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Canon Part III: The New Testament Again

August 15, 2011

In the last article I presented a massive block of information, ending with Eusebius’s meta-canon list where he divided potential New Testament material into four categories: recognized, disputed, spurious, or heretical.  Eusebius’s methods are not new.  The Muratorian Fragment seems to allow for three categories of works: valid, good but not for church use (Hermas), and heretical.  Similarly, Serapion seems to consider the Gospel of Peter invalid but not nearly as threatening as the heretical works, a position similar to the one Origen seems to adopt towards the Preaching of Peter.  Given this, can we one-up Eusebius?  Using Eusebius’s own lists in addition to the other texts that I have reviewed here, I will split all the books mentioned into five categories: always accepted, disputed (anything classed as both accepted and spurious), spurious (not canon but not worrisome to anyone), possibly heretical (classed as heretical and any other class), and heretical1.

Always accepted: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and 1 John.

Disputed: 2 Timothy, Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, 2-3 John, Jude, Revelation, Apocalypse of Peter, Shepherd of Hermas, Epistle of Barnabas, the Preaching of Peter, Gospel of the Hebrews, Didache, and 1 Clement.

Spurious: Acts of Paul.

Possibly heretical: Gospel of Peter.

Heretical: Epistle to the Laodiceans, Epistle to the Alexandrians, Gospel of Truth, Gospel of Judas, Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of the Twelve, Gospel of Basilides, Gospel of the Egyptians, and the Gospel of Matthias, Acts of Andrew, and the Acts of John.  Additionally, anything by Arsinous, Valentinus, or Miltiades.

What is immediately clear is that the story sometimes put out about the formation of the canon in which there are dozens of books circulating and used by Christians some of which are suddenly declared heretical does not match reality.  Only the Gospel of Peter may fit this model and even then we lack good data2).  Instead, there appears to have been a large group of books used by orthodox Christians some of which became part of the canon and some of which did not but which achieved a status similar to that of the Church Fathers.  Someone might disagree with a particular Father on a particular point, but the Church Fathers have always been considered valuable witnesses and commentators.  This middle category is present even under Athanasius, who, rather than listing out accepted, spurious, and banned books merely lists accepted and spurious books and bans everything not mentioned (although, presumably, this only refers to other books that masquerade as Scripture since Athanasius reads and quotes the other Church Fathers).

The average Christian will be relieved to see that eighteen books of the New Testament, including all four gospels and all the sizable epistles except Hebrews, were never contested.  However, the most interesting category for our purposes is the disputed books.  Nine of these books, 2 Timothy, Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, 2-3 John, Jude, and Revelation, make it into the canon.  Seven of them, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Preaching of Peter, the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Didache, and 1 Clement, did not.  What criteria were used to separate the canonical books from the non-canonical ones?

Authorship is clearly a major factor.  The Muratorian Canon downgrades Hermas because, it says, the author is Pius’ brother and not an apostle.  (Other early Christians seem to have associated the author of Hermas, who does not introduce himself very thoroughly, with the Hermas mentioned in Romans 16:14.)  Serapion’s discussion of the Gospel of Peter states that Peter and the apostles are received “as Christ himself” but worries about forgery.  The Acts of Paul are similarly discredited by Tertullian on the basis of forgery – they are not actually Pauline.  Positive attribution of authorship is also common.  Clement, writing to the Corinthians, refers to the letter Paul wrote them (probably 1 Corinthians, given his subject matter).  Polycarp, writing to the Philippians, refers to Philippians as Paul’s writing and “a very wise book”.  Clement of Alexandria repeatedly refers to various Pauline Epistles as works of Paul, often referring to Paul in laudatory terms, such as, “the holy apostle” and “the blessed apostle”.  He also attributes Jude to Jude, 1 Peter to Peter (as does Ireneaus), and 1 John to John, all in a manner that suggests that he means us to think that the quotes he uses are authoritative because of their authors.  Later Eusebius references Clement of Alexandria’s opinion of Hebrews, noting that Clement considered it to be Paul’s own work.  Eusebius clearly feels like this is a note in favor of Hebrews.  In fact, the dispute over Hebrews highlights to importance of authorship.  Origen, late in life, wonders if Hebrews is really Paul’s, as it seems like it is written in much better Greek.  Still, he argues, it retains Paul’s thoughts, even if it may be something written by one of Paul’s students.  Tertullian, similarly, thinks Hebrews is not Pauline, but he attributes it to Barnabas and so approves of it.  Of course, Clement of Alexandria approves of the Epistle of Barnabas for the same reason.

The dispute over Hebrews highlights a second criterion that comes up most frequently in the gospels: accuracy.  1 Clement quotes the words of Jesus (see chapters 13 and 46) with wording that must be taken from one or more of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke, or the entirely-hypothetical Q), indicating that he regards this gospel as an authentic record.  The Didache, also believed to be quite early, references “the Gospel” frequently, as when (chapter 8) it quotes the Lord’s Prayer “as the Lord commanded in His Gospel”.  Notably, the Didache claims to be the teachings of the Twelve and so its references to another authoritative work are quite interesting.

Authorship does come into play in the gospels.  Ignatius, writing to the Ephesians, speaks well of Luke as an author.  The fragments of Papias record the writing of both Mark and Matthew.  Justin references the gospels that he has, or perhaps a harmony of the gospels, as “The Memoirs of the Apostles”, and appears to reference the Gospel of Mark as being Peter’s (in keeping with the ancient idea that Mark was Peter’s companion and recorded Peter’s thoughts)3.  Theophilus of Antioch quotes from John, leading into the quote by referencing “the holy writings” and “the spirit-bearing men, one of whom, John, says…”  This knowledge of who wrote the gospels and how those authors got their information seems to be an important part of the early wide acceptance of the gospels.

All the disputed books that eventually end up in the canon can claim apostolic or near-apostolic (James and Jude) authority.  However, this is also true for all the disputed books that did not make it in except for 1 Clement and, possibly, the Gospel of the Hebrews.

The number and dates of references to these works seems important.  While these can be tricky (Philemon is not referenced often or early, probably because it is so short, and yet it is accepted universally) it’s notable that the citations for the books that are eventually rejected are fewer and later than average.  Only five books that end up being accepted, James, 2 Peter, 2-3 John, and Jude, are both disputed and not attested before 180 A.D.  Of these, Jude is referenced more frequently than any of the excluded works.  Clearly there are grades of disputedness – for instance, 1 Peter is “disputed” only because it is not listed on the Muratorian Canon, whereas Hebrews and Revelation are the subjects of some serious debate.  However, tempting as it is to estimate levels of disputedness, it is hard to know exactly why these books were eventually included.  It is probable that the judgment of senior figures in the church was at work here.  It probably doesn’t hurt any that the five less-attested books are also very short.  All together these books are shorter than Ecclesiastes.

But what about the remaining seven that were disputed and rejected?  Can we say anything more about them?  Since these books are probably unfamiliar to most of my readers I will briefly describe them.

Three of these books survive only in fragments, often in quotations in other people’s writing.  What remains of the Apocalypse of Peter is a vision of Hell that looks a bit like an abbreviated section of Dante’s Inferno.  Surviving quotes indicate it once had a section concerning heaven as well.  The Preaching of Peter survives only as isolated and unremarkable quotes, many of which would not be out of place in Acts.  The Gospel of the Hebrews is similar to the synoptics in some parts but some of the surviving stories are not found anywhere else.  None of these stories introduces any new theological concept, however.

The remaining four texts survive intact.  The Epistle of Barnabas is a general epistle (i.e., not directed to any particular church) which deals primarily with “the errors of the Jews” and interprets parts of the Torah in an allegorical way to show that they point to Christ or to various Christian virtues.  For instance, the laws for eating kosher are reinterpreted so that each unclean animal symbolizes a vice.  The Shepherd of Hermas is the record of a series of visions.  Several characters lead Hermas through these visions, including the eponymous shepherd (an angelic being charged with Hermas’ care) and a woman who is the Church.  Each vision involves various objects and other characters that represent people, virtues, and vices, and the majority of the visions are about how various sinners might repent and come back to Christ.  The Didache is “the teaching of the Twelve”.  It begins with a section on Christian morality and goes on to discuss various issues of church participation and conduct, including detecting false prophets amongst the itinerant prophets, how to baptize, and a short liturgy.  1 Clement is a letter by Clement of Rome to Corinth.  It is a long letter on a number of topics, including morality, faith, persecution, and church conduct.

Of these writings three can be excluded almost immediately because of genre-specific issues.  1 Clement seems to have been left out of the canon because Clement is considered a Church Father, not a Church founder.  For instance, Eusebius devoted the 16th chapter of the 3rd book of Ecclesiastical History to 1 Clement but it never appears on the list of accepted, disputed, and spurious books.  Presumably this is because Eusebius did not think of Clement as a candidate for Scripture to be graded as one – instead, he’s another bishop like Eusebius.

The Apocalypse of Peter is an apocalypse.  Given the trouble that Revelation (the Apocalypse of John) had even given Revelation’s early and frequent usage (Revelation is still absent from the Syriac canon), it is quite possible that apocalypses are simply considered dodgy writings and must pass a high bar to be used.

The Gospel of the Hebrews also faces genre issues.  The gospels are used very frequently and very early.  Unlike epistles, which might be cited only occasionally and which one might plausibly remain unaware of for some time, the gospels seem to be universally well known very quickly.  Given this, it seems reasonable to suggest that an unknown gospel might be viewed much more suspiciously than an unknown epistle.

Of the remaining books only Hermas does not claim apostolic or near-apostolic authority and the Muratorian Canon claims to know who wrote it.  While this book remains well liked for a very long time, this probably accounts for its non-canonical status – and perhaps its wide appeal as a non-canonical book, since it is never seen as a forgery.

The only other book with anything like the appeal of Hermas amongst the disputed works is Barnabas.  Unlike Hermas this book does claim near-apostolic authority and is quoted in a manner that makes it clear that its authorship is felt to give it weight.  It’s less clear why this book falls out of favor, although it is a somewhat odd book to a modern reader.  If Jude were not in the canon we might suspect that Barnabas is simply not apostolic enough to write an Epistle (James, the next least-apostolic epistle, being attributed to James the Just, a pretty important figure in the very early church).  Jude, however, is mentioned in the New Testament only in passing (Jude and Judas are the same name and Judas is listed as one of the brothers of Jesus).  Perhaps the reason is simply that Barnabas always seems to be well and truly disputed – it is mentioned positively only by Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian, both of whom accept most of the disputed works.

Indeed, this is probably a large factor behind the status of all these books that are classed as non-canonical.  All of them are used only by the least restrictive of the Fathers.  Only 3 John amongst the canonical books is not cited by one or more of the more restrictive authorities and 3 John, unlike most of the non-canonical disputed texts, is very, very short, making it a bad candidate to be quoted at all.

In summary, the current New Testament appears as a cohesive block of works, with some hangers-on, fairly early in Church history (especially given how few early texts we have).  Criteria like apostolic or near-apostolic authorship and breadth of acceptance seem to be the major features that separate the canon from the non-canon, but even then the non-canonical works are almost never condemned.  The condemned books are a separate body of works which will be the focus of the next article.

[1] The Muratorian Canon lists three non-Pauline Epistles together but makes no mention of either 1 or 2 Peter.  I am assuming that this is where those epistles would be mentioned and so the author does not count them among the accepted books.  I assume 1 John, which is well-attested to in the patristics and otherwise uncontested, is one of the two Johanine epistles the Muratorian Canon mentions.

[2] One alternate possibility is that there were two Gospels of Peter.  This is the case for the Apocalypse of Peter for which we have a Gnostic form in full and also quotes from what is obviously a very different document with the same name in the Church Fathers.

[3] Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 106.  The translation I am linking to capitalizes a “him” that I think refers to Peter, not Jesus.  The fact that this same memoir contains a note about changing the names of the sons of Zebedee, material found only in Mark, means that the whole statement makes more sense if this is Peter’s memoir not Jesus’.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 19, 2011 10:36 pm

    Good work. Take Barnabas. Could it possibly be added with new findings? Say more evidence about authorship? More evidence of wider acceptance? It’s not that Barnabas offends developed teaching, right? ~ Jim

  2. Eric permalink
    August 20, 2011 8:38 am

    I think that, realistically, the canon at large is closed at this point. Part of this is traditional inertia (especially if your ecclesiology regards tradition as one of the ways God might approve a canon list) and part of this is the issue that looking back 2,000 years is always fairly spotty. You’d have to be convinced that you had more, better information than the people who first made the call and not just some interesting overly-positive slice of information.

    I suspect you could get some churches to start reading Barnabas if the evidence was good enough (you could probably also convince some churches to read the Bible upside down to see the “secret code” if you pitched it right). Of course, Barnabas really is a little weird. For instance, the reason Barnabas claims that you can’t eat rabbits and hares in the Law is that rabbits and hares are, supposedly, known to be sodomites and that this is actually a coded warning about sexual behavior. There’s some pretty distinct theological and biological weirdness there.


  1. Canon Part IV: The Gnostics « The Jawbone Of an Ass
  2. Canon Part V: Concluding Remarks « The Jawbone Of an Ass

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