Here we take a look at the circumstances in which the Christian canon emerged.
Most religions have scripture i.e. texts considered sacred and authoritative by a community but Judaism, Christianity and Islam are peculiar in that they also have a canon: Hebrew Bible, OT and NT, Quran respectively. Canon means scripture with boundaries. A community has a canon when it has a clear idea and is particular about what scripture should include and exclude. The NT canon consists of the 27 books listed here.
Early Christians accepted the Jewish scriptures as their own. The first development of scripture among Christians outside the Jewish scriptures was the letters of Paul. Although NT begins with the gospels historically they come after the letters of Paul by 20-30 years. The oldest letter of Paul is 1 Thessalonians dated to about 50 CE. These letters which Paul sent to Churches in different Mediterranean cities were copied and circulated between them and were the first to attain the status of a scripture.
The gospels came about through oral traditions – stories and sayings – about Jesus in the Churches. The earliest gospel that committed such oral traditions to text is the Gospel of Mark (70 CE). Matthew and Luke were both written after Mark, and they used Mark as sources. The synoptic problem deals with the problem of relationship between the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke: who was written first, who copied whom, who used whom, and so on. While this development suggests a priority for the written over the oral, there were others, like the Christian leader Papias who considered the “living and continuous voice” of the Presbyters, the elders who knew the Apostles, more important than books.
Justin Martyr (died 150 CE) refers to the gospels as “The Memoirs of the Apostles.” This article aligns this understanding of the gospels to the memoir tradition in Greek literature, such as Xenophon’s Memorabilia, the memoirs of Socrates. Besides Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, there were gospels of Thomas, Judas, Mary and others, around this period that did not make it into the NT.
The canonical process begins with exclusion i.e. it is only after it is suggested that some scriptures need to be excluded from the canon that the issue of which scriptures are to be included in the canon begins. This involves the process of producing lists of texts to be included in the canon. The process of exclusion begins with Marcion (d. 160 CE) who was a rich émigré to Rome and a leader in the Roman Church. He declared that the God in the OT was an evil figure who imposed regulations and punished for disobedience. He was different from the true God of grace, love and mercy in the NT. So he excluded the OT and promoted the Letters of Paul, who had dismissed the OT, and the Gospel of Luke because Luke was known to be a companion of Paul. References in these texts addressing the creator God in the OT as the Father of Jesus Christ, he alleged were later adulterations to be edited out. Marcion was declared a heretic, his donations were refunded, and he was thrown out of the Roman Church.
However, this compelled the Churches to produce their own canonical lists and come with all kinds of arguments about which texts should be included and why. Much of this was based on hearsay and is historically wrong. Modern scholars believe that all the four gospels are pseudonymous i.e. published under a false name. The earliest manuscripts have no names of authors – these were attached later and that’s how they go included in the canon because later people thought that these texts were indeed written by the apostles to whom they were attributed. The earliest extant canonical list that contains the 27 books currently in the NT, though not in the same order, is the Paschal (Easter) Letter from 367 CE by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, to his Church. However, this does not set the canon because the Letter was binding only to Churches within the Alexandrian diocese.
An important factor in the process of solidification was the development of the codex. Earlier texts were in the form of scrolls. These were cut into pages and sewed together to produce codices. The stimulus for this development was to make the text accessible for debate. This forced people to decide what texts were to be included within the covers of a codex.
A second factor was consensus between the Churches of the various cities. Christian Emperors from Constantine onwards contributed to the development of consensus between quarrelling Churches. This process has yet not been completely sorted out and different Christian sects have different canons. The early Christians read the OT in Greek and they included certain texts which are not in the Hebrew Bible. The Protestants call them Apocrypha and exclude them from their OT. The Hebrew Bible canon was established in Late Antiquity in a period called Rabbinic Judaism when the Jews rejected the Greek Bible in response to the predominance of Christianity and restricted their canon to the Tanakh, an acronym for the Torah, the Law, the Prophets and the Writings, in Hebrew. The Protestants accept this as their OT. Episcopalians are Protestants who also follow the Roman Catholic canon.
Inspiration was not one of the criteria used by the early Christians to include texts in the canon. The criteria was: apostolic authority, general acceptance, and theological appropriateness for “proto-orthodox” Christianity. A gospel was included if it was considered to be authored by an apostle or someone close to the apostle. However, as stated above, authorship of the gospels is really pseudonymous. If certain texts were not popular in parts of the Christian world, then they were not included. Finally, only texts which were theologically acceptable to whoever was in position to make that call were included.
The Christianity that was later to become orthodox is referred to in the second century CE as proto-orthodox because no Christian group can be regarded as heretical in this period when Christianity was in a fluid state with various groups jostling for the supremacy of their beliefs. As Martin concludes:
The canon is a list of the winners in the historical debate to define orthodox Christianity.