1. Respecting the canon of the New Testament there are two distinct but related fields of inquiry. The first has reference to the origin and gradual accumulation, of the materials
which enter into the canon; the second, to the collection of these materials
into a volume or series of volumes possessing cooerdinate authority with the books of the Old Testament, and constituting with them the sum of written revelation. The first of these questions has been already discussed in great measure. In Chs.2-4, the genuineness, uncorrupt preservation, authenticity, and credibility of the four gospels were shown at some length; in Ch.5 the same was done in respect to the Acts of the Apostles and the acknowledged epistles; in Ch.6 was considered the position of the disputed books in respect to the canon; and in Ch.7 the inspiration of the canon was demonstrated. Connected with these inquiries were some general notices respecting the date of the several books of the New Testament; but the fuller consideration of this latter question is reserved for the second division of the present Part -- that of Particular Introduction. It will be sufficient to state here in a general way that, if we leave out of account the writings of the Apostle John, the remaining books of the New Testament were written somewhere between A.D.45-70 (according to the commonly received opinion, between A.D.50-70); while the most probable date of John's writings is A.D.70-100. The composition of the books of the New Testament, then, spreads itself over a period of about half a century.
2. Turning our attention, now, to the second question, that of the collection and arrangement of these writings in a volume or series of volumes cooerdinate in authority with the books of the Old Testament, we have a succession of periods, not sharply separated from each other, but each of them possessing, nevertheless, its prominent characteristics in relation to the canonical writings.
3. First in order is the apostolic age, extending to about A.D.100, especially the first half of it when many of the apostles still survived. This is the period of the composition of the books of the New Testament, but we have no certain evidence that they were then collected into a whole. The writings of apostles and apostolic men had of course the same authority as their spoken word: that is, an authority that was supreme and decisive, according to the principle laid down by the Saviour: |He that receiveth you, receiveth me; and he that receiveth me, receiveth him that sent me.| Matt.10:40. But so long as the churches had the presence of the apostles they could not feel, as we do now, the need of an authoritative written rule of faith and practice; nor is there any proof that the apostles themselves understood in the beginning of the gospel God's purpose to add, through them, a second part to the canon of revelation that had been for so many centuries closed. A considerable number of years elapsed after the ascension before it was thought necessary to give to the churches under apostolic sanction a written account of our Lord's life and teachings. The Acts of the Apostles were not composed till about A.D.61-63. The apostolic epistles were for the most part written on special occasions and to meet special exigencies, the greater number of them not till between A.D.50-70, those of John still later. The Christians of this age drew their knowledge of the gospel mainly from the same sources to which Luke refers in the preface to his gospel; from oral tradition, namely, received directly or indirectly from them |who from the beginning were eye-witnesses and ministers of the word.|
4. After the death of the apostles came what may be called the age of the apostolic fathers; men who, like Ignatius, Polycarp, and others whose names have not come down to us, had been the disciples of the apostles. Ignatius suffered martyrdom at Rome, A.D.107 or 116. Polycarp survived beyond the middle of the second century. The literary remains of this period are very scanty, the genuine writings of the apostolic fathers being confined to a few epistles -- one of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, seven of Ignatius, one of Polycarp to the Philippians, to which we may add the so-called epistle of Barnabas; since whoever was the author, it does not date from later than the early part of the second century. From these writings we gather in general that the gospels and apostolic epistles were in current use in the churches, but nothing definite in regard to the collection of these writings into a whole.
|With the exception of the epistles of Jude, 2 Peter and 2, 3 John, with which no coincidences occur, and 1, 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Titus, and Philemon, with which the coincidences are very questionable, all the other epistles were clearly known, and used by them; but still they are not quoted with the formulas which preface citations from the Old Testament (The Scripture saith, It is written, &c.), nor is the famous phrase of Ignatius (To the Philadelphians 5: Betaking myself to the gospel, as to the flesh of Christ, and to the apostles, as the eldership of the church) sufficient to prove the existence of a collection of apostolic records as distinct from the sum of apostolic teaching. The coincidences with the gospels on the other hand are numerous and interesting, but such as cannot be referred to the exclusive use of our present written gospels.| Westcott, in Smith's Bible Dict.; Art. Canon. The reason of this, as the writer goes on to show, was that |the details of the life of Christ were still too fresh to be sought for only in written records.| There is, however, one remarkable passage in the epistle of Barnabas, the Greek text of which has been recently discovered appended to the Sinaitic manuscript, in which he says (ch.4): |Let us take care that we be not found as it is written, many are called, but few are chosen.| This formula, |as it is written,| distinguishes the gospel from which it is quoted as a part of the inspired word; for it is the customary formula employed by Christ and his apostles in accordance with the usage of their age, when they appeal to the Old Testament as of divine authority; and is never applied to writings of mere human authority.
5. Next in order comes what may be called the period of transition between the age of the apostolic and that of the early church fathers. The most distinguished writer of this period is Justin Martyr. It is now generally conceded that the |Memoirs| of which he so often speaks were our canonical gospels. Chap.2, No.7. Besides the abundant use of these he mentions the Apocalypse by name, and ascribes it expressly to the apostle John -- |a certain man among us named John, one of the apostles of Christ, prophesied, in the revelation given him, that those who have believed in our Christ will spend a thousand years in Jerusalem,| etc. Dialogue with Trypho, chap.81. He has also some apparent allusions to the Pauline epistles, but how far he possessed and used a collection of the New Testament writings, we have no means of judging. Towards the middle of the second century, however, events occurred which had a powerful influence, not indeed, for establishing the authority of the apostolic writings (since that existed from the beginning), but for bringing home to the consciousness of the churches their supreme importance as an authoritative rule of faith and practice, and also the necessity of carefully defining their extent as well as their true interpretation. Heretical teachers arose who sowed in the Christian church the seeds of gnosticism. Of these some, as Marcion, rejected on dogmatical grounds a portion of the apostolic writings, and mutilated those which they retained; others, as Valentinus, sought by fanciful principles of interpretation to explain away their true meaning. Chap.2, No.12. The reaction upon the churches was immediate and effectual. They set themselves at once to define and defend the true apostolic writings as well against Marcion's false and mutilated canon, if canon it may be called, as against the false interpretations of Valentinus, Heracleon and others. The occasion had now come for the recognition of a New Testament canon cooerdinate in authority with that of the Old Testament, and from this time onward we find the idea of such a canon clearly developed in the writings of the church fathers. What aided essentially in this work was the execution, about this time, of versions of the New Testament books, such as the Old Latin and Syriac; for the authors of these versions must of necessity have brought together the writings, which, in their judgment, proceeded from the apostles and their companions.
6. We find, accordingly, when the age of the early church fathers opens, about A.D.170, a clearly recognized canon -- sometimes described in two parts, the gospels and the apostles -- which is placed on a level with that of the Old Testament as the inspired word of God, and cited in common with it as the Scriptures, the divine Scriptures, the Scriptures of the Lord, etc. Both canons are mentioned together as The entire Scriptures both prophetical and evangelical; The prophets, the gospel, and the blessed apostles; the law and the prophets, with the evangelical and apostolical writings; the Old and the New Testament; the entire instrument of each Testament, etc. Irenaeus, against heresies, 2.46; 5.20; Letter to Florinus in Eusebius' Hist. Eccl., 5.20: Clement of Alexandria, Strom., 7, p.757; Tertullian, against heretics, chap.30.36: against Marcion, 4.6, etc. The canon was not, however, completed in its present form; for the right of certain books -- the so-called antilegomena, chap.6.6. -- to a place in it remained for a considerable time an open question, which, in its application to particular books was answered differently in the East and the West. See chap.6. On the other hand, certain writings of the apostolic fathers (as the so-called epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians), being read in certain of the early churches, found their way into some codices of the New Testament. Chap.6, No.4.
To the latter part of the second century belong two important canons, that of the Syriac Peshito, and the Muratorian canon. The former of these represents the judgment of the Eastern churches; the latter apparently that of the Western.
The canon of the Peshito has, of the seven disputed books, Hebrews and James. It wants the other five, namely, 2 Peter, 2, 3 John, Jude, Revelation.
The Muratorian canon is in such an imperfect state that its testimony on some points is doubtful. It contains Jude and Revelation; perhaps also 2, 3 John. It wants Hebrews, and 2 Peter, and it adds the apocryphal book called the Apocalypse of Peter.
Origen in the third century (as quoted by Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., 6.25) and Eusebius in the fourth, Hist. Eccl., 3.25, give each a review of the New Testament canon with a statement of the differing judgments as to the disputed books. The details will come up hereafter in connection with the books in question.
The Synodical Council of Loadicea, which was probably held between A.D.343-381, gives in its 60th canon (the genuineness of which, however, has been called in question by some) a list of the books of the Old and New Testaments. That of the New Testament wants the Apocalypse.
The third Council of Carthage, held A.D.397, contains all the books of our present canon. So also the Latin fathers, as Jerome, Rufinus, etc. But the Syrian churches still adhered to the canon of the Peshito.
7. The history of Christian opinion in regard to the canon of the New Testament, of which a very brief outline has been given, has all the marks of naturalness and truthfulness. The Biblical student should carefully remember the two following important considerations:
(1.) The books of the New Testament were not received as a whole, but separately upon the evidence that each gave of its apostolic origin. Doubts in respect to certain books throw no shadow of suspicion upon the rest, the genuineness and authenticity of which were acknowledged by all from the beginning. The question, therefore, is not concerning the truth of revelation, but simply concerning the claims of certain books to be a part of the record of revelation. However it may be decided in particular cases, the apostolic authority of the universally acknowledged books, which constitute the main body of the New Testament, remains perfectly sure.
(2.) The early diversities of judgment in respect to certain books furnish satisfactory evidence of the freedom of thought and discussion among the primitive Christians, and of the sincerity and earnestness of their investigations. It was precisely because they would not accept any book without full evidence of its apostolic authority, that these diversities of judgment prevailed.