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Sermon Podcast | Audio | Video : Christian Books : CHAPTER VI. THE DISPUTED BOOKS.

Companion To The Bible by E. P. Barrows


The grounds on which each of the disputed books -- Antilegomena, chap.5, No.6 -- is received into the canon of the New Testament, will be considered in the introduction to these books. In the present chapter some general suggestions will be made which apply to them as a whole.

1. This is not a question concerning the truth of Christianity, but concerning the extent of the canon; a distinction which is of the highest importance. Some persons, when they learn that doubts existed in the early churches, to a greater or less extent, respecting certain books of the New Testament, are troubled in mind, as if a shade of uncertainty were thereby cast over the whole collection of books. But this is a very erroneous view of the matter. The books of the New Testament, like those of the Old, were written one after another, as occasion required; and the churches received each of them separately on the evidence they had of its apostolic origin and authority. At length collections of these books, that is, canons, began to be formed. Such collections translators would of necessity make, unless they found them ready at hand. The earliest canons of which we have any knowledge are contained in the old Latin version, the Syriac version called Peshito, and the Muratorian canon; each of which represented the prevailing judgment of the churches in the region where it was formed. As this judgment differed in the different provinces of Christendom in respect to the books in question, so also do these canons. The Peshito contains the epistle to the Hebrews and that of James, but omits the other five books. The Muratorian canon omits the epistle to the Hebrews, the epistle of James, and the second epistle of Peter; but contains the epistle of Jude, the book of Revelation, and apparently also the second and third of John, though in respect to them its language is obscure and of doubtful interpretation. The old Latin version, so far as we can judge from the quotations of the church fathers, agreed in general with the Muratorian canon. It contained, however, the epistle of James, (Codex Corbeiensis, ff,) and that to the Hebrews; and if, as has been supposed, this latter was a later addition, it was yet earlier than the time of Tertullian. See Westcott on the Canon, pp.282, 283. Now this diversity of judgment with regard to particular books does not affect in the least the remaining books of the New Testament, which are sustained by the authority of all the above-named witnesses, as well as by the undivided testimony of the ancient churches. Did the New Testament claim to be the work of a single author, the case would be different. We should then have but one witness; and if certain parts of his testimony could be successfully assailed, this would throw a measure of suspicion on the whole. But now we have in the separate books of the New Testament a large number of witnesses, most of whom are entirely independent of each other. Doubts respecting the testimony of one do not affect that of another. We receive the seven books in question as a part of God's revelation on grounds which we judge adequate, as will be shown in the introductions to the several books. But if any one feels under the necessity of suspending his judgment with respect to one or more of these books, let him follow the teachings of the other books, which are above all doubt. He will find in them all the truth essential to the salvation of his soul; and he will then be in a position calmly to investigate the evidence for the canonical authority of the so-called disputed books.

2. The diversity of judgment which prevailed in the early churches in respect to certain books of the New Testament, is in harmony with all that we know of their character and spirit. It was an age of free inquiry. General councils were not then known, nor was there any central power to impose its decisions on all the churches. In the essential doctrines of the gospel there was everywhere an agreement, especially in receiving the writings acknowledged to be apostolic, as the supreme rule of faith and practice. But this did not exclude differences on minor points in the different provinces of Christendom; and with respect to these the churches of each particular region were tenacious then, as they have been in all ages since, of their peculiar opinions and practices. It is well known, for example, that the churches of Asia Minor differed from those of Rome in the last half of the second century respecting the day on which the Christian festival of the Passover, with the communion service connected with it, should be celebrated; the former placing it on the fourteenth of the month Nisan, the latter on the anniversary of the resurrection Sunday. Nor could the conference between Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor, and Anicetus, bishop of Rome, about A.D.162, avail to change the usage of either party, though it did not at that time break the bond of brotherhood between them. We need not be surprised therefore to find a like diversity in different regions respecting certain books of the New Testament. The unanimous belief of the Eastern and Alexandrine churches ascribed to Paul the authorship of the epistle to the Hebrews; but in the Western churches its Pauline authorship was not generally admitted till the fourth century. The Apocalypse, on the contrary, found most favor with the Western or Latin churches. It has in its favor the testimony of the Muratorian canon, which is of Latin origin, and also -- as appears from the citations contained in the commentaries of Primasius -- that of the old Latin version. Other examples see above, No.1.

3. Although we cannot account for the universal and undisputed reception of the acknowledged books by all the churches, except on the assumption of their genuineness, the non-reception of a given book by some of the early churches is no conclusive argument against its apostolic origin. From the influence of circumstances unknown to us, it may have remained for a considerable period of time in comparative obscurity. We have good ground for believing that some apostolic writings are utterly lost. To deny the possibility of this would be to prejudge the wisdom of God. As the apostles delivered many inspired discourses which it did not please the Holy Ghost to have recorded, so they may have written letters which he did not judge needful to make the sacred volume complete. The question is one of fact, not of theory. The most obvious interpretation of 1 Cor.5:9 and Col.4:16 is that Paul refers in each case to an epistle which has not come down to us. And if an inspired epistle might be lost, much more might the knowledge and use of it be restricted for a time to a narrow circle of churches. When such an epistle -- for example, the second of Peter -- began to be more extensively known, the general reception and use of it would be a slow process, not only from the difficulty of communication in ancient as compared with modern times, but also from the slowness with which the churches of one region received any thing new from those of other regions.

Then again, if a book were known, there might be in some regions hesitancy in respect to receiving it, from doubts in regard to its author, as in the case of the epistle to the Hebrews and the Apocalypse; or from the peculiarity of its contents also, as in the case of the latter book. In the influence of causes like the above named, we find a reasonable explanation of the fact that some books, which the mature judgment of the churches received into the canon of the New Testament, did not find at first a universal reception.

4. In the caution and hesitation of the early churches with respect to the books in question, we have satisfactory evidence that, in settling the canon of the New Testament, they acted with great deliberation and conscientiousness, their rule being that no book should be received whose apostolic origin could not be established on solid grounds. Did the early history of the Christian church present no such phenomenon as that of the distinction between acknowledged and disputed books, we might naturally infer that all books that professed to have emanated from the apostles, or to have had their sanction, were received without discrimination. But now the mature and final judgment of the churches is entitled to great consideration. This judgment, let it be remembered, was not affirmative only, but also negative. While it admitted to the canon the seven books now under consideration, it excluded others which were highly valued and publicly read in many of the churches. On this ground it is entitled to still higher regard. It is not, however, of binding authority, for it is not the decision of inspired men. We have a right to go behind it, and to examine the facts on which it is based, so far as they can be ascertained from existing documents. But this work belongs to the introduction to the several books.

Three books alone |obtained a partial ecclesiastical currency, through which they were not clearly separated at first from the disputed writings of the New Testament.| Westcott on the Canon, Appendix B, p.550. This was on the ground that they were written, or supposed to be written, by the immediate successors of the apostles. The oldest known codex of the Bible is the Sinaitic, discovered at mount Sinai by Tischendorf in 1859, and which belongs to the fourth century. This contains the whole of the epistle of Barnabas, and the first part of the work called the Shepherd of Hermas. The Alexandrine codex, belonging to the fifth century, has appended to it the first epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, the genuineness of which is admitted, and also a portion of the second or apocryphal epistle, the remainder of it being lost. The explanation is, that these three books were read in some at least of the churches when these codices were formed. But they never obtained any permanent authority as canonical writings, and were excluded from the New Testament |by every council of the churches, catholic or schismatic.| Tertullian, as quoted by Westcott, p.551.

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