The New Testament Canon, Part 3
We have seen that most of the earliest non-NT Christian documents cite the OT as "scripture" and only make allusion to what is now NT text. Ignatius of Antioch is full of allusions to, and paraphrases of, NT texts. It is only when we come to the second century apologists that verified citations from what we now call NT texts begin to be common.
In the 140's Marcion constructed his own canon which included most of Paul's letters in edited form, along with Luke's gospel. Marcion rejected the other gospels as having been tainted by the Jews. This list by Marcion is the first known listing of what is called a New Testament canon.
Justin Martyr does not cite any NT writing by name, but he designates his several NT citations with "it is recorded," or the "memoirs of the apostles." He refers to the "Gospels" saying,
For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, "This do ye in remembrance of Me..." First Apology 66
Sometime around 170-175 Tatian, possibly a disciple of Justin, created a harmony of the four orthodox gospels known as the Diatessaron. This text was accepted in some circles, even being used to replace the four gospels, but this success was short lived. What this harmony reveals, however, is that the church recognized four gospels.
The four gospels are confirmed by Irenaeus of Lyons in Against the Heresies (cir. 175),
From this it is clear that the Word, the artificer of all things, being manifested to men gave us the gospel, fourfold in form but held together by one Spirit. A.H. III,11.8
Irenaeus also quotes from, or alludes to, almost all the documents that become the orthodox NT. These citations are mostly from Pauline works (25+ occurrences from each of these: Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians and Ephesians). His Pauline citations/allusions include all three "Pastoral" epistles. The other general NT letters get scant recognition and a few are totally absent (Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John, and Jude). He also refers to a few non-NT documents as "inspired" (1 Clement, Shepherd of Hermas).
By the time we come to the end of the second century and look at the citations of Clement of Alexandria (writings cir. 195-202) and Tertullian (writings cir. 205-225) we find hundreds of references from almost every NT document. The NT writings that are excluded by these two men are very similar to that of Irenaeus, but Clement then includes many writings as "scripture" that did not get final acceptance. One can take the citations from Clement and Tertullian and reconstruct the entire NT excluding 4 or 5 of the smallest epistles. Indeed, this is a very important factor from this point forward - "Did Clement/Tertullian cite it?" These are the first two prolific Christian writers. From this point forward we find an increasing number of fathers writings great numbers of documents filled with biblical citations.
The Muratorian canon is a manuscript fragment that represents the oldest known list (or canon) of the New Testament. The beginning and ending of the MS is missing. The document is dated by most scholars about 170 AD. It was discovered in a library in Italy by Ludovico Antonio Muratori, a famous historian of the time. This list consists of the following:
- (Matthew and Mark were apparently named in the beginning of the fragment which is missing)
- Luke and John
- all 13 of Paul's letters
- 1 and 2 John is assumed - the writer only names two letters of John
- the Revelation of John
This listing omits Hebrews, 1 and 2 Peter, and 3 John. It also names a few documents that do NOT appear in the orthodox NT.
So by the middle of the second century most of the 27 documents in the orthodox NT canon had already gained widespread acceptance, especially the four gospels. It is critical to understand the importance of why only four gospels were accepted. These early fathers were very familiar with the other gospels that were floating around - Marcion's gospel of Luke, the various gnostic gospels, and other "proto-orthodox" gospels that simply were not well accepted.
Gnosticism was at its zenith during the second century. There were many Gnostic texts and many orthodox ones as well that did not make the NT canon. Most of the documents that were not accepted had too many bizarre texts and thus did not have a large following. One aspect of why a gospel/document was affirmed to be in the NT was how much acceptance it received among the churches in various regions. This acceptance was also reflected in if, and how much, the church fathers cited the document.
In our next section on the NT we will illustrate some of the bizarre texts that one finds in the various documents that failed to make the orthodox NT canon.
The New Testament Canon, Part 4
As we stated at the end of our last section, Gnosticism reached its zenith in the second century, particularly in Egypt. We do not have the space to look at Gnosticism to any great degree - I am not an expert in the subject and quite frankly I quickly become bored with the details - this section will focus on the bizarre nature of the Gnostic texts.
For more on Gnosticism, see the discussion on The Initial Heresies and Heretics. You can also read An Introduction to Gnostic Texts.
It is important to understand that many ancient texts have some bizarre passages - the NT has some strange passages as well, and one must be ready to admit this before launching an attack against strange gnostic texts. For example,
Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, "May you never bear fruit again!" Immediately the tree withered. Matthew 21:18-19
OR the text where Jesus sends a demonic spirit into pigs which then run off a cliff to their death.
I know there are many who have given explanation for these passages - I have just read 2-3 explanations for both of these, and none satisfy me 100% - my point is simply to say that we must admit that there are some strange passages in our NT documents that cannot be easily explained. I could list a few more. And if you read the early fathers you will find many strange passages as well. One can give some explanation for the strange gnostic passages, but even with the proper historical context bizarre is...well, bizarre. The gospel contained in the New Testament is powerful because it is profound - taking the complicated and making it exceedingly simple to understand. These gnostic texts are just not easy to grasp.
Gospel of Thomas
Here are some strange passages from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas:
Jesus said, "Blessed is the lion which the man shall eat, and the lion become man; and cursed is the man whom the lion shall eat, and the lion become man." Gospel of Thomas 7
Jesus said to them, "When you make the two one, and when you make the inside as the outside, and the outside as the inside, and the upper side as the lower; and when you make the male and the female into a single one, that the male be not male and the female female; when you make eyes in the place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then shall you enter [the kingdom]."
Gospel of Thomas 22
For those who attack Christianity for being male dominated and somehow think the gnostics were more favorable to women:
Simon Peter said to them: "Let Mary go forth from among us, for women are not worthy of the life." Jesus said: "Behold, I shall lead her, that I may make her male, in order that she also may become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who makes herself male shall enter into the kingdom of heaven."
Gospel of Thomas 114
To learn more, read An Introduction to Gnostic Texts.
Summary and Applications
The church of the second century grew into a force, but not without struggle. Persecution Roman Empire was a consistent challenge, but this only helped the church grow with internal strength. Sometimes the reaction to brutal persecution was heroic, sometimes ridiculous. There was a general sense among Christians that it was virtuous to be tortured and, especially to be executed for the faith. Because of this persecution it seems like this young movement developed real inner strength.
But is it always GOOD to put yourself forward for persecution?
This attitude seems to encourage less thoughtful Christians to be overly aggressive in their witness, almost taunting others to "persecute" them. We all need wisdom when it comes to aggressive evangelism. We do not want to avoid stepping out and speaking up when the occasion demands it, but we do not need to thrust ourselves into harm's way just so we can "be a witness." Many of us know a few believers who have a habit of speaking too harshly, or being too "holy" around non-Christians. It seems that they are happy (maybe even proud) when non-Christians mock and scorn them. I think we need wisdom to know when, and where, to be aggressive.
The era of Christianity when there were possibly the most "heresies" was the second century. Oddly, Christian theology was not very developed in the second century compared to modern times.
Outside basic and essential theological positions, is correct theology important?
My personal opinion is that most Christian sects/denominations put too much emphasis in their theology. I am not saying that theology is NOT important, but outside what should be called the "essentials" I think we need to hold our theology with humility. What are the essentials? To a great extent, it depends on which denomination you are in. My baseline position is the Apostle's Creed:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth
And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilot, was crucified, dead, and buried.
On the third day He rose from the dead.
He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty.
From there He will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic [universal] church,
the communion of the saints, the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.