On the canonization of the New Testament
No One Had a Bible
That’s shocking to some modern day Christians. As mentioned in the last post, the early church had no Bible that resembles what we have today. Many congregations possessed Greek copies of the Jewish (Old Testament) scriptures (called the Septuagint) and the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). But the exact list of epistles that should be included in the New Testament was still under discussion.
The First Canonization Attempt
In the first half of the second century, 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 the Hebrew Scriptures.
Canonization: A Slow Process
It was the rise of heretics such as Marcion that prompted the gradual process of canonizing the New Testament. Through the writings of several church fathers and historians (Irenaeus, Origen, Justin Martyr, Dionysius, Eusebius, etc) we are able to see how it progressed. While there were numerous bishops, there was no central authority. Persecution kept the church underground, which further slowed coming to a consensus on a biblical canon.
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 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 New Testament 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 did not canonize the Bible).
Several councils were held in the first few hundred years of the Church, but the following two – which occurred decades after the death of Constantine – 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 New Testament 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).