The Text of the New Testament is a little more clear to me as I took some of the textual criticism and canonization in my undergrad degree and piled a little on in seminary. As much as critics like to use textual criticism as a weapon here it really is a double-edged sword as some theories that the new testament was not written till the second century have given the death nail with a few earlier manuscripts that were discovered recently in scholarly terms. The point is no one calls people who believe that the new testament was written in the first century or by their authors conservatives propose as nuts as they used to before these discoveries. The textual background of the Bible is important when it comes to the New Testament but this series is how the books of the bible were canonized and when we get new testament we actually have a clear picture of the history of that.
Firstly we need to realize that the Old Testament was pretty much set by the second century and as one of my commenters pointed out last week it was because of those pesky Christians. They wanted to put a cap on Scripture so nothing could be added of the Christian variety. This means though that Christianity basically accepted the Old Testament canon as laid out buy this process. It was the new testament canon that became a problem very early on. It is a simple fact that it seems everyone was writing stuff related to Jesus. Various movements like the Gnostics and other fringe groups were writing their own epistles, gospels and apocalyptic literature. It was become a problems because here was no central statement of what that apostolic authority was and what their scriptures were. The fact is heresy was everywhere and there was a need very quickly to get a solid grip on who Jesus was and what he did and the consensus was that the ones who would know that best were the ones who knew him and walked with him or were very close to those who did.
Various individuals over time developed lists of what they considered canonical books. It culminated though in the Council of Nicaea where the twenty-seven books which are in the Protestant canon were ratified and ultimately upheld by other councils later. Now this was not a popularity contest. It was ultimately about a set criteria to get back to the core tradition of the apostles so that there would be an authoritative body of work. it was about identifying the central authority of the church by identifying what the apostles knew and believed about Jesus and establishing that as the core for the authority of the church. It gave them a tool to go after the various heretics by saying” It is not just me saying this, it is the apostle John who knew Jesus.” I was because of this point that there was a pretty well established criteria before the council began to make its decision about what books would be in the Bible. Picture if you will a whole large table filled with potential scrolls for canonization and the criteria was what would cause someone to go over and take something off it and discard it as possible to be canonized.
The Criteria was:
1. The book had to be authored by an apostle or a close associate of an apostle: Note that in the fifth century this council was in a far better position to make this call that we are and this is because they were close to the original writing. They would have had access to records and information that we would not and have since lost. They would have been well aware of what books were universally acclaimed to have a certain authorship and which ones were questionable in authorship even at that early time compared to ours and so many books come flying off the table. As much as Gnostics claim that it is theology that caused their works to be rejected, it is actually this stage that killed most of their works as most of them have authorship that is questionable or difficult to determine. The Gospel of Thomas is among these.
2. Universal Acceptance: This was a harder one because it involved getting books that ha true universal acceptance. I don’t know if people realize the gravity of his idea. If there was any reservation about a candidate book, and that lead anyone to thinking ‘no’ this is not universally accepted. Universal is a strong word and it means that all of the delegates at the council agreed that the book was accepted. This why something like the books of Clement of Rome didn’t make it in because even though many thought they should it was not all. This is also the reason though books like Hebrews made it because they were universally accepted.
3. Liturgical Use: Were Christians using the book in daily services. This is more of the universal acceptance issue because the greater concern was whether it was truly accepted outside the delegates at the Council. This was about a broader understanding of the book’s acceptance. This was another one that kind of kept books like Hebrews around on the table.
4. Consistent Message or Harmonious Message. Do all the books left have the same ideas and overlapping ideas or is there an oddball. This is one of the reasons the Clement of Rome’s works were rejected and why they did not have universal appeal and in part it was the use of the Egyptian myth of the Phoenix as an allegory of the resurrection that it had these problems. It was these possible problems that the Council was looking at and some other books also dropped off.
What was left was the 27 books of the New Testament. Critics like to points out that the bible is only authoritative because the church chose it but note the idea was to have a core authority for the church and their criteria is pretty solid. You get the idea that each book had to fight to survive to get in the canon. The absolutely wanted stuff from the apostles and their closest associates so they would have a true guide for faith and practice.
it is also for this reason that another theory of inspiration dies for me and that is the Roman Catholic view of Inspiration. The problem with it is that there is definitely a circular argument with it given that one the one hand the church want to maintain it authority but the whole purpose of canonization has as its foundation the idea of establishment of apostolic tradition and authority as being central to that authority. It was all about the church standing on the authority of the teaching s of Jesus and his apostles above all else and that was why the new Testament was established, it seemed quite circular to then turn around and say that it was the authority of the church that established the new testament when the whole point was to establish an authoritative cornerstones for that authority through the apostles and Christ teachings. Sorry, the gospels hold the words of Christ and they should mean more to us than any other opinion as well as the words of those who knew Christ best.
The problem I have with the Roman Catholic view is that on the one hand they want to establish the authority of the new testament to bolster their position but on the other hand want to maintain authority over the New Testament. It is a circular problem and to be honest I don’t think there is any good resolution other than to point out the flaw and throw it in the scrap pile. I am kind of sad about that too because I liked the distinction between authorship and inspiration and also was pretty good in taking two theories and combining the best ideas from them namely the two now have left which Dynamic and Illumination theories. Yes, sad but I have to let them go.
There is only really one question left to consider in relationship to canonization which is was it justified that the canon was closed?
Next: Closed Canon?