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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER VI. THE NEW TESTAMENT CANON IN THE FIRST THREE CENTURIES.

The Canon Of The Bible by Samuel Davidson

CHAPTER VI. THE NEW TESTAMENT CANON IN THE FIRST THREE CENTURIES.

The first Christians relied on the Old Testament as their chief religious book. To them it was of divine origin and authority. The New Testament writings came into gradual use, by the side of the older Jewish documents, according to the times in which they appeared and the names of their reputed authors. The Epistles of Paul were the earliest written; after which came the Apocalypse, the Epistle to the Hebrews, and other documents, all in the first century. After the first gospel had undergone a process of translation, re-writing, and interpolation, from the Aramaic basis, the discourses,(140) of which Papias of Hierapolis speaks, until the traces of another original than the Greek were all but effaced; it appeared in its present form early in the second century. Soon after, that of Luke was composed, whose prevailing Pauline tendency was not allowed to suppress various features of a Jewish Essene type. The second gospel, which bears evidences of its derivation from the other synoptists, was followed by the fourth. The last document was the so-called second Epistle of Peter. It is manifest that tradition assumed various forms after the death of Jesus; that legend and myth speedily surrounded His sacred person; that the unknown writers were influenced by the peculiar circumstances in which they stood with respect to Jewish and Gentile Christianity; and that their uncritical age dealt considerably in the marvelous. That the life of the great Founder should be overlaid with extraneous materials, is special matter for regret. However conscientious and truth-loving they may have been, the reporters were unequal to their work. It is also remarkable that so many of them should be unknown; productions being attached to names of repute to give them greater currency.

When Marcion came from Pontus to Rome (144 A.D.,) he brought with him a Scripture-collection consisting of ten Pauline epistles. With true critical instinct he did not include those addressed to Timothy and Titus, as also the epistle to the Hebrews. The gospel of Marcion was Luke's in an altered state. From this and other facts we conclude that external parties were the first who carried out the idea of collecting Christian writings, and of putting them either beside or over against the sacred books of the Old Testament, in support of their systems. As to Basilides (125 A.D.), his supposed quotations from the New Testament in Hippolytus are too precarious to be trusted.(141) Testimonies to the |acknowledged| books of the New Testament as Scripture have been transferred from his followers to himself; so that his early witness to the canon breaks down. It is inferred from statements in Origen and Jerome that he had a gospel of his own somewhat like St. Luke's, but extra-canonical. His son Isidore and succeeding disciples used Matthew's gospel. Jerome says that Marcion and Basilides denied the Pauline authorship of the epistle to the Hebrews and the pastoral ones.(142) It is also doubtful whether Valentinus's (140-166 A.D.) alleged citations from the New Testament can be relied upon. The passages of this kind ascribed to him by the fathers belong in a great measure to his disciples. The fragment of a letter preserved by Clement of Alexandria in the second book of the Stromata, has been thought to contain references to the gospels of Matthew and Luke; but the fact is doubtful. Nor has Henrici proved that Valentinus used John's gospel.(143) But his followers, including Ptolemy (180 A.D.) and Heracleon (185-200 A.D.), quote the Gospels and other portions of the New Testament.(144) From Hippolytus's account of the Ophites, Peratae, and Sethians, we infer that the Christian writings were much employed by them. They rarely cite an apocryphal work. More than one hundred and sixty citations from the New Testament have been gathered out of their writings.(145) We may admit that these Ophites and Peratae were of early origin, the former being the oldest known of the Gnostic parties; but there is no proof that the acquaintance with the New Testament which Hippolytus attributes to them belongs to the first rather than the second half of the second century. The early existence of the sect does not show an early citation of the Christian books by it, especially of John's gospel; unless its primary were its last stage. Later and earlier Ophites are not distinguished in the Philosophumena. Hence there is a presumption that the author had the former in view, which is favored by no mention of them occurring in the |Adversus omnes Haereses| usually appended to Tertullian's Praescriptiones Haereticorum, and by Irenaeus's derivation of their heresy from that of Valentinus. The latter father does not even speak of the Peratae. Clement of Alexandria is the first who alludes to them. The early heretics were desirous of confirming their peculiar opinions by the writings current among Catholic Christians, so that the formation of a canon by them began soon after the commencement of the second century, and continued till the end of it; contemporaneously with the development of a Catholic Church and its necessary adjunct a Catholic canon.

No New Testament canon, except a partial and unauthoritative one, existed till the latter half of the second century, that is, till the idea of a Catholic church began to be entertained. The living power of Christianity in its early stages had no need of books for its nurture. But in the development of a church organization the internal rule of consciousness was changed into an external one of faith. The Ebionites or Jewish Christians had their favorite Gospels and Acts. The gospel of Matthew was highly prized by them, existing as it did in various recensions, of which the gospel according to the Hebrews was one. Other documents, such as the Revelation of John; and the preaching of Peter, a Jewish-Christian history subsequently re-written and employed in the Clementine Recognitions and Homilies, were also in esteem. Even so late as 175-180 A.D., Hegesippus, a Jewish Christian, does not seem to have had a canon consisting of the four gospels and Paul's Epistles, but appeals to |the law and the prophets and the Lord,| so that his leading principle was, the identity of Jesus's words with the Old Testament; agreeably to the tenets of the party he belonged to. The source whence he drew the words of Jesus was probably the Gospel according to the Hebrews, a document which we know he used, on the authority of Eusebius. He does not refer to Paul except by implication in a passage given in Photius from Stephen Gobar,(146) where he says that such as used the words |Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard,| &c., falsified the Divine Scriptures and the Lord's words, |Blessed are your eyes for they see,| &c. As Paul quoted the condemned language, he is blamed.(147) Though he knew Paul's epistles, he does not look upon them as authoritative. He betrays no acquaintance with the fourth gospel; for the question, |What is the door to Jesus?| does not presuppose the knowledge of John x.2, 7, 9. Noesgen has failed to prove Hegesippus's Jewish descent; and Holtzmann's mediating view of him is incorrect.(148)

The Clementine Homilies (161-180 A.D.) used the four canonical gospels even the fourth (which is somewhat singular in a writer who denies the deity of Christ), and assigned it to the apostle John. The gospel according to the Egyptians was also employed. Paul's epistles were rejected of course, as well as the Acts; since the apostle of the Gentiles was pointed at in Simon Magus, whom Peter refutes. It is, therefore, obvious that a collection of the New Testament writings could make little progress among the Ebionites of the second century. Their reverence for the law and the prophets hindered another canon. Among the Gentile Christians the formation of a canon took place more rapidly, though Judaic influences retarded it even there. After Paul's epistles were interchanged between churches, a few of them would soon be put together. A collection of this kind is implied in 2 Peter iii.16. The pastoral epistles, which show their dependence on the authentic Pauline ones, with those of Peter, presuppose a similar collection; which along with the Synoptists, existed before the fourth gospel. The Apocalypse and the epistle to the Hebrews were obnoxious to the Pauline churches, as Paul's letters were to the Jewish-Christian ones. Hence the former were outside the Pauline collections.

The apostolic fathers quote from the Old Testament, which was sacred and inspired to them. They have scarcely any express citations from the New Testament. Allusions occur, especially to the epistles.

The first Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians (about 120 A.D.), implies acquaintance with several of the epistles, with those to the Corinthians, Romans, Hebrews, and perhaps others. Two passages have also been adduced as derived from the gospels of Matthew and Luke, viz., in chapters xiii.2 and xlvi.8; but probably some other source supplied them, such as oral tradition. It has also been argued that the quotation in the fifteenth chapter, |The Scripture says somewhere, This people honoreth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me,| comes from Mark vii.6 in which it varies from the Hebrew of Isaiah xxix.13, as well as the Septuagint version. Clement therefore, so it is said, quotes the Old Testament through the medium of the gospels (Matthew xv.8, Mark vii.6). But the argument is inconclusive because the words agree closely enough with the Septuagint to render the supposition very probable that they are a memorized citation from it. As they stand, they coincide exactly neither with Mark nor the Septuagint.(149) Thus we dissent from the opinion of Gebhardt and Harnack. Wherever |Scripture| is cited, or the expression |it is written| occurs, the Old Testament is meant.

Hermas (about 140 A.D.) seems to have used the epistle to the Ephesians and perhaps that to the Hebrews, as well as the epistle of James; but there is great uncertainty about the matter, for there is no express or certain quotation from any part of the New Testament. The writer often alludes to words of Jesus, found in Matthew's gospel, so that he may have been acquainted with it. Keim(150) and others have discovered references to the fourth gospel; but they are invalid. There is no allusion to the Acts in vis. iv.2, 4. The only Scripture cited is the apocryphal book Eldat and Modat, now lost.(151) The writer seems to have known several Jewish Apocalypses.(152)

Barnabas (about 119 A.D.) has but one quotation from the New Testament, if, indeed, it be such. Apparently, Matthew xx.16 or xxii.14 is introduced by |as it is written,| showing that the gospel was considered Scripture.(153) This is the earliest trace of canonical authority being transferred from the Old Testament to Christian writings. But the citation is not certain. The original may be 4 Esdras, viii.3; and even if the writer took the words from Matthew's gospel, it is possible that he used |it is written| with reference to their prototype in the Old Testament. Of such interchanges, examples occur in writers of the second century; and it is the more probable that this is one, from the fact that 4 Esdras is elsewhere considered a prophet and referred to in the same way as Ezekiel.(154) Barnabas's citation of a gospel as canonical is wholly improbable, since even Justin, thirty years after, never quotes the New Testament writings as Scripture. The thing would be anomalous and opposed to the history of the first half of the second century. When these post-apostolic productions appeared, the New Testament writings did not stand on the same level with the Old, and were not yet esteemed sacred and inspired like the Jewish Scriptures. The Holy Spirit was thought to dwell in all Christians, without being confined to a few writers; and his influence was the common heritage of believers. There are evidences of Barnabas's acquaintance with the Epistles to the Romans and Corinthians; nor is it improbable that he knew the canonical gospel of Matthew, though one passage appears to contradict Matthew xxviii.10, &c., without necessarily implying ignorance of what lies in it, viz., that the ascension of Jesus took place on the day of his resurrection.(155) Strangely enough, Keim thinks that the writer had John's gospel before him; but this opinion is refuted by the end of Barnabas's fifth chapter.(156) Holtzmann has ably disposed of the considerations adduced by Keim.(157) Barnabas quotes the book of Enoch as Scripture;(158) and an apocryphal prophecy is introduced with, |another prophet says.|(159)

As far as we can judge from Eusebius's account of Papias(160) (about 150 A.D.), that writer knew nothing of a New Testament canon. He speaks of Matthew and Mark; but it is most probable that he had documents which either formed the basis of our present Matthew and Mark, or were taken into them and written over.(161) According to Andreas of Caesarea he was acquainted with the Apocalypse of John; while Eusebius testifies to his knowledge of 1 Peter and 1 John. But he had no conception of canonical authority attaching to any part of the New Testament. His language implies the opposite, in that he prefers unwritten tradition to the gospel he speaks of. He neither felt the want nor knew the existence of inspired gospels.

We need not notice the three short Syriac epistles attributed to Ignatius, as we do not believe them to be his, but of later origin. Traces of later ideas about the canonicity of the New Testament appear in the shorter Greek recension of the Ignatian epistles (about 175 A.D.) There the Gospel and the Apostles are recognized as the constituents of the book.(162) The writer also used the Gospel according to the Hebrews, for there is a quotation from it in the epistle to the Smyrnians.(163) The second part of the collection seems to have wanted the epistle to the Ephesians.(164) The two leading parties, long antagonistic, had now become united; the apostles Peter and Paul being mentioned together.(165) In the Testaments of the twelve patriarchs (about 170 A.D.), Paul's life is said to be described in |holy books,| i.e., his own epistles and the Acts.(166)

Justin Martyr (150 A.D.) knew the first and third of the synoptic gospels. His use of Mark's does not appear. His knowledge of the fourth is denied by many, and zealously defended by others. Thoma finds proofs that Justin knew it well, and used it freely as a text-book of gnosis, without recognizing it as the historical work of an apostle; an hypothesis encumbered with difficulties.(167) Whatever be said about Justin's acquaintance with this gospel; its existence before 140 A.D. is incapable either of decisive or probable proof; and this father's Logos-doctrine is less developed than the Johannine, because it is encumbered with the notion of miraculous birth by a virgin. The Johannine authorship has receded before the tide of modern criticism; and though this tide is arbitrary at times, it is here irresistible. Apologists should abstain from strong assertions on a point so difficult, as that each |gospel is distinctly recognized by him;| for the noted passage in the dialogue with Trypho does not support them.(168) It is pretty certain that he employed an extra-canonical gospel, the so-called gospel of the Hebrews. This Petrine document may be referred to in a passage which is unfortunately capable of a double interpretation.(169) He had also the older Acts of Pilate. Paul's epistles are never mentioned, though he doubtless knew them. Having little sympathy with Paulinism he attached his belief much more to the primitive apostles. The Apocalypse, 1 Peter, and 1 John he esteemed highly; the epistle to the Hebrews and the Acts he treated in the same way as the Pauline writings. Justin's canon, as far as divine authority and inspiration are concerned, was the Old Testament. He was merely on the threshold of a divine canon made up of primitive Christian writings, and attributed no exclusive sanctity to those he used because they were not to him the only source of doctrine. Even of the Apocalypse he says, |A man among us named John, &c., wrote it.|(170) In his time none of the gospels had been canonized, not even the synoptists, if, indeed, he knew them all. Oral tradition was the chief fountain of Christian knowledge, as it had been for a century. In his opinion this tradition was embodied in writing; but the documents in which he looked for all that related to Christ were not the gospels alone. He used others freely, not looking upon any as inspired, for that idea could arise only when a selection was made among the current documents. He regarded them all as having been written down from memory, and judged them by criteria of evidence conformable to the Old Testament Scriptures. Though lessons out of Gospels (some of our present ones and others), as also out of the prophets, were read in assemblies on the first day of the week,(171) the act of converting the Christian writings into Scripture was posterior; for the mere reading of a gospel in churches on Sunday does not prove that it was considered divinely authoritative; and the use of the epistles, which formed the second and less valued part of the collection, must still have been limited.

Justin's disciple, Tatian (160-180 A.D.), wrote a Diatessaron or harmony of the gospels, which began, according to Ephrem Syrus, with John i.1; but our knowledge of it is uncertain. The author omitted the genealogies of Jesus and everything belonging to His Davidic descent. He seems also to have put into it particulars derived from extra-canonical sources such as the Gospel according to the Hebrews. Doubtless he was acquainted with Paul's writings, as statements made in them are quoted; but he dealt freely with them according to Eusebius, and even rejected several epistles, probably first and second Timothy.(172)

In Polycarp's epistle (about 160 A.D.), which is liable to strong suspicions of having been written after the death of the bishop,(173) there are reminiscences of the synoptic gospels; and most of Paul's epistles as well as I Peter were used by the writer. But the idea of canonical authority, or a peculiar inspiration belonging to these writings, is absent.

The author of the second Clementine epistle (about 150-160) had not a New Testament canon made up of the four gospels and epistles. His Scripture was the Old Testament, to which is applied the epithet |the Books| or |the Bible;| and the words of Christ. |The Apostles| immediately subjoined to |the Books,| does not mean the New Testament, or a special collection of the apostolic epistles, as has been supposed.(174) The preacher employed a gospel or gospels as Scripture; perhaps those of Matthew and Luke, not the whole documents, but the parts containing the words of Christ.(175) He also used the Gospel of the Egyptians as an authoritative document, and quoted his sources freely. With the Johannine writings he seems to have been unacquainted.(176)

Athenagoras of Athens wrote an apology addressed to Marcus Aurelius (176 A.D.). In it he uses written and unwritten tradition, testing all by the Old Testament which was his only authoritative canon. He makes no reference to the Christian documents, but adduces words of Jesus with the verb |he says.| It is not clear whether he quoted from the Synoptics; perhaps the passages which are parallel to Matthew v.44, 45, 46,(177) and Mark x.6,(178) were taken from these; but the matter is somewhat uncertain. His treatise on the resurrection appeals to a passage in one of Paul's epistles.(179)

Dionysius of Corinth ( 170 A.D.) complains of the falsification of his writings, but consoles himself with the fact that the same is done to the |Scriptures of the Lord,| i.e., the gospels containing the Lord's words; or rather the two parts of the early collection, |the gospel| and |the apostle| together; which agrees best with the age and tenor of his letters.(180) If such be the meaning, the collection is put on a par with the Old Testament, and regarded as inspired.

In the second epistle of Peter (about A.D.170) Paul's epistles are regarded as Scripture (iii.16.) This seems to be the earliest example of the canonizing of any New Testament portion. Here a brotherly recognition of the Gentile apostle and his productions takes the place of former opposition. A false interpretation of his epistles is even supposed to have induced a departure from primitive apostolic Christianity.

The letter of the churches at Vienne and Lyons (177 A.D.) has quotations from the epistles to the Romans, Philippians, 1 Timothy, 1 Peter, Acts, the gospels of Luke and John, the Apocalypse. The last is expressly called Scripture.(181) This shows a fusion of the two original tendencies, the Petrine and Pauline; and the formation of a Catholic church with a common canon of authority. Accordingly, the two apostles, Peter and Paul, are mentioned together.

Theophilus of Antioch (180 A.D.) was familiar with the gospels and most of Paul's epistles, as also the Apocalypse. Passages are cited from Paul as |the divine word.|(182) He ascribes the fourth gospel to John, calling him an inspired man, like the Old Testament prophets.(183) We also learn from Jerome that he commented on the gospels put together by way of harmony.(184)

The author of the epistle to Diognetus (about 200 A.D.) shows his acquaintance with the gospels and Paul's epistles; but he never cites the New Testament by way of proof. Words are introduced into his discourse, in passing and from memory.(185)

The conception of a Catholic canon was realized about the same time as that of a Catholic church. One hundred and seventy years from the coming of Christ elapsed before the collection assumed a form that carried with it the idea of holy and inspired.(186) The way in which it was done was by raising the apostolic writings higher and higher till they were of equal authority with the Old Testament, so that the church might have a rule of appeal. But by lifting the Christian productions up to the level of the old Jewish ones, injury was done to that living consciousness which feels the opposition between spirit and letter; the latter writings tacitly assuming or keeping the character of a perfect rule even as to form. The Old Testament was not brought down to the New; the New was raised to the Old. It is clear that the earliest church fathers did not use the books of the New Testament as sacred documents clothed with divine authority, but followed for the most part, at least till the middle of the second century, apostolic tradition orally transmitted. They were not solicitous about a canon circumscribed within certain limits.

In the second half, then, of the second century there was a canon of the New Testament consisting of two parts called the gospel(187) and the apostle.(188) The first was complete, containing the four gospels alone; the second, which was incomplete, contained the Acts of the Apostles and epistles, i.e., thirteen letters of Paul, one of Peter, one of John, and the Revelation. How and where this canon originated is uncertain. Its birthplace may have been Asia Minor, like Marcion's; but it may have grown about the same time in Asia Minor, Alexandria, and Western Africa. At all events, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian agree in recognizing its existence.

Irenaeus had a canon which he adopted as apostolic. In his view it was of binding force and authoritative. This contained the four gospels, the Acts, thirteen epistles of Paul, the first epistle of John, and the Revelation. He had also a sort of appendix or deutero-canon, which he highly esteemed without putting it on a par with the received collection, consisting of John's second epistle, the first of Peter, and the Shepherd of Hermas. The last he calls Scripture.(189) The epistle to the Hebrews, that of Jude, James's, second Peter, and third John he ignored.

Clement's collection was more extended than Irenaeus'. His appendix or deutero-canon included the epistle to the Hebrews, 2 John, Jude, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistles of Clement and Barnabas. He recognized no obligatory canon, distinct and of paramount authority. But he separated the New Testament writings by their traditionally apostolic character and the degree of importance attached to them. He did not attach the modern idea of canonical in opposition to non-canonical, either to the four gospels or any other part of the New Testament. Barnabas is cited as an apostle.(190) So is the Roman Clement.(191) The Shepherd of Hermas is spoken of as divine.(192) Thus the line of the Homologoumena is not marked off even to the same extent as in Irenaeus.

Tertullian's canon consisted of the gospels, Acts, thirteen epistles of Paul, the Apocalypse, and 1 John. As an appendix he had the epistle to the Hebrews, that of Jude, the Shepherd of Hermas, 2 John probably, and 1 Peter. This deutero-canon was not regarded as authoritative. No trace occurs in his works of James' epistle, 2 Peter, and 3 John. He used the Shepherd, calling it Scripture,(193) without implying, however, that he put it on a par with the usually acknowledged canonical writings; but after he became a Montanist, he repudiated it as the apocryphal Shepherd of adulterers, |put among the apocryphal and false, by every council of the churches.|(194) It was not, however, reckoned among the spurious and false writings, either at Rome or Carthage, in the time of Tertullian. It was merely placed outside the universally received works by the western churches of that day.

These three fathers did not fix the canon absolutely. Its limits were still unsettled. But they sanctioned most of the books now accepted as divine, putting some extra-canonical productions almost on the same level with the rest, if not in theory, at least in practice.

The canon of Muratori is a fragmentary list which was made towards the end of the second century (170 A.D.). Its birthplace is uncertain, though there are traces of Roman origin. Its translation from the Greek is assumed, but that is uncertain. It begins with the four gospels in the usual order, and proceeds to the Acts, thirteen epistles of Paul, the epistles of John, that of Jude, and the Apocalypse. The epistle to the Hebrews, 1 and 2 Peter, 1 John and James are not named. The Apocalypse of Peter is also mentioned, but as not universally received. Of the Shepherd of Hermas, it is stated that it may be read in the Church. The epistle |to the Laodiceans| may either be that to the Ephesians, which had such superscription in Marcion's canon, or less probably the supposititious epistle mentioned in the codex Boernerianus,(195) after that to Philemon, and often referred to in the middle ages.(196) That |to the Alexandrians| is probably the epistle to the Hebrews; though this has been denied without sufficient reason. According to the usual punctuation, both are said to have been forged in Paul's name, an opinion which may have been entertained among Roman Christians about 170 A.D. The Epistle to the Hebrews was rejected in the west, and may have been thought a supposititious work in the interests of Paulinism, with some reason because of its internal character,(197) which is at least semi-Pauline, though its Judaistic basis is apparent. The story about the origin of the fourth gospel with its apostolic and episcopal attestation, evinces a desire to establish the authenticity of a work which had not obtained universal acceptance at the time.(198) It is difficult to make out the meaning in various places; and there is considerable diversity of opinion among expositors of the document.(199) In accord with these facts we find Serapion bishop of the church at Rhossus, in Cilicia,(200) allowing the public use of the gospel of Peter;(201) which shows that there was no exclusive gospel-canon at the end of the second century, at least in Syria. The present canon had not then pervaded the churches in general.

What is the result of an examination of the Christian literature belonging to the second century? Is it that a canon was then fixed, separating some books from others by a line so clear, that those on one side of it were alone reckoned inspired, authoritative, of apostolic origin or sanction; while those on the other were considered uninspired, unauthoritative, without claim to apostolicity, unauthentic? Was the separation between them made on any clear principle or demarcation? It cannot be said so. The century witnessed no such fact, but merely the incipient efforts to bring it about. The discriminating process was begun, not completed. It was partly forced upon the prominent advocates of a policy which sought to consolidate the Jewish and Gentile-Christian parties, after the decline of their mutual antagonism, into a united church. They were glad to transfer the current belief in the infallible inspiration of the Old Testament, to selected Christian writings, as an effective means of defence against those whom they considered outside a new organization -- the Catholic Church.

The stichometrical list of the Old and New Testament Scriptures in the Latin of the Clermont MS. (D), was that read in the African Church in the third century. It is peculiar. After the Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, and the historical books, follow Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Canticles, Wisdom, Sirach, the twelve minor prophets, the four greater; three books of the Maccabees, Judith, Esdras, Esther, Job, and Tobit. In the New Testament, the four gospels, Matthew, John, Mark, Luke, are succeeded by ten epistles of Paul, two of Peter, the epistle of James, three of John, and that of Jude. The epistle to the Hebrews (characterized as that of Barnabas), the Revelation of John, Acts of the Apostles, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Acts of Paul, the Revelation of Peter, follow. The last three constitute a sort of appendix; and the number of their verses is given. It is possible that the carelessness of a transcriber may have caused some of the singularities observable in this list; such as the omission of the epistles to the Philippians and Thessalonians; but the end shows a freer idea of books fit for reading than what was usual even at that early time in the African Church.(202)

In Syria a version of the New Testament for the use of the church was made early in the third century. This work, commonly called the Peshito, wants 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and the Apocalypse. It has, however, all the other books, including the epistle of James and that to the Hebrews. The last two were received as apostolic.

Towards the middle of the third century, Origen's(203) testimony respecting the Canon is of great value. He seems to have distinguished three classes of books -- authentic ones, whose apostolic origin was generally admitted, those not authentic, and a middle-class not generally recognized or in regard to which his own opinion wavered. The first contained those already adopted at the beginning of the century both in the East and West, with the Apocalypse, and the epistle to the Hebrews so far as it contains Pauline ideas;(204) to the second belongs the Shepherd of Hermas, though he sometimes hesitated a little about it,(205) the epistle of Barnabas, the Acts of Paul, the gospel according to the Hebrews, the gospel of the Egyptians, and the preaching of Peter;(206) to the third, the epistle of James, that of Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John.(207) The separation of the various writings is not formally made, nor does Origen give a list of them. His classification is gathered from his works; and though its application admitted of considerable latitude, he is cautious enough, appealing to the tradition of the church, and throwing in qualifying expressions.(208)

The Canon of Eusebius(209) is given at length in his Ecclesiastical History.(210) He divides the books into three classes, containing those writings generally received,(211) those controverted,(212) and the heretical.(213) The first has the four gospels, the Acts, thirteen epistles of Paul, 1 John, 1 Peter, the Apocalypse.(214) The second class is subdivided into two, the first corresponding to Origen's mixed(215) or intermediate writings, the second to his spurious(216) ones. The former subdivision contains the epistle of James, 2 Peter, Jude, 2 and 3 John; the latter, the Acts of Paul, the Shepherd, the Revelation of Peter, the epistle of Barnabas, the Doctrines of the Apostles, the Apocalypse of John, the gospel according to the Hebrews. The third class has the gospels of Peter, of Thomas, the traditions of Matthias, the Acts of Peter, Andrew, and John. The subdivisions of the second class are indefinite. The only distinction which Eusebius puts between them is that of ecclesiastical use. Though he classes as spurious the Acts of Paul, the Shepherd, the Revelation of Peter, the epistle of Barnabas, the doctrines of the Apostles, the Apocalypse of John, the gospel according to the Hebrews, and does not apply the epithet to the epistle of James, the 2 of Peter, 2 and 3 John; he uses of James's in one place the verb to be counted spurious.(217) In like manner he speaks of the Apocalypse of Peter and the epistle of Barnabas as controverted.(218) The mixed or spurious of Origen are vaguely separated by Eusebius; both come under the general head of the controverted; for after specifying them separately he sums up, |all these will belong to the class of the controverted,| the very class already described as containing |books well known and recognized by most,| implying also that they were read in the churches.(219)

It is somewhat remarkable that Eusebius does not mention the Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians in this list. But he speaks of it in another place as a production whose authenticity was generally acknowledged,(220) and of its public use in most churches both formerly and in his own time. This wide-spread reading of it did not necessarily imply canonicity; but the mode in which Eusebius characterizes it, and its extensive use in public, favor the idea that in many churches it was almost put on equality with the productions commonly regarded as authoritative. The canonical list was not fixed immovably in the time of Eusebius. Opinions about books varied, as they had done before.

The testimony of Eusebius regarding the canon, important as it is, has less weight because of the historian's credulity. One who believed in the authenticity of Abgar's letters to Christ, and in the canon of the four gospels at the time of Trajan, cannot take rank as a judicious collector or sifter of facts.

About 332 A.D. the Emperor Constantine entrusted Eusebius with the commission to make out a complete collection of the sacred Christian writings for the use of the Catholic Church. How this order was executed we are not told. But Credner is probably correct in saying that the code consisted of all that is now in the New Testament except the Revelation. The fifty copies which were made must have supplied Constantinople and the Greek Church for a considerable time with an authoritative canon.

Eusebius's catalogue agrees in substance with that of Origen's. The historian followed ecclesiastical tradition. He inquired diligently into the prevailing opinions of the Christian churches and writers, with the views held by others before and contemporaneously with himself, but could not attain to a decided result. His hesitation stood in the way of a clear, firm, view of the question. The tradition respecting certain books was still wavering, and he was unable to fix it. Authority fettered his independent judgment. That he was inconsistent and confused does not need to be shown.

The exact principles that guided the formation of a canon in the earliest centuries cannot be discovered. Strictly speaking there were none. Definite grounds for the reception or rejection of books were not apprehended. The choice was determined by various circumstances, of which apostolic origin was the chief, though this itself was insufficiently attested; for if it be asked whether all the New Testament writings proceeded from the authors whose names they bear, criticism cannot reply in the affirmative. The example and influence of churches to which the writings had been first addressed must have acted upon the reception of books. Above all, individual teachers here and there saw the necessity of meeting heretics with their own weapons, in their own way, with apostolic records instead of oral tradition. The circumstances in which the orthodox were placed led to this step, effecting a bond of union whose need must have been felt while each church was isolated under its own bishop and the collective body could not take measures in common. Writings of more recent origin would be received with greater facility than such as had been in circulation for many years, especially if they professed to come from a prominent apostle. A code of apostolic writings, divine and perfect like the Old Testament, had to be presented as soon as possible against Gnostic and Manichaean heretics whose doctrines were injurious to objective Christianity; while the multiplication of apocryphal works threatened to overwhelm genuine tradition with a heap of superstition. The Petrine and Pauline Christians, now amalgamated to a great extent, agreed in hastening the canon-process.

The infancy of the canon was cradled in an uncritical age, and rocked with traditional ease. Conscientious care was not directed from the first to the well-authenticated testimony of eye-witnesses. Of the three fathers who contributed most to its early growth, Irenaeus was credulous and blundering; Tertullian passionate and one-sided; and Clement of Alexandria, imbued with the treasures of Greek wisdom, was mainly occupied with ecclesiastical ethics. Irenaeus argues that the gospels should be four in number, neither more nor less, because there are four universal winds and four quarters of the world. The Word or Architect of all things gave the gospel in a fourfold shape. According to this father, the apostles were fully informed concerning all things, and had a perfect knowledge, after their Lord's ascension. Matthew wrote his gospel while Peter and Paul were preaching in Rome and founding the church.(221) Such assertions show both ignorance and exaggeration.

Tertullian affirms that the tradition of the apostolic churches guarantees the four gospels,(222) and refers his readers to the churches of Corinth, Philippi, Ephesus, &c., for the authentic epistles of Paul.(223) What is this but the rhetoric of an enthusiast? In like manner he states that bishops were appointed by the apostles, and that they existed from that time downward, the succession originating so early.(224)

Clement contradicts himself in making Peter authorize Mark's gospel to be read in the churches; while in another place he says that the apostle neither |forbad nor encouraged it.|(225)

The three fathers of whom we are speaking, had neither the ability nor the inclination to examine the genesis of documents surrounded with an apostolic halo. No analysis of their authenticity and genuineness was seriously attempted either by them or by the men of their time. In its absence, custom, accident, taste, practical needs directed the tendency of tradition. All the rhetoric employed to throw the value of their testimony as far back as possible, even up to or at least very near the apostle John is of the vaguest sort. Appeals to the continuity of tradition and of church doctrine, to the exceptional veneration of these fathers for the gospels, to their opinions being formed earlier than the composition of the works in which they are expressed, possess no force. The ends which the fathers in question had in view, their polemic motives, their uncritical, inconsistent assertions, their want of sure data, detract from their testimony. Their decisions were much more the result of pious feeling biased by the theological speculations of the times, than the conclusions of a sound judgment. The very arguments they use to establish certain conclusions show weakness of perception. What are the manifestations of spiritual feeling, compared with the results of logical reasoning? Are they more trustworthy than the latter? Certainly not, at least in relation to questions of evidence. It is true that their testimony has a value; but it is one proportionate to the degree of credibility attaching to witnesses circumstanced as they were, whose separation of canonical from uncanonical gospels, or rather their canonizing of certain writings apart from others, and their claiming of inspiration for the authors of the former, must be judged by the reasonableness of the thing itself, in connection with men of their type. The second century abounded in pseudonymous literature; and the early fathers, as well as the churches, were occupied with other things than the sifting of evidence connected with writings considerably prior to their own time. The increase of such apocryphal productions, gospels, acts, and apocalypses among the heretical parties stimulated the orthodox bishops and churches to make an authentic collection; but it increased the difficulties of the task.

Textual criticism has been employed to discredit the true dates of the present gospels; and the most exaggerated descriptions have been given of the frequent transcription of the text and its great corruption in the second century. The process of corruption in the course of frequent transcription has been transferred even to the first century. It is true that the gospels at the end of that century exhibited a text which bears marks of transcription, interpolation, and addition; but they were not the complete works as we have them now, being then but in progress, except the fourth. The assumption that |advanced corruption| existed in the present text of the synoptists as early as the first century is gratuitous; unless the process by which they were gradually built up is so called. No attempt to get a long history behind the canonical gospels at the close of the first century out of |advanced corruption| can be successful. It is attested by no Christian writer of the century; and those in the first half of the second, both heretical and orthodox, did themselves treat the text in a manner far short of its implied infallibility. The various readings with which they had to do, do not carry up the canonical gospels far into the first century. The transcription, enlargement, and interpolation of the materials which make up the body of them, must not be identified with the corruption of their completed texts, in order that the latter may be relegated to an early period; for the synoptists did not come forth full-blown, each from the hand of a single person. The old Latin version or versions used by Tertullian and the interpreter of Irenaeus, have been pressed into the same service, but in vain.

In like manner the Curetonian Syriac version of the gospels has been put as early as possible into the second century, though it can hardly have been prior to the very close of it, or rather to the beginning of the third. Here the strong assertions of apologetic writers have been freely scattered abroad. But the evidence in favor of the authors traditionally assigned to the gospels and some of the epistles, is still uncertain. A wide gap intervenes between eye-witnesses of the apostles or apostolic men that wrote the sacred books, and the earliest fathers who assert such authorship. The traditional bridge between them is a precarious one. As the chasm cannot be filled by adequate external evidence, we are thrown back on the internal character of the works themselves. One thing appears from the early corruption of the sacred records spoken of by Irenaeus, Origen, and others, that they were not regarded with the veneration necessarily attaching to infallible documents. Their being freely handled excludes the idea of rigid canonization. The men who first canonized them had no certain knowledge of their authors. To them, that knowledge had been obscured or lost; though a sagacious criticism might have arrived at the true state of the question even in their day.

In the sub-apostolic age Ebionitism passed into Catholicism, Jewish into Pauline Christianity, the mythical and marvelous into the dogmatic, the traditional into the historic, the legendary into the literary. The conflict of parties within the sphere of Christianity gave rise to productions of various tendencies which reflected the circumstances out of which they arose. These were accepted or rejected by the churches according to the prevailing opinions of the persons composing the churches. Common usage led to the authorization of some; others were neglected. The state of the second century in its beliefs, credulity, idiosyncracies of prominent teachers, antagonistic opinions and mystic speculations, throws a light upon the New Testament writings and especially on the formation of the canon, which explains their genesis. Two things stand out most clearly, the comparatively late idea of a canonical New Testament literature; and the absence of critical principles in determining it. The former was not entertained till the latter part of the second century. The conception of canonicity and inspiration attaching to New Testament books did not exist till the time of Irenaeus.

When it is asked, to whom do we owe the canon? the usual answer is, to the Church. This is true only in a sense. The unity attributed to Christians before Irenaeus and Tertullian, consisted in their religious consciousness. It was subjective. The idea of the church was that of inward fellowship -- the fellowship of the spirit rather than an outward organism. The preservation of the early Christian writings was owing, in the first instance, to the congregations to whom they were sent, and the neighboring ones with whom such congregations had friendly connection. The care of them devolved on the most influential teachers, -- on those who occupied leading positions in the chief cities, or were most interested in apostolic writings as a source of instruction. The Christian books were mostly in the hands of the bishops. In process of time the canon was the care of assemblies or councils. But it had been made before the first general council by a few leading fathers towards the end of the second century in different countries. The formation of a Catholic Church and of a canon was simultaneous. The circumstances in which the collection originated were unfavorable to the authenticity of its materials, for tradition had been busy over them and their authors. Instead of attributing the formation of the canon to the Church, it would be more correct to say that the important stage in it was due to three teachers, each working separately and in his own way, who were intent upon the creation of a Christian society which did not appear in the apostolic age, -- a visible organization united in faith, -- where the discordant opinions of apostolic and sub-apostolic times should be finally merged. The canon was not the work of the Christian Church so much as of the men who were striving to form that Church, and could not get beyond the mould received by primitive Christian literature. The first mention of a Catholic Church occurs in The Martyrdom of Polycarp, an epistle that cannot be dated earlier than 160 A.D., and may perhaps be ten years later. But though the idea is there, its established use is due to Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Cyprian. The expression has a different and narrow sense in the seven Ignatian epistles which we believe to be supposititious and later than Justin. Neither the three epistles published in Syriac by Cureton, nor the seven Greek ones enumerated by Eusebius are authentic; though Zahn has tried to prove the latter such, dating them A.D.144. His arguments, however, are far from convincing; and the whole story of(226) Ignatius's martyrdom at Rome rather than Antioch is still doubtful; for the circumstances under which he is said to have been dragged to Rome, and his writing letters to the churches by the way, are highly improbable. The testimony of Malalas that Ignatius suffered at Antioch in December, 115, in the presence of Trajan, may be quite as good as that of Chrysostom and the Syriac monthly calendar on which Zahn relies so confidently. The fact of the priority of the last two to Malalas is of little weight as evidence. The main point is the locality in which Ignatius suffered; which Malalas, himself a native of Antioch and a historian, ought to have known better than Chrysostom, because he copied preceding historians.

It is necessary to be precise on this subject because some speak of the church as though it were contemporary with the apostles themselves, or at least with their immediate disciples; and proceed to argue that dissensions arose soon after |within the church| rendering an appeal to the written word necessary. When the authority of traditional teaching gave way to that of a written rule, a change came over the condition of the church. Such a view tends to mislead. There were dissensions among the earliest Christians. The apostles themselves were by no means unanimous. Important differences of belief divided the Jewish and Gentile Christians from the beginning. The types of Christian truth existing from the first gradually coalesced about the middle of the second century; when heretics, especially the Gnostics, appeared so formidable that a catholic church was developed. Along with this process, and as an important element in it, the writings of apostles and apostolic men were uncritically taken from tradition and elevated to the rank of divine documents. It was not the rise of new dissensions |within the church| which led to the first formation of a Christian canon; rather did the new idea of |a catholic church| require a standard of appeal in apostolic writings, which were now invested with an authority that did not belong to them from the beginning.

Origen was the first who took a somewhat scientific view of the relative value belonging to the different parts of the biblical collection. His examination of the canon was critical. Before him the leading books had been regarded as divine and sacred, the source of doctrinal and historic truth. From this stand-point he did not depart. With him ecclesiastical tradition was a prevailing principle in the recognition of books belonging of right to the New Testament collection. He was also guided by the inspiration of the authors; a criterion arbitrary in its application, as his own statements show. In his time, however, the collection was being gradually enlarged; his third class. i.e., the mixed, approaching reception into the first. But amid all the fluctuations of opinion to which certain portions of the New Testament were subject, and the unscientific procedure both of fathers and churches in the matter, though councils had not met to discuss it, and vague tradition had strengthened with time, a certain spiritual consciousness manifested itself throughout the East and West in the matter of the canon. Tolerable unanimity ensued. The result was a remarkable one, and calls for our gratitude, notwithstanding its defects. Though the development was pervaded by no critical or definite principle, it ended in a canon which has maintained its validity for centuries.

It is sometimes said that the history of the canon should be sought from definite catalogues, not from isolated quotations. The latter are supposed to be of slight value, the former to be the result of deliberate judgment. This remark is more specious than solid. In relation to the Old Testament, the catalogues given by the fathers, as by Melito and Origen, rest solely on the tradition of the Jews; apart from which they have no independent authority. As none except Jerome and Origen knew Hebrew, their lists of the Old Testament books are simply a reflection of what they learned from others. If they deviate in practice from their masters by quoting as Scripture other than the canonical books, they show their judgment over-riding an external theory. The very men who give a list of the Jewish books evince an inclination to the Christian and enlarged canon. So Origen says, in his Epistle to Africanus, that |the churches use Tobit.| In explaining the prophet Isaiah, Jerome employs Sirach vi.6, in proof of his view, remarking that the apocryphal work is in the Christian catalogue.

In like manner Epiphanius, in a passage against Aetius, after referring to the books of Scripture, adds, |as well as the books of Wisdom, i.e., the Wisdom of Solomon and of Jesus, son of Sirach; finally, all the other books of Scripture.| In another place he gives the canon of the Jews historically, and excludes the apocryphal Greek books; here he includes some of the latter. We also learn from Jerome that Judith was in the number of the books reckoned up by the Nicene Council. Thus the fathers who give catalogues of the Old Testament show the existence of a Jewish and a Christian canon in relation to the Old Testament; the latter wider than the former; their private opinion being more favorable to the one, though the other was historically transmitted. In relation to the New Testament, the synods which drew up lists of the sacred books show the view of some leading father like Augustine, along with what custom had sanctioned. In this department no member of the synod exercised his critical faculty; a number together would decide such questions summarily. Bishops proceed in the track of tradition or authority.

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