The Formation of the Proto-Orthodox New Testament Canon

 Muratorian Fragment Gospel

“It is one thing for believers to affirm, on theological grounds, that the decisions about the canon, like the books themselves, were divinely inspired, but it is another thing to look at the actual history of the process and ponder the long, drawn-out arguments over which books to include and which to reject. The process did not take a few months or years. It took centuries. And even then there was no unanimity.”

Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities, p. 230

Professor Ehrman argues, in the eleventh chapter of Lost Christianities, that the New Testament canon is the most significant accomplishment of the proto-orthodox. It enabled them to achieve dominance over the other forms of Christianity that were in competition with them. Although church hierarchy and the formation of creeds were both pivotal in this strategy, neither had the long term stabilising importance of a single fixed canon of scripture.

He begins his argument by reminding us of the end result of the process. The twenty seven books that came to be included in the orthodox New Testament were written between about 50ce and 120ce. Yet there was no fixed canon of these books for almost two hundred and fifty years after the last book, 2 Peter, was written. The first authority to set out a fixed canon of was Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, in his Festal letter to his Diocese in 367ce. This decree only had authority in the Metropolitical sphere of Alexandria yet even within the Diocese the canon was not universally accepted. In the late 4th century Didymus the Blind still taught hat 2 Peter was a forgery and thus not canonical whereas the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas were. Outside of Alexandria the process was even less uniform. When the Church in Syria finalised its canon in the 5th century it did not include 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude or Revelation. The Church in Ethiopia held to the Alexandrian canon but added four other books: Sinodos, the Book of Clement, The Book of the Covenant, and The Didascalia. Although there are numerous other examples of non uniform canons in the early church there was a widespread acceptance of the current twenty-seven books in both the Eastern and the Western church. What is most interesting is that the canon of the New Testament was never fixed by any universal ecclesiastical authority. The Alexandrian canon was never adopted by any Oecumenical Council. Rather, the canon became fixed by widespread consensus.

The importance of writings for Christians became apparent very early on in the church as apostolic authority was the most direct way to gain knowledge about what Jesus said and did. As the Apostles could not be everywhere at once, the written word had to take their place. The written word was also already part of most early Christians lives in that they held the same Scriptures Jesus did: The Pentateuch and the Hebrew Prophets. You can see the importance that scripture had for Jesus himself in the New Testament as many of his teachings are interpretations of Old Testament passages. The writers of the New Testament books also quote the Old Testament as authoritative as they understood Jesus as the fulfilment of an old religion and not a founder of a new one. It is in 1 Timothy 5:18 that we first see Jesus’ words being put on an equal level as those of the words of Moses. For the Gnostics the words of Jesus were the most important part of Scripture as they believed a right interpretation of his sayings would bring them salvation. However, for the proto-orthodox, the stories of the events of his life were equally important. Thus for them to be sure the story of Jesus’ life is authoritative they desired the sayings and writings of those who had been with him or, in other words, eyewitnesses. The other forms of Christianity also sought to tie their perspective on the church to that of an Apostle. The Ebionites claimed their views were those of Peter, and Jesus’ brother James as well as claiming the presence of Jesus’ extended family in their own ranks. The Marcionites claimed they preserved the views of Paul whilst the Valentinians claimed to know Paul’s views through his disciple Theudas, who was Valentinus’s teacher.

Thus the authority of the authors of the New Testament books was important to everyone but especially to the proto-orthodox. They claimed all of the same authorities that the other groups did. Yet the Proto-orthodox went further and attributed apostolic authority to writings that were not apostolic. All four Gospels are anonymous and none of them claim to be eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus or even a companion of an eyewitness. It was the proto-orthodox that attributed authorship of them to either Apostles or companions of Apostles. More difficult and more confusing is the proto-orthodox attribution of writings by someone who had the same name as an Apostle to that Apostle. The Book of James, for example, does not claim to be written by James the Brother of the Lord. The author does not even claim a personal connection to Jesus. Neither does the John who wrote the Book of Revelation claim to be the John who the proto-orthodox claimed wrote the gospel and the letters. It is clear that the attribution of authorship to Apostles gave these books the authority the proto-orthodox desired as they themselves were often fooled by their own attributions. Centuries later the Book of James and the Book of Revelation were kept as part of the canon only because everyone had come to believe that they were written by an apostolic hand. There were also several pseudonymous writings that Professor Ehrman refers to as forgeries. These writings are written by someone claiming to be an Apostle or a companion of an Apostle. 2 Peter is almost certainly pseudonymous and also possibly 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, Peter and Jude. In the end the only books in the canon that we are certain were written by an Apostle are the seven letters written by Paul that almost all Biblical scholars agree are genuine. Yet for the proto-orthodox all the books had apostolic authority, not just because they all contained apostolic teaching but because of their attributions to Apostles.

Ehrman claims that there was no recognition of the need for a canon by the proto-orthodox in the early 2nd century. He uses three proto-orthodox documents from the period to support his thesis. Polycarp’s letter of 130ce is filled with quotations and allusions (almost 100 in a letter of only 14 fairly brief chapters) from the writings that eventually would form the canon. However he quotes these authors without attribution and seems to assume the reader will be familiar with the texts he is quoting. He does not seem concerned about shoring up their authority. The Shepherd of Herman, written and rewritten between 110 and 140ce, is a much longer work filled with authoritative teachings. However only one scriptural work is referred to and that a lost book (The Book of Elded and Modat). The author of the Shepherd of Hermas seems to have no interest in appealing to a body of Scripture. The sermon from 150ce known as 2 Clement contains neither the abundance of quotations like Polycarp nor the dearth of almost any by the author of The Shepherd of Hermas. Instead it uses several statements that sound very similar to some New Testament epistles but does not quote the books for authority. The sermon frequently quotes the words of Jesus but without referring to any known written gospel, although one quotation is very similar to one found in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas.

The pressure in the second half of the 2nd century for the proto-orthodox to produce a fixed canon of scripture came mostly from other forms of Christianity. Primary amongst them was Montanism from within and Marcionism from without. The Montanists claim that they had direct access to divine revelation, regardless of the orthodoxy of their beliefs, threatened the stability of the early church. If they could claim divine revelation without any appeal to church authority what would stop the heretical parties claiming the same thing? The failed prophecies of the Montanists about the immanent end of the world no doubt exacerbated the anxiety of the proto-orthodox to have established authorities that were fixed. The writings on the teachings and life of Jesus passed on by his Apostles would provide this much needed stability. The threat from Marcionism pushed the proto-orthodox towards a fixed canon more than any other influence. Partially this was because the Marcionites already had a fixed canon and the strength of Marcionism could be directly attributed to this innovation. We can see the influence Marcionism had on fixing a proto-orthodox canon by comparing two proto-orthodox writers from this period. Justin Martyr was writing at the time when Marcionism was beginning to make an impact. We can see that in Justin’s writings there is no push for a canon as Justin does not even bother to name the authors of the gospel passages he quotes as authorities. He refers to the books as the Memorials of the Apostles. Justin also never quotes the apostle Paul, perhaps because of the almost exclusive use of Pauline texts by Marcion. In is enlightening to contrast Justin Martyr’s casual use of written authorities to their abundant use by Irenaeus of Lyon writing at the height of the proto-orthodox struggle against Marcionism. Writing 30 years after Justin, Irenaeus already has a fairly clear notion of at least a canon of the gospels. He complains that the heretics make up their own gospels and also that they rely solely one just one to justify their views. He points out that the Ebionites reply solely on Mathew, the Gnostics use only Mark, the Marcionites use only Luke, and the Valentinians use only John. To Irenaeus this imbalance is as bad as making up new gospels. Unlike what we find in the writings of Justin Martyr, in Irenaeus we find a fixed set of named authoritative gospels. Irenaeus also had reclaimed the writings of Paul as he used them extensively.

In order to shed light on how the proto-orthodox decided on what books to include in the canon it is worth looking at the Muratorian canon. This fragmentary text, by an unknown proto-orthodox author, is usually dated to the 8th century. It is a poor Latin copy of an earlier Greek canon believed to have been written in Rome in the second half of the 2nd century. The canon includes twenty-two of the twenty-seven books that form Athanasius’s canon. The Muratorian Canon does not include Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter and one of the Johannite Epistles. It also includes The Wisdom of Solomon and the Apocalypse of Peter. The author elaborates on why some books do not meet the criteria for canonicity. It is these criteria which are illuminating for us as it sheds light on the proto-orthodox mindset whilst establishing a fixed canon. It turns out the four criteria are the same as were used by many proto-orthodox in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. To be considered canonical a work must be ancient, apostolic, catholic and orthodox. It must be ancient so that it was written near the time of Jesus. It must be either apostolic or written by a companion of an Apostle to whom the apostolic tradition would have been passed onto. The work must be catholic in the sense that it enjoyed widespread use amongst the proto-orthodox churches. The main criterion used to decide if a work was canonical was theological orthodoxy. Actually, this last criterion outweighed all the others because if a work was not orthodox then it could not have been written by an apostle and was thus a forgery written in modern times. It also was not catholic because the other churches would not use a non orthodox book.

The debate by the proto-orthodox over the canon lasted a long time after the core of the canon was readily agreed upon in the second half of the 2nd century. Eventually almost everyone agreed to a list that, at least, included the four gospels, 1 Peter and John and thirteen Letters of Paul. It was a long time before the Catholic Epistles were accepted, ironically because they were not used universally enough. Still the debate over their inclusion was not heated. However, the debate over the inclusion of the Letter to the Hebrews and the Book of Revelation was another matter. A great deal of the debate centred on the authorship of these two books. The Western church believed the Book of Revelation was written by John the Apostle whereas the Eastern church did not and the Eastern church believed the Letter to the Hebrews to be written by St Paul whereas the Western church did not. In time, it turned out that both sides were correct. Yet the real substance of the debate was the orthodoxy, or lack thereof, that each book contained. Many were uncomfortable with the idea found in the Book of Hebrews that those who had sinned had no chance of restitution as well as the crude millenarianism found in the Book of Revelation. Many thought that if these books were accepted than the question of the canonicity of the Apocalypse of Peter or the Epistle of Barnabas should be as well.

We are aware that the debate continued unresolved at least one hundred and fifty years after the Muratorian canon was written because the ecclesiastical historian Eusebius mentions it in his ten volume Church History. He separates the books into three categories: accepted by all, debated, and spurious. In the accepted category he placed the four gospels, Acts, 14 Epistles of Paul (including Hebrews), 1 John, 1 Peter and the Apocalypse of John with the proviso “if it really seems right”. In the second category he placed James, Jude, 2 Peter and 2 and 3 John. In the spurious category he lists the Acts of Paul, The Shepherd of Hermas, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache of the Apostles, the Gospel according to the Hebrews and the Apocalypse of John also with the proviso “if it seems right”. At the end he mentions the heretical books of the Gospels of Peter, Thomas and Mathew, and the Acts of Andrew and John.

It would still be another sixty years before the proto-orthodox were able to settle the matter amongst themselves. The watershed is usually taken to be the Alexandrian canon of 367ce. Yet even this did not settle the matter and in 393ce Augustine of Hippo fought for its acceptance in his own Diocese. A synod at Carthage four years later also adopted the canon of Athanasius with the condition that the Church of Rome be consulted on the matter and give her approval. Still, for all intent and purpose, the matter had been settled and a proto-orthodox canon became the New Testament. By weeding out non proto-orthodox books and fixing the canon within an orthodox framework the proto-orthodox set the stage for all future debates. The fixture of the canon can thus be seen as one of the most significant steps that led the proto-orthodox towards their transformation into the Orthodox.