THE NEW TESTAMENT CANON
BY R. J. FOSTER
Its Formation--The formation of the NT Canon was, like that of the Old, a gradual process. The writings of which it is made up were, in the first instance, separate, independent writings, called into being at different times, in different circumstances, to meet various needs. There was no intention on the part of the Apostles and their disciples of collaborating in the production of a common work to be left as a legacy. Our Lord and his Apostles were teachers rather than writers; they taught and preached the word of God, for, in St Paul's words, 'Faith comes from what is heard' (Pm 10:17). The written word came to reinforce the oral Gospel (cf Lk 1:4). Each book of the NT was issued separately and has its own history. St Paul, for instance, would write a letter to a community to meet some practical need, to give further instruction, to exhort or to give warning against impending dangers. Such letters written to the different local churches throughout the Empire would be interchanged between them, sometimes at the request of the Apostle himself (Col 4:16). The letters would increase in number and each community would acquire a collection of them: we can already see how the germ of a Canon arose. This small collection of books would increase as further writings, which bore the unmistakable stamp or guarantee of apostolic origin, were added to it. In the NT itself there are clear signs of such a collection in process of formation, taking its place alongside the OT Scriptures: 'So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given to him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist, to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures' (2 Pt 3:15).
As the number of living witnesses gradually dwindled, and as the number of communities increased through the rapid spread of the faith, it became more and more apparent how valuable it would be for the instruction of future generations if there were written records of the teaching, life, death and resurrection of our Lord. At first, as Cerfaue remarks,'We find ourselves on mixed ground between purely oral tradition and the first written schemes. St Luke tells us of many attempts at systematization which he had been able to consult (Wt 1:1). There must have been a pre-history, moat probably not of pu;ely oral tradition, preceding the final stage in which the memoirs were fixed in the canonical Gospels' (The Four Gospels, E.tr., 1960, p. 19f). The Gospels themselves, once composed, would pass from one community to another in the same way as the letters, and each community would add the new writings to its collection as soon as they came to hand. Striking evidence for the early circulation of Jn, for instance, is given by P 52, a papyrus fragment of Jn, which comes from Egypt and is dated as belonging to the first half of the 2nd cent. (C. ii. Roberts, An unpublished Fragment of the Fourth Gospel, 1935). Collections were not made rapidly, for progress would be impeded by slowness and difticulty of communication and 1Sb limited means for the multiplication of copies of writings. In fact, a considerable period of time must have elapsed before the widely scattered churches possessed all the writings in circulation. There were other difficulties too: it was, for example, sometimes hard to tell if a smaller letter, more private in character and of less important doctrine, resllv emanated from genuine apostolic sources. In addition, the circulation of spurious and tendentious works, claiming apostolic origin, would tend to make people wary of accepting anything which was not of proven and undoubted apostolic authority. In these circumstances, then, it is not surprising that there were several books, genuine and inspired, whose full canonical status was not universally acknowledged for a long time. These have become known to us as the deuterocanonical books of the NT. They are Hebrews, James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and the Apocalypse (or Revelation). But there are no differences between Catholics and Protestants regarding the books which constitute the NT Canon: they are the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles. fourteen Epistles 'of St Paul', the seven Catholic Epistles (James, I and 2 Peter, 1, 2, 3 John, Jude) and the Apocalypse or Revelation.
History--It is reasonable to suppose that, quite early an, 19 the more important churches, Rome, Alexandria, Corinth, Antioch and others would possess apostolic writings which they regarded as authoritative, though at this stage their lists might vary. Already we have seen that there is evidence in the NT of a collection of Pauline writings received as Scripture. The Apostolic Fathers further illustrate the unique place occupied by the Gospels and the writings of the Apostles. The careful line of demarcation between these writings and their own is quite noticeable. Clement of Rome, writing to the Corinthians (c. A.D. 96), says: 'Take into your hands the epistle of the Blessed Paul the Apostle. What did he write to you when the Gospel was first preached? Truly, under divine inspiration (pneumatikos) he wrote to you concerning himself, and Cephas, and Apollo, because even then you had formed parties among yourselves' (Ep Cor 47:1; PG 1, 305). Ignatius of Antioch (d.c. 107-110) remarks to the Ephesians that St Paul makes mention of them in 'every epistle', a hyperbole which implies a collection of Pauline epistles of acknowledged authority, Eph 12:1; PG 5, 656. Eph 4:26 is quoted by St Polycarp (c. 70--156) together with Ps 4:5, as in the 'Scriptures', Phil 12:1 PG 5, 1014. Quite apart from these explicit passages, there are many incidental references and coincidences of thought and language which betray a remarkable acquaintance with the writings of Paul, cf F. X. Funk Partres Apostotici (Index Loconun SS,). 'Elsewhere in the Apostolic Fathers', writes Westcott, 'there are clear traces of a knowledge of the Epistles of St Paul to the Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and 1 and 2 Timothy, of the Epistle to the Hebrews, of the Epistle of St James, the first Epistle of St Peter, and the first Epistle of St John. The allusions to the Epistles of St Paul to the Thessalonians, Colossians, to Titus and Philemon, and to 2 Peter are very uncertain; and there are, I believe, no coincidences of language with the Epistle of Jude, and 2 and 3 John' (History of the Canon NT, p. 48). In fact their familiarity with the epistles is so extensive that we can hardly doubt that a collection of them was in wide circulation and commonly Known.
There are allusions; too, to the written Gospels, although our Lord's life and teaching were still familiar from oral tradition, cf. Funk, loc cit Mt 22:14 is quoted by the Ep. of Barnabas (c. 100) with the scriptural formula hos gegraptai, 'as it is written' (4:14, PC 2, 733). The judgement of the early writers is, therefore, clear, for they use the books as authoritative, accept them as apostolic and quote them as inspired.
The Apologists-During the succeeding period in the life of the Church when she was faced by the persecution of the Roman Empire and the attacks of heretical false brethren, the Apologists came to her aid. In their works evidence for the canonical writings is abundant. Justin Martyr describes them as resting upon Apostolic authority: 'For the Apostles', he writes, 'in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have handed down to us what Jesus had thus enjoined upon them' (1 Apol 1, 66; PG 6, 429). These 'memoirs' were read together with the Prophets when the Christians met for worship on Sundays (1, 67), thus bearing witness to a Christian collection of writings which had taken its place alongside that of the OT. That Justin is speaking of the four Gospels which we possess today, seems to be confirmed by the work of his disciple Tatian, who composed his Diatessaron, or harmony of the Gospels, exclusively from them. Justin also quotes Apoc as by St John. St Denis of Corinth (d.c. 176), in an interesting passage, complains of heretics corrupting his writings, but consoles himself with the thought that the same is done even to the Scriptures of the Lord (Eus HE 4,23; PG 20, 389). The heretic Marcion (c. 150) also gives direct testimony to the existence and authority of a NT Canon by drawing up one of his own, which included a mutilated Lk and ten Pauline epistles.
By the end of the 2nd cent. all the NT books were generally known and the divine character of most of them was universally admitted. Irenaeus (d. 202), familiar with the traditions of Asia Minor, Gaul and Pome, and connected through his teachers with the close of the apostolic age, explicitly names and accepts the four canonical Gospels, rejects the claims of others which are apocryphal, quotes twelve epistles of Paul as Scripture, accepts Apoc as Johannine, and makes use of the Catholic epistle (Adv Haer. 3, 11; PG 7, 885). He has no reference to Phm and does not think that Heb was written by St Paul.
The witness of Tertullian in North Africa and Clement in Alexandria is the same. The former, writing against Marcion, reproves him for his treatment of the Gospels, and defends their authenticity and authority, Adv Marcion 4, 2. He quotes all the NT books except 2 Pt, 2 and 3 Jn, but ascribes Heb to Barnabas and excludes it from Scripture. Clement' quotes all the undisputed books of the NT, and, according to Eusebius, gave concise accounts of all the canonical Scriptures, not passing over the disputed books, i.e. Jude and the other catholic epistles, and also the Ep. Barn., and Apoc. Pet. He regarded Heb as Pauline, written in Heb. for Hebrews, and translated into Gr. by Luke (HE 6, 14; 19b PG 20, 549).
The earliest list that has come down to us, though it need be by no means the earliest written, is the Muratorian Fragment (c. 200) discovered by Muratori in the Ambrosian Library, Milan in 1740. It contains a catalogue of books which were recognized as authoritative at Pome at the end of the 2nd cent., viz. the four Gospels, Acts, the epistles of St Paul (except Heb), two epistles of St John, Jude and Apoc. It omits (in addition to Heb) Jas, 1 and 2 Pt and one epistle of Jn. There also seems to be a reference to the Apoc. Pet., which 'some of us do not wish to be read in the Church'. The Pastor of Hermas is excluded because of its recent date (text: EnchB 1--7).
The NT part of the Chester Beatty papyri, dating back to the first half of the 3rd cent. or earlier, comprises three codices which, when complete, would have covered the whole NT, except the Pastoral and Catholic Epistles. P 45 contains parts of the four Gospels and Ac; P 46, most of the Pauline Epistles with Heb in second place; P 47 part of Apoc.
It is generally admitted from the evidence that, from the beginning of the 3rd cent., the NT was composed essentially of the same books as our present Canon. This does not mean that there was no hesitation, discussion or examination of the claims of the d.c. books; this there was, but the outcome of it ad was that the writings, acknowledged as authoritative at the end of the 2nd cent., retained their status. Other writings which were held in high esteem, occasionally quoted 89 Scripture, and sometimes added to NT Mss, as, for instance, Ep. Clem., Pastor Herm., Ep, Barn., Didache were excluded from the Canon. The pretensions of Marcion and the Edict of Diocletian (a.D. 303), which ordered the destruction of all sacred books, may have had some intluence in furthering the final delimination of the Canon.
The Position of the Deuterocanonical Books-- During the 3rd cent. some of the Fathers hesitated to accept some books because of doubts cast upon their authenticity. Some were short and not well known and, when their claims for full canonical status were considered, it is easy to understand that it might not be immediately conceded. Others, like Apoc and Heb, were suspect for more positive reasons. Apoc had been almost universally received from the earliest times but, during the 3rd cent., there was a reaction against it in the East. The occasion of the interruption of the long tradition seems to have been the use made of Apoc to support the Millenarian heresy. It was this that led St Denis of Alexandria to examine again the claims of the book to be the work of an apostle. He does not venture to deny its inspired character or canonicity-- tradition was too strong--but the differences of style, thought and language led him to the conclusion that the fourth Gospel and Apoc were not written by the same person. Almost inevitably doubts regarding the authorship resulted in hesitation as to its canonical authority. In the 4th cent. this hesitation is illustrated by Euseb. who strangely classes Apoc both among the 'accepted' books and among the 'spurious' books, whereas in reality he calls in question only its authenticity. His writings are of interest because he actually undertakes to record any tradition which would throw light on the formation of the Canon (HE 3, 3; PG 20, 217) and gives a summary of his results (ibid 3, 25). The books which he here enumerates are grouped into four classes: (1) The accepted writings, viz four Gospels, Ac, fourteen Pauline Epistles, 1 Jn, 1 Pt, and Apoc 'if it seems right'. (2) Disputed books, but accepted. by the majority, Jas, Jude, 2 Pt, 2 and 3 Jn. (3) Spurious writings, Ac of P1, Shepherd Herm., Apoc Pt, Ep. Barn. Didache and Apoc 'if it seems right. This last, as I said, is rejected by some, others place it among the accepted writings'. (4) Various heretical gospels and acts which are to be wholly rejected. In the first two classes, he has our present Canon, Indi· Cating, at the same time, the 'disputed' character of the d.c. books.
Apoc was not included among the canonical books by Cyr Jer, the Council of Laodicea, Creg Naz, Amphilochius and others in the E. In the W, however, the authority of Apoc was upheld by Jer, Aug and the other great Latin Fathers. Finally it was accepted in both E and W. Ath. mentions it and receives it along with other NT writings as one of the springs of salvation (Ep 39;.PG 26, 1438).
Hesitation in the acceptance of Heb was due to similar circumstances, but in this case, it was in the W and not in the E that it persisted for any length of time. In the W the ep. was not regarded as Pauline, and, in consequence, its canonical character was called in question. In the E it was generally regarded as belonging to Paul, either directly or indirectly. Origen, for instance, suggested that the thought was the Apostle's but the style and composition were that of a disciple reproducing his master's teaching. Others followed this opinion and, though the immediate authorship of the book might be considered uncertain, it retained its traditional place amongst the canonical writings. Ath who lists all our present canonical books, enumerates 14 epistles of Paul, including, of course, Heb. From the 4th cent., though its authorship might still be disputed, its canonical authority was recognized and acknowledged in the W as well as the E. It was included in the lists of the African Councils and that of Innocent I, (cf 6 16e). By the end of the 4th cent. the difficulties occasioned by certain books disappeared, and there was no further serious attempt to dispute the claims of the accepted books. The Canon then received was the one finally defined at Trent and is the NT Canon universally accepted today.
Criterion of Canonicity---Since the inspiration or divine authorship of any particular work can be made known to us only by the Divine Author himself. any criterion or principle by which we can judge the inspired or canonical character of a book must include a divine witness. Such divine testimony is to be found solely in tradition coming, in one form or another, from Christ and his Apostles, preserved in the Church and supported by her authoritative pronouncements. But the question arises: in what precise way did apostolic tradition guide the Church in determining which books to admit to the Canon of the NT?
As noted about (g 19a), the first Christians gradually built up a collection of books which they regarded as specially sacred and authoritative because they bore the unmistakable stamp or guarantee of apostolic origin. They were at the same time wary of including in the collection any work which was not of proven and undoubted apostolic authority. Starting from this fed, Lagrange and others maintain that from the beginning the chief criterion of canonicity was the apostolic origin of the writings. Since the Apostles were sent to teach in the name of Christ and were his ambassadors, whatever they taught was to be received as the word of Christ, Pm 2:16, 16:25; 2 Cor 4:3. But why limit their teaching to the spoken word? Were they not just as much the ambassadors of Christ when they wrote as when they spoke? In this way whatever was written by an Apostle was inspired and, on this understanding, was accepted by the faithful. The writings of Mark and Luke were received because they 21( were considered as coming from Peter and Paul respectively (cf Lagrange, Hist. ancienne du Canon du NT, 1933; RE 44 (1935), 216--18; 2arb, op cit 518ff). But, it is objected, is it right to make the transient charisma or gift of inspiration coextensive with the permanent office of apostleship, or to elevate Mark and Luke virtually to the status of Apostles? to fact it is possible to commit an Apostle's teaching faithfully to writing and yet not be inspired in the true sense of the word.
Other writers avoid these difficulties by maintaining that the Apostles pointed but the NT scriptural books equivalently or implicitly in the way they treated and regarded them: by setting them apart, by putting them on a level with OT books, by sanctioning their use in public worship. The Apostles, in the various regions where they preached the Gospel, would guide the faithful in their acceptances, and apostolic tradition thus formed would be handed down in the great apostolic sees. This would leave room for the later hesitation, when smaller books, written to more isolated communities, became known, and for variations in the number of accepted books in different communities, (Recently K. Rahner, Inspiration in the Bible, E. tr. 1961, has put forward the theory that the inspired nature or divine authorship of certain books was revealed to the Apostolic Church by the very fact that those Books emerged and were accepted, within the Church, as her genuine selfexpression in normative written form. Further on this view, which belongs rather to the held of speculative theology, see J. H. Crehan S.J., A Catholic Dictionary of Theology, 1, 324.)
An Anglican view suggests that there may have been three main criteria: the authority derived by a book from its author, the authority accorded to a book by the Church at large, and the authority which accrued to a book from its own inherent worth, H. F. D. Sparks, The Formation of the NT Canon, 1952, 149-50. There is also the view recently proposed by Kurt Aland, The Problem of the NT Canon, 15ff, who thinks that, when discussing the external principles which played a part in the choice of the canonical Scriptures, one can only speak of the 'Prinzip der Prinzipienlosigkeit'- the principle of having no principles. He does add, however, that by A.D. 200 fivesixths of the NT was complete and the norm by which these books were measured was the 'regula fidei' or rule of faith. It was, he says, the influence of the Church that closed the Canon formally at the end of the 4th cent. Since he does not admit an infallible magisterium, he adds that 'our task is the discovery of the correct principles of selection from the formal Canon and of its interpretation with the purpose of achieving a common, actual Canon and a common interpretation of its contents' (P· 31).
In whatever way the apostolic teaching and guarantee regarding the Canon were conveyed to the Church, it was these which determined the acceptance of the books. The unerring precision of acceptance is remarkably demonstrated in the case of the small and almost private letter to Philemon which won universal recognition, while other writings, Ep. Clem., Ep. Barn., Pastor Herm., were rejected. In this regard, Jerome writes in the Prologue to Phm, 'Those who uphold its genuine character urge that it would never have been received by all the churches throughout the whole world unless it had been believed to be the work of Paul, the Apostle' (PL 26, 637).
Conclusion--If we turn our eyes back from the Canon, c as defined in the 16th cent., to the writings of the early Fathers, we find a striking coincidence if range between ale their quotations and implicit references, and the limits of the present Canon. The reason is not far to seek. The scriptural Canon is a dogma, a revealed truth and as such has its history or development, not in the sense of addition or increase, for this is not possible after the Apostolic age, but in the sense of being more fully, more explicitly understood. Revealed truth is only gradually unfolded, and is not immediately understood in all its aspects, penetrated in all its depths, appreciated in all its richness and beauty, nor foreseen in all its implications. Newman, writing about the books of the NT Canon says: The first century acts as a comment on the obscure text of the centuries before it, and brings out a meaning, which with the help of the comment any candid person sees really to be theirs' (Development of Christian Doctrine 4:1, 3).
The truth made known by our Lord and his Apostles was received by the Church, was generally known in the 2nd cent., was made clearer by the opinions and controversies of the 3rd and 4th, and when occasion demanded was made explicit and final by definition. A later age holds more explicitly and, in this sense, more fully, what an earlier age accepted implicitly, but it does not possess a different doctrine or a new revelation.