On the canonization of the New Testament
No one had a Bible
That’s a bit of a shock to some modern day Christians. As mentioned in the last post, the early church had no Bible that resembles what we have today, though many possessed Greek copies of the Jewish scriptures (called the Septuagint). Many congregations would have a copy of some of the epistles and gospels, but usually only larger congregations would possess all of the writings that became the New Testament (NT) canon.
The first canonization attempt
Marcion of Sinope made the first attempt at creating a New Testament canon. Ironically, he was deemed a heretic and his canon was considered to be too limited. He offered a butchered version of Luke and ten epistles of Paul as the official Christian canon. He rejected both the Jewish God and scriptures.
Canonization: a slow process
It was the rise of heretics such as Marcion that prompted the gradual process of canonizing the NT. Through the writings of several church fathers and historians (Irenaeus, Origen, Justin Martyr, Dionysius, Eusebius, etc) we are able to see how it progressed.
Giving a full account of the canonization process would take a book’s worth of words. In short, the Church as a whole agreed on most writings, especially the four gospels and letters of Paul; however, there was some dissent with a few writings: the epistles of James, Peter, John, and Jude; and the books of Hebrews and Revelation.
Other very popular works that did not make it into the final canon (but were included in earlier canons) included 1st Clement, Epistle of Barnabas, Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, the Didache, and the Shepherd of Hermas.
A few important councils
Surprisingly, there is no official date on which the NT canon was universally decided. Much to the chagrin of Dan Brown and his Da Vinci Code, there was no conspiracy to suppress unwanted writings and there was no single authority over the whole church attempting to control Christian doctrine (the Council of Nicea had nothing to do with canonizing the Bible).
Several councils were held in the first few hundred years of the Church, but the following two were the most influential as they canonized the books everyone seemed to agree upon:
- The Council of Laodicea in 363 AD – this council created a canon that was used in the Eastern church for several centuries. It is identical to our current NT canon minus the Apocalypse of John (Revelations).
- The Council of Carthage in 397AD – the earliest council to create a canon that is identical to what we have today. The decisions of this council were popular in the West, and as a result, the Western church finally accepted the book of Hebrews (it was disputed due to its anonymous authorship, not its content)