Epiphanius of Constantia in Cyprus includes it with the others in his list. As we have seen, the rejection of Revelation appears to be based as from political consideration not the least of which was the rule of the world from Jerusalem and the not very well disguised prophecy concerning the destruction of Rome (Rev. chs 17-18 and 21-22).
Gregory of Nazianzus gave the same list as Cyril but Athanasius in his thirty-ninth Festal Letter written in 367 gives a list of the books that are canonised and handed down to us and believed to be divine. He lists the books of the Old Testament and then the twenty-seven of the New Testament.
All of the above list the seven so-called Catholic letters as a group. The lists differ only as to Revelation and sometimes Hebrews is listed tenth and sometimes last. The bishops of the school of Antioch, John Chrysostom of Constantinople, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, make no use of Revelation or of the four minor Catholic letters – 2 and 3John, 2Peter and Jude. This is perhaps understandable given their Platonism and the way in which mysticism was to effect their theology. The net effect was that at the end of the fourth century there was still a considerable part of the Greek church that acknowledged only a core canon of 22 books. Beare notes that the section of the Apostolic Constitutions, published in Syria c. 400, lists all twenty-seven books except Revelation and adds to them 1 and 2Clement. This canon was actually ratified by the Quinisextine Council of Constantinople of 692. This is sometimes confused with the Council of Constantinople of 381 which met for a different reason.
There is no list between that of Tertullian and Jerome for the Western church but we know from Irenaeus that it was as we now understand in substance if not in sequence. Their general usage confirms the existence and structure of the canon but as might be expected the minor works are seldom if ever quoted. The four gospels, Acts, the thirteen Pauline letters, 1John and 1Peter, and Revelation are consistently used (by Cyprian, Lactantius et al.) as Holy Scripture. No Latin writer of the period makes use of the apocryphal gospels, Acts or apocalypses. They are seldom mentioned except where to be condemned as heretical.
After Nicaea and the restoration of the Unitarian faction to power by Constantine from about 327 CE, the Latin church saw some conflict between the two factions. Hilary, bishop of Poitiers was exiled for his opposition to so-called Arianism (357-361). He was the earliest Latin churchman to quote Hebrews as Paul’s. It was not so regarded until that time. It was noted generally as the work of Barnabas at the direction of Paul.
Jerome in his translation of the Bible into Latin, which became the Vulgate in the Western church, included the twenty-seven books of our canon. In his letter to Paulinus (epistle 53, c. 385) is the first recognition of the body of the seven so-called Catholic letters. He remarks that James and Jude had been in dispute but that they had acquired authority over the lapse of time and usage of the church. He said that 1 and 2Peter differed in style so greatly that the apostle must have used different “interpreters” in composing them. He acknowledges 1John as generally approved and notes 2 and 3John as the work of the presbyter John. He also held that the ancient and widespread testimony to Hebrews and Revelation justify their use as canonical and ecclesiastical.
Jerome was supported by Pope Damasus. However, the canon used by Rufinus of Aquileia and Augustine of Hippo show, without dependence on Jerome, that they have the same canon. Ambrose of Milan and Hilary of Poitiers are in essential agreement (Beare, ibid., p. 531).
The canon was considered at the Councils of North Africa, namely Hippo in 393 and Carthage in 397. Augustine presided at both councils. Canon 39 of the Council of Carthage decrees that:
… apart from the canonical scriptures, nothing may be read in the church under the name of divine scriptures.
The Council lists the books of the Old Testament and then goes on to say:
Of the New Testament: of the gospels four books; of the Acts of the Apostles, one book; epistles of Paul the apostle, thirteen; of the same, to the Hebrews, one; of Peter the apostle, two; of John, three; of James, one; of Jude, one; the Apocalypse of John, one book.
The canon in the Syrian church is held to be obscure until the formulation of the Peshitta in the fifth century. Although they held an old Syriac version of the four gospels, which have survived in two manuscripts, it seems to have been supplanted by Tatian’s Diatessaron. In the late second century or early third century the book of Acts and the Pauline letters were translated into Syriac, probably by Tatian. This may have led to the situation that by the fourth century the Syriac canon consisted of the Diatessaron, Acts and the Pauline letters. There were fifteen letters with the addition of the spurious Third Epistle to the Corinthians, which was extant only in Armenian, Coptic and Latin versions. This canon of seventeen books is used by Ephraem of Edessa (c. 320-373), and by Afraates his contemporary, and is listed as authoritative in the Doctrine of Addai, composed c. 370 at Edessa. In a list of c. 400 the gospels replaced the Diatessaron and 3Corinthians was removed. This is taken by Beare to indicate that they were moving into conformity with the Greeks under the influence of the school at Antioch (p. 531). The last version, and that held to be the Peshitta, was made under the influence of bishop Rabbula of Edessa in the first quarter of the fifth century. This text contained the four (separated) gospels, Acts, fourteen Pauline letters, and three Catholic letters, James, 1Peter and 1John. From this point the Syrian episcopate made a vigorous effort to suppress the Diatessaron. Theodoret of Cyrrhus destroyed more than two hundred copies and there is no copy extant apart from a single leaf of vellum with a fragment of the Greek text on it.
From the fifth century, the Monophysite/Diphysite controversies split the Syrian church. To the East they became Nestorian and to the West, Monophysite or the Jacobites as they are known. The Nestorians continued to hold to the original Peshitta which was the base for the oldest Persian and Arabic versions. This is the basis of one of the versions available to the Arabs and hence Islam. A revision of the Peshitta was prepared in 508 for bishop Philoxenus. This work, being based on a good Greek manuscript, included the seven Catholic letters and Revelation.
A further revision was conducted by Thomas of Harkel in 616 but this version did not attain the authority of the Peshitta. Thus the Syrian church had a central canon of twenty-two books which excluded the four minor Catholic letters and Revelation.
The canon of the churches however continued as we have them now with minor developments. The Ethiopic church added eight books to the twenty-seven in a collection of decrees called the Synodus., and added also the Clementines. John of Damascus c. 730 added the Apostolic Constitutions which he attributed to Clement to his list of the New Testament. In the Latin church in the Middle Ages, the spurious Epistle to the Laodiceans which had first appeared in the sixth century was added as a fifteenth letter.
In the Reformation in the sixteenth century, Erasmus, Luther, Carlstadt, Zwingli and Calvin and some Romans again discussed the disputed books but did not alter the canon or practice.
The Final Position
The Council of Constantinople was convened by the first Athanasian or Catholic Emperor, the Spanish born Theodosius. He was appointed by Gratian, himself a Unitarian. Constantine had been baptised a Unitarian (by Eusebius of Nicomedia) as had subsequent emperors including Valens. The Vandals, Alans Suevi, Heruli and Goths etc. were converted to Unitarianism. That Council of 381 in Constantinople, with the rise of the Trinitarian faction and its power, is the correct start date of the Roman Catholic Church. Nicaea was a short victory for the Trinitarians as Constantine re-instated the Unitarian bishops in power and deposed the Trinitarians after some two years.
The Council of Constantinople of 381 was not called to discuss the canon. But this Council did establish the authority of the Athanasians now termed “Catholics” for the long run. Athanasius had re-included Revelation in his list of the canon which had been in dispute among the Cappadocians (e.g. Gregory of Nazianzus).
The Scripture referred to by Christ and the apostles in the New Testament is the Old Testament. The apostles held that all Scripture (which was at that time the Old Testament and then added to by the apostles) was to be used for doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works (2Tim. 3:16).
The Bible was in Gothic from c. 350 and the Unitarian Goths and Vandals were not at Constantinople. By that time also Origen’s Hexaplas had been translated into Hebrew/Aramaic. The Syriac (Western Aramaic c. 170 resulting in the Peshitto version) was already old. The Curetonian Syriac is third century. Syriac flourished until the seventh century CE. In the eighth and ninth centuries it was overtaken by Arabic and by the thirteenth century it had disappeared. Aramaic is of three kinds Jerusalem, Samaritan and Galilean and there are some 44 examples of Aramaic words preserved in these three forms in the Greek of the New Testament. The Old Testament, of course, was available in both Greek (LXX) and Hebrew.
Our list and order of texts of the New Testament in the English is derived from Jerome’s list of the Latin Vulgate. He uses the term Testamentum from his revision c. 382-405 which is subsequent to the Council of Constantinople – perhaps giving rise to Hippo in 393 and to Carthage in 397. The Vulgate is only a version of the Vetus Itala (c. second century) which long preceded Carthage (see Companion Bible, ibid.).
Of the Egyptian versions, the Memphitic or Lower Egyptian, less properly termed Coptic, belongs to the fourth or perhaps the fifth century, but the Thebaic or Upper Egyptian text, termed Sahidic, is third century. The Armenian version is fifth century, but the Ethiopic is fourth to seventh century and the Georgian is sixth century.
Also, all of these ancient versions contained the last twelve verses of Mark (see KJV) which later came to be excluded. This text is examined in the paper The Tongues Question (No. 109)).
Jerome’s terminology is perhaps unfortunate as some of the Latin scholars of the church preferred instrumentum, which was used similarly to our use of the word in a legal sense. Tertullian (150-200 CE) is an example (see Adv. Marc. 4:1. In 4:2 he uses it of the single Gospel of Luke). Rufinus uses novus et vetus instrumentum (Expos. Symb. Apostol.), and Augustine then uses both the words instrumentum and testamentum following both Jerome and the earlier writers (City of God 20:4). From the Vulgate, the term Testament passed into both English and German Bibles. The Greek diatheke means Covenant and this is the sense of God’s Covenant that is employed (see the paper The Covenant of God (No. 152)).
The whole of the Bible, which makes up the books of the Covenant of God called the Bible, is understood as forming the Word of God, being made up of the words of God (Jer. 15:16; Jn. 17:8,14,17). God has spoken for our education and for our faith and not for our questioning or criticism which seeks to deny the power and authority of God. His word, which He has spoken, will be our judge (Jn. 12:48; Deut. 18:19-20; Heb. 4:12). This canon is sacred. The Companion Bible in its Appendix 95 on The New Testament and Order of its Books, says:
Thousands of infidels to-day believe and teach that the Council of Nice, held in AD 325, separated the “spurious” scriptures from the genuine ones, by some vote, or trick, when the sacred books were placed under a communion table, and, after prayer, the inspired books jumped up on the table, while the false books remained beneath.
This story originated with one “John Pappus” and infidels make a great mistake in identifying him with “Papias” or Pappius”, one of the earliest Fathers, called by Eusebius (iii 36) a “Bishop” of Hierapolis who wrote about A. D. 115. The Encycl. Brit., 11th (Camb.) ed., vol. xx, p. 737, suggests about A.D. 60-135 as the period of his life.
But John Pappus, who gave currency to the above story, was a German theologian born in 1549. In 1601 he published the text of an Anonymous Greek MS. This MS cannot be older than A.D. 870, because it mentions events occurring in 869. Now the Council of Nice was held 544 years before, and all its members had been dead and buried some five centuries. The Council of Nice was not called to decide the Canon. Nothing relating to the Canon of Scripture can be found in any of its canons or acts. And, even if it were otherwise, the votes of Councils could no more settle the Canon of the New Testament than a Town Council could settle the laws of a nation.
The great outstanding fact is that :
“JEHOVAH HATH SPOKEN”
and that the Bible as a whole claims to give us His words; ...
The same sentiment can be expressed from the influence that the Athanasius faction exerted from the Council of Carthage. The Catholic Church could not determine Scripture; that is done by the Spirit of God. Councils can merely recognise what was already an ancient fact (see also Companion Bible, Appendix 168 for history).
The Holy Spirit (see the paper The Holy Spirit (No. 117)) was not determined as the third member of the Trinity until Constantinople and even then, or ever previously, was not defined as the third person of the Godhead, as Athanasius perhaps wanted. It is however the Spirit that determines Scripture. The Athanasian faction, like its predecessors, the Modalists and anti-nomian Gnostics, has wrested Paul’s teaching to their own destruction. Peter included Paul’s writings in the category of Scripture in his condemnation of the unlearned and unstable who seek to wrest Paul’s teachings, which he says are sometimes hard to understand, to their own destruction (2Pet. 3:16). The classic example of this was the misuse of the term Works of the Law (ergon nomou) by the Antinomians from Paul’s writings in Galatians and Colossians (see the paper The Works of the Law Text - or MMT (No. 104)).
God spoke through His servants the prophets and these words are recorded in the Law and the Testimony called the Bible (see Isa. 8:5,11,20; Mk. 12:26; Lk. 1:70; Jn 9:29; Acts 4:31). This understanding is an essential element of the faith. People have been trying unsuccessfully to introduce confusion and dispute into the harmony of the Bible texts for centuries. Such people seem to deny the power of God over His Bible or understand that Christ, as he said was foretold by the Scriptures, came to do God’s work and not his own work or word (Jn. 4:34; 5:25-29,30, 31-44).