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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

The Emergence of a New Canon

As in the case of the Jewish scriptures, the New Testament also had its origins in a story that gave identity, hope, and clarity of mission to the early Christians. That story is inextricably bound to their belief in God's activity in Jesus as the central authority figure for all who believe in him. This faith in Jesus as the Lord and saviour of humankind (Rom. 10: 9) was the origin of the New Testament scripture canon. The earliest authority of the church, of course, was Jesus; that is, his life, teachings, and fate were all central to the faith of his followers. The story of and about Jesus is what first gathered the Christian community together after his death and resurrection, and gave rise to the written documents that later became its fixed collection of New Testament scriptures, read alongside its Old Testament. This story of and about Jesus was first told in preaching (Acts 2: 17–36) and teaching (1 Cor. 15: 3–8), and in time both the story and its implications for humanity were expanded and expressed in a variety of written forms (gospels, history epistles, sermons, apocalyptic).

Christians did not generally speak of a closed collection of New Testament or Christian scriptures before the fourth century CE. The first delimitation of Christian writings appears to have been with Marcion (c.140 CE), but his aim was not so much to put together a closed biblical canon of Christian scriptures as to sever the church from its Jewish roots. Marcion accepted only ten letters of Paul and the Gospel of Luke, but he ‘expressly and openly used the knife, not the pen, since he made such an excision of the Scriptures as suited his own subject matter’ (Tertullian, Praescript. 38.7 (ANF); cf. also Adv. Marc. 5. 18). He used only what suited his purposes and expunged the rest. His followers did not consider Marcion's collection closed, and later they cited other NT literature, including Matthew's gospel (see Ephrem Syrus, Song 24. 1).

The first clearly closed collection of Christian scriptures comes from Irenaeus (c.170–80 CE), who argued that there could only be four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), but his view was not widely accepted in his day. The fact that he argued so strenuously, and unconvincingly, for four gospels (Adv. Haer. 3. 11. 8–9; cf. 3. 1. 1), suggests that his view was not universally acknowledged at the end of the second century. Indeed, other gospels continued to be read in churches, as in the case of the pseudepigraphal Gospel of Peter. Tatian (c.170 CE) authored a harmonized version of the gospels called the Diatessaron (lit. ‘Through Four’), which may have included traditions other than those of the four canonical gospels, possibly the Gospel of Peter. Justin and Clement of Alexandria also used a more extensive gospel tradition, perhaps related to such a gospel harmony. The influence of the Diatesseron stretched from China to England and up to the fourteenth century. Ephrem (d. c.373) wrote a commentary on the Diatessaron. Eusebius (c.320–30 CE) also, unlike Irenaeus, simply introduced the four canonical gospels as the ‘holy tetrad of the Gospels’ without any defence (HE 3. 25. 1). By the fourth century, the four canonical gospels were widely accepted in the Church, but that was not the case at the end of the second century. Later, when the Muratorian Fragment lists the gospels, there is no defence of them, suggesting that in that era (c.350–75 CE, following Hahnemann 1992), it was no longer necessary to defend them; they were already established.

The second and third centuries CE saw the production of many pseudonymous Christian writings attributed to apostles, including gospels, acts, epistles, and apocalypses, that continued to be read in churches for several centuries. Unlike the prevailing Pharisaism, the primary form of Judaism that emerged from the first century CE, the Christians did not believe that prophecy had ceased, and they continued to produce writings that they believed were inspired by God (2 Pet. 3: 15; cf. also Rev. 22: 18–19 and 1 Cor. 7: 40). Those Christian writings were read in the churches, and no later than the mid-second century some of them were being read alongside and sometimes instead of their inherited Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament (see Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 67). Their value was almost immediately and widely recognized in the churches, but they were not generally called ‘scripture’ until the end of the second century. Their scriptural status in the churches was recognized following their use in proclamation, instruction, apologies, and community life.

In the early fourth century, Eusebius was the first to produce a list of those books that had obtained a scriptural (or ‘enconvenanted’) status in the churches (HE 3. 25). The criteria generally employed to identify this collection of writings included: 1. apostolicity, that is, if a writing was believed to have been written by an apostle, it was accepted; 2. orthodoxy, that is, if the writing agreed with the generally accepted ‘canon of faith’ (regula fidei, or orthodoxy), it was also seriously considered; 3. antiquity, if the writing was from the generation of the apostles, it was a candidate; and 4. use, if the writing was in wide use in the churches—and in the larger churches at that, it was more likely to be included (McDonald 1995: 228–49; McDonald and Sanders 2002: 416–39). Those writings that continued to be valued because of their ability to address the current needs and issues facing the churches, as well as offer life and hope in their circumstances, were generally approved first of all in local churches, then by local gatherings of churches, and finally by councils of churches. There are some fifteen lists or catalogues of New Testament scriptures from the fourth to the sixth century, and also several major manuscripts that identify most of the literature that comprises the current New Testament canon. No two lists are exactly alike, including the order of the books (Hahneman 1992: 133, 171–2). These include:

  • 1. Eusebius, HE 3. 25. 1–7 (303–25, from Palestine/Western Syria)

  • 2. Catalogue in Codex Claromontanus (303–67, from Alexandria/Egypt)

  • 3. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catech. 4. 33 (c.350, from Palestine)

  • 4. Athanasius, Festal Letter 39 (c.367, from Alexandria/Egypt)

  • 5. Mommsen Catalogue (c.365–90, from Northern Africa)

  • 6. Epiphanius, Panarion 76. 5 (c.374–7, from Palestine/Western Syria)

  • 7. Apostolic Canon 85 (c.380, from Palestine/Western Syria)

  • 8. Gregory of Nazianzus, Carm. 12. 31 (c.383–90, from Asia Minor)

  • 9. African Canons (c.393–419, from Northern Africa)

  • 10. Jerome, Ep. 53 (c.394, from Palestine)

  • 11. Augustine, De Doct. Christ. 2. 8. 12 (c.396–7, from Northern Africa)

  • 12. Amphilochius, Iambi ad Seleucum 289–319 (c.396, from Asia Minor)

  • 13. Rufinus, Comm. in Sym. Apost. 36 (c.400, from Rome/Italy)

  • 14. Pope Innocent, Ad Exsuper. Tol. (c.405, from Rome/Italy)

  • 15. Syrian catalogue of St Catherine's (c.400, from Eastern Syria)

Along with the above, the following manuscripts are also important:

  • Codex Vaticanus (c.331–50, from Alexandria/Egypt)

  • Codex Sinaiticus (c.331–50, from Alexandria/Egypt)

  • Codex Alexandrinus (c.425, from Asia Minor)

  • Syriac Peshitta (c.400, from Eastern Syria)

The movement toward the stabilization of Christian writings that faithfully told the church's story began in the first century and was largely determined by the end of the fourth century. At almost the same time, the scriptures of the OT were also moving toward stabilization in the Christian community. Historically, the Church has never agreed on all of the writings in its biblical canon, especially on its Old Testament scriptures, but to some extent also in regard to its New Testament scriptures. For example, Martin Luther marginalized James, Jude, Hebrews, and Revelation.

Initially the scope of Old and New Testament scriptures was somewhat obscure, but in time that gave way to a more stable tradition. There is no question that the OT scriptures (the limits of which were not yet precisely defined in the time of Jesus) were viewed as sacred and authoritative literature in the early Christian churches (Matt. 21: 42; 22: 29; 26: 56; Luke 24: 32, 44; John 5: 39; 1 Cor. 15: 3 ff.), but the boundaries of that collection of writings was still imprecise even in the last quarter of the second century CE. Melito, Bishop of Sardis (c.170 CE), made a trip to the east (Jerusalem?) to determine the books that made up the (OT) scriptures and their order. What he discovered is not the same as the final form of either the Hebrew Bible or the Christian OT. His list included the Wisdom of Solomon, but excluded Esther (see HE 4. 26. 13–14). Nehemiah is not mentioned, but it could have been included with Ezra. This is the first known listing of the books of the Old Testament observed in the Christian community. The Wisdom of Solomon appeared in a fourth-century NT collection (Muratorian Fragment). Eusebius reveals the considerable uncertainty over several ‘disputed’ (antilegomena) books of the New Testament (James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2–3 John) and also expresses doubt about the authenticity of Hebrews and Revelation (HE 3. 25. 4–5). By the end of the fourth century, his ‘doubtful’ list was more widely accepted, but not without considerable hesitation in some cases, especially in regard to Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation.

The processes of canonization of the church's Christian scriptures took place in five significant stages of development, beginning in the first century CE: (1) the acknowledgement of Jesus as the central authority figure for Christian faith; (2) the recognition of the value for preaching and catechetical instruction of those writings that reflected the teachings, activity, death, and resurrection of Jesus (Gospels), and that literature that reflected the mission of Jesus (the rest of the literature of the New Testament); (3) the rise of the New Testament writings to the status of Scripture (late second century); (4) the conscious grouping of this literature into closed collections—for example, the four gospels and the epistles of Paul; and (5) the formation of a closed list of authoritative literature by the mid-fourth century CE, after which very little is added or deleted.

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