*CANON OF THE NT.
The collection of early Christian writings venerated as sacred scripture by the church, read in the liturgy, and recognized as the authoritative expression of the apostolic faith; or, the list of the books so recognized.
The history of the canon of the NT is a chapter of cardinal importance in the history of Christian literature. Its task is to investigate why and how the church came to attribute to a limited number of books written by Christian authors during the first century of her history an authority equal and ultimately superior to that of the venerable scriptures she inherited from Judaism. But this task belongs only in part to the history of the literature. It involves also the history of doctrine, the conflict with heresies and schisms, the development of Christian institutions, and, indeed, the entire scope of the manifold movement toward unity which issued in the ancient Catholic church. The importance of the creation of such a canon of Christian scriptures cannot be too highly estimated, for in this one area the church achieved a unity which proved able to endure through the schisms which rent her in the fifth century, the division of the Greek from the Western church in the ninth century, and even the breakup of the Western church through the Reformation movements of the sixteenth century. In our own time, hopes of reunion could hardly be entertained, and the ecumenical movement would be all but inconceivable, were it not that all the churches concerned are in substantial agreement in recognizing the unique authority of the same twenty-seven books as constituting the canon of the NT, in employing them constantly in public and private devotions, and in appealing to them for guidance in faith and order.
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 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 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.
A. The apostolic age (to A.D. 70)
1. The scriptures of the primitive church
2. Modifying factors
a. The presence of the Spirit
b. The rejection of scribal tradition
c. The authority of the words of Jesus
B. Preparations for the canon (A.D. 70-150)
1. Collection of the Pauline letters
2. The making of the gospels
a. The one gospel and the many gospels
b. Problems of early use
c. Emergence of the great four
d. Uncanonical gospels
3. Other Christian writings of the period
a. Writings which became canonical
b. Marginal writings eventually rejected
C. The emergence of the canon of the NT (A.D. 150-200)
1. Growing veneration of the apostles
2. Earliest witnesses to the gospels
3. Marcion's canon
4. Effects of conflict with Gnosticism
5. Apologists and martyrs (A.D. 165-80)
6. The Old Catholic Canon
7. Effects of the introduction of the codex
D. The fixing of the canon (A.D. 200-400)
2. Dionysius of Alexandria
3. The persecution under Diocletian
4. Eusebius of Caesarea
5. Other Greek lists of the fourth century
6. Latin writers of the third and fourth centuries
E. The growth of the canon in the Syrian church (to A.D. 616)
A. THE APOSTOLIC AGE (TO A.D. 70). 1. The sacred scriptures of the primitive church: the inheritance from Judaism. Christianity from its very inception possessed an extensive and precious sacred literature inherited from Judaism--the books of the OT. From the mother faith Christianity also inherited the conception that these books were the very "oracles of God" (Rom. 3:2), and her teachers appealed to them constantly to validate their own message. Jesus himself had accepted the Jewish scriptures as the vehicle of a true, though not final, revelation of God, and explicitly disavowed any intention of repudiating them: "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them" (Matt. 5:17). The apostle Paul likewise affirms that the gospel of God concerning his Son Jesus Christ was "promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures" (Rom. 1:2), and though it manifests God's righteousness apart from law, nevertheless the law and the prophets bear witness to it (Rom. 3:21). Other early Christian writers cite the ancient scriptures as the words of God himself, or of the Holy Spirit, or under such rubrics as "it is written," or "it stands in scripture."
The scriptures which the men of the early church held in such honor formed a much more extensive body of literature than that with which we are familiar in the OT and Apoc. of our own versions. They included an indeterminate number of other books, mainly apocalyptic writings, composed during the first two centuries before Christ or shortly afterward, and published under the names of ancient heroes of history and legend--Enoch, Ezra, Moses, Elijah, the Twelve Patriarchs. Several of these are actually cited as scripture in NT documents, but their influence is far more pervasive than the handful of citations would indicate. It is their understanding of history that determines the general world view of the early church and of the NT writers, and it is largely their reinterpretation of the ancient revelation that is inherited by the early church and is reflected in the apostolic writings. In them, far more than in the canonical books, we find the background of central themes of the NT such as the kingdom of God and the Son of man, the resurrection of the dead, and the doctrine of angels and demons. And once the mission moved into Greek territories, under the leadership of converts from the Diaspora (Paul, Barnabas, Philip the Evangelist, and others), it inevitably made use of the whole wide range of books available in the SEPTUAGINT, including a number which were originally composed in Greek. Almost all the OT quotations in the NT are taken directly from the LXX without concern for the meaning of the Hebrew text, which often enough would have no bearing upon the point at issue. Broadly speaking, the LXX is the Bible of the early church and of all the NT writers, though not of Jesus and the Twelve.
2. Modifying factors in the Christian attitude toward the sacred books. In a sense, then, Christianity was a book religion from its inception, heir to a revelation committed to writing in days gone by. Yet there were three factors in the new faith which made profound modifications in its attitude toward the ancient scriptures and in the role which they filled in its developing life, as compared with the dominance of the book in Judaism.
a. The presence of the Spirit. First of all, the Christians were persuaded that a new age of revelation had dawned: the Spirit of revelation was again active among them, the gift of God to every believer. Their ministers were "ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life" II Cor. 3:6). The Spirit of Jesus, imparted through baptism, was identified with the Spirit who moved holy men of old to speak the oracles which were committed to writing and preserved in the books of the old covenant; and all Christians were inspired in different ways by one and the same Spirit, who apportioned his gifts to each one individually as he willed I Cor. 12:4-11). Men so inspired, conscious of such inspiration, could not be in bondage to books, however highly revered.
b. The rejection of scribal tradition. Secondly, the oral tradition of the scribes was explicitly discarded, as "making void the word of God" (Mark 7:13). This left the field free for interpretations that owed nothing to the accumulated results of scribal labors. Still more broadly, the Christians no longer regarded the content of the OT as centering in the "law of commandments and ordinances" (Eph. 2:15), which occupied almost the entire attention of the scribes. They were not under law but under grace (Rom. 6:14), and they were not concerned with elaborate systems of casuistry. What they sought in the ancient scriptures was not a code of commandments to regulate daily living, but a testimony to Christ and his gospel; and their whole interpretation was governed by the conviction that in him the scriptures were fulfilled. To them, the burden of the scriptural message, given beforehand by the Spirit, was the "sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glory" (I Pet. 1:11; cf. Luke 24:25-27). They were convinced that a veil was over the minds of Jewish interpreters when they read the OT, and that only when a man turned to the Lord was the veil taken away II Cor. 3:14-16).
c. The authority of the words of Jesus. Thirdly, alongside the ancient scriptures, the Christians had from the outset another authority, not as yet committed to writing, but transmitted by word of mouth--the sayings of Jesus. "Remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said ..." (Acts 20:35)--this was the final court of appeal from the beginning. The words of Jesus were the words of eternal life. Treasured in the first instance by his disciples, in the same manner as the sayings of every rabbi were taken up and committed to memory by the students who followed him, they became in the developing church the words of the Master who still lived in their midst and governed all their life. Under the guidance of his Spirit, the words that he had spoken provided for his people instruction and comfort, challenge, appeal and counsel, answers to the criticisms of opponents, and above all that penetrating insight into the nature and will of God which still compels the confession: "No man ever spoke like this man!" (John 7:46). Before the gospels were written--and, indeed, for a good while longer--these words of Jesus, treasured in the memory of his followers and transmitted by word of mouth, carried final authority for the Christian believer and actually determined for him the sense in which he would understand the ancient scriptures. Here the church had in germ the essential canon of the new testament, long before she had any literature to canonize. And when the gospels came to be written and passed gradually into general use in the churches, the authority they acquired was accorded to them, not in the first instance as holy books, but as books containing the holy words of Jesus. The authority of the words was primary; that of the books was secondary and derivative.
B. PREPARATIONS FOR THE CANON: THE PROVISION OF THE DOCUMENTS (70-150). 1. Collection and publication of the Pauline letters. Jesus himself left nothing in writing, and the gospels which preserve for us the record of his teachings were not composed until the second Christian generation or later. The earliest Christian writings, the only documents of the apostolic age which have survived, are the letters of Paul. These were in the first instance occasional writings, addressed by the apostle to particular churches to deal with specific local problems and needs. With the possible exception of Romans, they were not intended for general circulation in the church, and it certainly never occurred to Paul himself that a letter which he wrote for the Christians of Thessalonica or of Philippi would ever be read in Antioch or in Jerusalem, let alone treasured by the whole church and given a place alongside the Law and the Prophets in worship and in study. There is no evidence to show that any of his letters were circulated in his lifetime beyond the region to which they were first directed. Only after they had been gathered into a collection did they obtain a wider circulation and become known throughout the church. The formation and publication of such a collection and even its general circulation could not forthwith raise these occasional writings to canonical status, but they established the conditions which alone made possible the later treatment of the letters as holy scripture.
Edgar J. Goodspeed has shown that there are good reasons for holding that the author of EPHESIANS was also the collector and publisher of the Pauline letters, and that he wrote Ephesians under Paul's name as a general introduction to the whole collection. He was probably himself a man of Colossae; it has even been suggested that he was none other than Onesimus, once a fugitive slave, but won for Christ by Paul and sent home to his owner--perhaps the same Onesimus whom Ignatius knew as bishop of Antioch about fifty years afterward (see PHILEMON, LETTER TO). Whoever he may have been, he is the first Christian writer to make literary use of Paul's letters, and it is significant that he shows evidence of acquaintance with all of them, though he makes most use of Colossians, which provides him with the groundwork of his own distinctive thought. And from his time on, every single Christian writer known to us makes use of the letters in a manner which shows that he knows the whole collection. This appears sometimes in references to one letter or another in general terms (Clem. Rom. 47:1.1; Polyc. 3.2; 11.3), occasionally in direct citation (Polyc. 11.2), more often in the borrowing of characteristic words and phrases, and at least once in the composition of a letter collection to introduce a work of a totally different character. For the device of introducing an apocalypse by a sequence of letters addressed severally to seven churches but issued together under cover of a general letter (Rev. 1:4 -3:22) is without parallel in apocalyptic, and can only be explained as indicating that the author had before him a corpus of Pauline letters similarly constructed. It is beyond dispute, then, that the collection of Paul's letters had been formed and published before the end of the first century, and that it quickly came into general use among Christians.
This earliest collection consisted of nine letters addressed to particular churches (Philemon, which seems to be an exception, is itself addressed to the "church [that meets] in your house"), with Ephesians as a covering letter addressed to all Christians everywhere. For, as the earliest MSS show, Ephesians was not addressed to any local church, but "to the saints who are also faithful in Christ Jesus." The Pastoral letters were added to the collection many years later; and Hebrews, under the influence of the Alexandrian church, won a peculiar place for itself later still. But even as a collection in general use, the letters were not yet regarded as holy scripture, despite the growing veneration of the apostles. Clement of Rome and the other apostolic fathers use them extensively, but never cite them in the terms they use to introduce passages from the OT scriptures. There is nothing to indicate that in the first half of the second century they were set upon a fundamentally different plane from the letters of the martyr-bishop Ignatius of Antioch, which were collected and published ca. 117. The earliest writer to mention them explicitly as included among the scriptures was the author of II Peter (3:15-16; ca. 150); and after that time, their canonical authority was taken for granted in all parts of the church.
2. The making of the gospels. a. The one gospel and the many gospels. The acknowledgment of the gospels was not in the least dependent upon the making of a gospel collection. On the contrary, each gospel must have first obtained a wide measure of acceptance, extending well beyond the community in which it was produced, before it was made part of a collection of such writings. All of them, indeed, with the partial exception of the Gospel According to John, were made not only in and for the community, but in a sense by the community as much as by the individual author. The materials they employed were, in the main, the common possession of the church, the store of traditions concerning Jesus as they had been accumulated and shaped through a generation or more of oral transmission in response to the needs and interests of the developing community. These traditional materials, especially insofar as they consisted of sayings of Jesus, carried his own authority from the outset, and contributed it in large measure to the books which contained them. The primary question here is how the church came to acknowledge four gospels instead of one; and secondary to that, how she came to acknowledge only four out of the many that were composed during the second and third generation of Christian believers. For not one of the gospels--not even John--was composed as a supplement to others, or with any thought that it would ever be read in conjunction with others. It is not too difficult to see why the church rejected most of those that came into existence at this time and were cherished in one circle or another; the extraordinary thing is that she did not settle upon a single authoritative account of the story of salvation and of the Lord's teaching. Each of the four--and the same is true of nearly all the uncanonical gospels as well--sought to provide such a unified manual for the church; and even after the four were established in a position of unassailable authority, there was at least one notable and partly successful attempt to weave out of them a single, harmonized account--the Diatessaron of Tatian (see VERSIONS, ANCIENT, § 4). But somehow by the end of the second century the fourfold gospel collection was accepted as a settled possession everywhere except in Syria (where the Diatessaron reigned supreme), though there is evidence for the occasional use of other gospels by Christian writers.
b. Problems of early use of the gospels: the books and the oral tradition. The history of the use of the gospels in the earliest period is very difficult to determine, because it is seldom possible to be sure that sayings or stories of Jesus which we find in writings of the post-apostolic age are taken from one of the great four, or from some uncanonical gospel, or even from oral tradition. As late as 135 or 140 the words of Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, make it quite clear that in some circles, perhaps even to the average Christian of the time, greater weight was still attached to an oral tradition resting on a living chain of testimony than to anything that was to be found in any book. Papias certainly had Mark, Matthew, and John at his disposal, if not also Luke, and quite possibly other gospels as well; yet he tells us: "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 what things 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). The maxim "Spoken words vanish; written words abide" is here turned exactly in reverse! Yet only a few years later, 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.
c. Emergence of the great four. The four canonical gospels are works of the second Christian generation (ca. 70-100). Mark, the earliest of them, appears to have been produced at Rome not many years after the outbreak of persecution under Nero (64), and may be taken to represent the deposit of the traditions concerning Jesus as they were known in the Roman church at the end of the apostolic age. Not many years later (ca. 80) it was incorporated almost in toto into a gospel composed in Palestine in a Jewish-Christian environment, being used as one of the principal sources of our Gospel According to Matthew. A like use of Mark, though less extensive, is found again in the Gospel According to Luke, which was published together with its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, in some region of the E Mediterranean toward the close of the century or even somewhat later. In his Preface, Luke tells us explicitly that "many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word" (1:1-2). His words make it evident that by the time he wrote, there were numerous gospels in circulation in the churches, and none of them enjoyed such an established position as to bar another writer from adding to the number. Neither for them nor for himself does he claim any special inspiration; he writes simply as one who has "followed all things closely for some time past" (1:3), to whom "it seemed good ... to write an orderly account." Moreover, the way in which both he and Matthew treat the materials derived from Mark shows clearly that neither of them regarded the earliest gospel as inspired scripture. Both of them feel perfectly free, not only to add to Mark, but also to subtract, to abbreviate, to alter words and phrases, and even on occasion to alter the order of incidents. The author of the Fourth Gospel makes bold to treat the whole tradition with infinitely greater freedom, not holding himself bound to follow the general outline of events that underlies the Synoptic narrative, nor even to reproduce substantially the same teaching as the utterances of Jesus. And it cannot be doubted that the many other gospels which came into circulation during the same period and later, claimed for themselves at least an equal freedom. In short, the church of the early second century had at its disposal a large number of gospels, but accorded to none of them anything like canonical authority; and it still possessed a considerable mass of oral tradition, not committed to writing anywhere, which was by many valued more highly than any written record. The authority still rested in the words of the Lord, not in any of the books containing his words.
d. Uncanonical gospels. It should be said that none of the uncanonical gospels, insofar as they have become known to us, adds anything significant to our knowledge of Jesus. The materials used in their construction are either quarried out of our four or are invented or distorted to support the religious views of some sect--usually a Gnostic school with Docetic conceptions of Jesus (regarding the human life of Jesus as phantasmal, or making a radical separation between the heavenly aeon Christ and the earthly body which he inhabited). Some are merely fictitious tales of the infancy and childhood of Jesus, attempts of the pious imagination to supply the information which was lacking about the years between the Nativity and the beginning of the public ministry. These are not by any means negligible to the historian, for they reflect aspects of the development of Christian thought, and some of them contributed themes to the Christian artist and so perpetuated themselves in painting, sculpture, and the minor arts, enduring in this way for centuries after their literary and theological influence had vanished. None of them ever attained the widespread circulation of any of the great quartet. See APOCRYPHA, NT.
3. Other Christian writings of the period. a. Writings which became canonical. The period that saw the publication of all these gospels and of the collected letters of Paul (say A.D. 70 to 140) witnessed also the production of a large number of other Christian writings--letters, apocalypses, apologies, homilies, manuals of teaching, "acts" of apostles. Several of these were destined to win a place in the canon along with the four gospels and the Pauline letters. The book of Acts, separated quite early from its companion volume, the Gospel According to Luke, seems always to have shared the fortunes of the latter in the esteem of the churches; and our earliest MS of the four gospels (p45) also includes Acts. The three Pastoral letters (I and II Timothy, Titus), issued under the name of Paul to combat the heresies of the time, are generally dated around the beginning of the second century but may be as late as 150. Their acceptance as scripture depended upon their incorporation into the collection of Pauline letters, which cannot have taken place until late in the century; Marcion's canon did not contain them (see § C3 below), and they are not included in our earliest MS of the letters of Paul (p46--ca. 200).
The seven Catholic letters made their way individually, and were formed into a group relatively late. The Letter of James, a "diatribe" constructed after the model employed by Stoic teachers, is probably the work of a Jewish Christian steeped in Hellenistic literature and philosophy, and may be dated fairly early in the second century. Despite the apostolic name attached to it, it was slow to attain recognition or even to come into use; there is no trace of it in Christian literature until the third century. 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.
Hebrews is now held by some critics to be the work of a contemporary of Paul, but it seems to show such evidences of Pauline influence as to require us to place it in the generation after his death. 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 the second place, immediately after Romans; but in the West, despite its extensive use in I Clement (ca. 95) and the strong advocacy of Tertullian, who attributed it to Barnabas, it did not attain general acknowledgment as canonical until late in the fourth century. Revelation, probably composed toward 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.
b. Marginal writings which were eventually rejected. Of other Christian writings which have survived, the group known as the APOSTOLIC FATHERS come from the same period as these later NT documents, and some of them enjoyed for a time a comparable prestige and popularity. I Clement, a letter written by the Roman church to the church of Corinth ca. 95, is never cited as scripture, but it was read in public worship at Corinth ca. 170, and is included in the Codex Alexandrinus (fifth century); and the extensive literature to which the name of Clement was later attached (II Clement, Clementine Recognitions, etc.) would indicate that it must have enjoyed something close to canonical authority in some circles at least. II Clement, really an anonymous homily of ca. 150, is also found in Codex A. The Epistle of Barnabas, a pseudonymous pamphlet of the early second century, probably of Alexandrian provenance, is found in the great Codex Sinaiticus (fourth century) and is treated as scripture by Clement of Alexandria and his renowned successor Origen, but it was never acknowledged in other parts of the church or by the later Alexandrians.
The little manual known as the Didache--"The Teaching of Jesus Christ Through the Twelve Apostles"--is of uncertain date, but is probably to be placed early in the second century. It was used by the early Alexandrians as holy scripture and continued to be so used in the Egyptian churches throughout the third century. There is evidence for its use in Syria as late as ca. 400 (in the Apostolic Constitutions), and it is included in some Greek lists of the fourth century. The fact that it was translated into Latin and into Georgian would indicate that it enjoyed for some centuries wide use and considerable prestige. The Shepherd of Hermas was highly regarded and immensely popular for two or three generations after its publication. Such great figures as Irenaeus and (for a time) Tertullian treated it as scripture, and even Origen regarded it as apostolic; and it is included (incomplete) in the Codex Sinaiticus. According to the Muratorian Canon it was composed ca. 150 by Hermas, a brother of the Roman bishop of that time; but many investigators date it some decades earlier. The letters of Ignatius (ca. 115) and the Epistle to Diognetus (150 or later) were never cited as scripture.
At least five books attributed to Peter were composed during these years, but only the two letters were ultimately recognized. The Gospel of Peter, the Preaching of Peter, and the Apocalypse of Peter (see PETER, GOSPEL OF; PETER, PREACHING OF; PETER, APOCALYPSE OF) all enjoyed a period of use; the Apocalypse especially had distinguished sponsorship--Clement of Alexandria, the Muratorian Canon (which means the Roman church of the time), and Methodius (ca. 300). The Acts of Peter and the Acts of John (see PETER, ACTS OF; JOHN, ACTS OF) are works of a follower of the Gnostic Valentinus. The Acts of Paul (see PAUL, ACTS OF), composed by an Asian presbyter about the middle of the second century, was alone among the apocryphal Acts in obtaining some measure of ecclesiastical recognition. Its author was induced to confess his forgery and was deposed from office, despite his plea that he had written his book out of love for Paul. Nevertheless, it is cited by the great Alexandrians, and seems to have continued in wide use well into the third century.
C. THE EMERGENCE OF THE CANON OF THE NT: APOLOGISTS, HERETICS, AND OLD CATHOLIC FATHERS (A.D. 150-200). 1. Growing veneration of the apostles. Toward the middle of the second century, then, the church was provided with a rich store of documents of her own creation--gospels, letters, "acts" of apostles, apocalypses, homilies, apologies, manuals of teaching. Some of these were coming into general use; others were more restricted in their circulation; none of them was yet being treated as holy scripture, on a level with the sacred scripture inherited from Judaism. Only the words of Jesus, whether recorded in books or transmitted by oral tradition, carried the fullest authority. At the same time, the apostles were gradually acquiring in the Christian mind a collateral, though subordinate, authority. Even before the end of the first century, a Christian writer could speak of the church as "built upon the foundation of the apostles and [Christian] prophets" (Eph. 2:20), and an inspired seer could picture the Bride of the Lamb as the "holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God," having under its walls "twelve foundations, and on them the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb" (Rev. 21:9-14).
The two-volume history of Luke is itself a striking manifestation of how the ministry of Jesus and the ministry of the apostles could be coupled in a single account of the origins of the Christian society; in the work of the apostles it is Jesus himself who is still acting through his Holy Spirit. Now this collective authority of the apostles was not exercised solely or even primarily through books--most of them, like their Lord, had left nothing in writing--but through the tradition of sound teaching which they had received from Christ and transmitted to their successors, the bishops. So in the Pastorals we have the repeated injunctions: "Guard the deposit [RSV `what has been entrusted to you']" I Tim. 6:20); "Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me" II Tim. 1:13); "What you have heard from me ... entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" II Tim. 2:2). There is no thought here of apostolic writings, although the author is well acquainted with the letters of Paul; the only "sacred writings" are those with which "Timothy" has been acquainted from childhood II Tim. 3:15). The apostolic "deposit" is guarded by and transmitted through qualified teachers, by word of mouth. But just as the authority of Jesus was to be transferred from the words which he spoke to the books which contained them, so the authority of the apostolic deposit, still and always safeguarded by the bishops, was to be shared and verified by the books in which they themselves, or men closely connected with them, had committed it to writing.
The decisive development takes place during the second half of the century, and the evidence becomes increasingly abundant. First the gospels are treated as holy scripture in the citations of ecclesiastical writers and in the liturgy. Very soon afterward the letters of Paul are associated with them in similar usage; and before the end of the century a variable number of other writings gather around the nucleus of "the gospel" and "the apostle." The canon of the NT has emerged in essentials; it only remains to determine its limits by the exclusion of such writings as cannot secure and maintain a title of apostolicity. What is apostolic is canonical; whatever cannot be recognized as stemming from the apostles is not canonical.
2. Earliest witnesses to the canonical use of the gospels: II Clement and Justin Martyr. II Clement (ca. 150) is the earliest Christian document to cite passages from the gospels as holy scripture. After quoting some words from Isaiah, the writer proceeds: "And again another scripture says, `I came not to call the righteous, but sinners'" (II Clem. 2:4; Matt. 9:13). About the same time, Justin Martyr tells us that in the services of Christian worship which he is describing with some fullness, "the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the Prophets are read, as long as time permits" (Apol. I.67). He is using the word "memoirs" (ajpomnhmoneuVata) for the benefit of pagan readers; elsewhere, he speaks of the apostles as "those who have written memoirs of all things concerning our Saviour Jesus Christ"; and again, specifically identifying them, of the "memoirs made by (the apostles), which are called gospels" (Apol. I.33, 66). Thus he makes it clear, not only that books--the gospels--are the source of his knowledge of Jesus, but also that these same books are being read in the liturgy interchangeably with "the Prophets"--the ancient Hebrew scriptures. It is not clear which gospels he uses, or how many, or whether he restricts himself to those of our canon; but regardless of this, the decisive step has been taken. One group of Christian writings--the gospels--has been established in ecclesiastical usage in the place hitherto reserved to the inspired scriptures of Judaism.
3. Marcion's canon: the gospel and the apostle. The second step, of coupling letters with gospels as sacred scriptures of the new faith, was taken first by the heretic Marcion, who came to Rome from Pontus sometime before 150. Reared in orthodox circles (his father was bishop of Sinope), this remarkable man came under Gnostic influence, and became persuaded that the God of the Hebrew scriptures, the Creator, the God of justice, was an inferior deity; and that Jesus had revealed the supreme God, the God of love, who had been previously unknown. He rejected the OT scriptures outright, and made a collection of Christian books the sole foundation of his teaching. He was persuaded that the Twelve had utterly corrupted the pure doctrine of Christ. For him, there was only one true apostle--Paul--who alone had stood faithful to the gospel of Jesus. He therefore took as his canon the ten letters of Paul known to him, those which, as we have seen, constituted the original collection; and he set beside them the one gospel of Luke, accepting it as the work of an associate of Paul. The text of the gospel suffered severe mutilation at his hands, as he sought to purge out anything which was incompatible with his basic doctrine; and his opponents charge that he altered the text of the Pauline letters also, though the evidence they offer points in most cases to nothing more than variant readings in the MSS which he had at his disposal; he did, however, excise some few paragraphs, chiefly in Galatians and Romans. Nevertheless, to him belongs the honor of making the first canon of the NT known to us. Limited as it is by his doctrinal predilections, it yet presents that combination of "the gospel" with "the apostle" which forms the heart of all subsequent canons.
It is probable, indeed, that the shape and scope of the canon as it finally emerged in Catholic usage was determined in large part by the reaction to Marcion. First, his coupling of "the apostle" with "the gospel" as a new corpus of sacred scripture, distinct from the Jewish scriptures, may well have had a direct effect in leading the church to think in terms of a canon of books of the NT, rather than of a series of additions to the one body of sacred writings. Next, his exaltation of Paul could hardly fail to stimulate the whole church to accord him equal honor, but as one wholly in accord with the other apostles, not as the lone bearer of truth amid the perversions of a horde of false apostles. It is significant that it is only after his time that we begin to have evidence for the ecclesiastical usage of the book of Acts, which represents Paul's ministry as flowing out of, validated by, and in a measure subordinate to, the ministry of the Twelve. It is even possible, as has been argued, that both Luke and Acts were edited in their present form in the course of the controversy with Marcion, and were only then associated to make a twofold work, again "gospel" and "apostle," to counteract Marcion's erroneous picture of conflict between Paul and the Twelve. The Pastorals, again, if not actually composed as anti-Marcionite tracts, at least found a ready acceptance into the Pauline collection when they were seen to range him solidly against Marcionite doctrine. Again, letters attributed to other apostles would be eagerly received and set alongside the Pauline collection, to give wider testimony to the apostolic faith which he shared; the way is opened for the canonizing of the Catholic letters. And finally, Marcion's rejection of all gospels except Luke would lead the church not only to maintain her own prior rights in that gospel but also to insist on according equal honor to other gospels for which she could claim an apostolic or quasi-apostolic origin. The publication of the fourfold gospel, the enlargement of the Pauline collection by the admission of the Pastorals, and the association with them of Acts and some of the Catholic letters, all appear to be significantly related to the struggle against Marcion.
4. Effects of conflict with Gnosticism. Though excommunicated by the church, repudiated by his father, and denounced by Polycarp as the "first-born of Satan," Marcion achieved an extraordinary success, in organization as in the propagation of his teachings. There were at one time some hundreds of churches in several provinces of the Empire, both in the East and in the West, which looked to him as their founder, and which Were governed by bishops who traced their succession through him. Gnostic schools in general made no such efforts at organization and existed rather as groups on the margin of the great church or even within it; but in the aggregate, they represented a substantial influence, particularly as their doctrines, fantastic as they now seem, accorded with the mind of the age. Now all these sects required a sacred literature; and as they discarded the OT scriptures, they were obliged, like Marcion, to use Christian writings as their primary authorities. In part they made use of existing documents--gospels, acts, letters (they had little use for apocalyptic); and in part they created new documents, based on the existing models--gospels of Peter, of Thomas, of Philip, of "Truth" (recently discovered in a Coptic version; see APOCRYPHA, NT); acts of Peter, of Thomas, of John; etc. But they had no difficulty in applying the canonical gospels to the support of their doctrines, by the limitless freedom of allegorical interpretation; and the Pauline letters with their notorious difficulties offered them plenty of scope (cf.II Pet. 3:16).
Of necessity, this Gnostic use of Christian literature as sacred and authoritative had a twofold effect upon the conservative center of the church. On the one hand, it reinforced the existing tendency to glorify the legacy of the primitive church, the writings of the apostles; and on the other, it forced a process of discrimination between documents, of more and more exact delimitation of the writings that the church could recognize as canonical. The words of Serapion, bishop of Antioch, in a letter to the church of Rhossus, illustrate both aspects at once. On a visit to the town, he had been shown for the first time the Gospel of Peter, and as he had no reason to suspect heresy, he gave permission for it to be read. Since that time, it had been pointed out to him that the gospel in question was in fact heretical, and he now warned the church at Rhossus against it. "We receive both Peter and the other apostles as Christ," he writes, "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 was, of course, a multitude of episcopal decisions such as this that gradually determined the usages of the churches; and it is amazing to see the degree of uniformity that was attained in this fashion.
5. Apologists and martyrs, 165-80: Melito, Theophilus, Athenagoras, Tatian, the Scillitan Martyrs. In orthodox circles the elevation of the Pauline letters occurred more slowly and less dearly. 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" (pneumatofo"roi);but while he makes free use of the Pauline letters, the Pastorals, Hebrews, and I Peter, he does not appear to treat them quite as holy scripture. Athenagoras, an Athenian apologist of the time, appeals to the gospels under the same formula (fhsiVn) 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 in the few years that had elapsed since the time of Justin, the four had acquired an undisputed pre-eminence. The influence of the Pauline letters upon him is quite marked, but it is not possible to determine exactly how highly he regarded them. Jerome (ca. 390) tells us that Tatian rejected some of them (possibly I and II Timothy?) but that he accepted Titus. The martyrs of Scilla in North Africa tell the examining magistrate that they keep in their cabinet "our books, and the epistles of the holy man Paul." These "books" would appear to include rolls of the OT scriptures and of the gospels, which are thus grouped together; the epistles are not counted among the "books," but are accorded a place in the same cabinet. There can be no great chasm to be bridged before they too will be reckoned among the "books."
6. The Old Catholic Canon: the Muratorian Fragment, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Tertullian. In the closing years of the century, evidence from a variety of sources shows clearly, a canon of Christian writings with only marginal variations was recognized and used in all quarters of the church. We now encounter the earliest Roman list--the Muratorian Canon. Irenaeus, a native of Asia, sat in his youth at the feet of Polycarp of Smyrna, came in middle life to Rome, and spent his last years as bishop of Lyons in Gaul; he may be said to represent in his single person almost half the Christian world. From Clement, the head of a great school of theological studies at Alexandria, we learn the doctrine of the church in Egypt; and Tertullian, a Carthaginian lawyer and presbyter, the first great representative of Latin Christianity, though in his later life a Montanist sectary, testifies to the views of the churches of North Africa and also of Rome. All four lines of testimony are in remarkable accord and take it for granted that the views they express are held by the catholic church everywhere.
The Muratorian Canon is a list of the books of the NT with brief remarks about their origin and authenticity, found in a MS written at Bobbio in the eighth century but preserved in the Ambrosian library at Milan and published by Ludovico Antonio Muratori 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. The beginning is lost, but even the most perverse skepticism could hardly doubt that it dealt with the gospels of Matthew and Mark; Luke and John are listed as the third and fourth among the gospels. On the unity of the four it has this to say: "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." The divine inspiration and the essential unity of the four gospels could not be more explicitly affirmed. After this, the list mentions Acts; then thirteen letters of Paul, the three Pastorals being mentioned along with Philemon as written pro affectu et dilectione--"out of personal affection and love"--yet "held sacred in the esteem of the catholic church in the ordering of ecclesiastical discipline." Reference is then made 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." It then affirms that "the epistle of Jude and two epistles bearing the name of John [probably I and II John; all three are actually anonymous] are received in the catholic [church], and Wisdom, written by friends of Solomon in his honor." Two apocalypses-that of John and that of Peter--complete the list of recognized books. The Shepherd of Hermas may be read privately, but cannot be read aloud in church to the people, 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 Plus."
This fragment, with its authoritative ring, is most revealing. Of the twenty-seven books included in our own canon, it recognizes no fewer than twenty-two--the four gospels, Acts, thirteen letters of Paul, three of the Catholic letters, and Revelation; and it includes only two which were ultimately judged apocryphal--the Wisdom of Solomon and the Apocalypse of Peter; and of the latter it admits that "some of our own [bishops?] will not allow it to be read in church." The remarks about Wisdom indicate that pseudonymity, even when recognized, is no bar to canonical recognition. The age of the writing is, however, decisive; it is implied that the Shepherd is not lacking in merit, but it is to be rejected for no other reason than that it was written too recently.
Clement of Alexandria lays down no such clear-cut judgments, yet his writings show broad agreement with the Muratorian fragment in the general view of the Christian scriptures. He speaks of the documents generally as the "scriptures of the Lord," and employs the formula "the Gospel and the Apostle command." He distinguishes explicitly between the "four gospels that have been handed down to us" and the Gospel According to the Egyptians (Strom. III.93.1), but he does not hesitate to quote words of the Lord from other sources. His collection of Pauline letters has been enlarged to include fourteen, for he reckons Hebrews among them, following in this his revered master, Pantaenus. He never quotes Paul formally as "scripture," but he adduces the words of his letters in argument together with words of the Lord and citations from the OT, with no suggestion that they carry any lesser degree of authority, He makes use also of Acts; of at least four of the Catholic letters--I Peter, I and II John, and Jude--and according to Eusebius he commented on all of them; and of the book of Revelation. But he appears to show an equally high regard for a considerable number of other writings--the Apocalypse of Peter, the Shepherd, the Preaching of Peter, Barnabas, and I Clement. Clearly enough, the four gospels and the corpus of Pauline letters constitute for him also the substance of the canon; but he is still generous in his acceptance of other writings attributed to apostles and feels under no compulsion to make distinctions among them, except with regard to the gospels.
The Gnostic schools, as we have seen, discarded the OT entirely and as a consequence were obliged to use Christian writings as their holy scriptures and even to create new gospels, letters, and "acts" of apostles for the purpose. Their great Catholic opponent Irenaeus meets them by making a more extensive use of the NT documents than any earlier writer of orthodox views, and by discriminating more carefully between authentic and unauthorized books. He makes use of OT and NT writings without distinction: the gospels, acts, letters, and apocalypses (of John and Of Hermas) are not in any sense secondary authorities with him. In fact, he shows greater precision in identifying the writers when he is dealing with the NT. He quotes freely from the four gospels, from Acts, from twelve Pauline letters (Philemon is omitted, no doubt from mere chance), from three Catholic letters (I Peter, I and II John--the omission of III John, again, is not significant), and from Revelation. He knows and values the Letter to the Hebrews, but does not seem to treat it quite as scripture. On the other hand, he fully accepts the Shepherd. His canon, accordingly, coincides with our own except for the addition of the Shepherd, the omission of James, Jude, and II Peter, and the lower place given to Hebrews. "The Scriptures are perfect," he tells us, "inasmuch as they were uttered by the word of God and his Spirit" (Iren. Her. II.28.2); and "the Scriptures" in this sense unquestionably include the NT books which he uses so freely. But the most striking feature of his evidence is the absolute and exclusive honor he accords to the four gospels as 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" (III. 11.8). And it is he who first suggests that the fourfold visages of the cherubim are "symbols of the economy of the Son of God"--the man symbolizing Matthew, the calf Luke, the eagle Mark, and the lion John (later writers assign the symbols differently).
Tertullian, a lawyer of Carthage, converted to Christianity in middle life, is the first great exponent of Latin Christianity and the creator of its theological vocabulary. In later life he lapsed into Montanism and assailed with vigor what he regarded as the moral laxity of the church at large; but for twenty years or more he was the doughty champion of the faith against pagans, Jews, heretics, and the persecuting Empire. He is a little later than Irenaeus; his writings carry us into the early years of the third century.
Like Irenaeus, he confines himself rigidly to the four canonical gospels, and treats them as a unity. Together they form the "evangelic instrument" (a legal term which he employs alternately with testamentum to translate the Greek diaqh"kh). They were written by apostles (John and Matthew) or by apostolic men (Luke and Mark); and the authority of the latter rests upon the authority of their masters, "which means that of Christ, for it was that which made the apostles their masters" (Tert. Marcion IV.2). A single gospel would not be authoritative in itself, certainly not that chosen by Marcion, for "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 gospel 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." The authority of all the apostolic churches--those which can show an unbroken line of bishops descending by succession from the apostles--guarantees equally the authenticity of all four.
Tertullian is at one with Irenaeus in treating the four gospels as a unity; the "fourfold gospel" of the one is the "evangelic instrument" of the other. And he goes beyond Irenaeus or any previous writer in asserting the unity of all the apostolic writings. Together they form the "New Testament" (Novum Testamentum) alongside the Old. In bidding heretics to heed the apostolic churches, and especially that of Rome, "on which the apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood," he affirms that 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). So he can write: "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). With this he introduces testimonies from the Fourth Gospel, from Paul (including verses from the Pastorals), and from I John. He is the first writer to use the term "New Testament" in the sense of a collection of books, and he leaves no doubt that for him it possesses exactly the same authority as the ancient scriptures. In it he includes the four gospels, the thirteen letters of the Pauline collection, Acts, Revelation, and three of the Catholic letters--I John, I Peter, and Jude. Before he went over to the Montanists, he included the Shepherd in the list; but afterward he dismissed it with scorn as "that apocryphal Shepherd of the adulterers"; he indicates, however, that it was generally accepted and read in the churches. Hebrews is on the margin; ascribing it to Barnabas, whom he calls "a companion of apostles, ... a person of sufficient authority," he still does not regard it as quite canonical. Thus for Tertullian the NT includes twenty-two books of our twenty-seven, and none that was rejected in the final establishment of the canon.
7. Effects of the introduction of the codex. The growing sense of the unity of the scriptures must have been fostered in some degree by a revolutionary change in the form of the book which took place during this period. In the second century, Christian scribes began to use the codex instead of the roll for new copies of their sacred books. To make the roll, sheets of papyrus were glued end to end to form a narrow strip which could then be rolled up from either end. For practical purposes, it was not convenient to make a roll much more than thirty feet long; and this was about sufficient to contain a single gospel, or one book like Acts or Revelation; the collected Pauline letters would require two such rolls. To make the codex, the sheets were folded, either one by one or in quires of two, three, or four sheets each, and were then sewed together quire upon quire, as in a modern book. It thus became possible to put the contents of any number of rolls into a single book of the codex form; and there is no reason to doubt that Irenaeus and Tertullian had before them the "fourfold gospel" in a single codex. All the Pauline letters could likewise be included in a single codex; and the day was to come when the entire NT and even the whole of the LXX would be brought within the covers of a single book. The oldest MSS of the NT known to us are all codices or fragments of codices; one of them contains the four gospels with Acts, and another originally contained the ten letters of the first Pauline collection. In such a form, it was obviously easier to think of the collection as a unity than when it lay before the reader in a number of rolls of different shapes and sizes. At the same time, it was always possible for a church to alter its collection of sacred books by adding or discarding one or two rolls; but the contents of the codex had to be decided in advance; and once made, it would remain fixed until the pages wore out. Thus the invention of the codex helped to hasten the fixing of the limits of the canon, as well as to promote the sense of its unity.
D. THE FIXING OF THE CANON IN THE GREEK AND LATIN CHURCHES (A.D. 200-400). 1. Origen. At the beginning of the third century the canon of the NT had unquestionably come into being, and there is wide agreement about its constituent parts. Minor areas of disagreement, however, still remained. They did not affect the four gospels, the thirteen letters of the Pauline collection, or the book of Acts, which were all beyond dispute. Revelation appears to have been equally well established, but its authority was to be challenged in the course of the third century. Hebrews was still not secure, except in Alexandria; and of the Catholic letters, only I John was everywhere known and recognized, although I Peter had almost equally wide recognition. Several other letters and apocalyptic writings were able to claim a measure of ecclesiastical sanction. The fixing of precise limits was to be the work of the third and fourth centuries in the Greek and Latin churches; in the Syrian church it had to await the reforming bishops of the fifth and sixth centuries.
The situation in the early third century is analyzed by Origen, greatest of biblical scholars, who succeeded Clement as head of the school in Alexandria in 203 and for fifty years contributed his unrivaled learning and his great theological powers to the service of the church, at first in Alexandria, and in his later years, after a dispute with his bishop, at Caesarea in Palestine. He deals with OT and NT scriptures in exactly the same way, attributing to them the same authority and employing the same methods of interpretation. They are the "divine scriptures that have been entrusted to us"; and the same Spirit, the Spirit of the one God, has dealt in the same way with the gospels and the apostles as with the scriptures which were composed before the coming of Christ. In all of them there is a twofold or a threefold sense. Often enough, the literal sense of the narratives is neither true nor useful--he takes illustrations from the gospels as from the book of Genesis--and there are matters which cannot be admitted historically, which are meant to lead us on to inquire into a further sense, a spiritual significance, that we may "ascertain a meaning worthy of God in those scriptures which we believe to be inspired of him" (On First Principles IV. 15-16).
Origen had traveled widely--to Rome, and in Greece and Asia Minor as well as in Egypt and Palestine--and had observed both the agreements and the differences among churches of different regions in their attitude toward the several NT writings; he was well aware that the views of his own church were not identical with those of other churches everywhere. Without attempting to lay down a judgment of his own, he makes note of the practice of the church, classifying the books as "acknowledged" or "disputed"; besides these, there are a number which are simply "false." Among the "acknowledged" he includes the four gospels, the Pauline letters (fourteen, including Hebrews, even though he knows that it is not by Paul and is not accepted everywhere), Acts, I John, I Peter, and Revelation. Among the "disputed" he includes James, Jude, II Peter, II and III John, and apparently also the Shepherd of Hermas, which he himself treats as apostolic and authoritative. He justifies the inclusion of Hebrews in the Pauline collection on the ground that the thoughts are the apostle's, though the style and diction show that the actual composition was done by one of his associates.
He is the first ecclesiastical writer to mention (and then it is done with some hesitation) "the epistle which is current [ferome"nh] under the name of James." He has no doubt that Jude is the work of the Lord's brother, but he adduces its testimony with some hesitation, as if knowing that some will question its validity. He raises no objection of his own to II Peter and II and III John, but he does not cite them and remarks that they are in dispute. Revelation he accepts without question as the work of John the son of Zebedee, but he seems to suggest that it ought never to have been written; John "wrote the Apocalypse, though he had been commanded to be silent and not to write the utterances of the seven thunders." This appears to be the first faint note of disapproval of this book at Alexandria, where it was to come under heavy fire not long afterward. The Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas are not specifically classified, but are used by Origen as documents of high authority, even if not quite canonical. The books which he most rigorously excludes are the numerous uncanonical gospels, which he adjudges heretical; in this area he finds no disagreement among the churches. "The church has four gospels; the heretics have many [here he gives the titles of some of them]. ... Four gospels only are approved, out of which we must bring forth points of teaching under the person of our Lord and Savior. ... We approve nothing else but that which the Church approves, that is, four gospels only as proper to be received" (Hom. in Luc. 1). And again he speaks of "the four gospels which alone are uncontroverted in the church of God which is spread under heaven" (Euseb. Hist. VI.xxv.4).
2. Dionysius of Alexandria and the questioning of Revelation. Dionysius, who became head of the Alexandrian school ca. 231 and was afterward consecrated bishop, called in question the Johannine authorship of Revelation without denying its right to a place in the canon. He knew of others who rejected it outright and attributed it to the heretic Cerinthus, accusing him of portraying the glories of heaven in terms of sensual delights and material enjoyments. Dionysius would not deny that it was written by a man named John, or that he saw visions and received prophetic oracles; and though he admitted that he could make almost nothing of the meaning of the book, he laid the trouble to his own weakness of comprehension. He would not reject it, for it was held in esteem by many whose judgment he was bound to respect. But a comparison of its style and diction and of its central ideas with those of the gospel and letters of John showed that it had nothing in common with them and could not be by the same author.
Most of the other disciples of Origen, including many of the most influential bishops of the time, rejected the book entirely. In the later third century the great school founded by Lucian at Antioch, another nursery of bishops, joined the Origenists in rejecting it, while Methodius of Olympus upheld it strongly. In the Latin West, the book remained unchallenged, but in the East it never succeeded in regaining its former status. Even though the Greek churches were led to include it formally in their canon, they gave it no place in their liturgy, their scholars seldom commented on it, and their scribes did not often copy it--only a third of the extant Greek MSS of the whole NT contain it. In the Syrian churches it was never admitted to the canon at all, except among the Monophysites.
3. The persecution under Diocletian. In the year 303, after more than fifty years of religious toleration, the Emperor Diocletian launched against the church the most systematic, widespread, and determined persecution that she had yet faced. Besides the imprisonment, torture, and death of countless leaders and the wholesale destruction of church buildings, measures were taken to seek out the sacred scriptures and to consign them to the flames. Under these circumstances, Christians were compelled to decide which scriptures they might be justified in surrendering to the persecutors, and which they must guard from destruction at the risk of their own lives. A rigorous party in the church, indeed, regarded the surrender of any Christian books as an act of apostasy, and their hostility to those whom they stigmatized as traditores led to the long and bitter Donatist schism. But the church at large adopted the more sensible view that only the writings which were regarded as sacred in the highest sense need be safeguarded at the cost of life itself. The persecution thus provided the ultimate test of the esteem in which various books were held.
4. Eusebius of Caesarea. Nevertheless, even the pressure of persecution could not bring universal agreement in all particulars. The testimony of Eusebius, given in the great Ecclesiastical History, which he completed ca. 325, still reflects much the same differences as Origen had noted. For the first time we find mention of the "seven so-called Catholic epistles" as forming a distinct group, but Eusebius remarks that James and Jude are disputed (II.xxiii. 25), and in another passage he classes James, Jude, II Peter, and II and III John among the "disputed writings which are none the less known to most" (III.xxv.3). He is not always consistent in his statements, especially about Revelation. In his most nearly complete classification of the books, he lists it among the "acknowledged" with the qualifying phrase "if perchance it seem correct" (ei[ ge fanei"h); yet a few lines later he includes it "among the spurious books" (ejn toi'v no"qoiv), along with the Acts of Paul, the Shepherd, the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Didache, again with the qualifying phrase "if it seem correct," and the remark that some reject it while others include it in the list of accepted books. Those he lists without qualification of any kind are the "holy quaternion of the gospels," Acts, the letters of Paul (fourteen, with a note that some take objection to Hebrews on the ground that the church of Rome does not accept it as Paul's), I John, and I Peter. As Eusebius was charged by Constantine with the preparation of fifty copies of the Scriptures on vellum to be sent to him at Constantinople, his views. on the canon had considerable practical importance, and it would be interesting to know what books he decided to include in the NT section; unfortunately, not one of these fifty copies has survived.
5. Other Greek lists of the fourth century. In the second half of the fourth century a number of bishops in different regions of the Greek church were moved to issue formal lists of the canonical books for the guidance of their people. Cyril of Jerusalem lists twenty-six of our twenty-seven, excluding Revelation; his contemporary Epiphanius of Constantia in Cyprus includes it with the others. Gregory of Nazianzus gives the same list as Cyril. In his thirty-ninth Festal Letter, written in 367, the great Athanasius of Alexandria gives a list of the "books that are canonized [kanonizo"mena] and handed down to us and believed to be divine"; in this, after the books of the OT, he lists without hesitation the twenty-seven books of our own NT canon. All of these mention all seven of the Catholic letters, usually as a formally constituted group; they differ only over the acceptance of Revelation. There is no longer any mention of the doubts about the Pauline authorship of Hebrews, but the earlier hesitation is reflected in the fact that it is listed out of the order to which its length would otherwise entitle it, appearing sometimes in the tenth place and sometimes last of all. Bishops of the school of Antioch--John Chrysostom of Constantinople, Theodoret of Cyrrhus--make no use either of Revelation or of the four minor Catholic letters--i.e., II and III John, II Peter, and Jude. At the end of the fourth century, therefore, a considerable part of the Greek church acknowledged a canon of only twenty-two books. A section of the Apostolic Constitutions, however, published in Syria ca. 400, lists all our twenty-seven books except Revelation and adds to them I and II Clement. This canon was actually ratified by the Quinisextine Council, which met at Constantinople in 692.
6. Latin writers of the third and fourth centuries. In the Latin West, no writer between Tertullian and Jerome attempts to give a catalogue of the acknowledged books, but some idea of their general views on the canon may be gathered from their usage. The four gospels, Acts, the thirteen letters of the Pauline collection, I John and I Peter of the Catholic letters, and Revelation are consistently used by them (Cyprian, Lactantius, et al.) as holy scripture. The five other Catholic letters are not cited; and the Letter to the Hebrews, not being included among the Paulines, either is not mentioned at all or is explicitly rejected. No Latin writer of the period makes any use of the apocryphal gospels, acts, or apocalypses; they are seldom even mentioned, and then only to be condemned as heretical.
In the second half of the fourth century, however, the influence of Alexandria makes itself felt in the admission of Hebrews to the collection of Pauline letters and in the introduction of the minor Catholic letters. Hilary, bishop of Poitiers, sent into exile to the East (357-61) for his resolute opposition to Arianism, is the earliest Latin churchman to quote Hebrews as Paul's. Jerome, the great glory of Latin biblical scholarship, included in his famous translation of the Bible, which became the Vulg. of the Western church, the twenty-seven books of our canon; and his letter to Paulinus (Epistle 53; ca. 385) is the first Latin recognition of the corpus of seven Catholic letters. He remarks that the letters of James and Jude had been in dispute, but had acquired authority by the lapse of time and the usage of the church; that I and II Peter differ in style, character, and structure so much that we must believe the apostle to have made use of different "interpreters" in composing them; and that I John was approved by all "ecclesiastical and erudite men," while II and III John were said to be from the hand of the presbyter John. He is aware that the Pauline authorship of Hebrews has been disputed, and that the Greek churches do not fully accept Revelation; but he holds that the ancient and widespread testimony to these two books justifies their use as canonical and ecclesiastical.
The encouragement and support of Pope Damasus gave a quasi-official character to Jerome's work on the scriptures; but the effects of immediate recognition by authority were in the long run far outweighed by the silent influence of his version with its complete NT on the minds of men who were using it every day. There was, in any case, no conflicting opinion. Rufinus of Aquileia and Augustine of Hippo show, without dependence on Jerome, that they recognized precisely the same canon; Ambrose of Milan and Hilary of Poitiers are in essential agreement, except that they do not appear to have been acquainted with all the Catholic letters. This same list of twenty-seven books was given the sanction of conciliar authority in North Africa, first at a council held in Hippo in 393 and again at the Third Council of Carthage held in 397, with Augustine present at both of them. Canon 39 of the latter council decrees that "apart from the canonical scriptures, nothing may be read in the Church under the name of divine scriptures." After a list of the books of the OT, the canon goes on as follows: "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." These were the first conciliar pronouncements to be made anywhere on the limits of the NT canon; and it is to be noted that they did not come until the end of the fourth century, and were the decisions of provincial synods, not of an ecumenical council. The canon was determined by usage, by the common consent of the Christian community, testing the books in its daily life over centuries; not by formal authority.
E. THE GROWTH OF THE CANON IN THE SYRIAN CHURCH (TO A.D. 616). The history of the canon in the Syriac-speaking churches remains obscure until the beginning of the fifth century and the making of the Peshitta. Until that time, they used Tatian's Diatessaron almost exclusively in place of the four-gospel collection which had so early become dominant in the Greek and Latin churches; an Old Syriac version of the four gospels, made about the end of the second century, survives in two MSS, but there is no trace of its use by Syrian churchmen. It is not known when the book of Acts and the Pauline letters were first translated into Syriac, but it must have been before the end of the third century and may even have been done in the late second century, by Tatian. At all events, it is clear that in the fourth century the Syriac canon consisted of the Diatessaron, Acts, and the Pauline letters. A curious feature is that in Syria the Pauline collection was enlarged to fifteen letters by the inclusion of the spurious Third Epistle to the Corinthians, extant only in Armenian, Coptic, and Latin versions (see also PAUL, ACTS OF). This canon of seventeen books is used by Ephraem, the great scholar of the church of Edessa (ca. 320-73), and by his contemporary Afraates; and is given as authoritative in the Doctrine of Addai, a document composed ca. 370 at Edessa. However, a Syriac list of ca. 400 puts the four gospels in place of the Diatessaron and omits III Corinthians; this may be taken as an indication that the Syrian churches were now moving toward conformity with their Greek neighbors, probably under the influence of the school of Antioch.
The Peshitta, by far the most enduring and influential of oriental versions, was made under the direction of Bishop Rabbula of Edessa in the first quarter of the fifth century. It adopted the canon of Antioch: the four "separated" gospels, Acts, fourteen Pauline letters, and three Catholic letters--James, I Peter and I John. The Syrian episcopate now made a determined and successful effort to end the use of the Diatessaron. Theodoret of Cyrrhus alone collected and destroyed more than two hundred copies of the Diatessaron in the churches under his government and replaced them with the four gospels of the Peshitta. The Diatessaron was so thoroughly suppressed that no copy of it has ever been discovered, apart from a single leaf of vellum containing a fragment of the Greek text of it.
The christological controversies of the fifth century destroyed the unity of the Syrian church and separated it from the catholic church of the West. From Edessa eastward through Mesopotamia and Persia it became Nestorian; in the W parts of Syria, it became Monophysite. The Nestorian churches continued to hold to the original canon of the Peshitta, which was the base also of the oldest Persian and Arabic versions. For the Monophysites, a revision of the Peshitta was prepared in 508 at the instance of a bishop called Philoxenus. This work was based on good Greek MSS and included the seven Catholic letters and Revelation. Thus the Syrian Monophysites, or Jacobites, as they are called, adopted the canon that had become established in the West. In 616, the Philoxenian edition was further revised by Thomas Of Harkel, who retained the same canon. But these revisions never attained the authority of the Peshitta, and the Syrian churches generally have held fast to the shorter canon of twenty-two books, lacking the four minor Catholic letters and Revelation.
Except for occasional oddities, no further developments took place in the canon. The Ethiopic church added eight books to the established twenty-seven--a collection of decrees called the Synodus, and a series of "Clementines." In the Latin church of the Middle Ages, a number of important churchmen acknowledged fifteen Pauline letters, including in the collection a spurious Latin composition which first came to light in the sixth century under the title of the "Epistle to the Laodiceans." John of Damascus (ca. 730) reckoned the Apostolic Constitutions, which he attributed to Clement, among the books of the NT. In the sixteenth century some of the Reformers--Erasmus, Luther, Carlstadt, Zwingli, and Calvin--and even some Romanist divines raised again the problem of the "disputed" books, but without affecting the practice of any of the churches.