The New Testament
As noted above, the early Christian community soon began to produce writings dealing with its own history, beliefs, and traditions. By the end of the first century CE and the beginning of the second, various gospels, narratives, letters, and didactic and apocalyptic writings were in circulation and were being used by one or more local Christian communities. The practice of reading from these works, along with selections from the Greek version of the Jewish Scriptures, soon arose in Christian worship, and this implicitly began the process of canonization of these Christian writings. When disputes broke out, as they inevitably would, about beliefs or traditions, the canonical or noncanonical status of the various Christian writings became important.
The later Christian tendency to equate “canonical” with “inspired” confuses the study of early Christianity, since official lists only appear in the fourth century CE as a consequence of theological polemics (see Athanasius, Festal Letter 39; Eusebius, History of the Church 3.3.5; 3.25.3–4). Christian canon lists remained fluid through the sixth century with such inclusions as the Shepherd of Hermas or the spurious Epistle to the Laodiceans among the Pauline letters. The Muratorian canon, whose date and provenance are disputed (second to fourth century CE), includes Wisdom of Solomon in the New Testament. Other collections omit Hebrews. (See the chart below for a comparison of three New Testament canon lists.)
Arguments over inspiration emerge as a consequence of second‐century CE challenges to general Christian practice which set reading of the Gospels alongside the Jewish writings that had always been Scripture. Valentinus and other Gnostics—who taught an esoteric form of Christianity—asserted that the Jewish God was ignorant of the highest divine realms, and that therefore both the Jewish scriptures and Christian writings which accept them will mislead naïve believers. He and others stated that only the esoteric teaching found in Gnostic circles could unlock the truth. Such Gnostics produced a number of gospels and revelations said to demonstrate the apostolic origin of their teaching. Marcion sought to establish his own church on the basis of a Bible that excluded the Old Testament and whose New Testament comprised only a version of the Gospel of Luke and ten Pauline epistles that were purified of spurious passages contrary to what Marcion saw as Jesus' revelation of the Father. Some scholars credit him with the idea of a canon that cannot be expanded or altered. Against such developments, Irenaeus argued that the Spirit poured out on the Church enabled her to write scripture (Against the Heresies 3.21.3–4) and affirmed the unity of the Old Testament and New Testament (Against the Heresies 4.28.1–2). Tertullian refers to reading the “books of God” in Christian worship with no differentiation between Jewish and Christian writings (Apology 39.3).
Besides these disputes, in which different contents of a canonical collection of writings clearly reflected underlying differences of theology, there was the influence of the physical character of the texts themselves. From the beginning Christians used the codex (pl. codices) format— a bound volume of pages, similar to a presentday book—rather than the more traditional scroll for their writings. While the codex permits easier access than the scroll, codices were at the time the medium of early drafts, assembled notes, and the like. Finished literary works and sacred texts like the Torah would have been copied onto scrolls. Scholars disagree over whether the early Christian use of codices resulted from the predominantly lower to moderate socioeconomic status of most Christians, or whether the choice of this format was more conscious. Would they have agreed that their writings
Canons of the New Testament
|The Muratorian Canon (second to fourth century)||The List of Eusebius (early fourth century)||The Canon of Athanasius (367 CE)|
|1 & 2 Corinthians||Romans||James|
|Ephesians||1 & 2 Corinthians||1 & 2 Peter|
|Philippians||Ephesians||1, 2, & 3 John|
|1 & 2 Thessalonians||Galatians||1 & 2 Corinthians|
|Romans||1 & 2 Thessalonians||Galatians|
|1 & 2 Timothy||1 & 2 Timothy||Colossians|
|Jude||[Hebrews] 3||1 & 2 Thessalonians|
|1 & 2 John 2||1 Peter||Hebrews 5|
|Wisdom of Solomon||1 John||1 & 2 Timothy|
|Revelation to John||[Revelation to John] 4||Titus|
|Disputed books:||Revelation to John|
|2 & 3 John|
Scrolls were made of papyrus or leather pieces glued or sewn together, and lengthy ones became inconvenient to handle: The average length is about 6 to 8 meters (20–26 ft), though longer scrolls are known. The codex, however, does not suffer the same limitations and therefore can accommodate a much longer text. This meant that collections of books could be bound into one volume, and first the entire New Testament, finally the whole Bible, could appear in this way. This does not mean, however, that there was a uniform collection of books, or a uniform order in which they were placed. Individual Christian congregations may not have possessed copies of all writings included in canon lists. It would have been difficult to distinguish these texts from other early Christian writings also found in this form. Hence some Christians turned over apocryphal writings to imperial officials during the Diocletian persecution (303 CE). A confusion of unofficial and authorized scriptures in Christian worship persists into the midfourth century CE. Canon 59 of the Synod of Laodicea (360 CE) decreed, “Private psalms should not be read in church, neither uncanonized books, but only the canonical ones of the new and old covenant.”
Origen's advice to those seeking to read scripture privately presumes that the educated, Christian elite would have copies of deuterocanonical writings, Gospels, epistles, psalms and the Torah. He proposes an order of reading designed to overcome the difficulties in such study. First, he suggests, Esther, Judith, Tobit, or Wisdom. Then, the Gospels, epistles and Psalms. Finally, the reader can tackle those which are difficult or seemingly without reward, Leviticus or Numbers (Homilies on Numbers 27.1 ). The great biblical codices of the fourth and fifth centuries CE include different selections of Jewish apocrypha. In Codex Sinaiticus one finds Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, 1 and 4 Maccabees; in Codex Vaticanus, Baruch, Letter of Jeremiah, Wisdom, Sirach, Judith, Tobit; in Codex Alexandrinus, Psalms of Solomon, 3 and 4 Maccabees. Athanasius's Festal Letter 39 omits the deuterocanonical writings from the Old Testament but proposes that they be used as private reading. Though Athanasius includes all twenty‐seven New Testament writings, the issue was clearly not settled. Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 389) omits Revelation from his verse catalogue as do the lectionaries of the Eastern church. Didymus of Alexandria omits 2 and 3 John but cites the apostolic fathers as authoritative. Such evidence indicates that although a group of Jewish and Christian writings was considered scripture, to be used in public worship, preaching, and instruction, regional variations persisted.
By the end of the fourth century, however, there was widespread agreement about which books had scriptural status. Among the large number of early Christian writings in a diversity of genres, including gospels, letters, acts, apocalypses, and didactic treatises, a smaller number had come to be widely accepted. The criteria that were implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, operative were apostolic authority—that a work was written by or attributed to one of the first generation of Christian leaders, especially Paul and the twelve apostles—and consistency with their teaching, especially as determined by ecclesiastical authorities whose power had grown in a number of centers. As a result, some of the writings that had come to be considered noncanonical were lost, and only rediscovered in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.