The Development of the Canon of Scripture
The earliest council to make a formal pronouncement on the canonical list is probably Carthage in 397. Just about every Catholic I have encountered on this topic is under the impression that the council of Carthage decided which books belong in the Bible and which do not. In actuality, all the council did was close the canon that already existed and forbade the reading in church of any writings outside the accepted canon. There is a great deal of history with regards to the formation of the canon of Scripture, and to say that oral tradition is responsible for its authority as Scripture is simply false and far from the facts of history.
In the apostolic church the Pauline letters circulated singularly, but as early as the beginning of the second century they circulated collectively, and with them the epistle to the Hebrews. This collection is known as the Pauline Corpus. The Chester Beatty manuscript is the oldest surviving copy. It did not include the three Pastoral Epistles (1, 2Timothy and Titus), but did include Hebrews.
Of the 27 canonical books, Irenaeus quoted from 23 of them in his treatise against heresies in the second century. And Eusebius provides an account of early second century Christians not only evangelizing orally, but delivering written books of the Gospels to people who had not heard the Good News. And in 1740 historian Ludovico Muratori published his Muratorian Fragment containing a list of New Testament books dating to around 170 A.D.
The Muratorian Fragment contains the oldest list of canonical books of the New Testament recognized in the Roman church at the time. The list includes the four Gospels (though only Luke and John are actually present on the fragment, the Gospels of Mathew and Mark are assumed have been mentioned before them because the first completed sentence on the fragment is “The third book of the Gospel is that according to Luke”). The compiler comments that Luke’s authority is derived from his association with Paul. He claims that Luke was Paul’s legal expert, which when understood within the context of the Roman world implies that Luke was part of Paul’s staff and thus issued his writing with his own name but in accordance with Paul’s opinion (F.F. Bruce). With regards to this opinion it is reasonable to suppose that the explanation for Luke writing Paul’s Gospel originated in Rome, perhaps about the time this list was compiled.
The other gospel account of the accepted canon that has raised questions as to its authorship is that of Mark’s. The compiler of the Muratorian list most likely commented on the origins of Mark’s gospel, and perhaps might have shed some additional light on the subject. Unfortunately the fragment does not include it. However, we do have a fragment from the second century bishop, Papias and preserved by the fourth century church historian, Eusebius.
“Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord’s discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely.” (Papias quoted in Eusebius Ecclesiastical History, 3:39:15)
Further testimony is found from the same time period as the Muratorian fragment in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, 3:1:1. Irenaeus tells us that Mark was Peter’s interpreter and that he compiled his gospel after Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome.
Besides the four Gospels, the list includes as acceptable all of Paul’s epistles (but not Hebrews, which incidentally in Rome, was not recognized as Pauline until the fourth century), the Apocalypse of John (Revelation), Jude and two epistles of John. In all, 22 of the 27 books of our New Testament are presented in this list as acceptable in the church. The apocalypse of Peter was also mentioned as acceptable but not by all. And oddly the Wisdom of Solomon also appears on the list as acceptable.
The books of our New Testament not mentioned are, 1 and 2 Peter, third John, Hebrews and James. There are also interesting exclusions such as the Shepherd of Hermas. The Shepherd of Hermas was read regularly in the churches but was rejected because, the compiler says, “It was written quite recently in our own time.” This is interesting because it shows us that the early Christian leadership compiled Scripture, not based on oral tradition, but on evidence of authenticity. The four Gospels and the Pauline Corpus were never brought into question because they were deeply rooted in the catholic (universal) church and recognized by all as authoritative. But the absence of the five books of our New Testament from the Muratorian Fragment poses an even bigger problem for Martignoni and other adherents of oral tradition. If indeed the bishops in Rome could determine by oral tradition, which books belong to the canon of Scripture, these five books could not have been missing from the list because the same oral tradition is said to have reached the council of Carthage, which included them.
In Eusebius’ time (early fourth century), the final number of accepted books had still not been established. Eusebius lists James, Jude, 2Peter, 2John and 3John as disputed but recognized by many. He lists the Apocalypse of John as generally accepted but rejected by some. The composer of the Muratorian Fragment states that the Apocalypse of John, Jude and two of John’s epistles were accepted in the catholic church.
If oral tradition is responsible for the collection of accepted books, it has proven itself unreliable to say the least. Eusebius, however, describes something far different than oral tradition when he comments on the compilation of Scripture in his own time:
But we have nevertheless felt compelled to give a catalogue of these also, distinguishing those works which according to ecclesiastical tradition are true and genuine and commonly accepted, from those others which, although not canonical but disputed, are yet at the same time known to most ecclesiastical writers- we have felt compelled to give this catalogue in order that we might be able to know both these works and those that are cited by the heretics under the name of the apostles, including, for instance, such books as the Gospels of Peter, of Thomas, of Matthias, or of any others besides them, and the Acts of Andrew and John and the other apostles, which no one belonging to the succession of ecclesiastical writers has deemed worthy of mention in his writings.
And further, the character of the style is at variance with apostolic usage, and both the thoughts and the purpose of the things that are related in them are so completely out of accord with true orthodoxy that they clearly show themselves to be the fictions of heretics. Wherefore they are not to be placed even among the rejected writings, but are all of them to be cast aside as absurd and impious.
(Hist. Eccl. 3:25:6)
The ecclesiastical tradition, used to determine the accepted writings, was clearly not oral tradition. Writings, whether accepted or rejected, were scrutinized and compared to orthodox ecclesiastical writings. Notice that Eusebius condemns the Acts of Andrew and John and the other apostles. The compiler of the Muratorian list also excluded these writings by saying, “the Acts of all the apostles have been written in one book.” However, he claims that Luke only recorded the things that took place in his presence and, therefore, omitted the passion of Peter (the account of Peter being crucified upside-down) and Paul’s departure to Spain. Both these stories are detailed in the Acts of Peter, a book deemed unworthy and absurd by Eusebius and ignored by the ecclesiastical writers, yet considered factual accounts by many in our day.
By the time Eusebius wrote his history the canon of New Testament Scripture was almost completed. In 330, just after establishing his new capital in Constantinople, Constantine requested that Eusebius provide 50 copies of the Christian Scriptures. Unfortunately we are not told what books were included in Eusebius’ New Testament, but there is little doubt based on his writings that it contained the 27 books of our current New Testament.
In his thirty-ninth festal letter, announcing the date of Easter in 367 AD, Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, presented the list of New Testament books exactly as we have them today, but not in the same order. He was the first in history to produce a written list of the 27 books. Canon 60 of the regional council of Laodicea in 363 also lists the books of the New Testament, but excludes Revelation. Canon 60, however, may be a later addition, as it is absent from some of the Laodicean manuscripts.