What Is a Canon?

The word “canon” comes from the Greek term kanon meaning ‘reed.’ The ancients often cut off long reeds to use for measuring things, like a primitive ruler. So kanon came to be used as a metaphor for any standard. A kanon is what you compare things to, checking to see whether they measure up. The New Testament writings came to be called a kanon in the third and fourth centuries AD because they were used in Christian communities as the standard for faith and life. Everything the Christians thought, everything they did, was to be compared with the ideas and practices portrayed in the New Testament. Whatever ‘fit with’ those writings was kept. Whatever seemed out of keeping with the standard of New Testament thought and life was (at least in theory) to be left behind. This did not mean that the New Testament was thought to contain all truth. There are many questions its writers did not try to answer, and many ways in which their answers were incomplete. As the centuries wore on, though, and Christians continued to explore possible answers to life’s questions, it was generally agreed that new ideas couldn’t be true if they were not compatible with what we find in the New Testament.

Why Have a Canon?

The early Christian use of the New Testament as a canon is rooted in the underlying conviction that it matters how we understand Jesus of Nazareth. Some interpretations of Jesus are right and others are wrong. Likewise, some ways of following him are valid, and others are not really faithful to the Jesus whom Christians worship as Lord. Why worry about this kind of ‘correctness’? Because the early Christians believed that our response to Jesus was the most important decision we could make. God had acted in Jesus to rescue us from the frustration of life in a fallen world, to give us life beyond death. Nothing could be more vital to our well-being, our very survival, than responding properly to this divine rescue mission. And since our response to Jesus is shaped by our understanding of his work, nothing could be more important than coming to a true understanding of this man from Galilee.

This is why, from the very beginning, the missionaries and teachers who spread the message about Jesus worked to guide and, when it was necessary, correct their hearers’ understanding of their Lord. The task of these messengers was made all the more difficult by the sheer disorganization of the first-century Church. In the early years there was no formal Pope to tell people what to believe. There were no regional bishops or synods. There was just a loose, informal network of tiny groups who had been convinced by a Christian preacher to follow the path of Jesus. Once these believers began to think for themselves about their new Lord, they could (and did) quickly come up with all sorts of ideas. Some of these new ideas would inevitably conflict with the faith they had been taught at first. As often as not, these new ideas emerged as believers with a smattering of Greek or Roman philosophy tried to make better sense of this rather un-philosophical creed. Some of those attempts were more insightful and helpful than others. This situation was complicated further by the fact that many Christian teachers wandered from place to place. Before long it must have seemed like some new teacher was always wandering into town with a new slant on the meaning of Jesus. As the members of the local church gathered in the main room of their meeting-house to listen to the newcomer’s teaching, how could they decide what to believe?

The Earliest ‘Canons’: Reliable People

From the earliest days of this chaotic new movement three standards or ‘canons’ were used. One of these ‘yardsticks’ was a text: the Hebrew Scriptures which later came to be known as the Old Testament. Jesus had clearly embraced these Jewish writings as a true vision of the world, the proper context for understanding his words and work. So if a teacher could show that his or her ideas fit better with those Old Testament texts, that teacher would often win the day.

But the two other ‘canons’ which were often used to evaluate new teaching were not texts. They were people. One was Jesus himself. Since the nascent Christian faith was a matter of following Jesus, any Christian teaching had to fit with his own words and actions. The other of these unwritten ‘canons’ was the circle of the apostles. Few in the early church seemed to dispute the authority of ‘the Twelve’ who had been chosen by Jesus as the core group of his followers. After all, these men had spent more time with Jesus than anyone else. They had been there for the moments of private conversation as well as the great speeches to crowds. They had seen not only the healings and exorcisms in the streets, but also the quiet unguarded moments when their Master was tired or frustrated or afraid. What is more, Jesus himself had assigned them the task of extending his work, leading the larger Jesus-movement. If anyone was to understand Jesus, it would be these twelve apostles. Hence Peter was recognized as a leader, not only in Jerusalem, but also in Antioch (Gal 2:12-14). He and John were regarded as ‘pillars’ by the Gentile converts throughout Galatia (north-central Asia Minor; Gal 2:6, 9), and at least some of the Christians in Corinth seem to have claimed Peter as their leader (1 Cor 1:12). So it was specific people who formed the initial ‘yardsticks’ for the Christian communities’ faith and life: first and foremost Jesus himself, and secondly the circle of Jesus’ hand-picked apostles.

From very early on there were some texts involved. Jesus did not leave any writings from his own hand, but at least some of the apostles did. Paul, for one, often wrote to address misunderstandings of Jesus that had crept into the churches he had founded. If the traditional attribution of 1 Peter is accepted, then Peter did the same. But these letters were not initially meant to stand as independent authorities. The real authority was Paul himself, Peter himself. Where they could, these leaders seem to have preferred to travel and visit each community in person, teaching and correcting them face to face. It was only when those visits were impossible that they sent letters, written speeches which had to stand in for their personal presence. The primary ‘canon’ in these situations was the apostle himself. The letter was just one tool the apostle could use to extend the reach of his influence. Even John’s Gospel, the bulk of which was quite possibly written by the ‘beloved disciple,’ seems not to have been an independent textual authority but rather an extension of John’s personal influence. To the editors of his work, what matters is that ‘This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true’ (John 21:24).

Now, even a cursory glance at the New Testament will show that most of the books were not actually written by one of the twelve chosen by Jesus, or even by an eyewitness of Jesus’ activities. So why was Paul called an “apostle,” and why did these communities treat people like James, Mark, and Luke as authorities? The ‘apostolic circle’ whose members acted as personal ‘canons’ in the first-century churches was much broader than just ‘the Twelve.’ Even while they recognized the (often distant) significance of Peter and John, early Christian communities would naturally have afforded a great deal of authority to the missionaries and teachers who founded and nurtured their faith. Hence Paul, though he did not meet Jesus until after the resurrection, was generally considered authoritative by his communities. Other teachers were simply so influential in a particular community that they were, in their local sphere, also treated as a living authority. Apollos seems to have played such a role in Corinth (1 Cor 1:12). Yet there seems, even in these cases, to have been a general sense that the rejection of some teacher by the Twelve would call that teacher’s authority into question, while the approval of such a teacher by an original disciple contributed to his or her perceived legitimacy. At one point Paul insists that his understanding of Jesus was revealed to him directly in his encounter on the road to Damascus. Yet he still feels the need to emphasize that Peter, John and James all approved of his message and mission after the fact (Gal 2:1-10, esp. v. 2). Likewise, Luke’s later depiction of Paul in the book of Acts highlights the agreement between Paul and the Jerusalem group.

Many other teachers in first-century Christianity seem to have derived their authority from their close association with an apostle or with Jesus himself. James certainly came to leadership in the Jerusalem church because he was the Lord’s brother and so could claim an intimate knowledge of Jesus the man. On the other hand, if the second-century tradition of Papias is to be trusted, Mark was regarded as a reliable teacher because he had worked closely with Peter. Luke had quite likely traveled with Paul, and he depicted himself as a carefully collecting and preserving the eyewitness memories of those closest to Jesus. If ‘the elder’ of 2 and 3 John is not the apostle himself, then he most likely drew his authority from his close association with John, the son of Zebedee. All of this means that, while the circle of authoritative teachers in the first century churches was much wider than just the Twelve, it was still in a very real sense an ‘apostolic’ circle. This was an age when the original core of Jesus’ disciples still lived and breathed, often traveling from one community to the next, shaping and sometimes correcting the faith of the new movement. The teachers who rose to prominence within this circle of apostolic churches, those who were either taught by or approved by close eyewitnesses of Jesus’ work, came naturally to be regarded as personal ‘canons,’ standards for Christian faith and life.

Early Movements toward the Canon: 100-200 CE

By the year 100 most, if not all, of the New Testament writings had been completed. But they did not immediately displace the personal authority of Jesus and the apostolic circle. At first written texts were simply regarded as an obvious, but secondary, stand-in for the presence of the authoritative person. Hence, when the early writers of the second century quote from these documents, they usually do not bother to specify which text serves as their source. When they quote from Matthew’s Gospel, they simply identify the words as coming from ‘the Lord.’ When they quote one of Paul’s letters, they simply refer to the fact that the teaching is Paul’s. At the same time, these early writers can also quote the words of Jesus or an apostle from oral tradition, from the memory of the apostles’ students and colleagues, with equal authority. The New Testament texts were, at this stage, still parts of the living memory of these personal ‘canons,’ rather than independent authorities in and of themselves.

What changed this situation? How did the writings of the apostolic circle become the primary ‘yardstick’ for most Christian communities? One crucial factor was simply the passage of time. While the churches were still led and taught by the students of the apostles, or by their subsequent pupils, there was little question about what the apostolic circle had really taught. As the third generation began to age and die, however, it seems that the churches looked increasingly to the writings of the apostolic circle—writings penned while some of the Twelve were still alive—to preserve the memory of their understanding of Jesus.

Another factor that made these written records of the apostolic circle increasingly important was the growth and popularity of so-called ‘Gnostic’ strains of Christianity. There was never one common set of doctrines known as Gnosticism. Rather, the mid-second century saw a flurry of Christian teachers who tried in various ways to fuse the teaching about Jesus with neo-Platonic speculation, Greek Orphic traditions, and other esoteric ideas from the Hellenistic world. The attraction of teachers like Valentinus, who took Rome by storm in about 136, was obvious. They offered the still-tiny Christian communities an interpretation of Jesus less weighed down with odd Jewish notions, more obviously coherent to the Greco-Roman mind, and more in keeping with the religious fads of the Empire. Immediately, though, the leadership in places like Rome objected that this fusion of Christianity and esoteric Hellenism was not compatible with the teachings of the apostolic circle. As proof, they often pointed to the writings that those first-century authorities had left behind.

For the most part, the ‘Gnostic’ teachers seem to have accepted both the centrality of the apostolic circle and the validity of many of the texts in our New Testament. Usually the strategy of teachers like Valentinus was simply to claim that their doctrines actually originated with the apostles. Sometimes this meant reinterpreting the texts which were already being used in the established churches. John’s Gospel and the Pauline letters were common favorites. Others composed new documents like the Gospel of Philip or the Gospel of Mary (Magdalene), claiming that these writings had been handed on in secret. They claimed to have inherited a hidden tradition of deeper truths that the Twelve and their associates had kept hidden from all but a handful of students. Few historians see any merit in these claims, with one exception. Many scholars accept that the Gospel of Thomas may have originated in the first century, and some have argued it should be set alongside Matthew, Mark, and Luke as an historical witness to Jesus. Even here, though, recent research has tended to support the idea that Thomas is a secondary book, dependent on the other gospels. Moreover, Thomas is not a ‘Gnostic’ book. Jesus’ sayings in Thomas are stripped down and cryptic, hinting at all kinds of possible interpretations, but they do not clearly teach much that is unorthodox. Despite the fascination they hold for many, the books that really portray a ‘Gnostic’ Jesus are not judged by historians to reflect first century apostolic faith. What those revisionist writings do reveal, however, is that second-century Christians of all stripes looked to the teaching of the apostolic circle as the ‘yardstick’ for their life and belief. The ‘Gnostic’ claims to have apostolic books also highlights the increasing role of writings in the second century as the primary reliable witnesses for that apostolic teaching.

Which documents did most second-century Christians look to as reliable windows onto the apostolic circle? The most widely used texts are the same ones which make up the core of our present New Testament: The four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), the Acts of the Apostles, and the thirteen letters which carry Paul’s name. Other New Testament documents were used, but not as widely or often: Hebrews, 1 John, 1 Peter, and the Apocalypse (Revelation). A few books we know from the New Testament—namely 2 and 3 John, 2 Peter, and Jude—do not seem to have been used much at all at this stage. Still other texts were sometimes used alongside our New Testament books as sources for the apostolic circle’s teaching. These other books varied from place to place. The most frequently cited include the writings we now know as the ‘Apostolic Fathers,’ especially the Didache, 1 Clement, The Shepherd of Hermas, The Epistle to Diognetus, the letters by Ignatius of Antioch, etc. Alongside these we often find references to documents which have not survived: the Gospel of the Egyptians, the Gospel of the Hebrews, etc.

Two observations are crucial here. First, the core books of our New Testament are the same books which were most often and most widely regarded as reliable right from the early second century, when the students of the apostles were still living and the origins of the documents were still remembered. Second, the ‘extra’ books which were sometimes used as authoritative, the books which did not make it into our New Testament, are not radically different in their content from the books that did. None of them seem to challenge orthodox faith in any significant way. The writings which attract so much attention in some quarters today, the ‘Gnostic gospels’ and similar works, were only ever considered reliable in the small localized groups which produced them.

All the same, second-century Christians still did not know anything that we would recognize as ‘The New Testament.’ There was no single, authoritative collection of writings shared by all the churches. It does not even seem like anyone had thought yet of binding all of the reliable apostolic books together in one volume. What we see, rather, is the early growth of two smaller collections. ‘The Gospel’ included Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. ‘The Apostle’ included Paul’s letters. Each collection was circulating in a single bound volume by the latter second century. Alongside these two slim collections stood a loose constellation of other texts which do not yet seem to have achieved a definite place. Doubtless, the leaders and teachers in every church worked with at least a rough mental list of which books were reliable and which were not, but they did not yet feel the need to draw up formal lists. The only formal, published list of legitimate books that has survived from the second century comes from the pen of Marcion (ca. 144), a revisionist teacher in Rome whose anti-Semitic attitudes led him to exclude the books which sounded too ‘Jewish’: Matthew, Luke, and John, along with Hebrews, the Catholic Epistles, and the Apocalypse. In a back-handed fashion, Marcion’s list confirms for us that the mainstream church in Rome regarded all of these books as authoritative. Yet more orthodox teachers seem to have felt little need to set down explicit lists. It still seemed too obvious which books provided a reliable glimpse of the apostolic circle’s teaching and which did not.

Moving Toward Consensus: 200-300 CE

It was during the third century that a recognizable, formally defined, widely accepted New Testament collection took shape. The first canon list that we know of, aside from Marcion’s amputated collection, is the so-called Muratorian Canon which was probably composed in Rome around the year 200. Later in the century, the Egyptian teacher Origen (185-254) offered his opinions on the matter, while the bishop Hippolytus (170-236) provides us with a glimpse of the thinking in another locale. In these lists we can see, at the opening of the third century, the idea of a unified and authoritative New Testament collection taking root.

In each case, the core of the reliable collection remains the same group of books which had been almost universally accepted in the second century: the four Gospels, Acts, and the letters of Paul. All three of these lists also include 1 John and the Apocalypse. Origen and Hippolytus agree on the reliability of 1 Peter and 2 John, and Origen’s list already includes all of our 27 New Testament books. A similar general situation seems to have held throughout the third century in every region for which evidence has survived. The old collections of ‘the Gospel’ and ‘the Apostle’ were increasingly joined by Hebrews, 1 Peter, 1 John, and the Apocalypse. All of the books which did not make it into our New Testament have disappeared from these third century lists, though in practice we still find some writers leaning for authoritative support on the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, and a lost apocalypse entitled The Revelation of Peter. Even as the idea of a single canonical New Testament collection was catching on, third century Christian leaders in various centers moved toward a broad informal consensus, both about which books to include and about which to exclude. Only a few books of our New Testament canon seem still to have been widely controversial in the year 300: James, 2-3 John, 2 Peter, and Jude.

Why were some books included and others left out? Where our sources give us glimpses of third century reasoning, the primary emphasis falls on whether or not the book originated with the apostolic circle. The controversy over 2-3 John and 2 Peter revolved around whether or not these letters had actually been written by the apostles John and Peter. A great deal of attention was also paid to the way a book had been used in the churches. If a book had not been widely known from the early second century, it was generally rejected. It was just too easy for some new group to forge an ‘apostolic’ document and claim it had a first-century pedigree. It was also important that the books had not only been known, but read publicly in the context of church meetings. This was a solid indication that the book had been regarded as reliable and authoritative at an early stage. When in doubt, third century leaders also asked whether the contents of a disputed book fit comfortably with the ‘rule of faith’—that is, the general memory of the apostolic teaching which was preserved in the universally accepted books, but also in the ongoing oral tradition and in the liturgical traditions of the churches. Each of these other criteria, though, seems merely have been an attempt to determine whether a book was really ‘apostolic’ in its teaching. In a very real sense, then, the ‘yardstick’ for the faith and life of the churches had not changed since the end of the first century. The assumption was still that the apostolic circle had rightly understood the significance of Jesus and his implications for life. As the New Testament collection crystallized into a widespread, stable form, it was revered precisely because its books were trustworthy sources for that apostolic teaching, broadly understood.

This realization helps us to make sense of the other common pattern in the third century: the willingness to allow for some books on the fringe of the canon which had an ambiguous status. Clement of Alexandria (150-215) said at times that James, 2 Peter, and 2-3 John were not fully authoritative, but in practice he was willing to base his theological arguments on quotations from those books. Hippolytus encourages the Romans to read Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, and Jude, but cautions that they do not have the same level of authority as the other canonical books. Even Origen seems ambivalent at times about the status of James, 2 Peter, and 2-3 John. Because the authority of the New Testament books was based on the fact that they conveyed apostolic teaching, it made sense to allow for these gradations of authority. Some books did not have the same reliable credentials that we see with the Gospels or Paul’s letters, but can still be recognized as texts which probably do reflect the kind of ideas current in the apostolic circle.

Formalizing the Consensus: 300-400 CE

It was left to the fourth century leaders of the church to solidify and formalize the consensus which had been growing through the previous century. It was Athanasius, the orthodox hero of the Nicene debates, who in his 39th festal letter (367) makes the first clear attempt to define a canon that includes the full collection of the 27 New Testament books. This same list was then endorsed by the likes of Rufinus (344-410), Jerome (342-420), and most importantly by the theological giant of the Latin-speaking world, Augustine (354-430). This consensus was then cemented by the gathered bishops at the synod of Carthage in 397. Since that time, the Western church has with very few exceptions accepted the present New Testament canon, along with the Old Testament inherited from Judaism, as its authoritative Scriptures.

This is not to say that all debate ended. Throughout the fourth century concerns continued to be expressed about the Apocalypse because of its teaching that Christ would reign over a physical thousand-year kingdom on earth (chiliasm). Eusebius of Caesarea, the first great historian of Christianity, thought it should be thrown out. It is also significant that no declaration was ever made about the New Testament canon by a truly ecumenical council – that is, by a council which included representatives from all the geographic regions of orthodox Christianity. The synod of Carthage was primarily a local Western council and was often ignored in the Greek-speaking East. There major fourth century figures like John Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia continued to have qualms about James, 2 Peter, and 2-3 John. Eventually the Eastern church embraced these books as well, but to this day the Apocalypse is not read aloud in the liturgy of Eastern Orthodox churches. This continuing dissent simply underlines, however, the fact that the New Testament canon was not an arbitrary list drawn up in some back-room and imposed from above. It was the product of an organic process of growing consensus, a process which allowed for shades of grey along the way.

Did They Choose Well?

As we come to understand the growth of the New Testament canon, we realize that it is neither mysterious nor irrational. The decision about which books to include in the New Testament is one we can understand and even, to a large extent, evaluate for ourselves. The question is ‘Did the early church succeed in choosing the books that reflect the teaching of the apostolic circle?’ The basic answer to this question should be ‘yes.’ Over the last two centuries of critical scholarship the origins of these books has been examined over and over again. In most cases, scholars are now universally agreed that the books which compose our New Testament did originate with the first-century church and were composed by people who were part of the broader apostolic community.

There is still debate today about exactly how close the connection was between Luke and Paul, or between the fourth Gospel and John the disciple. If pressed, though, few historians would deny that the faith and practice reflected in these writings is the faith and practice of the communities which were shaped by ongoing interaction with the apostles and other eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life. Not everything in these books is ‘apostolic’ in the sense that it was said by one of the Twelve, but all of it represents the range of thinking and practice that the Twelve regarded as essentially faithful to the Jesus they knew. Where modern scholarship retains significant doubt about the first century origins of a book, this discussion generally mirrors the lingering concerns of the early church about James, 2 Peter, and Jude.

Was the early church overly selective? Did they exclude important streams of first-century Christian faith or devotion? Undoubtedly, there were many ways of thinking and acting pursued by first century followers of Jesus which are not reflected in the New Testament. But we must remember that the early church did not intend the collection to be a democratic reflection of everything anyone thought about Jesus in those early years. The point was not to give everyone a voice. The point was, rather, to preserve for future generations the faith of the apostles and of the communities shaped by their teaching. Judged according to this goal, the New Testament canon was a success.

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