Early Catalogues and the Christian Greek Scripture Canon
IT HAS been said that at the famous church council of Nicaea held A.D. 325 some forty “gospels” were placed on the floor before the assembled audience and, after prayer had been offered, our four Gospels rose miraculously and settled on the table and because of this they have since been accepted as the true ones. In the light of historical evidence such a story can at once be dismissed as foolish, but it does prompt the question, How did the twenty-seven books now found in our Christian Greek Scriptures come together as a collection? Why should just these books be accepted as genuine and canonical, and others be rejected? In considering this portion of the Bible it should be remembered that, though the Hebrew Scriptures are not dealt with here, the canon is not a divided one, making an “Old Testament” and a “New Testament.”
The word “canon” itself shows why it is important to have the right books in our Bible. Originally it referred to a reed used as a measuring rod if a piece of wood was not at hand, and then to a tool, a carpenter’s level or a scribe’s ruler. The apostle Paul referred to a “rule (Greek: kanōn) of conduct” as well as to a literal rule or boundary line. (Gal. 6:16; 2 Cor. 10:13) So canonical books are those that are true and inspired and worthy to be used as a straightedge in determining the right faith and doctrine. If we use books that are not “straight” as a plumb line, our “building” will not be true and it will fail the test of the Master Surveyor.
The Roman Catholic Church claims responsibility for the decision as to which books should be included in the canon, and reference is made to the Councils of Hippo (A.D. 393) and Carthage (A.D. 397), where catalogues of books were formulated. The opposite is true, however, for the canon was already settled by then, not by the decree of any council, but by the usage of Christian congregations throughout the ancient world. Says one authority, “It goes without saying that the Church, understood as the entire body of believers, created the Canon . . . it was not the reverse; it was not imposed from the top, be it by bishops or synods.”1 Our examination of the evidence will describe how this came about.
THE EVIDENCE OF EARLY CATALOGUES
A glance at the accompanying chart reveals that several fourth-century catalogues agree exactly with our present canon, or omit only Revelation. Before the end of the second century there is universal acceptance of the four Gospels, Acts and twelve of the apostle Paul’s letters. Only a few of the smaller writings were doubted in certain areas.
The most interesting early catalogue is the fragment discovered by L. A. Muratori in the Ambrosian Library, Milan, Italy, and published by him in 1740. Though the beginning is missing, its reference to Luke as the third Gospel indicates that it first mentioned Matthew and Mark. Another library find is the Cheltenham list, first noticed by T. Mommsen in 1885 at Cheltenham, England. Both lists suffer from some ambiguity, especially concerning the smaller letters, and scholars are not agreed as to which books are meant.
The majority of the catalogues in the chart are specific lists showing which books were accepted as canonical. Those of Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian and Origen are completed from the quotations they made, which reveal how they regarded the writings referred to. These are further supplemented from the records of the early historian Eusebius. But why do we not find exact lists earlier than the Muratorian fragment?
It was not until men like Marcion came along in the middle of the second century that the need arose to catalogue the books Christians should accept. Marcion constructed his own canon to suit his doctrines, taking only certain of the apostle Paul’s letters and an expurgated form of the Gospel of Luke. This, together with the mass of apocryphal literature by now spreading throughout the world, made it imperative to pronounce a clear-cut distinction between what could be received as Scripture and what could not. So we need to work back from the lists at the end of the second century in order to fill the remaining gap of about a hundred years.
COLLECTION OF GOSPELS AND LETTERS
It should not be thought that the early Christians lacked vigor in the collecting of inspired writings, or were all too poor to afford copies. Since false writings worth nearly £3,000 ($8,400) were burned on one occasion by those embracing Christianity, it is certain that they would be replaced by copies of the Scriptures as soon as opportunity afforded. (Acts 19:19) It has been calculated that by the end of the second century 60,000 copies of the major part of the Christian Greek Scriptures could have been in circulation, even if only one in every fifty of those professing Christianity possessed a copy.
Early writers show their familiarity with a Gospel collection. Justin Martyr, about A.D. 150, speaks of “the memoirs, composed by them (the apostles), which are called Gospels.” (1 Apology 66) On another occasion he refers to “the memoirs which I say were drawn up by His apostles and those who followed them” (Dialogue with Trypho 103), the last remark referring to Mark and Luke. Ignatius, who died A.D. 115, also refers to “gospel” in the singular, though he has knowledge of more than one.—Ignatius’ Letter to the Smyrnaeans 5.1; 7.2.
Irenaeus argues, about A.D. 190, that there were just four Gospels. His term ‘fourfold gospel’ shows that he knew the Gospels as a collection, and he recommended these writings as the rule or canon of truth. (Against Heresies III. 11.8) Clement of Alexandria, indicating both the authority and collected form of the Gospels, states, “We do not find this saying in the four gospels that have been handed down to us, but in that according to the Egyptians.”—Miscellanies III. 13.
A unique work of the second century was Tatian’s “Diatessaron,” meaning “of the four.” This was an early harmony, weaving together into one narrative the various sections of the four canonical Gospels. This again indicates the acceptance of the four as a collection and testifies to their undisputed authority as the authentic record of Jesus’ life and words. Because Acts was associated with Luke it may often have been circulated with the four Gospels, as in the early third-century Chester Beatty manuscript P45.
Just as the early Christians would be anxious to collect together the four Gospels, so they would desire to have all of the apostle Paul’s letters. Upon its receipt, a letter would be read to all in the congregation and then the original or a copy would often be sent to another congregation in exchange for their epistle. (1 Thess. 5:27; Col. 4:16) If it was addressed to a number of congregations, it might be copied many times. (Gal. 1:2) Though Paul addressed two letters specifically to Corinth, he expected them to have a wider circulation. (1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1) Gradually various collections would be formed.
How soon a complete collection was formed we do not know, but scholars generally agree that at least ten Pauline epistles were widely known as an established collection by A.D. 90-100.2 Early writers show acquaintance with such a collection, for they would weave quotations and extracts into their works. Among these can be named Polycarp, Ignatius and Clement of Rome.3 Clement of Alexandria uses the collective term “Apostolos” and Irenaeus uses “Apostles,” quoting Paul as authoritative more than two hundred times and using all the epistles except possibly Hebrews and Philemon.3 The third-century Chester Beatty manuscript P46 originally contained in one codex ten epistles, including Hebrews (some say eleven, adding in Philemon), so that the united evidence of the entire period prior to formal catalogues testifies both to the canonicity and collected form of Paul’s letters.
The authority of all these books is further confirmed by such phrases as the well-known “it is written,” found some forty times in the Gospels alone. Not only do the Gospel writers use this expression when referring to the inspired Hebrew Scriptures, but the phrase is used about A.D. 125 when quoting Paul’s epistles.4 Barnabas (not the same as Paul’s companion) and Justin both use it in quoting from Matthew. (The Epistle of Barnabas, Chapter 4; Dialogue with Trypho 49) A writing ascribed to Clement of Rome also refers to the Gospels and the epistles as “Scripture.” (The Second Epistle of Clement, Chapter 2) More important still is Peter’s testimony, “Paul . . . wrote you, speaking about these things as he does also in all his letters. In them, however, are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unsteady are twisting, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Pet. 3:15, 16) Peter here refers to ‘all of Paul’s letters’—an early collection.
Not only were the “Gospel” and the “Apostle” placed on the same footing as collected Scripture by Clement of Alexandria, but they were equated with the Hebrew Scriptures. (Miscellanies, Book 4) Justin tells us that at the meetings of the early Christians “the memoirs of the apostles or the writing of the prophets are read, as long as time permits.” (1 Apology 67) Ignatius, Theophilus and Tertullian also spoke of the Prophets, the Law and the Gospel as equally authoritative.—Ignatius’ Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 5.1; Theophilus to Autolycus, Book 3, chap. 12; On Prescriptions Against Heretics, chap. 36.
THE CANON COMPLETED
Having established the canonical position of the major part of the Christian Greek Scriptures, we can consider the books marked in the chart as disputed by some.
Because Hebrews did not bear Paul’s name and seemed to be written in a different style, it was rejected by certain ones, especially in the West, although Clement of Rome used it as a work of authority. (E.g., 1 Clement 36; Heb. 1:3, 4) It was accepted completely in the East, however, and at Alexandria both Clement and Origen recognized Paul as the author. (Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius,a pp. 233, 234, 246) It also contains many Pauline constructions and similarities of language, especially to Romans and Corinthians. But as Westcott remarked, “We have been enabled to acknowledge that the apostolic authority of the Epistle is independent of its Pauline authorship . . . no book of the Bible is more completely recognised by universal consent as giving a divine view of the facts of the Gospel.”5 Internal evidence produces the strongest reasons for canonical acceptance.
The book of Revelation is attested to by a unanimity of early commentators including Papias, Justin, Melito and Irenaeus.6 (Fragments of Papias 8) It was rejected by some in the East because its teachings were unacceptable to certain schools of thought. But this did not disturb its general reception Even at this early date due regard was also paid to having a correct text, as Irenaeus informs us in referring to Revelation 13:18 when he remarks, “The number is thus found in all the genuine and ancient copies.”—Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius, p. 188.
This leaves James and Jude and the epistles of Peter and John. There was never any difficulty with First Peter and First John, Papias and Polycarp being among the early testimonies for their authority. (Fragments of Papias 6; The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians 2, 7) When it is remembered how small each of the remaining five writings is, we are not surprised to find a paucity of references to them, comprising as they do only one thirty-sixth of the Christian Greek Scriptures. They are all referred to by one second-century Christian or another, but it is only to be expected that shorter works would not be quoted so often and, as they might have had a slower circulation, they would be known in some regions and not others. Second Peter has been questioned most by critics, but Irenaeus uses it, (Irenaeus Against Heresies 5.23.2 and 5.28.3) and internal evidence shows it to be an early work and not of the second century.
PRESENCE OF APOCRYPHAL WORKS
But why does the manuscript Codex Sinaiticus include after the book of Revelation the epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Codex Alexandrinus add the two Clementine epistles? Many similar writings have been discovered recently claiming apostolic status, and among these the so-called Gospel of Thomas has evoked much discussion. Should some of these works be included in our Bible today?
The historian Eusebius, in summing up the position, sets out three categories of writings. First the acknowledged ones are enumerated and then the disputed ones, both classes being considered canonical. The third group, in which he names the Shepherd of Hermas, Barnabas and others, he calls spurious, although they were read in various congregations at times. (Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius, p. 110) The Muratorian fragment states that the Shepherd could be read but was never to the end of time to be recognized as canonical.4
When it was found that the apocryphal Gospel of Peter was being read publicly at the end of the second century, it was ordered to be rejected as false. (Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius, p. 231) Tertullian tells us that the author of the “Acts of Paul” was punished for posing as a first-century writer. (De Baptismo 17) In a letter written by Theodore of Egypt in the fourth century the apocryphal writings are referred to as “the lying waters of which so many drank,”7 and the Muratorian list speaks of them as gall which should not be mixed with honey.4 So the Christian community was careful to protect the integrity of its writings.
It was often a matter of convenience to bind into a codex an apocryphal work, for it might be read by some, though they would have in mind the distinction shown by the fact that in the two codices cited (the Sinaitic and the Alexandrine) the apocryphal writings followed Revelation, the last of the canonical books. Or we might possess a manuscript today that belonged to an apostate congregation giving too much attention to such works, just as in the case that Serapion of Antioch discovered at the end of the second century.
Internal evidence confirms the clear division made between the inspired and the spurious works. The apocryphal writings are much inferior and often fanciful and childish. They are frequently inaccurate. Note the following statements by scholars on these noncanonical books:
“There is no question of any one’s having excluded them from the New Testament: they have done that for themselves.”—M. R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament, p. xii.
“We have only to compare our New Testament books as a whole with other literature of the kind to realise how wide is the gulf which separates them from it. The uncanonical gospels, it is often said, are in reality the best evidence for the canonical.”—G. Milligan, The New Testament Documents, p. 228.
“Much of the Gospel of Thomas is plainly later and untrustworthy tradition . . . of no use for determining what Jesus said and did.”—F. V. Filson, The Biblical Archaeologist, 1961, p. 18.
“There is no known extra-cononical Gospel material which is not (when it can be tested at all) in some way subject to suspicion for its genuineness or orthodoxy.”—C. F. D. Moule, The Birth of the New Testament, p. 192.
“It cannot be said of a single writing preserved to us from the early period of the Church outside the New Testament that it could properly be added today to the Canon.”—K. Aland, The Problem of the New Testament Canon, p. 24.
INSPIRED OF GOD
The true test of canonicity is the evidence of inspiration. (2 Tim. 3:16) The twenty-seven books of the Christian Greek Scriptures found their place, not by the mere caprice of men, but by the spirit of God. Nothing is missing and nothing extra has been added. John could already see the beginning of a vast additional literature in his old age, but was it needed? (John 21:25) Even if a genuine saying of Jesus could be found in one of these works, that would not make it an inspired writing. God’s Word in its sixty-six books is our guide and its complete harmony and balance testify to its completeness. All praise to Jehovah God, the Creator of this incomparable Book! It can equip us completely and put us on the way to life. Let us use it wisely while we yet have time.
1 The Problem of the New Testament Canon, by Kurt Aland, 1962, page 18.
2 The Text of the Epistles, by G. Zuntz, 1946, pages 14, 279.
3 Early Christian Doctrines, by J. N. D. Kelly, 1958, page 58.
4 The New Testament Documents, G. Milligan, 1913, pages 214, 290, 291.
5 The Epistle to the Hebrews, Greek Text and Notes, by B. F. Westcott, 1889, page lxxi.
6 Historic Evidence of the Authorship and Transmission of the Books of the New Testament, by S. P. Tregelles, 1852, pages 61-63.
7 The New Archaeological Discoveries, 2d Ed., by C. M. Cobern, 1917, page 334.
a Translated by C. F. Crusé, Tenth Edition, 1856.
[Chart on page 252]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
Chart of Outstanding Early Catalogues
and Place Date A.D.
Muratorian Fragment, Italy 170
Irenaeus, Asia Minor 180
Clement of Alexandria 190
Tertullian, N. Africa 200
Origen, Alexandria 230
Eusebius, Palestine 310
Cyril of Jerusalem 348
Cheltenham List, N. Africa 360
Athanasius, Alexandria 367
Epiphanius, Palestine 368
Gregory Nazianzus, Asia Minor 370
Amphilocius, Asia Minor 370
Philastrius, Italy 383
Jerome, Italy 394
Augustine, N. Africa 397
Third Council of Carthage, N Africa. 397
A – Accepted without query as Scriptural and Canonical.
D – Doubted in certain quarters.
DA – Doubted in certain quarters but cataloguer accepted as Scriptural and Canonical.
? – Scholars uncertain of the reading of the text.