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Canon of the New Testament

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

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1. Title . The Greek word ‘canon,’ meaning originally a ‘rod’ and so a ‘rule for measuring,’ is used in a variety of senses by the Patristic writers, among the most familiar instances being the expressions ‘rule of truth’ and ‘rule of faith’ for the doctrinal teaching officially recognized by the bishops. Hence, since we meet with the phrase ‘canonical books’ in Origen, as rendered by Rufinus’ translation, before we see the substantive ‘canon’ applied to the list of NT books, it has been argued that the adjective was first used in the sense of ‘regulative,’ so that the phrase means ‘the books that regulate faith or morals.’ But the substantive must mean the’ list’ of books, and in Athanasius we have a passive participle in the phrase ‘ canonized books,’ i.e. books belonging to the Canon; soon after which the actual word ‘canon’ is applied to the books of the NT by Amphilochius, the bishop of Iconium (end of 4th cent. a.d.). The NT Canon, then, is the list of NT books, and this simple meaning, rather than ‘the regulative books,’ is the more likely Interpretation of the expression to have occurred to people who were in the habit of using the term for lists of officials, lists of festivals, etc. The question of the Canon differs from questions of the authenticity, genuineness, historicity, inspiration, value, and authority of the several NT books in concerning itself simply with their acceptance in the Church. Primarily the question was as to what books were read in the churches at public worship. Those so used became in course of time the Christian Scriptures. Then, having the value of Scripture gradually associated with them, they came to be treated as authoritative. The first stage is that of use in the form of Church lessons; the second that of a standard of authority to be employed as the basis of instruction, and to be appealed to in disputed cases of doctrine or discipline.

2. The Formation of the Canon in the 2nd Century . The very earliest reading of NT books in the churches must have occurred in the case of epistles addressed to particular churches, which of course were read in those churches; next come the circular letters ( e.g. Ephesians 1:1-23 Petereter), which were passed round a group of churches. Still this involved no repeated liturgical use of these writings as in a church lectionary. During the obscure period of the sub-Apostolic age we have no indication of the use of epistles in church worship. Clement of Rome assumed that the church at Corinth was acquainted with 1 Corinthians, although he was writing nearly 40 years after St. Paul had sent that Epistle to the church, and a new generation had arisen in the interval; but there is no proof or probability that it was regularly read at the services. The earliest references to any such reading point to the Synoptic Gospels as alone having this place of honour, together with the OT prophets. This was the case in the worship described by Justin Martyr (1 Apol . lxvii.). A little later Justin’s disciple Tatian prepared his Harmony ( Diatessaron ) for use in the church at Edessa. This was constructed out of all four Gospels; i.e. it included John, a Gospel probably known to Justin, though not included in his Memoirs of the Apostles. As yet no epistles are seen in the place of honour of church reading side by side with OT Scriptures. But long before this a collection had been made by Marcion ( c [Note: circa, about.] . a.d. 140) in his effort to reform the Church by recalling attention to the Pauline teaching which had fallen into neglect. Marcion’s Canon consisted of a mutilated Gospel of St. Luke 10:1-42 Epistles of St. Paul (the 3 Pastoral Epistles being omitted). Although other early Church writers evidently allude to several of the Epistles ( e.g. Clemens Rom., Ignatius, Polycarp, ‘Barnabas’), that is only by way of individual citation, without any hint that they are used in a collection or treated as authoritative Scripture. Marcion is the earliest who is known to have honoured any of the Epistles in this way. But when we come to Irenæus (180) we seem to be in another world. Irenæus cites as authoritative most of the books of the Christian Scriptures, though he does not appear to have known Hebrews. We now have a NT side by side with the OT; or at all events we have Christian books appealed to as authoritative Scripture, just as in the previous generation the LXX [Note: Septuagint.] was appealed to as authoritative Scripture. Here is evidence of a double advance: (1) in the addition of the Epistles to the Gospels as a collection, (2) in the enhancement of the value of all these books for the settlement of questions of doctrine.

This is one of the most important developments in the thought and practice of the Church. And yet history is absolutely silent as to how, when, where, and by whom it was brought about. Nothing is more amazing in the history of the Christian Church than the absence of all extant contemporary references to so great a movement. The 30 years from Justin Martyr, who knew only a collection of 3 Gospels as specially authoritative, and that simply as records of the life and teaching of Christ, to Irenæus, with his frequent appeals to the Epistles as well as the Gospels, saw the birth of a NT Canon, but left no record of so great an event. Irenæus, though bishop of Lyons and Vienne in Gaul, was in close communication with Asia Minor where he had been brought up, and Prof. Harnack conjectures that bishops of Asia Minor in agreement with the Church at Rome deliberately drew up and settled the Canon, although we have no historical record of so significant an event. It may be, however, that Irenæus was himself a pioneer in a movement the necessity of which was recognized as by common consent. Some authoritative standard of appeal was wanted to save the essence of Christian teaching from being engulfed in the speculations of Gnosticism. The Gospels were not sufficient for this purpose, because they were accepted by the Gnostics, who, however, interpreted them allegorically. What was needed was a standard of doctrinal truth, and that was found in the Epistles.

Near this time we have the earliest known Canon after that of Marcion, the most ancient extant list of NT books in the Catholic Church. This is named the ‘Muratorian Fragment,’ after its discoverer Muratori, who found it in a 7th or 8th cent. monk’s commonplace book in the Ambrosian Library at Milan, and published it in 1740. The fragment is a mutilated extract of a list of NT books made at Rome probably before the end of the 2nd cent., since the author refers to the episcopate of Pius as recent ( nuperrime temporibus nostris ), and Pius I., who died in a.d. 157, is the only bishop of Rome of that name in the early age to which unquestionably, as internal evidence indicates, the original composition must be assigned. The fragment begins in the middle of a sentence which appears to allude to St. Peter’s connexion with our Second Gospel, and goes on to mention Luke as the Third Gospel and John as the Fourth. Therefore it evidently acknowledged the 4 Gospels. Then it has Acts, which it ascribes to Luke, and it acknowledges 13 Epistles of Paul admitting the Pastorals, but excluding Hebrews, though it subsequently refers to ‘an Epistle to the Laodiceans,’ and another ‘to the Alexandrians forged under the name of Paul,’ as well as ‘many others’ which are not received in the Catholic Church ‘because gall ought not to be mixed with honey.’ Further, this Canon includes Judges 1:2 Epistles of John, and the Apocalypse, which it ascribes to John. It also has the Book of Wisdom, which it says was ‘written by the friends of Solomon in his honour,’ and the Apocalypse of Peter, although acknowledging that there is a minority which rejects the latter work, for we read ‘we receive moreover the Apocalypses of John and Peter only, which [latter] some of our body will not have read in the church.’ This indicates that the author’s church as a whole acknowledges the Apocalypse of Peter, and that he associates himself with the majority of his brethren in so doing, while he candidly admits that there are some dissentients. Lastly, the Canon admits Hermas for private reading, but not for use in the church services. We have here, then, most of our NT books; but, on the one hand, Hebrews 1:1-14; Hebrews 2:1-18 Petereter, James, and one of the 3 Epistles of John are not mentioned. They are not named to be excluded, like the forged works referred to above; possibly the author did not know of their existence. At all events he did not find them used in his church. On the other hand, Wisdom, without question, and the Apocalypse of Peter, though rejected by some, are included in this canon, and Hermas is added for private reading.

Passing on to the commencement of the 3rd cent., we come upon another anonymous writing, an anti-gambling tract entitled ‘Concerning dice-players’ ( de Aleatoribus ), which Prof. Harnack attributes to Victor of Rome (a.d. 200 230). In this tract the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache are both quoted as ‘Scripture.’ The author refers to three divisions of Scripture: (1) Prophetic writings the OT Prophets, the Apocalypse, Hermas; (2) the Gospels; (3) the Apostolic Writings Paul, 1 John, Hebrews.

Neither of these Canons can be regarded as authoritative either ecclesiastically or scientifically, since we are ignorant of their sources. But they both indicate a crystallizing process, in the Church at Rome about the end of the 2nd and beginning of the 3rd centuries, that was tending towards our NT, though with some curious variations. The writings of the Fathers of this period agree in the main with Irenæus in their citations from most of the NT books as authoritative a condition very different from that of Justin Martyr half a century earlier. Two influences may be recognized as bringing this result about: (1) use in churches at public worship, (2) authoritative appeals against heresy especially Gnosticism. It was necessary to settle what books should be read in church and what books should be appealed to in discussion. The former was the primary question. The books used at their services by the churches, and therefore admitted by them as having a right to be so employed, were the books to be appealed to in controversy. The testing fact was church usage. Canonical books were the books read at public worship. How it came about that certain books were so used and others not is by no means clear. Prof. Harnack’s theory would solve the problem if we could be sure it was valid. Apart from this, (1) traditional usage and (2) assurance of Apostolic authorship appear to have been two grounds relied upon.

Turning to the East, we find Clement of Alexandria (a.d. 165 220) acknowledging the 4 Gospels and Acts 14:1-28 Epistles of Paul (Hebrews being included), and quoting 1 and 2 John 1:1 Petereter, Jude, and the Apocalypse. He makes no reference to James 2:1-26 Petereter, or 3 John, any of which he may perhaps have known, as we have no list of NT books from his hand, for he does not name these books to reject them. Still, the probability as regards some, if not all, of them is that he did not know them. In the true Alexandrian spirit, Clement has a wide and comprehensive idea of inspiration, and therefore no very definite conception of Scriptural exclusiveness or fixed boundaries to the Canon. Thus he quotes Barnabas, Clement of Rome, Hermas, the Preaching of Peter, the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Sibylline Writings as in some way authoritative. He was a literary eclectic who delighted to welcome Christian truth in unexpected places. Still he had a NT in two volumes which he knew respectively as ‘The Gospel’ and ‘The Apostle’ (see Euseb. HE vi. 14). Origen (a.d. 184 253), who was a more critical scholar, treated questions of canonicity more scientifically. He acknowledged our books of the OT and some parts of the Apocrypha, such as 1 Mac.; and in the NT the 4 Gospels, Acts 13:1-52 Epistles of Paul, Hebrews (though the latter as of doubtful authorship; nevertheless in his homily on Joshua he seems to include it among St. Paul’s works, since he makes them 14, when he writes that ‘God, thundering on the 14 trumpets of his [ i.e. Paul’s] Epistles, threw down even the walls of Jericho, that is all the instruments of idolatry and the doctrines of the philosophers’), 1Peter , 1 John, Revelation. He does not directly mention the Epistles of James or Jude, although he seems to refer to them once in a rhetorical way, classing Peter, James, and Jude with the 4 Evangelists as represented by Isaac’s servants if we are to trust Rufinus’ version. He mentions 2 Peter 2:1-22 and 3 John as of disputed genuineness, and refers to the Gospel of the Hebrews in an apologetic tone, the Gospels of Peter and James, and the Acts of Paul, and quotes Hermas and Barnabas as ‘Scripture,’ while he admits that, though widely circulated, Hermas was not accepted by all. It is a significant fact, however, that he wrote no commentaries on any of those books that are not included in our NT.

3. The Settlement of the Canon in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries . An important step towards the settlement of the Canon on historical and scientific lines was taken by Eusebius, who, with his wide reading and the great library of Pamphilus to resort to, also brought a fair and judicious mind to face the problems involved. Eusebius saw clearly that it is not always possible to give a definite affirmative or negative answer to the question whether a certain book should be in the Canon. Therefore he drew up three lists of books (1) The books that are admitted by all, (2) the books which he is disposed to admit although there are some who reject them, (3) the books that he regards as spurious. A fourth class, which really does not come into the competition for a place in the Canon, consists of heretical works which ‘are to be rejected as altogether absurd and impious’ ( HE iii. 25). The first class, consisting of the books universally acknowledged, contains the 4 Gospels; Acts; the Epistles of Paul which in one place (iii. 3) are reckoned to be 14, and therefore to include Hebrews, although in another place (vi. 14) Hebrews is placed in the second class, among the disputed books; 1Peter; 1 John; and Revelation (doubtfully). The second class, consisting of books widely accepted, though disputed by some (but apparently all admitted by Eusebius himself), contains James; Judges 1:2 Petereter regarded in another place (iii. 3) as spurious; 2 and 3 John. The third class, consisting of spurious works, contains the Acts of Paul; the Shepherd of Hermas; the Apocalypse of Peter; the Didache; and perhaps, according to some, the Revelation. Under the orders of Constantine, Eusebius had 50 copies of the Scriptures sumptuously produced on vellum for use in the churches of Constantinople. Of course these would correspond to his own Canon and so help to fix it and spread its influence. After this the fluctuations that we meet with are very slight. Athanasius in one of his Festal Letters (a.d. 365) undertakes to set forth in order the books that are canonical and handed down and believed to be Divine. His NT exactly agrees with our Canon, as does the NT of Epiphanius ( c [Note: circa, about.] . a.d. 403). Cyril of Jerusalem (who died a.d. 386) gives a list of ‘Divine Scriptures’ which contains all the NT except the Revelation; and Amphilochius of Iconium (a.d. 395) has a versified catalogue of the Biblical books, in which also all our NT books appear except the Revelation, which he regards as spurious; Amphilochius refers to doubts concerning Hebrews and to a question as to whether the number of Catholic Epistles Isaiah 7 or 3. Even Chrysostom (who died a.d. 405) never alludes to the Revelation or the last 4 Catholic Epistles. But then he gives no list of the Canon. One of the Apostolical Canons (No. 85), which stand as an appendix to the 8th book of the Apostolical Constitutions (85), and cannot be dated earlier than the 4th cent. in their present form, gives a list of the books of Scripture. Sirach is here placed between the OT and the NT with a special recommendation to ‘take care that your young persons learn the wisdom of the very learned Sirach.’ Then follow the NT books the 4 Gospels, 14 Epistles of Paul (Hebrews therefore included in this category), 2 Epistles of Peter, 3 of John, James, Judges 1:2 Epistles of Clement, the 8 books of the Constitutions , Acts. Thus, while Clement and even the Apostolical Constitutions are included, the Revelation is left out, after a common custom in the East. Manifestly this is an erratic Canon.

Returning to the West, at this later period we have an elaborate discussion on the Canon by Augustine (a.d. 430), who lays down rules by which the canonicity of the several books claimed for the NT may be determined. (1) There are the books received and acknowledged by all the churches, which should therefore be treated as canonical. (2) There are some books not yet universally accepted. With regard to these, two tests are to be applied: ( a ) such as are received by the majority of the churches are to be acknowledged, and ( b ) such as are received by the Apostolic churches are to be preferred to those received only by a smaller number of churches and these of less authority, i.e. not having been founded by Apostles. In case ( a ) and ( b ) conflict, Augustine considers that ‘the authority on the two sides is to be looked upon as equal’ ( Christian Doctrine , II. viii. 12). Thus the tests are simply Church reception, though with discrimination as to the respective authority of the several churches. The application of these tests gives Augustine just our NT.

Jerome (a.d. 420) also accepts our NT, saying concerning Hebrews and the Revelation that he adopts both on the authority of ancient writers, not on that of present custom. He is aware that James has been questioned; but he states that little by little in course of time it has obtained authority. Jude was even rejected by most people because it contained quotations from Apocryphal writings. Nevertheless he himself accepts it. He notes that 2 and 3 John have been attributed to a presbyter whose tomb at Ephesus is still pointed out. The immense personal influence of Augustine and the acceptance of Jerome’s Vulgate as the standard Bible of the Christian Church gave fixity to the Canon, which was not disturbed for a thousand years. No General Council had pronounced on the subject. The first Council claiming to be (Ecumenical which committed itself to a decision on the subject was as late as the 16th cent. (the Council of Trent). We may be thankful that the delicate and yet vital question of determining the Canon was not flung into the arena of ecclesiastical debate to be settled by the triumph of partisan churchmanship, but was allowed to mature slowly and come to its final settlement under the twofold influences of honest scholarship and Christian experience. There were indeed local councils that dealt with the question; but their decisions were binding only on the provinces they represented, although, in so far as they were not disputed, they would be regarded as more or less normative by those other churches to which they were sent. As representing the East we have a Canon attributed to the Council of Laodicea ( c [Note: circa, about.] . a.d. 360). There is a dispute as to whether this is genuine. It is given in the MSS variously as a 60th canon and as part of the 59th appended in red ink. Half the Latin versions are without it; so are the Syriac versions, which are much older than our oldest MSS of the canons. It closely resembles the Canon of Cyril of Jerusalem, from which Westcott supposed that it was inserted into the canons of Laodicea by a Latin hand. Its genuineness was defended by Hefele and Davidson. Jülicher regards it as probably genuine. This Canon contains the OT with Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremy, and all our NT except the Revelation. Then in the West we have the 3rd Council of Carthage (a.d. 397), which orders that ‘besides the Canonical Scriptures nothing be read in the Church under the title of Divine Scriptures,’ and appends a list of the books thus authorized in which we have the OT, the Apocrypha, and just our NT books. Here we have a whole province speaking for those books; when we add the great authority of Augustine, who belongs to this very province, and the influence of the Vulgate, we can well understand how the Canon should now be considered fixed and inviolable. Thus the matter rested for ten centuries.

4. Treatment of the Canon at the Renaissance and the Reformation . The question of the Canon was revived by the Renaissance and the Reformation, the one movement directing critical, scholarly attention to what was essentially a literary question, the other facing it in the interest of religious controversy. Erasmus writes: ‘The arguments of criticism, estimated by the rules of logic, lead me to disbelieve that the Epistle to the Hebrews is by Paul or Luke, or that the Second of Peter is the work of that Apostle, or that the Apocalypse was written by the Evangelist John. All the same, I have nothing to say against the contents of these books, which seem to me to be in perfect conformity with the truth. If, however, the Church were to declare the titles they bear to be canonical, then I would condemn my doubt, for the opinion formulated by the Church has more value in my eyes than human reasons, whatever they may be’ a most characteristic statement, revealing the scholar, the critic, the timid soul and the satirist (?). Within the Church of Rome even Cardinal Cajetan Luther’s opponent at Augsburg freely discusses the Canon, doubting whether Hebrews is St. Paul’s work, and whether, if it is not, it can be canonical. He also mentions doubts concerning the five General Epistles, and gives less authority to 2 and 3 John and Jude than to those books which he regards as certainly in the Holy Scriptures. The Reformation forced the question of the authority of the Bible to the front, because it set that authority in the place of the old authority of the Church. While this chiefly concerned the book as a whole, it could not preclude inquiries as to its contents and the rights of the several parts to hold their places there. The general answer as to the authority of Scripture is an appeal to ‘the testimony of the Holy Spirit.’ Calvin especially works out this conception very distinctly. The difficulty was to apply it to particular books of the Bible so as to determine in each case whether they should be allowed in the Canon. Clearly a further test was requisite here. This was found in the ‘analogy of faith’ ( Analogia fidei ), which was more especially Luther’s principle, while the testimony of the Holy Spirit was Calvin’s. With Luther the Reformation was based on justification by faith. This truth Luther held to be confirmed ( a ) by its necessity, nothing else availing, and ( b ) by its effects, since in practice it brought peace, assurance, and the new life. Then those Scriptures which manifestly supported the fundamental principle were held to be ipso facto inspired, and the measure of their support of it determined the degree of their authority. Thus the doctrine of justification by faith is not accepted because it is found in the Bible; but the Bible is accepted because it contains this doctrine. Moreover, the Bible is sorted and arranged in grades according as it does so more or less clearly, and to Luther there is ‘a NT within the NT,’ a kernel of all Scripture, consisting of those books which he sees most clearly set forth the gospel. Thus he wrote: ‘John’s Gospel, the Epistles of Paul, especially Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and 1Peter these are the books which show thee Christ, and teach all that it is needful and blessed for thee to know even if you never see or hear any other book, or any other doctrine. Therefore is the Epistle of James a mere epistle of straw ( eine rechte stroherne Epistel ) since it has no character of the gospel is it’ (Preface to NT, 1522; the passage was omitted from later editions). Luther places Hebrews, James, Jude, and the Apocalypse at the end of his translation, after the other NT books, which he designates ‘the true and certain capital books of the NT, for these have been regarded in former times in a different light.’ He regards Jude as ‘indisputably an extract or copy from 2Peter.’ Nevertheless, while thus discriminating between the values of the several books of the NT, he includes them all in his translation. Luther’s friend Carlstadt has a curious arrangement of Scripture in three classes, viz. (1) The Pentateuch and the 4 Gospels, as being ‘the clearest luminaries of the whole Divine truth’; (2) The Prophets ‘of Hebrew reckoning’ and the acknowledged Epistles of the NT, viz. 13 of Paul, 1Peter , 1 John; (3) the Hagiographa of the Hebrew Canon, and the 7 disputed books of the NT. Dr. Westcott suggested that the omission of Acts was due to its being included with Luke. Calvin is more conservative with regard to Scripture than the Lutherans. Still in his Commentaries he passes over 2 and 3 John and the Revelation without notice, and he refers to 1 John as ‘the Epistle of John,’ and expresses doubts as to 2Peter; but he adds, with regard to the latter,’ Since the majesty of the Spirit of Christ exhibits itself in every part of the Epistle, I feel a scruple in rejecting it wholly, however much I fail to recognize in it the genuine language of Peter’ ( Com. on 2Peter , Argument). Further, Calvin acknowledges the existence of doubts with respect both to James and to Jude; but he accepts them both. He allows full liberty of opinion concerning the authorship of Hebrews; but he states that he has no hesitation in classing it among Apostolical writings. In spite of these varieties of opinion, the NT Canon remained unaltered. At the Council of Trent (1546) for the first time the Roman Catholic Church made an authoritative statement on the Canon, uttering an anathema ( ‘anathema sit ’) on anybody who did not accept in their integrity all the books contained in the Vulgate. Thus the Apocrypha is treated as equally canonical with the OT books; but the NT Canon is the same in Roman Catholic and Protestant Canons. Translations of the Bible into the vernacular of various languages laid the question of the Canon to rest again, by familiarizing readers with the same series of books in all versions and editions.

5. The Canon in Modern Criticism . In the 18th cent. the very idea of a Canon was attacked by the Deists and Rationalists (Toland, Diderot, etc.); but the critical study of the subject began with Semler (1771 5), who pointed out the early variations in the Canon and attacked the very idea of a Canon as an authoritative standard, while he criticised the usefulness and theological value of the several books of the NT. Subsequent controversy has dealt less with the Canon as such than with the authenticity and genuineness of the books that it contains. In the views of extreme negative criticism canonicity as such has no meaning except as a historical record of Church opinion. On the other hand, those who accept a doctrine of inspiration in relation to the NT do not connect this very closely with critical questions in such a way as to affect the Canon. Thus doubts as to the authorship of the Pastoral Epistles, 2Peter, James, etc., have not given rise to any serious proposal to remove these books from the NT. The Canon rests mainly on tradition and usage. But the justification for it when this is sought is usually found (1) in the Apostolic authorship of most of the NT books; (2) in the Apostolic atmosphere and association of the remaining books; (3) in the general acceptance and continuous use of them in the churches for centuries as a test of their value; (4) in their inherent worth to-day as realized in Christian experience. It cannot be said that these four tests would give an indefeasible right to every book to claim a place in the Canon if it were not already there e.g. the small Epistle of Jude; but they throw the burden of proof on those who would disturb the Canon by a serious proposal to eject any of its contents; and in fact no such proposal as distinct from critical questions of the dates, authorship, historicity, etc., of the several books is now engaging the attention of scholars or churches.

W. F. Adeney.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Canon of the New Testament'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​c/canon-of-the-new-testament.html. 1909.
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