1902 Encyclopedia > Bible > The Christian Canon of the Old and New Testaments

(Part 10)


The Christian Canon of the Old and New Testaments

Christian Canon - Old Testament

We have already seen that the Apostolic Church continued to use as sacred the Hebrew Scriptures, whose authority derived fresh confirmation from the fulfillment of the prophecies in Christ. The idea that the Old Testament revelation must now fall back into a secondary position as compared with inspired apostolic teaching was not for a moment entertained. Still less could the notion of a body of New Testament Scriptures, of a collection of Christian writings, to be read like the Old Testament in public worship and appealed to as authoritative in matters of faith, take shape so long as the church was conscious that she had in her midst a living voice of inspiration. The first apostolic writings were, as we have seen, occasional, and it was not even matter of course that every epistle of an apostle should be carefully preserved, much less that it should be prized above his oral teaching. Paul certainly wrote more than two epistles to the Corinthians, and even Papias is still of opinion, when he collects reminiscences of apostolic sayings from the mouths of the elders, that what he reads in books cannot do him so much good as what he receives "from a living and abiding voice." Nay, the very writers who are the first to put Old and New Testament books on a precisely similar footing (e.g., Tertullian) attach equal importance to the tradition of churches which had been directly taught by apostles, and so were presumed to possess the "rule of faith" in a form free from the difficulties of exposition that encumber the written word. In the first instance, then, the authoritative books of the Christian church were those of the Old Testament; and in the time of the apostles and their immediate successors it was the Hebrew canon that was received. But as most churches had no knowledge of the Old Testament except through the Greek translation and the Alexandrian canon, the Apocrypha soon began to be quoted as Scripture. The feeling of uncertainly as to the proper number of Old Testament books which prevailed in the 2nd century is illustrated by an epistle of Melito of Sardis, who journeyed to Palestine in quest of light, and brought back the present Hebrew canon, with the omission of the book of Esther. In the 3rd century Origen knew the Hebrew canon, but accepted the Alexandrian additions, apparently because he considered that a special providence had watched over both forms of the collection. Subsequent teachers in the Eastern Church gradually went back to the Hebrew canon (Esther being still excluded from full canonicity by Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus), distinguishing the Alexandrian additions as anagignoskosmena [Gk.]—books used for ecclesiastical lessons. In the Western Church the same distinction was made by scholars like Jerome, who introduced for merely ecclesiastical books the somewhat incorrect name of Apocrypha; but a laxer view was very prevalent and gained ground during the Middle Ages, till at length, in opposition to the Protestants, the Council of Trent accepted every book in the Vulgate translation as canonical.

New Testament Canon

We turn now to the New Testament collection. The idea of canonicity—the right of a book to be cited as Scripture—was closely connected with regular use in public worship, and so the first step towards a New Testament canon was doubtless the establishment of a custom of reading in the churches individual epistles or gospels. The first beginnings of this custom must have been very early. The reference to Luke in 1 Tim. v. 18 is disputed, and 2 Pet. iii. 16 is usually taken as one of many arguments against the genuineness of that epistle; but a citation from Matthew is certainly referred to as Scripture in the epistle of Barnabas. Buts such recognition of an individual gospel is a long way removed from the recognition of an apostolic canon. The apostolic writings continued to be very partially diffused, and readers used such books as they had access to, often failing to distinguish between books of genuine value and worthless forgeries. For most readers were very uncritical, and there was an enormous floating mass of spurious and apocalyptic literature, including recensions of the gospel altered by heretical parties to suit their own views. It was perhaps in contest with the heretics of the 2nd century that the necessity of forming a strict list of really authoritative writings came to be clearly felt; and it is remarkable that heretics, generally hostile to the Old Testament, seem to have been among the first to form collections of Christian writings for themselves. Thus Marcion, in the middle of the 2nd century, selected for himself on dogmatical grounds ten Pauline epistles, and a gospel which seems to have been based on Luke. Up to this time perhaps no formal canon of sacred writings had been put forth by the Catholic Church. But in the second half of the century the notion of an authoritative New Testament collection appears in full development, and there is an amount of agreement as to the contents of the canon, which implies that, in spite of the loose way in which apocryphal books circulated side by side with genuine works, the church had no great difficulty in drawing a sharp line between the two classes when this was felt to be necessary. At the time of the great teachers of the close of the 2nd century (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement) we find a twofold collection, the Gospel and the Apostles. The Gospel comprises the four evangelists; and this number was already so absolutely fixed as to admit of no further doubt.

Quite beyond dispute were also the main books of the Apostolicon, the Acts, thirteen epistles of Paul, 1st Peter, 1st John, and the Apocalypse. The Muratorian fragment which contains a list twenty or thirty years older than the 3rd century omits 1st Peter, but adds Jude, 2nd and 3rd John(?), and (as a disputed book) the Apocalypse of Peter. The Shepherd of Hermas might also be read, but it is pointed out that it is of quite recent date and not of prophetic or apostolic authority.


From this time forward, then, the controversy is narrowed to a few books, occupying a middle position between the large mass of our present New Testament, which was already beyond dispute, and the spurious literature which was quite excluded from ecclesiastical use. Absolute uniformity was not at once attainable, for various churches had quite independent usages; and, as we see from the Muratorian canon, a book might receive a certain ecclesiastical recognition without being, therefore, viewed as strictly canonical. This dubious margin to the canon was of very uncertain limits, and Clement of Alexandria still uses many apocryphal books which found no acknowledgement in other parts of the church. Gradually the list of books which have even a disputed claim to authority is cut down. In the time of Eusebius the Shepherd of Hermas was still read in some churches, and several other books—the Epistle of Barnabas, the Acts of Paul, the Revelation of Peter, the Teachings of the Apostles—appear as controverted writings. But all these are plainly on the verge of rejection, while, on the other hand, 2nd and 3rd John, Jude, James, and 2nd Peter are gradually gaining ground. This process continued to go on without interruption till at length the whole class of disputed books (antilegomena) melted away, and only our present canon was left on the one hand, and books of no authority or repute upon the other. Thus the Council of Laodicea was able wholly to forbid the ecclesiastical use of uncanonical books (360 A.D.) and the only uncertain point remaining in the tradition of the Eastern Church was the position of the Apocalypse, which had gradually fallen into suspicion, and was not fully reinstead till the 5th century. The Western Church, on the other hand, was long dubious as to the epistle to the Hebrews, which was received without hesitation in the East, as the Apocalypse continued to be in the West. The age of Augustine and Jerome saw the close of the Western canon.

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