History of the Bible, I: Toward Canonization
God has spoken and made known His will and purposes through His servants the prophets and ultimately through His Son Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1). The prophets, the Apostles, and their associates preserved those messages from God in the pages of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:15-17). The Scriptures are of the greatest importance and value for those who wish to know what God would have them think, feel, and do. Can we have confidence in the validity of the Biblical text as it has been handed down? We do well to explore the history of the Bible, and begin with the movement toward canonization of the text.
“Canonization” is the process of establishing the books which are legitimately part of Scripture as opposed to the writings of men, between those inspired by God and those produced through human endeavor. The Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament, had been written from 1400 through 420 BCE. Its final canonical form as we have it today was established in the first century of our era, but its general outline had been recognized long before. It is true that many later works were also translated or written as part of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament: these works, which would become the Apocrypha, were recognized as “deuterocanonical” in antiquity, thus not inspired. Only far later, toward the end of the first millennium CE, did anyone begin considering the Apocrypha to be inspired Scripture, and that only in Roman Catholicism.
The New Testament was written between 30 and 100 CE by the Apostles and their associates, all inspired by the Holy Spirit to set down the preaching and teaching regarding Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, lordship and kingdom, and eventual return (Matthew 18:18, John 20:30-31, Ephesians 3:1-7, etc.). Once the Apostles and all the people of their generation passed on, none remained who had seen Jesus in His life, death, or resurrection; nevertheless, their testimony remained, proclaimed by Christians who had been taught by the Apostles or their associates (cf. 2 Timothy 2:1-2), and on the basis of what the Apostles and their associates had written in the books which would become the New Testament. They constantly referred back to what the Apostles had taught and cited or quoted passages from all sorts of New Testament books.
Yet by the second century many heresies had arisen; some claimed authority on the basis of texts other than the New Testament (e.g. the Gnostics, who wrote all kinds of treatises in the names of the Apostles), while others cast aspersions on the legitimacy of certain apostolic witnesses (e.g. Marcion, who accepted only Luke’s Gospel, Acts, and some of Paul’s letters). Early Christians would have to establish the authoritative texts on which to establish the truths of the faith and its practice, and quickly.
This process was not as late or as contested as is often portrayed. By 200, by 200 CE, only a very few dared to question the authority and authorship of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1/2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1/2 Thessalonians, 1/2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, James, 1 Peter, and 1 John. Some contested Hebrews on account of its anonymity, and Revelation on the basis of its abuse by heretics; 2/3 John are short, which may explain why we see few references to them. 2 Peter is the only book to be seriously questioned in terms of its apostolic origin, but even then, few ultimately quarreled with its inclusion into the canon. A few early Christians believed in the inspiration of some later writings, including 1 and 2 Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Epistle of Barnabas.
Early Christians did not arbitrarily or haphazardly decide which books were inspired versus which ones were not. They used very sensible guidelines. Of great importance was authorship: who is claimed to have written the text? Is there any evidence from previous testimony to justify the claim? Was this person truly inspired to write the text? Was the author an Apostle, or an immediate associate of an Apostle, and thus does the text maintain the seal of apostolic authority? Does the work bear the hand of the Holy Spirit, or does it betray the hand of man?
Early Christians wrestled with these questions for the next few hundred years. By the middle of the fourth century, most rejected 1/2 Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, and many others because they did not meet most of the criteria for canonization. Serious doubts existed about Barnabas being the real author of the Epistle of Barnabas; it was thus not inspired but pseudepigraphical. Most believed 2 Clement was pseudepigraphical as well, although few doubted that Clement actually wrote 1 Clement, perhaps even in the late first century (70-100?); nevertheless, it did not bear the mark of inspiration. The Shepherd of Hermas, and others, had devotional value, but were written far too late to be inspired (middle of the second century or later).
Many early Christians believed Paul wrote the letter to the Hebrews; those who disagreed still believed its author to be a person in Paul’s entourage (Barnabas or Apollos), and the hand of the Holy Spirit is manifest in it. Revelation’s inspiration was never in doubt; the question was its abuse by heretics. In the end, the quality of its inspiration was sufficient to seal its place in the canon.
In 367, Athanasius, “Bishop” of Alexandria, sent out a Festal letter to the Catholic churches of the west and east, and within its pages set out the books of the New Testament, correlating with our own today. This same list was “ratified” by the Third Council of Carthage in 397 CE, effectively closing the canon of Scripture.
Claims that the “Catholic church” decided upon the Bible in the fourth century, therefore, overstates the evidence. The general contours of the New Testament were never in doubt; later councils simply ratified what has been generally agreed upon for centuries. Many of the apocryphal and pseudepigraphal works written between the testaments and soon after the New Testament have been preserved; we today can read them and come to a better appreciation as to why early Christians recognized them as uninspired. We have every reason to maintain confidence in the inspiration of the books of the Old and New Testament!
Ethan R. Longhenry