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New Testament Canon
New Testament Canon
The New Testament Canon has been under assault in the latter years of the 20th century. Non-Christians have taken over theology departments at major American universities and sought to deconstruct the Christian Faith. Popular writers such as Dan Brown and Elaine Pagels have published fictional works that distort the true history of the Christian Faith and its New Testament Canon.
I read recently that thousands of people every day use search engines looking for "books removed from the Bible" "a list of the lost books of the Bible" "forbidden books of the Bible" "missing books of the Bible" "books omitted from the Bible" "banned books of the Bible" and "lost books of the Bible."
I have even seen views expressed that Constantine "wrote" the Bible, and the whole thing was a vast conspiracy. So let us take a look at how it came to be that we have a New Testament Canon.
What Is a Canon?
The Greek word "kanon" refers to a carpenter's ruler. It was used to decide what is straight and what is not; what meets a standard of excellence and what does not. Kanon came to be applied to Greek philosophy (the love of wisdom) as a metaphor for accuracy, order, clarity, and truth.
Today, we know the word "canon" as a strict boundary around a set of sacred writings (Scripture). Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have Canons of Scripture but the other world religions do not. The Canon of Judaism (Mishnah) was set in the 3rd century by Judah the Prince; the Canon of Christianity in the 4th century by orthodox bishops; the Canon of Islam in the 7th century by the third Caliph.
The Apostolic Church
The very first Christians—the Apostles of Jesus Christ and their disciples—sought order, standardization, and written regulations about church doctrine. Jesus had commanded them to remain unified—not to splinter off into competing groups. As early as 50 AD, we see Christian leaders coming together for an assembly (ekklesia in Greek) to debate doctrine and come to agreements to maintain unity.
Within roughly thirty years of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, all of the books now in the New Testament were written with the exception of the books by the Apostle John, which are dated around 90 AD.
Two of the oldest documents we have from the Apostolic Church are the Didache (Greek for teaching) also known as the Teaching of the Lord through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations; and the First Epistle of Clement.
The Didache was published well before the year 100 and circulated throughout the Christian community. It might have been written by the Apostle Matthew. The Didache shows that the first Christians had established standards for personal behavior, order in the church, the Eucharist (Communion), and for Baptism. It is noteworthy that the standard for the latter is immersion in "living waters" and "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
The First Epistle of Clement was written in 95 by the Bishop of Rome—also known as the First Apostolic Father—Clement. In it are these words:
"The apostles received the Gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus, the Christ, was sent from God. Thus Christ is from God and the Apostles from Christ. The Apostles . . . went out in the confidence of the Holy Spirit to preach the Good News . . . and appointed their first converts, after testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers."
In around 167, Melito, Bishop of Sardis, compiled the first Christian Canon of what we now know by the term he coined: "The Old Testament." A copy of the New Testament with 22 of its current 27 books has been found that was collated in the year 174.
Gnostics & Gnosticism
In the 2nd century, Satan began working through men to confuse the early Christians. These men composed "new gospels" that preached a diabolical message opposed to that of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the first was Basilides, but the more popular of this first wave of heretics was Valentinus. Both men hailed from Alexandria, Egypt, and both are known as Gnostics.
Gnostics are people who claim to have secret knowledge that sets them above regular folks, and who believe that this secret knowledge is salvific. Gnosticism can come in unlimited forms but usually it involves Pantheism—the disbelief in God the Creator in favor of worshiping nature as God.
Gnosticism is about men wanting to be worshiped as sages, forming their cults around themselves, usually fusing Christian thought with Greek philosophy or Indian mysticism or both. Because of these Gnostic writers, who wrote "gospels" that they claimed were written a century earlier, lost, but now thanks to them, are "found;" genuine Christians saw the need to make a firm boundary around the authentic writings of the Christian Faith.
It is to the Greeks that we owe the idea of a Canon—to separate the authentic from the inauthentic. The great medical doctor Galen (129-199) studied sixty writings ascribed to the ancient "father of medicine," Hippocrates (460-370 B.C. [Before Christ]), and declared that only thirteen of them were actually authentic. He thus produced a "canon" of these writings.
Before Diogenes Laertius published the monumental Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers in about 230—the book by which we know about the lives and concepts of Plato, Aristotle and others—he and a crack team of expert scholars poured over all known writings attributed to the Greek philosophers. They divided them into two categories: genuine and spurious.
Laertius lists the succession of philosophers at Plato's Academy—those who trained new students, hired copyists to accurately reproduce Plato's genuine dialogues, and saw to it that the founder's writings were accurately interpreted. Laertius and his experts also examined and compared writings that made claims to authenticity but veered far from the vision of Plato and his successors. They used the same methodology for the teachings of Aristotle.
Laertius and his fellow scholars were on the real mission of philosophy—the Quest for Truth. The writings they cast off as forgeries were those that did not match in doctrinal accuracy the true philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. Thus was produced a "canon" of the genuine article.
A flood of phony writings in the 2nd century claiming to be "lost gospels" caused the Christian Church to feel compelled to officially separate the authentic works of the 1st century by the Apostles of Jesus and their disciples from these forgeries.
Marcion (110-160) is the first known heretic inside the Christian Church. He was the bishop of Sinope, in what is now Turkey. Marcion insisted that God the Father of Jesus Christ was a different god than the god of the Jewish Faith in the Old Testament. He taught that the Old Testament god was indeed the Creator, but that he was a bad actor who was cruel, jealous, and ignorant. The Father of Jesus was the good god who stepped in to save humanity from the bad god. Jesus was not the Jewish Messiah—being Marcion's key point.
Marcion therefore made up his own bible that consisted of the first ten Epistles of Paul and most of the Gospel of Luke. He rejected the other sacred books since they linked the New Covenant to the Old, and he claimed that these Scriptures were written by Judaizers. Marcion also altered Luke to portray Jesus as coming down to earth as a full grown man.
It was in reaction to Marcion's bastardized "bible" that the leaders of the church were moved to formalize the Canon of the New Testament. Clement of Alexandria coined the term "New Testament" in the late 2nd century.
Who Will Defend the Books of the New Testament Against Heresies?
To counteract the unorthodox ideas of Marcion and the Gnostics, God raised up mighty men to fight heresy. One such man was Irenaeus (120-202), Bishop of Lyon. Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp (69-155), Bishop of Smyrna, who in turn had been a disciple of the Apostle John.
Irenaeus showed that orthodox beliefs not only in regard to doctrine but also in a particular set of sacred texts had been handed down in a line of succession directly from the Apostles of Jesus. Marcion and the Gnostics had no line of succession at all. They were propagating something new—that contradicted the beliefs of the Apostles of Jesus.
Irenaeus wrote that "those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches and the succession of these men to our own times . . . neither taught nor knew anything like what these [heretics] rave about."
This line of succession had handed down the whole truth because it had handed down the true message of the apostles who lived and walked with Jesus Christ. This Truth was consistent across multiple international apostolic successions in Jerusalem, Alexandria, Ephesus, and Rome—without variation or contradiction. As the next great heresy fighter Tertullian (160-240) added: "It is not likely that so many churches . . . have gone astray into one and the same faith."
The only line of succession the Gnostics had was to Simon Magus—universally recognized as the first heretic. Simon Magus was a sorcerer who claimed to be divine while running a sex cult.
The Gnostic system is one "which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered," wrote Tertullian. Any so-called "gospel" besides those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are fraudulent—created by inspiration of the Devil.
Tertullian wrote that the Apostles "founded churches in every city, from which all the other churches, one after another, derived the tradition of the faith. . . . the apostolic churches . . . comprise but one primitive church founded by the apostles." The Gnostics had no apostolic churches in which their writings were read.
One of the most distinguished scholars of this era, Origen (185-234) of Alexandria, spent his life in study of the Christian sacred writings. He confirmed that the traditional four gospels are the only ones that were believed by the whole Christian Church before and during his lifetime.
Origen also confirmed what we now have as the Christian New Testament. He did express doubts about the authorship of 2 Peter and 2 John and 3 John. But these are minor points. Origen published an extensive study of the Book of Hebrews in which he concludes it contains the thoughts of the Apostle Paul but was perhaps written down by Luke.
Eusebius (260-341) was the Bishop of Caesarea. He is called the "Father of Church History." Much of what we know of the early church comes from his astonishingly accurate book Ecclesiastical History.
What Eusebius proved was that orthodox Christianity had a set of sacred writings—and interpretations of them—from the time of the Apostles that is coherent, consistent, and reliable. To start with, Eusebius showed the complete chain of succession of bishops for each of the major churches straight back to the Apostle who founded them, with specific names and dates.
These bishops had been charged with deciding which texts should be used in their churches. Eusebius was able to demonstrate that the bishops had used the same sacred writings since the days of the Apostles. And he set about to catalog these sacred writings.
Eusebius examined approximately 100 texts to verify their authenticity. This included all known writings that any cult or person made any claim about as being divinely inspired. This includes the Gnostic writings. He separated them into three categories: genuine, disputed, and rejected.
Into the category of genuine Eusebius only included writings that every Christian church had universally used since the beginning of the faith; only those that no voice of dissension had ever been raised against; only those indisputably written by an Apostle or a disciple of an Apostle. In other words, only those that historically had received unanimous consensus were declared genuine.
These genuine books include 20 of the 27 books we find in our New Testament today: the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; the Acts of the Apostles; 1 John; 1 Peter; and the writings of the Apostle Paul known as Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, Philippians, Galatians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Philemon, and Titus.
The other seven books in the New Testament today were listed by Eusebius as disputed. These books had been acknowledged and approved by the vast majority of bishops and theologians throughout church history—but not unanimously. These books include James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Hebrews and Revelation. We must keep in mind that a single "no" vote by any bishop over nearly 300 years was enough to make it onto this "disputed" list.
All other writings were consigned to the rejected bin by Eusebius. These are writings that he could not find a single bishop, theologian, or historian in the Christian churches who had ever used them. This includes the so-called Gnostic gospels.
Eusebius wrote that the rejected writings are "very different from that of the Apostles, and the sentiment and purport of the things that are advanced in them, deviating as far as possible from sound orthodoxy, evidently proves that they are the fictions of heretical men." In other words, we can tell a fraudulent writing if it radically deviates from the universally approved Scriptures—if it presents a very different Jesus.
In 367, Athanasius declared a firm Canon of the New Testament that includes the 20 undisputed books and the 7 non-unanimous books. The Third Synod of Carthage in 397 confirmed this same list of Scriptures. Thus the New Testament we have today was in place and has not changed since. It has proved to be hard as granite.
Contrary to modern fictions, Eusebius and his predecessors were not involved in some grand, secret conspiracy to dupe the faithful. By all accounts these men were utterly devout, pious, learned, and serious scholars. Eusebius ignored regional agendas, personal preferences, and political pressure in his Quest for Truth.
The Bible by Constantine?
The demonic author Dan Brown states in the Da Vinci Code that Constantine "created" the New Testament. This is utterly false and used to confuse people and make money for Dan Brown. He claims there were eighty-four gospels written—which has zero basis in history. Brown himself also says that the Da Vinci Code is fiction.
I find it incredible that anyone would think the God of the Universe—the Author of the Books of the New Testament—was not able to move on the hearts of men to put the collection together as He wanted.
My primary source for this article is Constantine's Bible by David L. Dungan.