The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
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The New Testament Canon

Having introduced ourselves to the earliest extant manuscripts of the New Testament, the time has now come for us to ask the same question as we did on the Old Testament: how did the books in the New Testament came to be regarded as canonical? What about books that were excluded? What were their reasons for exclusion?

The first generations of the Church fathers such as Ignatius (35-107), Papias (60-130) and Justin (100-165) were more concerned with the canon of the Old Testament than that of the New. One reason is, of course, that they could appeal to the living oral tradition that surrounded them. [1] Another reason is that some of the New Testament books were not yet written during their lifetimes!

In fact the impetus towards providing a definitive list of canonical books for the New Testament came from a heretic [a] named Marcion (d.160). He was a native of Sinope in Asia Minor who made his way to Rome in AD140 and began preaching what he believed to be the original good news. Expelled from the church of Rome around 144, he taught that many of the early Christian literature were corrupted by Jewish ideas. Marcion accepted only the letters of Paul (Galatians, I & II Corinthians, Romans, I & II Thessalonians, Laodiceans [?], Colossians, Philemon and Philippians) and a "purified" version of Luke's gospel. Marcion's teaching was immensely popular and he became an immediate concern for his rivals. [2]

Irenaeus (c.130-c.200), Bishop of Hippo, argued against Marcion's inclusion of only one gospel with a curious piece of logic: "As there are four winds," he argued, "there should therefore be four gospels." Satisfied with this logically ruthless demolition of Marcion, Irenaeus drew up a list of writings he considered canonical. His list consist of 22 books of which 21 are present in today's New Testament. But noteworthy are the books he left out: Philemon, II Peter, II & III John, Hebrews and Jude. [3] Interestingly, his list included a book no longer present in the New Testament: The Shepherd of Hermas. [4] [b] Thus the first formal list of canonical books drawn up in the second half of the second century (around AD180) does not completely tally with the modern canon.

The next list came from the so-called Muratorian Fragment, discovered in Milan by L.A. Muratori who published it in 1740. The fragment is dated to around AD200. The fragment presents a list of what its author considered to be inspired or canonical books. The list rejects The Shepherd of Hermas, saying that it was a recent book. One of the books it did add to the canonical list does not inspire confidence in the believer. It is a book very few Christians know of today and is called The Apocalypse of Peter. [5] [c] Again we find some books in todays canon missing from the Muratorian Fragment: I & II Peter, Hebrews, James and III John. The exclusion of the epistles of Peter is remarkable for a Roman document (if Peter did indeed die in Rome and indeed wrote the epistle attributed to him). The exclusion of the epistles of Hebrew and James, both of which are known in Rome at least a century before the list is curious. [6]

The next canonical list came from Origen (c185-254) who in AD230 defined what he believed to be the canon of scripture for the New Testament. He included the four gospels, Acts, Paul's thirteen epistles, I Peter, I John and Revelation. He also mentioned that the following books were under dispute: Hebrews, II Peter, II & III John, James, Jude, the Epistle of Barnabas [d], The Shepherd of Hermas, The Didache [e] and the Gospel According to the Hebrews. [f] The last four books are no longer in the canon today. [7]

We have now reached the period of the uncial script. In the extent manuscripts that we have, the disagreements as to which books should be included in the New Testament and which should be excluded are evident here as well. We find in Codex Sinaiticus the inclusion of Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas. Both works were placed in the codex that in no way showed that the compiler wanted them to be separated from the rest. [8] The Codex Alexandrinus contains the two Epistles of Clement, written by Clement, Bishop of Rome, to the Corinthian Church around AD95. [9}

We can conclude then,

  • that by the beginning of the fourth century, some books that are now included in the New Testament canon had their canonicity disputed.
  • Some books who were in the same boat with these somehow never got accepted as canonical. These disputed books were: Hebrews, Revelation, the Epistles of James, II Peter, II & III John, The Shepherd of Hermas, The Didache, The Epistle of Barnabas and The Epistles of Clement [g].

Then a process that can be called religious forgery began to take place. Books which somehow manage to attach themselves to the names of apostles (the tradition of apostolic authorship rears its ugly head again!) were eventually thought to be inspired based on that "fact": Hebrew was attributed to Paul; Revelation and the II & III John to John the apostle, the epistles of James and Jude to the brothers of Jesus; and the epistles of Peter to Simon Peter himself. [10] We know today, based on critical documentary research, that these attributions are false. Most of the books that were left out never had the luck to strongly attach themselves to the names of apostles and were thus left out. So the inclusion of some of the books in the New Testament was based on the fraudulent belief in apostolic authorships. In should be mentioned here that in no way were the books that finally became canonical invariably written earlier than the non-canonical ones. Thus the non-canonical Didache, I Clement and the Epistle of Barnabas all date to the second half of the first century, while the canonical II Peter and Jude dates to the middle of the second century.

In fact the first list of all the 27 books of the New Testament to the exclusion of all others appeared in the Festal Letter written by Athanasius (c296-373), Bishop of Alexandria to the Egyptian Churches in AD367. In the letter Athanasius told his bishops that these twenty seven books are to be regarded as canonical. [11] Athanasius' list was confirmed by a council under Pope Damasus in AD382. However many churches in the east continue to disagree with the Athanasian canon. The Book of Revelation, for instance, was not considered divinely inspired until well into the eighth century. We find in Codex Claromontanus, a sixth century manuscript, that the Hebrews was omitted from it while the Epistle of Barnabas was included and placed between the epistle of Jude and the book of Revelation. [12]

Even today we find some Christian churches, with very old roots, have different books in the New Testament. The East-Syrian Nestorian Church has a canon with only 22 books. The canon excludes II Peter, II & III John, Jude and Revelation from their New Testament. The Ethiopian Church have thirty eight books in their New testament and includes in their list of canonical books the Shepherd of Hermas, I & II Clement and the Apostolic Constitutions. [13] [h]

What can we conclude about the NT canon? We find that:

  • The New Testament canon was by no means universally accepted by all Christians since the beginning.
  • Books that were accepted by some churches as canonical were rejected by others as uninspired.
  • False tradition of apostolic authorship helped many of the books that eventually became included in the canon.
  • Ludicrous arguments, a la Ireneaus and his "four winds therefore four gospels" logic, played a role in the acceptance and rejection of the various books.
  • Even today there is still some disagreements as to what constitute the NT canon.
We see that the making of canon of New Testament books was in no way miraculous or inspired but betrays its human origins.

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Notes

a.Terms such as heretic and orthodox are retroactive. In the lifetimes of these figures involved, every party calls itself the orthodox and labels every other as heretics. We will come through this term heretic many times in this website applied to Christian scholars who lost the theological battle for survival. Hence, to the uninitiated, reading the history of Christian theology, it would seem as if the orthodox party always triumphed against the heretic. Whereas, in reality, heretics simply means losers in the theological battle.
b.The Shepherd of Hermas is the treatise of Hermas to whom an angel appeared in the form of a shepherd and communicated with him in various visions. The work inculcates the need for penance and the possibility of forgiveness for post baptismal sin.
c.The Apocalypse of Peter describes how Peter was granted a vision of heaven and hell
d.The Epistle of Barnabas was a theological tract which strongly attacked Judaism and claims to find in the Old testament testimonies for Christianity.
e.The Didache is a short Christian manual on morals and church practice.
f.The Gospel According to the Hebrews was the gospel used originally by the Nazarene sect. Its was composed in Aramaic and contains certain sayings of Jesus not recorded in the canonical gospels. The consensus among scholars today is that some passages in this gospels, although based on different traditions from the canonical gospels, are of historical value.
g.The First Epistle of Clement dealt with the problem of the hierarchical structure of the early church. Its immediate concern was the deposing of some presbyters in the Corinthian Church. The second epistle sis a homily on Christian life and the duty of repentance
h.The Apostolic Constitutions is a collection of religious law that most scholars believe are of Syrian origin.

References

1.Davidson & Leaney, Biblical Criticism: p230
2.Bentley, Secrets of Mount Sinai: p170
Bruce, The Books and the Parchments: p108
Davidson & Leaney, Biblical Criticism: p230
3.Bentley, Secrets of Mount Sinai: p170
Bruce, The Books and the Parchments: p109
4.Davidson & Leaney, Biblical Criticism: p230
5.Bruce, The Books and the Parchments: p109-110
Davidson & Leaney, Biblical Criticism: p230-231
6.ibid: p231
7.Bruce, The Books and the Parchments: p112
8.Bentley, Secrets of Mount Sinai: p176
9.Bruce, The Books and the Parchments: p111
Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p116
10.Parmalee, Guidebook to the Bible: p134
11.Bentley, Secrets of Mount Sinai: p170
Bruce, The Books and the Parchments: p112
Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p88
12.Bentley, Secrets of Mount Sinai: p171
13.Metzger, The Oxford Companion to the Bible: p104

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