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The Origin Of The New Testament by Adolf Harnack

§ 4. Why has only one Apocalypse been able to keep its place in the New Testament? Why not several--or none at all?

In answering this question we may suitably take the Muratorian Fragment as our starting-point. At the close of its positive section occurs a paragraph which may be paraphrased as follows:

|We also accept Apocalypses, but only two, those of John and Peter; yet the latter is rejected by a minority among us. The Shepherd of Hermas ought not to be spoken of as a part of the Canon either now or at any future time; for it was written only lately in our own times in Rome under the Bishop Pius, the brother of the author; our Canon can only contain apostoli. Neither ought it to be added to the Old Testament, as some wish who point to the prophetic character of the work; for this Book of the prophets is finally closed. Hence the Shepherd of Hermas must be used only for private reading.|

If we closely consider what these words say we cannot doubt that the author means that prophetic works (apocalypses) as such do not at all belong to the Canon of the Church. His statement is, however, involved, because as a matter of fact, which he cannot deny, there is question here of three works of prophetic character, two of which he himself allows to stand in the Canon. He thus occupies a position intermediate between two groups in his own Church, one of which would only allow one Apocalypse, while the other would allow three to be read in public. It is noteworthy that, though he does not agree with the former group, their views do not arouse his displeasure; he only states quite objectively their dissent from himself. On the other hand, he opposes the claim of the other group and rejects it with restrained and yet unmistakably strong feeling. The only conclusion we can draw is that the new Canon when it was formed contained three Apocalypses; but that very soon afterwards in Rome itself a protest was raised, with the result that the third Apocalypse was sacrificed to the feelings of a majority while a minority effected the rejection also of the second. The protest was concerned with the question whether Apocalyptic (prophetic) books had any right to be included in the new Canon; and the fact that the Johannine Apocalypse and at first also the Petrine Apocalypse were able to gain a place therein was due, not to their prophetic, but simply to their Apostolic, character.

Can we imagine a more striking contrast than that afforded by this later stage and the first beginnings of the history of the Canon! Now, at first, only three Apocalypses are included, and, finally, all but one are excluded, whilst at the beginning the Apocalyptic and prophetic works -- whether Jewish Messianic writings that had not found a place in the Old Testament or new Christian writings -- were the only books that ranked in authority with the Old Testament. Seeing that the |Word of the Lord| had not yet found definite literary form we may, without exaggeration, say that in those first days the Apocalypses, in idea and, indeed, to a great extent in actual reality, appeared as a second Canon, and accordingly formed the nucleus of a New Testament of definite character which, however, perished at its birth. The Apocalypses of Ezra, Moses, and Enoch are quoted as authoritative in post-Apostolic literature from the Epistle of Jude onward: Hermas quotes no work except a prophecy of Eldad and Modad (Vis., ii.3, 4); nay, even Paul himself quotes an Apocalypse (Ephes. v.14), so also the authors of the first and second Epistles of Clement (i.23; ii.11). The author of the Didache (ii.7.11) forbids any criticism of the utterances of Christian prophets, including naturally written prophecies, indeed he compares such criticism to the sin against the Holy Ghost. This can only mean that the authority of prophecy is absolute and must be accepted unconditionally. The author of the Johannine Apocalypse closes his book with the denunciation of fearful punishments against anyone who dared to alter his prophecy (xxii.18 f.), claiming thus for his utterances supreme authority. Hermas requires that his little Apocalypse should be read everywhere in the Churches. Justin, in Dialogue 81, describes the Millennium first according to Isaiah lxv., then he adds that also |among us| a man named John, in a revelation afforded to him, has prophesied of a kingdom of a thousand years, with which prophecy Justin combines a saying of the Lord. The fact that |among us| the gifts of the prophets still continue (c.82, etc.) is for Justin a decisive proof that |we| are the people of God. No doubt about it, a Corpus of Christian prophetic writings was well in sight as a new collection of sacred scripture.

Why, then, is it that such a collection has not come down to us as a |New Testament?| Why have the first become last -- indeed, not even the last -- why have they almost all been thrust into the background?

The answer to this question in its main lines has been already given above: the course of development of the inner history of the Church during the years A.D.150-180 thrust the idea of the |Apostolic| into the foreground as of sovereign authority, and at the same time with ever-increasing emphasis proscribed the idea of the prophetic. The Montanist controversy, indeed, brought this process to its close. Had this controversy not occurred, the process would not only have lasted much longer but it might also have had a somewhat different result. Yet on the other hand we must recognise that this controversy was only an acute symptom of a development whose necessity lay in the very nature of the Church as it consolidated itself. Every religious community as it grows into a Church based on tradition must proscribe |prophecy| as authoritative. Prophecy may continue to play its part in the life of the individual and for the edification of smaller groups, it may even preserve an honourable place in the Church itself as an ornament of spiritual value, but it can never be of Canonical authority just because in Churches based on tradition this function belongs exclusively to tradition itself and to the official body that administers tradition. These two powers are intimately connected and only perform their function in the absence of a rival authority. In the Churches, however, tradition had necessarily |the Apostolic| as its characteristic. Accordingly, if the development of things demanded that the test of the Apostolic must be applied also to written works, then it necessarily followed that books of prophecy as such must fall out of account unless they could produce some other claim to authority. Their authors had gifts personal in character, but possessed, so to say, no Missio Canonica.

According to this fundamental principle almost every prophetic element was eliminated when the new Canon was constructed, about the year A.D.180, a fact that in itself shows most clearly that the Canon was based on a selection. Three Apocalypses were indeed preserved, but the explanation, so far as the Johannine and Petrine Apocalypses are concerned, is very simple. They counted as apostolic writings and this saved them. Their apostolic character made them fit to be accepted -- and, besides, the Johannine Apocalypse contained seven (hortatory) epistles, as the Muratorian Fragment remarks not without some special reason; we cannot tell whether the Petrine Apocalypse also contained passages of a hortative character. What, however, was it that protected the Shepherd of Hermas when the decision was once made that prophecy was not to be admitted into the new Canon, but was to be confined to the Old Testament? Probably it was at first impossible to do away with the book because its prestige was too high; after all, theory must always come to a compromise with the force of facts! Then again, prophecy occupied only a portion of the book, which otherwise consisted of exhortations of all kinds that afforded no difficulties to the new Canon. And, lastly, it is quite possible that about the year A.D.180 numbers of people, even in Rome, no longer knew how late the book was, indeed confidently ascribed it to the Hermas greeted by St Paul in the Epistle to the Romans (xvi.14), thus investing the author with somewhat of an Apostolic character. The fact that the Muratorian Fragment so emphatically states the late date of the book does seem to imply that this was no longer generally known.

But must not the breach with ancient tradition involved in the rejection of prophecy have been felt in the Churches to he revolutionary? This would certainly have been the case if the late Jewish and the Christian Apocalypses had ever been read regularly at public worship; but, then, no such custom can be proved to have existed. It is true, as we have seen, that these works were fairly constantly quoted; but we may be sure that the general knowledge of these works was confined only to isolated utterances from them. Hence the new theory, if it spared the three above-mentioned Apocalypses, could creep in without causing any perceptible breach. Indeed we may say conversely that the new theory could only have arisen because the prevailing practice of public lection had unconsciously prepared the way for it.

It was not until theory began to interfere with this practice that conflicts arose. We hear nothing, indeed, of these in connection with the Petrine Apocalypse; but here we may assume that its authorship by St Peter was called into question at an already early date. Those Roman Christians that, according to the testimony of the Muratorian Fragment, would not have this book read in the Church, in all probability had already denied the Petrine authorship -- certainly not on the ground of critical investigations, but, as we may well suppose, because the Apocalypse contained a long discourse of Jesus with the disciples which was not contained in the Gospels, and had a suspicious savour of Gnosticism. What is certain is this, that wherever the book dropped out of use it was regarded as pseudo-Petrine. It disappeared silently and peacefully, reappearing here and there for a moment before it sank for ever.

The Shepherd of Hermas fought hard against his expulsion. Nothing substantial could be produced in favour of the book except |custom|; and the fact that the book disappeared so slowly shows what a powerful factor custom was in the whole process. The battle against this accepted work started by the author of the Muratorian Fragment on the ground of the new Canonical principle, and continued by Tertullian on Montanist grounds, lasted pretty well through the first half of the third century. It ended, as it could only end, disastrously for the Shepherd, and even Origen's affection for the book could not save it against the new principle. This principle, not the attacks of Tertullian, brought about its destruction; and yet in some Churches (especially the Egyptian and Latin) it still had friends for a long period, and an attempt was even made to preserve the book for the Church by attaching it to the Old Testament.

But even the Johannine Apocalypse during the third century must face the attack of the new principle following upon a preliminary assault by the Alogi. The facts of this conflict and their con-sequences are so well known that we need not here consider them, and besides they lie outside the limits that have been set to our investigation. Yet they themselves finally confirm the view which we have taken. If objections were raised against the appearance in the Canon of a book so ancient and venerable, how great seems the gulf that separates present and past, how firm and secure the new principle that prophecy as such does not belong to the New Testament! It is true that objection was taken in Alexandria and Cæsarea to the Millennianism and much else that appeared in the book, but the real motive for rejection was that one would have nothing to do with prophetic revelations that altered the impression that one had received from the words of Christ and the Apostles. For this very reason the Apostolic character of the book began to be disputed; for there was no other way to do away with the book. If things had gone as Eusebius really wished, we should not to-day have had the book in the New Testament, but this conscientious accountant could not bring himself to allow his own opinion to override the facts as they stood, which he felt it to be his bounden duty to state and accept. If Athanasius, in his famous Festal Epistle, had accepted the verdict of Dionysius and Eusebius, the book would also have been lost; for at that time the West also was ready to accept or reject all that the great Bishop of Alexandria prescribed. But Athanasius as a Churchman followed in his list the tradition of his Church, which, in spite of Dionysius, had held fast to the Johannine Apocalypse. Thus the book was finally saved for the New Testament. It was now only a question of time how long a few Oriental Churches would continue to reject it.

The answer to the question set at the head of this paragraph runs thus: The New Testament does not contain several Apocalypses (prophetical books), because, according to the principles which led to its creation at the end of the second century, prophecy as such was absolutely excluded from its sphere; one Apocalypse, however, was preserved, because according to these same principles this one as the work of an Apostle could not be absent from the Apostolic Canon.

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