Saturday, May 19, 2012

How We Got The New Testament

From the beginning, Christianity was a missionary enterprise seeking to win converts, and to answers the objections of its opponents.  And in preaching the Gospel, the Apostles and others had to provide historically reliable presentations and interpretations of the life and ministry of Jesus, along with their giving careful instruction in doctrine and ethics.  This was done through letters, the first of which was The Letter of James (c. 44 A.D.)  written to comfort Jewish Christians persecuted and driven out of Judaea (cf. Acts 11:19), and then through the four gospels, the first of which was the Gospel of Mark, written by John Mark, an associate of the Apostle Peter, in Rome (c. 50 A.D.).  These documents, along with the letters of Paul, Luke and Acts, 1 Peter, and Hebrews, were written in a form of Greek script used by professional scribes for legal and literary works, which means that from the onset both the authors and readers recognized these documents as inspired literature that was to be prized and preserved, as well as read, by the Christian churches. 

Original Compostion and Distribution of the NT Writings

During the period 95 A.D. to 110 A.D., the NT documents were first copied and circulated individually, then in a collection of the Four gospels and Acts, a collection of Paul's letters and Hebrews, a collection of General Letters (James through Jude) and then Revelation as a separate book.  In Syria, where heretical works were first forged in Peter's name and even utilized selections of 2 Peter itself, 2 Peter was disputed as authentic for a long time. (By the end of the third century, when all doubts were finally removed, the Syrian churches accepted 2 Peter as both authentic and canonical.)   However, when the Post-Apostolic writers, such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and Polycarp, cite authorities for their teaching, in addition to the OT, they refer to 23 out of the 27 books that now form the NT.  (The four excluded are 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, though it is not clear from their writings why this is so.)
As for the canonization of the New Testament texts, this process actually began with the Apostles themselves.  Long before they were dead, false teachers arose, claiming their erroneous doctrines were only repeating what the Apostles themselves had taught in oral form or in letters.  Paul addresses this issue in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, and then at the end of this letter says:  "Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way.  The Lord be with you all.  I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters.  This is how I write" (2 Thess. 3:16-17, NIV).  This verse was a reminder that Paul's practice was first to dictate his letters to an associate who was trained as a scribe, then have the associate read back the rough draft for any further additions or corrections, then once put in its final form and approved, he would sign his letter with a personal, final greeting, written in large letters (cf. Gal. 6:11-18).  This was his seal that the document was both authentic and authoritative, and that it was to be accepted as such by the Christian congregations that received it (cf. 1 Cor. 14:36-38). 

In addition, we have Paul authenticating Luke's writings as inspired, authoritative Scripture, and Peter authenticating Paul's letters as inspired authoritative Scripture.  In 1 Timothy 5:17-21, Paul gives instructions regarding the treatment of elders, both those who are faithful in caring for the church and in teaching God's Word and also regarding those who are not.  Now when he quotes the basis for his teaching, he writes:  "For Scripture says, 'Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,' and 'The worker deserves his wages'" (1 Tim. 5:18, NIV).  The first quote is from Deuteronomy 25:4 and the second is from Luke 10:17.  Here is Paul, around 62 A.D., roughly two years before his second and final imprisonment in Rome, quoting from the writings of his friend and associate Luke, as equally inspired and authoritative as the writings of Moses! 

Then in Rome, just before the outbreak of the persecution by Nero (c. 64 A.D.), Peter knew that the end of his life and ministry was near and so wrote his last will and testament to Christians who knew both him and Paul.  In this letter, Peter says this concerning Paul and his writings:  "Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom God gave him.  He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters.  His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction" (2 Pet. 3:15-16, NIV, italics mine).  Not only does Peter affirm Paul wrote with divine wisdom and authority in general, but that his letters were as fully inspired and authoritative as the OT itself!  So early on, the Apostles and their associates knew that they were writing under the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and that several of the books they had written were on the same level of authority as the OT.

All the books which now form the complete NT canon we possess, were written and put into circulation by no later than 100 A.D. This has been confirmed by the many NT quotations and allusions found in the writings of Early Christian writers such as Clement, Bishop of Rome (c. 60-95 A.D.); Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch (c.70-115 A.D.); Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (c. 75-150 A.D.); Justin Martyr, a Christian philosopher and apologist who first ministered in Syria, then later established an academy in Rome (c. 90-150 A.D.); and Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (c. 130-200 A.D.), who wrote the book Against All Heresies.  The evidence from the writings of these Early Church writers, after careful examination, demonstrates three things:
1.  In the geographical areas where they lived and ministered, the Four Gospels, Acts, Paul's 12 Letters, Hebrews and Revelation were already recognized as authoritative Scripture, whereas some of the NT letters (e.g. 2 Peter and Jude), were either unknown or disputed.
2.  The Greek text-types they used were an early form of either the Western Text, or of the Alexandrian Text.  And then the Caesarean Text, a mixture of the Western and Alexandrian Texts, appeared and began to be used in the early third century A.D.  
3.   No early, unambiguous Byzantine Text can be detected in the works of any Christian writers before 280 A.D.   (The Old Antichian Text, a edited combination of the Western and Caesarean Texts, and the precursor of the Byzantine Text, was taken to Constantinople around 300 A.D. prior to the Great Persecution, 303-313 A.D.)  This is historical fact, based on all the evidence we now possess.

The Rise of Marcion and the Roman Church's Confirmation of the NT Canon

Up until 140 A.D., there was no great dispute as to what were canonical and non-canonical books; it was pretty much taken for granted that everyone knew the difference between the apostolic and non-apostolic writings.  But with the appearance of the first great heretical teacher, Marcion, this complacency towards the canon of the New Testament came to an end.  Marcion taught that the God of the OT was vengeful and evil, since he created the material universe and appeared to care solely for the Jews, his "chosen people."  But the God of Jesus, the Ultimate, One Spiritual Being, was a God of grace and love towards all peoples.  Therefore, he rejected the OT as being any part of the Scriptures to be used by Christians, and threw out everything in the NT that smacked of "Jewishness," leaving Luke and Paul's Letters as his Bible, which he called The Gospel and the Apostle.  And then he went about Asia Minor and Italy, using his wealth as an import merchant to establish churches that would promote his form of Christianity, using his writings and his expunged version of the NT as the basis of their belief and practice.

 As a result of Marcion’s teaching and activities, the orthodox churches in Italy, following Rome's lead, came up with the first list of the NT canon, which includes most of the current NT books and rejects all Marcionite forgeries.  A damaged copy of this list, known as the Muratorian Fragment (named after the scholar who discovered it and printed it 1740), begins with a reference to Luke as "the Third Gospel," then to John as the testimony of the Beloved Disciple, then to Acts as "a record of all the apostles’ acts" contra Marcion, then to Paul's letters, Hebrews, 1 and 2 John, Revelation, and 2 Peter.  After again condemning Marcion, it states that while the Shepherd of Hermas is worthy to be read during church services, it is not to be counted among the apostolic writings.  So after this episode with Marcion, in the Western church there was no longer any doubt as to what were and were not authoritative, apostolic writings.

 Development of Threefold Test for Canonicity

In addition to this early Roman list of the NT canon, Irenaeus states in Against All Heresies that it was during this same time that a threefold test was developed to help churches distinguish apostolic from non-apostolic writings that were being circulated:
1.  Apostolic Origin.  Was the book in question known to be the authentic work of the Apostles and their closest associates?  Was it known to have the approval of the Apostles and their associates?  If it was, it was to be regarded as canonical and was to be read in the churches.
2.  Ecclesiastical Reception and Use.  In the churches founded by the Apostles and their associates, was this book both known and regularly used in preaching and teaching during congregational worship?  If it was, it was to be read and accepted by all as canonical Scripture.
3.  Consistency of Doctrine.  Did the book agree with that form or pattern of doctrine summarized in "The Rule of Faith," or "The Tradition," which had been passed on by the Apostles?  If it did, then it was to be accepted and read as canonical Scripture in all the churches.  Now, when you read what Irenaeus says regarding this apostolic tradition, it appears to have been an early creed that in many ways anticipated the Nicene Creed of 325 A.D.  Therefore, any book being considered as a possible candidate for addition to a church's library of authoritative books had to pass all three tests or it was excluded.  During the time between 200 A.D. and 313 A.D., despite the increasing flood of heretical books and the persecution by Emperor Diocletian, these tests continued to be applied. 

Our Conclusion Regarding the NT Canon

So by the time of the Council of Carthage in 397 A.D., the Disputed Books (James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude) were seen by all as passing mustard and worthy of full canonical status.  So I would argue that at this time that the NT Canon received full confirmation as being apostolic and authoritative, not sanctioned and made authoritative by Church decree, as some Catholic apologists would try to persuade us.  For no NT book was ever accepted as canonical that was not apostolically authentic and authoritative.  F. F. Bruce states it best:

What is particularly important to notice is that the New Testament canon was not demarcated by the arbitrary decree of any Church Council.  When at last a Church Council—the Synod of Hippo in A.D. 393—listed the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, it did not confer upon them any authority which they did not already possess, but simply recorded their previously established canonicity.  As Dr. Foakes-Jackson puts it:  “The Church assuredly did not make the New Testament; the two grew up together.”  Divine authority is by its very nature self-evidencing; and one of the profoundest doctrines recovered by the Reformers is the doctrine of the inward witness of the Holy Spirit, by which testimony is borne within the believer’s heart to the divine character of Holy Scripture.  This witness is not confined to the individual believer, but is also accessible to the believing community; and there is no better example of its operation than in the recognition by the members of the Early Church of the books which were given by inspiration of God to stand alongside the books of the Old Covenant, the Bible of Christ and his apostles, and with them to make up the Written Word of  God (cf. "The Canon of Scripture," The Books and the Parchments, 2nd Edition, pp. 103-104).

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