58. New Testament Canon: Dating, Need, Collection
Probably some of the earliest materials in the New Testament are the letters of Paul: 1 and 2 Thessalonians from around AD 50; in around 55 we have Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians and Romans. Notice that some date Galatians earlier. 1 and 2 Corinthians and Romans are easy to date together, because they all refer to the offering that is being collected for the church in Jerusalem. Galatians has no such material in it, and there all sorts of debates over how to date that letter. The prison epistles are thought to have been written in the 60’s (Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians), and AD 65 for 1 Timothy, Titus, and 2 Timothy. I trust that you’ll note that it is unlikely that Paul simply decided every 5 years he’d do some writing – there might be a little play in these dates. But it’s easy to remember them date-wise in these 5-year segments.
For the gospels, I believe in the tradition being very accurate with regard to the association of the Mark’s gospel with the death of Peter; and if that is true, this would be some time around AD 65-70, probably before the Fall of Jerusalem, but after the death of Peter. If Mark is the main source used by Matthew and Luke, they would have to be after that, about AD 75-90 (or perhaps even 75-85), but it’s hard to know. John, according to tradition wrote when he was old, in AD 90 or 95. And then for the rest of the New Testament, James must be from some time before 62 when he is martyred; Hebrews before 70 AD (because his whole argument is to prove the superiority of Christianity over Judaism and the lack of mention of the destruction of the temple is really very difficult to explain otherwise). And then, the rest of the New Testament is thought to have been written by AD 95 or so. So, in the second half of the first century, between AD 50-95, the New Testament books are written. A lot of the dates are hard to be dogmatic about. As to Paul’s letters, if you deny Pauline authorship of some of these books, then they come much later, and you throw them into the second century.
Concerning the establishment or recognition of the New Testament canon, there are a number of factors that cause the church to become interested in the question of delineating what books were really part of their canon of Scripture. One factor that raised that kind of interest was first of all the rise of Marcion’s heresy. Marcion, the son of a leading bishop in northern Turkey, comes to Rome, identifies himself with the church, gives a sum of money to it, and then is discovered to be a heretic. He is excommunicated from the church, and his money is returned (which is interesting – I think that most churches in America would not do that). Then he establishes his gnostic sect and they have a “Bible” which consists of ten of Paul’s letters and the Gospel of Luke. The date for Marcion’s canon is probably about AD 140. If, then, we have this heretical group out there that is not part of mainline Christianity but is a Gnosticizing of it, and they have a Bible, it raises the question of what mainline Christianity’s Bible should be. Mainline Christians by this time have more than Luke (they also have Matthew, Mark, and John), so the issue of delineating the New Testament arises comes out of that, as something they would need in defense of Marcion, to have a clear understanding of what our Scriptures are.
Another thing that comes into play is that a new technological invention takes place, and that’s the invention of a codex, a book, in contrast to a scroll. Scrolls by their very nature have to be limited. They get to be very unwieldy after a while, and the average scroll was somewhere around 25-30 feet long. The books in our New Testament that could fit into a single scroll would be books like Acts, Matthew, Luke, or John -- those would make up a whole scroll. But, just the size of trying to make two books of that size in one scroll would make the scroll unwieldy. With a codex, one could open it very easily, and also add more and more pages. When a codex is made, there are large individual pages, and they are folded in half, and then these are folded in half, and then folded in half again, and they are lined up against a spine, and the edges are cut. These are then sewn into a codex, and you have these 16 leaves. Then, one can place a lot of 16-leaf segments side by side, and get a big fat book (which can eventually become unwieldy), but before that happens, there is room for lots and lots and lots of pages. So it’s easier now to decide that Matthew should be part of this book, with also Mark and Luke and John and Paul’s letters. What about the Shepherd of Hermas? What about the Didache? What about 1 Clement? What about these other books? And the debate begins as to which books should go right next to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Are we going to put Matthew, Mark, Luke, and a basic guide for interpreting the Bible, and then John? You might have a very poor understanding of Scripture if you do that. So, what we would want to do is to keep close to each other those books which are recognized as being of divine authority, not any other books that might be interesting, etc.
I have problems basically with a lot of study Bibles, because they do have things like, not my basic guide, but there are notes in them, and these notes are no more infallible than a basic guide is infallible. Some of them are worse yet, if you can believe that or not. And people baptize that with divine authority, and that’s kind of scary to me. I would never have a study Bible in a church pew. Whether a person should have one for their own home study Bible, etc., is a debatable issue.
But now that we have this codex, which books do we want to sew together? Because if we sew them together, the common authority that Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul’s letters have is going to be attributed to the other books that are sewn next to them as well. So that becomes an issue.
Another issue that comes up is that, as time goes on, the church begins to be persecuted, and any group that wants to eliminate a religious entity wants to get rid of their sacred books. So they try to destroy them. And what a church in a persecuted situation might do, is to assign a book to an individual for safekeeping (you are given Matthew; you are given John; you are given Romans; you are given 1 Corinthians; you are given Revelation; you are given Hebrews; I’m given 1 Clement). When the persecutors come and say “Hand over Luke or die!” will you hand it over if you have the only copy of it? That’s a sacred Word of God. That’s the only Scripture you have in your church community. Or, will you die and save the scroll of Scripture for the church? Now when they come to me and say, “Hand over 1 Clement or die,” I’ll say, “OK, would you also like Barnabas, or 1 Maccabees?” There’s a difference. So, what books we are willing to die for also makes us think again about which are the Scriptures of our church. So, there are a lot of these factors.
These factors give rise to the issue of which books belong and which do not. They don’t answer it, but they are an occasion for reflecting heavily on the issue. So, they give rise to the concern for Scripture. Very early, we have the beginnings of the collections of works, and we find things like this already in the New Testament. At the end of Colossians, for instance, Paul writes the following (4:16), “And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans [in other words, see that this other church also reads this letter]; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.” Now, we don’t have any book in the New Testament called Laodiceans, and this could be a lost letter or it may be the letter that was written to churches in that area that we call Ephesians. It’s impossible to know. In 1 Thessalonians 5:27, we have the same kind of injunction here, “I adjure you by oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brethren.” Everybody should read this letter. In 2 Peter 3:15-16, we have an understanding of Paul’s letters already being kind of a collection of them, “So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” Here, Paul’s letters are equated with the Old Testament Scriptures. And how many of Paul’s letters is the author referring to here – is he referring to all of our 13? Does he know all of them? Does he know maybe ten of them, and he’s referring to those? There are all sorts of questions like that. In 1 Timothy there is a passage that seems to be quoting a gospel (5:17-18), “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain,’ [that’s Deuteronomy 25:4], and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.” There’s nothing in the Old Testament that says “the laborer deserves his wages”, but if you look in the New Testament, you will find reference to that both in Matthew (10:10, “the laborer deserves his food”) and in Luke (10:7, almost identical, “the laborer deserves his wages”). Now, is Paul quoting from the Gospel of Luke or is he quoting from the oral traditions of Jesus, and how would you know? From a simple statement like this, I don’t think you could ever know. If you look at my dating of these, I would say that Luke has not yet been written, but I could be wrong. But to say that this is a quotation of a written Scripture is something that we can’t say – that’d be much too dogmatic. We do have quotations of Jesus in 1 Corinthians “For I deliver to you that which I also received, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread ….” and we have the tradition of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11. I think this is an oral tradition at this time. I don’t think it’s written; I don’t think he’s quoting from Luke’s gospel at this point. Also 1 Corinthians 7:10, “to the married I give charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband.” I think here, this is a quotation of Jesus’s teaching on divorce, not from a written gospel, but from oral tradition. So 1 Timothy 5:18 shows that Jesus’s words are placed on the same level of Scripture. But it’s going too far to say that this refers to the Gospel of Luke. I think it’s an oral tradition, but Jesus’s teachings are scripture as far as the early church is concerned.
The Didache has three references to the gospels; Papias quotes two (maybe three) gospels. We referred to Marcion’s canon already. Marcion, by the way, edited some of this material so that things that were unfavorable to his sectarian view, like a positive view of the Old Testament, he eliminated (and that’s probably why he eliminated the Pastoral Epistles). In 2 Clement, we have a clear reference to Matthew as Scripture, (2 Clement 2:4), “And another scripture says, ‘I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners,’” where, he’s quoting Matthew 9:13. But notice that the writer of 2 Clement quotes Matthew as Scripture. Also, the Epistle of Barnabas, whose dates are anywhere from 70 – 150, likewise quotes Matthew as Scripture (4:14), “Moreover, consider this as well, my brothers, when you see that after such extraordinary signs and wonders were done in Israel, even then they were abandoned. Let us be on our guard, lest we should be found, as it is written, ‘Many are called, but few chosen,’” and that is a quotation from Matthew 22:14. So, both of these works are quoting the Gospel of Matthew as Scripture already.
By the time of AD 170, a man by the name of Tatian writes a work called the Diatessaron, “Through the Four Gospels”, and he combines the four gospels into one continual story of Jesus’s life. I remember a student coming up to me with great excitement that they had found the greatest book, something new, where someone had combined all four gospels into one running story. I responded that this was first done in 170 AD by a man named Tatian. But the fact that he did this indicates that he viewed these four gospels as authoritative.
At the end of the second century we have a fragment which has been called the Muratorian Canon. Let me explain that to you. In 1740, a Roman Catholic cardinal by the name of Muratori was browsing through a diary of an eighth century monk. He found a fragment in that eighth century diary which was much older. Most people date the fragment around the end of the second century – before AD 200. And in that fragment, there is a listing of Scriptures. I’ll read it to you, but understand that it’s a fragment, and the first part is missing. It starts (v. 2), “The third book of the gospel according to Luke”. Well, you know that two things must be missing, since it references two items before it, and is anyone going to argue that it’s not Matthew and Mark? He goes on (v. 9), “The fourth gospel is by John [and he has comments about it] …. [vv. 34-36], The Acts of all the apostles have been written in one book. Addressed to the most excellent Theophilus, Luke includes one by one things that were done in his own presence.” The acts of all the apostles have all been written in one book – in other words, there were apocryphal books like the Acts of Peter, the Acts of Paul, the Acts of John, and Andrew, and Thomas, etc., but this fragment says that there’s one Acts that been written and that’s the Acts of the Apostles by Luke. In vv. 40, ff., “As for the letters of Paul, … first of all he wrote to the Corinthians … then to the Galatians …,” and Romans is mentioned. And there are seven churches in order: Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Galatians, Thessalonians, and Romans. He also wrote a letter to Philemon, to Titus, and two to Timothy. Verses 63-71, “There is said to be another letter to the Laodiceans, and another to the Alexandrians, both of which are forged in Paul’s name. The letter of Jude and the two superscribed with the name of John are accepted in the catholic [or universal] church. …The Wisdom of Solomon also the Apocalypse of John and that of Peter.” So you have here, at the end of the second century, the gospels, Acts, Paul’s letters, Jude, 2 Johannine letters, Revelation, the Wisdom of Solomon which is in the Apocrypha, and the Apocalypse of Peter, which is a New Testament pseudepigraphic work. That’s not our Bible, but look for a minute .It’s the heart of our Bible. And if this were the Bible that you had, I don’t think you’d go greatly wrong, to say the least.
By AD 200, books were usually referred to by the classifications homologoumena (those universally confessed: the gospels, Acts, Paul’s letters, 1 John, 1 Peter); the antilegomena (which were spoken against: James, Jude, 2 and 3 John, 2 Peter, Hebrews, Revelation); other books sometimes discussed included the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, 1 Clement, the Epistle of Barnabas. So by AD 200, the heart of the New Testament is there, but it’s far from our clear canon of Scripture at this time.
When we speak of antilegomena, the disputed books, books that are spoken against, you should not think that the majority of people argued against them. It means that, though most people accept these books, some argue against them. The antilegomena don’t mean that these are rejected universally; on the contrary, most people accept them, but there are some who argue against them; whereas, in the former (in the homologoumena), no one argues against them. But there is a small group of people that have questions about these antilegomena.
Now the great historian of the early church was a man by the name of Eusebius. He wrote a work called Ecclesiastical History. Let me read to you from Book 3, chapter 25,
“At this point it seems reasonable to surmise the writings of the New Testament which have been quoted. In the first place should be put the holy tetrad of the gospels [the four gospels]. To them follows the writing of the Acts of the Apostles. After this should be reckoned the Epistles of Paul [since he does not mention Hebrews anywhere in this discussion, he must be assuming Hebrews is Pauline at that point. That would have been the general thinking at this time]. Following them, the Epistle of John called the First, and in the same way should be recognized the Epistle of Peter. In addition to these should be put if it seems desirable the Revelation of John, the arguments concerning which we will expound at the proper time.”
These belong to the recognized books – the homologoumena.
“Of the disputed books [the antilegomena], which are nevertheless known to most [in other words, though they’re disputed, most recognize them], are the Epistle called of James, that of Jude, the Second Epistle of Peter, and the so-called Second and Third Epistles of John which may be the works of the evangelist or of some other with the same name. Among the books which are not genuine [the notha, these are books that are not accepted] must be reckoned the Acts of Paul, the work entitled The Shepherd [The Shepherd of Hermas was a work that at one time was very popular, but was like a comet – it lit up the sky in certain parts of the church and just kind of disappeared], the Apocalypse of Peter, and in addition the letter called of Barnabas and the so-called teachings of the apostles [the Didache]. And in addition, as I said, the Revelation of John of this view prevail, for as I said, some rejected, but others counted among the recognized books.”
It’s interesting that Revelation is universally acknowledged or universally rejected. No one was lukewarm about that book. They were either hot or cold towards it. And Revelation got into trouble in the church because in around AD 200 there were some second-coming fanatics, Montanists, who used the Book of Revelation to identify their particular kind of bias and end-of-the-world kinds of emphases, and in reaction to them many people in the church reacted against the book that they were emphasizing so much. It’s a fairly natural approach. If the Roman Catholic opposition were not using James as much for their argument, maybe Luther would not have been so anti-James, and react against the book that they were supporting. So, in AD 325 then, the gospels, Acts, Paul’s letters, 1 Peter, 1 John, Revelation – everybody accepts those. And some have questions about James, Jude, 2 and 3 John, 2 Peter; but most accept those as well. The spurious books – none of the books of our present New Testament were thought of as being non-canonical or spurious. They were either all recognized, or some had a few questions on them. But if you look at the universally confessed books by AD 325, the gospels, Acts, Paul’s letters, Hebrews, 1 John, 1 Peter, Revelation – that’s essentially the heart of the New Testament. Later on the others, James, Jude, 2 and 3 John, and 2 Peter were recognized more fully. They tended to be recognized but there were a few people who had questions on them. Jerome in AD 400, Augustine around the same time, and the Councils of Hippo (AD 393) and Carthage (AD 397) recognized our present 27 books, so that by AD 400 our New Testament is pretty much recognized by everyone as we now have it.