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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : § 5. Was the New Testament created consciously? and how did the Churches arrive at one common New Testament?

The Origin Of The New Testament by Adolf Harnack

§ 5. Was the New Testament created consciously? and how did the Churches arrive at one common New Testament?

The Dialogue of Justin with Trypho affords the strongest testimony that in the sixth decade of the second century there was no such thing as a New Testament (vide supra, p.16). The Montanist movement gives the same witness (vide supra). A movement of its character could never have arisen if a New Testament had then existed. On the other hand, Irenæus, about A.D.185, is a witness for the new collection of sacred books though not for the closed and definite form which it first acquired in the second period of the Montanist controversy. The Muratorian Fragment, about the year A.D.200, and Tertullian are the first witnesses that this character had been acquired. The bipartite collection as |Books of the New Covenant| thus came into existence between A.D.160 and 180, the relatively closed and definite form was acquired between A.D.180 and 200.

The difference between Irenæus, on the one hand, and the Fragment and Tertullian in their attitude to this question is by no means slight. Speaking strictly, it would be possible for us to say that Irenæus had no New Testament before him; the name does not occur in his works, and though he ascribes the greatest importance to the number four of the Gospels, he is otherwise so unconcerned about the number of the books that, with him, the Gospels seem still to stand apart by themselves. But on closer observation this impression proves false. With Irenæus also the collection has a definite structure: Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, Pauline Epistles -- while the Acts forms the bridge between Gospels and Pauline Epistles legitimising the standing and determining the interpretation of the latter. Moreover, the selection of books is essentially the same in these three earliest authorities. Thus all that is characteristic of the Apostolic-Catholic collection is already given for Irenæus, and in contrast with him the Fragment and Tertullian do not mark a new stage, but a somewhat wider development on the same stage; a development which answered to the development in the general history of the Church during the last two decades of the second century.

1. We are dealing with a period when the Holy Scriptures were still written on rolls. The fact of a definite structure (|evangelicæ et apostolicæ litteræ,| the latter opening with the Acts of the Apostles) is in itself evidence of the first importance that the New Testament from a certain point in its development onwards was a conscious creation.

Critics continue to excuse themselves from boldly facing the question -- conscious creation or not. Up to a certain point this reluctance is intelligible and justifiable. In fact, after the four Gospels had once come together in Asia Minor, and after they in their fourfold form had won their way into one Church after another, there is very much in the development of things leading to the foundation of the New Testament that can and ought to be explained from the practice of public reading and other causes, without recourse to the hypothesis of conscious creation. Even the addition to the Gospels of Apostolic Epistles in some form or another is an arrangement that might easily have arisen quite independently and in essentially similar fashion in different Churches. But the form in which the addition is made under the dominating influence of the Acts of the Apostles could not have occurred automatically and at the same time in different Churches. I here refer to what has been already written on page 67: the placing of this book (the Acts) in the growing Canon shows evidence of reflection, of conscious purpose, of a strong hand acting with authority; and by such conscious action the Canon began to take form as Apostolic-Catholic. It cannot have happened otherwise; for the sense of purpose expressed in the structure cannot have been unconscious. It is not permissible to object that the Acts of the Apostles could not but find its way into the Canon and occupy an important position therein seeing that its author had already found a place there as an evangelist; for the book is not placed next the Lucan Gospel, nor does the name of Luke appear in its title. The latter fact is most important. The compiler does not trouble to give the name of the author, it is of no importance for him ; he gives the book the inclusive title, Praxeis apostolon, and seems thereby to suggest that we have here a book that gives the genuine testimony of the Apostles themselves. Note that the Acts of the Apostles is the only book in the New Testament that does not bear in its title the name of the author! The book was meant to supply the place of a book which did not exist and could not have existed! This valuation of the book, this new stamp impressed upon it, did not make themselves, they came about because a solid organic Apostolic-Catholic Canon was to be gained thereby.

2. Setting at its highest the measure of uniformity in the different Churches that must have resulted from the relatively small number of early Christian works and from the practice of public reading, we shall still never be able from these causes alone to explain the fact that the Acts of the Apostles, thirteen Pauline Epistles, the Epistles of Jude, etc., always and exclusively are found together side by side with the four Gospels. Why in the world Jude, why two Johannine Epistles, why everywhere throughout the Church thirteen Pauline Epistles? Why are |Apostolici| admitted to the company of the |Apostoli| and yet are limited in the second part of the Canon at first only to Luke and Hermas? Was the Epistle of Jude really in such wide circulation that a whole multitude of Churches was compelled to admit it into the Canon independently of one another? No: apart from the structure the selection of works affords still further assurance that here a conscious will was in final control.

3. Then there is the agreement in the titles of the books as far back as we can trace them, and here the unanimous testimony of the earliest Fathers leads us back to the beginning of the third century. This in itself is a further proof of conscious creation. We have already dealt with the title Praxeis Apostolon; but other titles come into consideration, and the unanimity of the testimony in favour of a fixed form of titles is so great that the few exceptions appear insignificant. Again it is probable that the titles, the beginnings, and the endings of some books have been subjected to correction; if so, the fact that these corrections have passed into all manuscripts shows that they must belong to the time of the final formation of the Canon and thus presuppose an authoritative author. I do not, however, propose to discuss this point because it has not yet been investigated thoroughly and comprehensively.

The selection of works, the structure of the collection, and the titles of the books assure us that in the New Testament, as it stood at the end of the second century, we have before us a compilation that indeed grew up naturally out of the history of the Church of the second century, but only reached its final form through conscious purpose. Why indeed is it that not one of the different, possible Canons mentioned above (pp.8 ff. and Appendix 2) came into being in some one Church throughout the world? All goes to prove that the new Canon was a conscious production. Where did it arise?

Certainly not in Africa; for the Church there knew, as we learn from Tertullian, that all that it possessed was received from Rome. Just as certainly not in Egypt; for the relations of the Egyptian Churches with the Churches of the Empire were still very slight at the end of the second century. It is therefore most difficult to imagine that a creation of the Egyptian Church could have established itself in the Church throughout the world, while on the other hand, in spite of the slight connection between the Empire and Egypt, developments in the Empire could easily have influenced Egypt. Again, we may exclude all those provincial Churches that consisted at that time of some few scattered communities (a diaspora in the strict sense of the word), which means in the West all Churches except Rome. We may neglect also the Churches of Syria in the widest sense of the term, including Antioch. There remain then only the Churches of the coastal provinces of Asia Minor, of Achaia and Macedonia, and the Church of Rome. This practically means that only the Churches of Ephesus, Smyrna (perhaps also Sardis Pergamum), Corinth, and Rome stand in question.

Decision between these ancient and important Churches is difficult because, as we know, they stood in close communication with one another during the second century. Polycarp himself even in extreme old age (at the time of the Roman bishop Anicetus) visited Rome. The Montanist movement was brought before the forum of the Roman Church, and only just escaped recognition by a Roman bishop (Tert., Adv. Prax., 1): in this connection Irenæus addresses a letter to Rome ; Dionysius of Corinth writes to Rome and to other Churches; we know of two Epistles from the Roman to the Corinthian Church, and of many other letters from the same Church to Churches of the East. Rome made the difference concerning the keeping of Easter a matter of universal concern, and demanded that it should be settled simply in accordance with Roman custom. Much else might be mentioned that I have collected in my Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte, 1.^3 S.480-496, under the title |Katholisch und Römisch.| History shows that at that time the geographical centre of Christendom -- the region from the West Coast of Asia Minor to Rome -- was also the centre of movement in the Church, and that in this region every care was taken by means of active intercourse both by person and by letter to promote uniformity of development in opposition to centrifugal and heretical influences. And history also shows that without prejudice to the independence of individual Churches, the Roman Church possessed an actual primacy in this region. Under the care and with the leading of this community, and inspired by its exhortation, the Church developed in this central region of Christendom.

So far, therefore, we may say with certainty that the New Testament arose in the central region of the Empire (Ephesus -- Rome); that it is a production of the leading Churches of that region -- Churches that were determined upon uniformity of development.

If, however, we examine more closely the character of this new creation and then take a comprehensive view of the Muratorian Fragment, the earliest list of works of the New Testament, we may advance a step further.

We cannot determine more exactly than has been already done a particular Church where the fundamental idea of the New Testament was first conceived and realised -- the idea, namely, that the Church possessed books that were fundamental documents of a New Covenant in the same sense that the books of the Old Testament were fundamental documents of the Old Covenant. Certain testimony in favour of Asia Minor, both for conception and realisation, is afforded by two Asiatic authors -- Melito (about A.D.180), who knows hooks of the Old Covenant (therefore also of the New), and an anonymous anti-Montanist (about A.D.192), who presupposes the existence of a group of writings (not only gospels) as books of the New Covenant, vide supra, pp.36 ff.; while another writer of Asia Minor, Apollonius, only a little later testifies to the unique prestige of Apostolic Epistles. On the other hand, we have certain evidence that books of the New Testament were recognised as such in the Church of Rome at a relatively earlier date, because the Church of Africa at the time of Tertullian recognised them as such. We do well, therefore, to give no exclusive vote for either Asia Minor or Rome. But the fundamental idea of the new collection as |books of the New Covenant| does not exhaust its whole nature. Though it is true that, wherever this idea was conceived and realised, it is in the highest degree probable that the Pauline Epistles were also already accepted -- for these alone (not the Gospels) testified to the |New| as a |New Covenant| -- and that probably the Acts of the Apostles had already received this name, and with the name a certain position of prestige, yet it is the organic structure that really makes the definite |New Testament,| the closed organic structure linked together by the central position of the Acts of the Apostles -- a structure that is for its part closely bound up with the conception of the collection as Apostolic-Catholic, or in other words, as a collection of works giving the testimony of the Apostles themselves.

It is in the highest degree probable that the responsibility for this structure rests simply with the Church of Rome. In the first place our authorities point to Rome. Among these we must also reckon Irenæus. Where he lays stress upon the Apostolic-Catholic standpoint, that is upon the standpoint of a firm chain of tradition, we always see that he stands under the influence of the Roman Church. Now, it may be due to accident that we do not receive the same impression from writers in Asia Minor. But here we are faced by the following consideration: the three great Apostolic criteria that we find in force at the end of the second century -- the Apostolic Rule of Faith, the Apostolic Canon of Scripture, and the Apostolic office of bishops -- form a strict unity. They derive from one conception, they are mutually dependent upon one another and condition one another, and in their unity are, in my opinion, only historically intelligible as the reflection and expression of the self-consciousness and ecclesiastical character of the leading Church, the Church |founded by Peter and Paul.| It is not a question of the idea of tradition in general -- this idea could have come into force everywhere independently -- but of the employment of the idea as the fundamental authority for absolutely everything connected with the Church. Such a practice, always in close connection with the names of Peter and Paul, is specifically Roman. If this is certain, then it is not likely to be without significance that the first testimony to the structure of the new Canon and its strict treatment as Apostolic-Catholic comes from Rome. Rather we may declare with great probability that the moulding of |the collection of books of the New Covenant| into a relatively closed Apostolic-Catholic Canon with its characteristic structure is the work of the Roman Church.

And this is the impression always left upon us as we return to the Muratorian Fragment. The beginning of this work is most unfortunately lost, and we can therefore only form a conjecture as to the real intention of its author. But three points are quite clear: (1) Though the author speaks with authority -- for he feels that all that the Church does or may do in reference to the New Canon is self-evident and requires no defence -- yet he does still partly defend and justify the acceptance or exclusion of books, and his whole procedure is intelligible only on the supposition that he is addressing himself to outsiders who were in great uncertainty as to what should be included in the new collection of sacred writings. To these he proclaims: |This is our custom, and this must be the custom everywhere in the Church.| This na√Įve identification of what the Church of the author does with what is to be done everywhere in the Church is one of the characteristic marks of the work. The attitude is exactly the same as that of Rome in the Paschal controversy. (2) The Apostolic-Catholic standard dominates the Fragment from its opening words concerning the Gospels to the polemic of the conclusion which associates Montanus with Basilides. (3) Just because this standard gives complete security and guarantees in idea a fixed organic form for the Canon, the author has no further interest in determining the number of the books; rather he leaves it open and gives us to understand that, on the basis of the correct standard and in given circumstances, the Church, i.e. his Church, could in the future accept other books into the Canon.

Taking all these points into consideration, we can only say: Could the Roman Church -- for it is this Church that speaks in the person of the author -- so speak and act if it had been forced to consider other Churches because these also had long possessed such a New Testament? And conversely, could any Church other than the Roman have given birth to such a work as the Fragment? No; the Church from which this work proceeds feels herself unfettered and independent in regard to other Churches -- only from this point of view is the work intelligible. But this only means that the Roman Church is defining the New Testament for herself in the first place, but therewith also for other Churches. This Church, then, had not received this Canon from another Church; she is bound by no tradition in regard to other Churches; she has herself made, and still continues to make, this collection of books; for the Canon is only relatively closed. Nothing in the Muratorian Fragment suggests that the idea of a new collection of sacred writings side by side with the Old Testament was Roman, or that no New Testament in the more general sense of the word previously existed; but the Fragment gives clear testimony that this particular Canon is the specific work of the Roman Church, which cherishes, guards, and develops it, and now also delivers it to other Churches as the Apostolic-Catholic Canon to be by them accepted and observed.

First the collection of four Gospels arose in Asia Minor; then in the centre of ecclesiastical development -- in the region bounded by Rome and the west coast of Asia Minor -- a larger collection of |Books of the New Covenant| grew up, consisting of the thirteen Pauline Epistles, several Catholic Epistles, the Revelation of John (and other Apocalypses), and lastly the Acts of the Apostles under this name -- this collection sprang from the common labour and intercourse of the Churches in the face of heresy and Montanism. Finally, the Roman Church gave form to this collection by enforcing throughout the principle of the Apostolic-Catholic, by placing the Acts directly after the Gospels and attaching to it or rather subordinating to it all the other books, and by applying to the Apocalypses the strict test of apostolicity to which all the Apocalypses save one very soon fell victim. This New Testament, clear and intelligible in its structure, and in regard to its content differing little from its immediate forerunners, gradually established itself in the Churches.

Clement of Alexandria does not as yet know this final form of the New Testament; however, he shows that he is influenced by its forerunner. This is not surprising, for Clement was well acquainted with a store of tradition emanating from the Churches of Asia Minor, indeed these traditions were of fundamental importance for him. If we examine his works with a view to constructing the collection of sacred writings in use in the Church of Alexandria, we soon discover that this Church possessed the Canon of four Gospels, that it read the Pauline Epistles as sacred and absolutely authoritative works, but that it also recognised a multitude of early Christian writings of various kinds as sacred in various degrees. Among these we find the Acts of the Apostles and, indeed, under this name. But while it is questionable whether any definite collection of sacred writings, standing in any sense on a level with the Old Testament and the Gospels, can be spoken of as existing in the Church of Alexandria -- each work, from the Pauline Epistles to the Epistle of Barnabas, stood by itself, each had its own individual significance in the sphere of the holy and authoritative -- so it is still more questionable whether the Acts of the Apostles, not infrequently quoted by Clement, belonged to this collection if it existed. It is very possible that the actual position of the Church of Alexandria in regard to the growing New Testament was yet more primitive than it appears in the works of Clement, who by his travels and through his connection with numbers of Churches outside Egypt was well acquainted with their circumstances. If in one of his works he actually commented on 1 Peter, 1 and 2 John, and Jude alone among the Catholic Epistles, and when he gives the name Praxeis Apostolon to the second work of St Luke, in both cases he is evidently dependent upon the New Testament as it was developing in the Empire. The Church of Alexandria seems to have indiscriminately accepted every work that could be possibly regarded as sacred, and as occasion served to have appealed to each as authoritative. Not till the beginning of the third century can this Church have arrived at a more definite selection and structure for its sacred writings. It is surely significant that at this time Origen, the chief of the Catechetical School, visited Rome, and there came into touch with the presbyter Hippolytus, and that since the beginning of the third century general relations between the Church of Alexandria and the Church of the Empire became more intimate than before. When, however, the Church of Alexandria was confronted with the necessity to form for herself a definite New Testament, she found in her midst a greater number of works claiming acceptance than were to be found in the more central Churches of the Empire. The Alexandrian Church had long ago taken the Epistle to the Hebrews into her collection of Pauline Epistles and would be reluctant to lose it; again, decision had to be given concerning the Epistle of James, a second Epistle of Peter, and a third Epistle of John, as well as Barnabas, Clement, Didache, etc. (and Hermas again), all of which presented themselves for acceptance. In accepting and rejecting this Church now openly followed the same principles that were current in Rome, i.e. she accepted only what was or seemed to be strictly Apostolic. As a result the New Testament of Alexandria was somewhat more comprehensive than the Roman; so also in other Churches of the East, as the Roman standard gradually came to be accepted and applied to the works that up to this time had been read in each Church, the resulting New Testament in each case disclosed differences sometimes of a plus, sometimes a minus.

The disputes of scholars and Churches concerning these differences, the efforts of Origen, Eusebius, Athanasius, and others in this connection, the final compromise in the second half of the fourth century, the differences still remaining especially in the Churches of the extreme East -- all these questions, however necessary it is that they should be discussed, nevertheless involve absolutely no principle of any importance, depending as they do upon the operation of a single insignificant factor. No one now felt empowered to make any change in the compass of the New Testament -- the spirit that could soar to the heights of the recipimus of the Muratorian Fragment soon died out in the Church. Never since the very beginning of the third century do we hear of even synods dealing boldly with the question of the canonicity of books. All that could be done now was to count the heads of Churches and authorities, and the conception of the |Antilegomena| now took form -- a conception that was essentially impossible and evasive, and that simply meant a metabasis eis allo genos. Finally, the New Testament, in the form of the more comprehensive Canon of Alexandria, gained the victory also in the West, because it was backed up by the authority of Athanasius and because his manifesto found the Western Churches so situated that they were more disposed to bow before the higher antiquity of the Churches of the East than they had ever been before. The Canon of twenty-seven books, as we still have it to-day, is the Canon of the Alexandrian Church of the third century, but its nucleus is the New Testament as it was created about A.D.200 in Rome.

After the Roman Church had given form to the new collection of sacred writings and had in idea created a closed Canon, this creation functioned so admirably in every Church where it was accepted as a pattern in the course of the third century, that throughout the Churches the New Testament was regarded as if it were as fixed and definite an entity as the Old Testament, while in truth there was still great lack of uniformity. This is an astounding fact, yet so it happened. For this very reason we are justified in asserting that the Churches arrived at a single New Testament, because in Rome at the end of the second century the new collection of sacred writings attached to the Gospels was organised and crystallised under the influence of a grand and simple conception; because this procedure met with universal acceptance on its own merits backed by the authority of the Roman Church; and because the different and formless collections of the other Churches were so closely related to that of Rome that they could accommodate themselves to the Roman conception without great difficulty and sacrifice.

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