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.

10 comments

  • Erik D. (4 years)

    Brian: I think that the development of the canon could have and did involve tradition, as all 27 Books of the New Testament were read in one Church or another. What might have been read in Corinth might not have been read in Rome, what was read in Thessalonica may not have been read in Galatia, etc. The fact that they were read in those Churches alone suggests some sort of a tradition that each Church or region held to. The fact that they were read in one Church and not another suggest that the letters were specifically written to those cities and not to the other cities. The Apocalypse of John would be the one exception as much debate existed on the correct interpretation and meaning of this Book. The beauty of the Catholic (universal) Church is just that: It is universal and can pull all of these beautiful traditions together into one set of canonical standards.

    You mentioned Martignoni, though I never heard John give a different explanation other than the rational and historically accurate explanation I just wrote. Maybe you can clarify this reference.

    God Bless

    • Brian Culliton (4 years)

      This was originally written as a response to a Martignoni over his views on “oral tradition.” See “http://onefold.wordpress.com/2009/01/09/john-martignoni%e2%80%99s-word-of-mouth/”

      The point is no Catholic council decided which books belonged in the canon they merely closed the canon. The 27 books are clearly exhibited in Athanasius’ (bishop of Alexandria) list in 367. And it is extremely likely that the same list would be produced from Constantine’s fifty bibles that were compiled by Eusebius. And if you take it all the way back to the second century you will find a list that includes 21 of those 27 books.

      Martignoni and other Catholic apologist like to promote the idea that the Catholic Church created the canon of Scripture from oral tradition handed down by word of mouth.

  • Douglas C (4 years)

    “Martignoni and other Catholic apologist like to promote the idea that the Catholic Church created the canon of Scripture from oral tradition handed down by word of mouth.”

    Of course they do. So does Wheaton educated former evangelical Bart Ehrman and other agnostic historians. That’s what happened. One can argue that it didn’t happen at a particular council, but whatever happened, it surely didn’t involve something other than the tradition of the early church… unless you have some lost fragment of Scripture that lays it all out for us.

    • Brian Culliton (4 years)

      The article refutes the notion Martignoni asserts, which is; word-of-mouth oral tradition is responsible for the canon of Scripture. I am not denying the role of tradition in the development of the canon; that should be obvious from the article.

  • Andrew Spence (4 years)

    Hi Brian,

    You seem to make a point of refuting what, in particular, John Martignoni says, so why don’t you take him on? His radio show is broadcast every week.

    I would escpecially like to hear a discourse on the Eucharist between you two. If we miss it, will you transcribe it and publish it here?

    God bless
    Andrew

  • Culbert Nelson (4 years)

    Brian: I think that the development of the canon could have and did involve tradition, as all 27 Books of the New Testament were read in one Church or another. What might have been read in Corinth might not have been read in Rome, what was read in Thessalonica may not have been read in Galatia, etc. The fact that they were read in those Churches alone suggests some sort of a tradition that each Church or region held to. The fact that they were read in one Church and not another suggest that the letters were specifically written to those cities and not to the other cities. The Apocalypse of John would be the one exception as much debate existed on the correct interpretation and meaning of this Book. The beauty of the Catholic (universal) Church is just that: It is universal and can pull all of these beautiful traditions together into one set of canonical standards.
    +1

  • Scot (3 years)

    Just found your website today, and it looks good so far. I was just curious if you know something about Origen’s list from approx. 230 that included all 27 books. My source for this info is the book Nothing But the Truth, by Brian Edwards. Keep up the good work.

    • Brian Culliton (3 years)

      Thank you for visiting!

      Origen did list the 27 books of the New Testament according to the fourth century historian, Eusebius. Most of the information can be found in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, 6:25:4-14. He mentions the four Gospels, Paul’s epistles (but not by name), Acts, 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation (the Apocalypse of John) as genuine. Elsewhere he mentions James and Jude as accepted (Commentary on Mathew, 17:30, and Commentary on John, 19:6). He also mentions 2 John and 3 John and Hebrews as disputed by some, and 2 Peter as doubtful or generally disputed.

      In summary, he lists 21 as genuine, two as accepted, three as disputed by some, and one as doubtful.

      Hope this helps!

  • Scot (3 years)

    It helps a great deal. You provided more information about his position than I had previously read and gave a reference. Thank you for taking the time.

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