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The Access Bible New Revised Standard Bible, written and edited with first-time Bible readers in mind.

Formation of the New Testament

Compared with the Old Testament, the books of the New Testament were all written in a very short space of time—probably not much more than fifty or sixty years, from the 40s CE till the beginning of the second century. As we saw above, by the time there were manuscripts of the whole New Testament the books clearly fell into groups, and presumably this is how they were first collected. One obvious group is the collection of Paul's letters, sometimes called the Pauline corpus. Paul's letters were all written to a very specific situation, dealing with problems and difficulties that had arisen in this or that Christian community. But he himself probably expected his letters to be read outside the church to which they were originally written—though the only explicit statement of such an intention is found in Col 4.16 (“when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea”), in a letter regarded by many modern scholars as not genuinely Pauline. The custom seems to have grown up of passing Paul's letters around, and it was a short step from this to making a collection of them.

The Pauline corpus seems to go back to the second or third generation after Paul himself. In almost all manuscripts, the letters are arranged in order of length, within two categories. The first category consists of letters to churches: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians (Ephesians is in fact slightly longer than Galatians, but this is always the order). The second category comprises letters to individuals: 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. Some people have speculated that Philemon holds the clue to the collection. Perhaps Onesimus, the runaway slave who is the subject of this letter, became a leader in one of the churches founded by Paul, and decided to collect all his letters together. This theory might explain why a letter so completely personal is included in a collection intended for the Church at large. However, such speculation is really the stuff of a biblical novel rather than a matter of hard evidence! Whatever the cause, copies of Paul's letter collection were circulating by the beginning of the second century CE.

The collection of the Four Gospels seems to be equally old. It had a greater effect on the way the Gospels came to be understood than the collection of Paul's letters had on the individual letters. Each Gospel seems originally to be intended to tell the definitive version of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Luke, in fact, tells us explicitly that he wanted to correct existing accounts and to tell the story in its true form (see Lk 1.1 ). If everything in any one of the Gospels is true exactly as stated, then none of the other Gospels can be completely true, for they present divergent accounts of the same events. But once it came to be accepted that there were four Gospels, all with equal authority, people inevitably had to read them as complementing and completing, rather than contradicting each other. This perspective was fully established by the late second century, when Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130–c. 200 CE) defended the existence of four Gospels, rather than a single authoritative one, as a positive blessing to the Church. His argument was that four witnesses to such crucial events provided a guarantee greater than would be given by only one, and that the discrepancies do not affect the overall reliability of all four accounts.

Before Irenaeus there had been two attempts to establish just one version of the Gospel as definitive. Marcion (died 160 CE), a native of Asia Minor who taught for a time in Rome, believed that there was only one correct Gospel, the Gospel according to Luke. But he thought that even that Gospel had been contaminated by wrong teaching, so he “corrected” it, and combined it with a selection of Paul's letters to form a kind of rudimentary New Testament. Marcion's attachment to Luke resulted from the fact that it is the least “Jewish” of the Gospels, in the sense that it stresses more than the others the central importance of non-Jews in God's plan, and does not quote the Old Testament as much as does (for instance) Matthew. Even so, Marcion had to delete a number of passages to remove references to the Old Testament. He wanted to do this because he believed that the God of Jesus was quite distinct from the Jewish God, and that Christianity had no kind of connection or continuity with Judaism. For this the Church condemned him as a heretic, because Christians believed that the God revealed in Jesus was, on the contrary, the God who had been known to the Jews for so long through the pages of the Old Testament. But in condemning Marcion, the Church also ruled out the possibility of allowing anyone to claim that only one of the Gospels was a true record, and endorsed the four-Gospel canon.

The second attempt to produce a single Gospel account was made by Tatian (who wrote about 160 CE), who came from Assyria but also studied in Rome. He worked differently from Marcion. Instead of taking one Gospel and expurgating it, he accepted all four Gospels but made a “harmony” of them. He followed different Gospels for different incidents and sayings in Jesus' life, blending the four accounts together to make a single, consistent one. His work, the Diatessaron, became widely popular in the Church, especially in Syria and the East, and was still in use there instead of the four Gospels two or more centuries later. Indeed, it was translated into many languages, and was still used by some people in Western Europe in the Middle Ages. It represents in many ways a common sense reaction to the problem of four inconsistent Gospels. That the Church eventually rejected it shows that the prestige of the four-Gospel canon was high in most areas of Christendom from an early period.

We do not know when the “catholic” letters (James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, and Jude) were collected together, but we do know that they usually circulated with the Acts of the Apostles. It is almost as if these works together were felt to add up to a kind of apostolic equivalent of the Gospels: just as in the Gospels we learn of Jesus' actions and his teaching, so in this collection we learn of the deeds of the apostles (in Acts) and their teachings (in the letters). From early times, this section of the New Testament was used conspicuously less by Christian writers than the Gospels and Paul. Quotations from Acts are far less common than those from its “first volume,” Luke, and the catholic letters are rarely mentioned. Nevertheless, there is no record of any opposition to these books. They were accepted by all as authoritative, even if they were not much used.

Finally, there are the book of Revelation and the Letter to the Hebrews. Revelation had a checkered history. When Christian writers such as Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260–c. 340 CE), the first Church historian, discuss which books are part of the New Testament, they often express doubts about the status of Revelation. It seems to have been especially unpopular in the Eastern Mediterranean world, and to have been more widely accepted in the West. Revelation's acceptance there may be connected with its predictions of the end of the world in the context of fierce denunciations of the Roman empire. By the fourth century, however, Revelation was firmly ensconced in the canon, perhaps partly because, like the Fourth Gospel and the three Letters of John, it was assumed to have been written by the Apostle John.

As the case of Revelation demonstrates, authorship was often an important factor in deciding which books would be accepted into the canon. We see this also in the case of Hebrews. This letter (if it really is a letter) had the opposite fate from Revelation, since doubts about it tended to be expressed chiefly in the West—possibly because of its very harsh attitude to sins committed after baptism ( 10.26–31 ). But doubts about its authority may have been related to doubts about who wrote it. Many Christians assumed it was by Paul, even though it nowhere says so. (Paul's authorship is stated in the title in the King James Version, “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews,” but there is nothing about it in the text of the letter.) When they did, they tended also to think it must be a valid part of the New Testament, and to quote it more often than those who thought it was by someone else. The question of authorship also affects where it appears in the Pauline corpus. For people who thought Hebrews was written by Paul, it was natural to include it between Romans and 1 Corinthians, because it is next to Romans in length. Where it was not thought to be Pauline, it tended to appear where we now have it, after all the Pauline letters.

The formation of the New Testament differs from that of the Old in two particularly important ways. First, the Old Testament began life as a series of scrolls. Each major book had its own scroll, which had the effect of determining how long a book could be. Although the Pentateuch is a continuous whole, it was divided up into five separate scrolls. Similarly, the “Former Prophets” tell a continuous story from the exodus to the exile, but they are divided up—not always in the most natural places—to make a set of scrolls of roughly equal length. On the other hand, several short books might be grouped together on a single scroll. This is the case with the twelve minor prophets, which in Judaism in ancient times tended to be regarded as a single book—the “Book of the Twelve”—and not seen as having much individual character, because they all appeared on the same scroll. But the New Testament did not start as a set of scrolls. For some reason which no-one has yet discovered, Christian texts from the very beginnings were written in what are technically known as “codices” (singular: “codex”), which are what we call “books”—many pages sewn together with covers, and opening flat. In the ancient world codices were normally used only for informal purposes, as notebooks, and it was a startling innovation for Christians to write their most treasured possessions, the Gospels, in this form.

The use of a codex form had a major effect on the emergence of the New Testament. For one thing, a codex can hold considerably more than a scroll without becoming unwieldy, and so it was possible to have a codex of all four Gospels, of all the Pauline letters, and in due course of the whole New Testament. Secondly, books arranged in a codex come in a certain order. Mark follows Matthew in the straightforward sense that you finish reading Matthew, turn the page, and there is Mark. Scrolls can never be in an “order” in quite this sense, and Jewish discussions of the order of biblical books in ancient times were always rather more theoretical than Christian ones, because scrolls can be moved around relative to each other whereas the order of books in a codex, once they have been written out, is fixed. Christians soon began transferring their methods of writing their own books in codices on to the Old Testament too, so that the Greek Old Testament has a definite order in a stronger sense than the Hebrew Bible ever had—at least until the time when Jews, too, began to use the codex.

Secondly, and possibly linked with their use of the codex form, Christians seem to have had a rather different attitude to their own books, or at least to the Gospels, than they had towards the Old Testament Scriptures. Whereas the Old Testament was seen as a fixed and sacred text, the Gospels were often perceived more as rather informal records of the life and teaching of Jesus, on the basis of which early Christian preachers could to some extent improvise. Although there was enormous reverence for what Jesus had said and done, this referent was not necessarily seen as identical with exactly the words of this or that Gospel, but more as a matter of tradition passed on by word of mouth, which the Gospels were an aid to remembering and recalling. People knew that Jesus had spoken in Aramaic, and that the Gospels contained only translations of his words, not the very words themselves. This is probably one reason why four partly inconsistent Gospels were not seen as a problem. Nothing hung on the precise details of this or that incident or saying.

There is something of a paradox here. Only the Old Testament was “Scripture” for the very earliest Christians: their own books were still seen as something less formal than a “Bible.” Yet on the other hand those books were their own special possession in a way that the Old Testament was not; and the traditions about Jesus that they knew, whether they were recorded in books or not, were of literally earth-shaking significance in their minds. So they saw the New Testament as less “scriptural” than the Old Testament, yet in many ways as more important. This is a vital point to grasp if we are to understand the significance of what would become the New Testament in the minds of early Christians. Sometimes people say that only the Old Testament was Holy Scripture for the first Christians, and that the New Testament only gradually came to be accepted as of equal status. This is true in one sense; but at another level it fails to take account of how committed Christians were to their not-yet-scriptural writings, which contained the record of something which they thought had changed the world.

Whereas with the Old Testament we cannot point to a definite date when the collection was complete (either for the Hebrew or the Greek version), with the New Testament it is possible to identify a series of official decisions about what was to count as “Scripture.” The matter was discussed and ruled on at the council of Laodicea 363 CE, and soon after this we can point to a final moment of “canonization” in the writings of Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria (296–373). Every year before Easter Athanasius wrote to the churches under his care a so-called “Festal Letter.” In 367 CE he chose to include an account of the books of the New Testament, and there for the first time we find exactly the list which is now accepted in all the churches. The arrangement is still the old one, with Acts at the head of the catholic letters rather than between the Gospels and Paul, but the specific books are precisely those that are now in our New Testament. In the western Church, councils at Hippo (393) and Carthage (397 and 419) confirmed Athanasius' list as definitive.

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