CNT = Bruce Metzger, The Canon Of The New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997)
EOB = Craig Evans and Emanuel Tov, edd., Exploring The Origins Of The Bible (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2008)
TCD = Lee McDonald and James Sanders, edd., The Canon Debate (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002)
In a chapter in a recent book, Jonathan Wilson expressed a common sentiment about the history of the canon of the New Testament. He referred to "the historical messiness of the formation of the canon" (EOB, 243). Different people can mean different things when they refer to the canonical process as messy. Why is the twenty-seven-book canon not advocated by any extant sources until so long after the time of the apostles? Why are there so many disagreements on canonical issues among the patristic sources? What about the large number of books that didn't make it into the canon, but might have? Why are there so many different arguments for and against the canonicity of the books? If Christianity is true, how could God expect people to sort through all of these issues? I want to address some points that I think are relevant to what many people have in mind when they ask such questions.
Often, the questions are asked by those who want us to follow some alleged infallible guide who will sort through these issues for us. Critics of Christianity aren't the only people who ask such questions. They're often joined by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, for example.
Bruce Metzger's book on the New Testament canon (CNT) is one of the most respected and influential works on the subject in recent years. In the process of discussing the wide diversity of canonical opinions that have existed over the centuries, he mentions some similar disagreements about extra-Biblical literature. He mentions a book attributed to King Charles I, whose authorship is disputed to this day (n. 2 on 12). He refers to an Alexandrian canon of classical Greek authors, including authors of pre-Christian times, that "did not reach a final and fossilized form until the second century of our Era" (111). Clement of Alexandria, who recognized the large majority of New Testament books as scripture, "was well aware of the elaborate discussions concerning the genuineness of Orphic literature current in his day. Practically nothing had been written by Orpheus himself, and almost everything in the Orphic tradition was open to debate." (111) Theophilus of Antioch's authorship of a commentary on the gospels was disputed in ancient times (n. 9 on 117). The authorship of a treatise attributed to Athenagoras is disputed by modern scholars (n. 26 on 126). The authenticity of the Secret Gospel Of Mark is disputed (n. 39 on 132). The authorship of a work attributed to Cyprian has been questioned (163-164). The canon of John Chrysostom's writings is disputed (n. 10 on 215).
To add to Metzger's examples, what about the canon of the apostolic fathers (the earliest church fathers)? Ancient sources and modern scholars have disagreed. Are any of the Ignatian letters genuine? If so, which ones? Should The Epistle To Diognetus be included among the apostolic fathers? Which fragments attributed to Papias are genuine? What about the writings attributed to Justin Martyr? Which belong in his canon of writings? What about the many disputes, historically and among modern scholars, regarding the alleged writings of Popes and rulings issued by church councils? Kent Clarke gives many examples of forgeries and authorship disputes among ancient pagans (TCD, 450-452).
In addition to recognizing that such disputes are common in extra-Biblical literature, not just with regard to Biblical books or religious literature, we should remember the limits of the disputes over the New Testament. In an earlier article, I discussed the widespread agreement of the earliest Christians regarding the large majority of the New Testament canon. Even the most disputed books seem to have been accepted by a majority in the ante-Nicene era. And books like The Shepherd Of Hermas and The Epistle Of Barnabas weren't as popular as is often suggested.
Think about how significant the early canonical agreements are in light of the complexities involved. Early Christianity was spread out over a wide region. Think of the diverse locations of men like Clement of Rome, Papias, Irenaeus, and Tertullian. The early Christians were also diverse in many other ways. In forming a New Testament canon, they weren't just making judgments about the writings of one man, but about the writings of the apostles and their associates. Paul traveled widely. What if he wrote something along the way that you, a Christian of the patristic era, hadn't heard about? What about the linguistic differences between the gospel of John and Revelation? Should James, the brother of Jesus, be considered an apostle? Who wrote Hebrews? Should the book be considered scripture? Coming to agreement on a canon of apostolic books is in some ways more difficult than coming to agreement on a canon of the writings of one man, such as Plato or Thomas Jefferson.
We should keep in mind that when people refer to the diversity of canonical beliefs among ancient Christians (or later Christians), they're often letting everybody join the discussion. Despite the widespread agreement of both ante-Nicene and later Christians on the canonicity of 1 Peter, Eldon Epp mentions a fourth-century manuscript that allegedly reflects doubts about 1 Peter's canonicity on the part of the author of the manuscript (TCD, 491-492). But who wrote that manuscript? Given our ignorance of its background, how much weight should we assign to it? Who wrote other manuscripts often cited in canonical discussions? Who wrote The Epistle Of Barnabas? Or the Muratorian Canon? If we're going to include every source from Hermas to Tertullian to Athanasius to a fifth-century manuscript from an unknown author to Pope Innocent III to Martin Luther to a pastor of a modern liberal church who doesn't think Revelation should be in the canon, then shouldn't we, for the sake of comparison, also allow everybody to join the discussion about other literary canons? If you searched the historical record for every source who comments on the subject, you would find a wide diversity of views concerning the literary canons of many historical figures. You would find many different beliefs on the web alone.
One of the reasons why there have been so many disagreements about the New Testament canon over the centuries is that it's a subject that so many people want to address. Not as many people are going to be concerned about the canon of writings of an ancient mathematician or a medieval bishop.
The historical developments surrounding the New Testament canon aren't as unusual or difficult as they may initially appear to be. Lee McDonald writes:
"Most biblical scholars have concluded that the writings of the New Testament addressed the needs of specific communities and that the writers had the needs of those communities in mind while telling their story (gospels) or admonishing specific churches (letters). It is therefore amazing that these ad hoc writings were viewed early on as having value for the wider Christian community for all time." (TCD, 418)
Bruce Metzger wrote:
"It is, therefore, not surprising that for several generations the precise status of a few books remained doubtful. What is really remarkable (as suggested earlier) is that, though the fringes of the New Testament canon remained unsettled for centuries, a high degree of unanimity concerning the greater part of the New Testament was attained within the first two centuries among the very diverse and scattered congregations not only throughout the Mediterranean world but also over an area extending from Britain to Mesopotamia." (CNT, 254)
We rely on the work of specialists in many areas of life. We know little about the production of food, but trust food manufacturers and grocery stores to give us products that are safe to consume. We know little about constructing bridges, but we trust those familiar with the subject to build bridges that we drive across. The same is true of medicine, politics, and many other things in life. The same principles apply to a historical consideration of the New Testament canon. The historical approach to the canon isn't the only approach one could take, as I discussed in a previous post. God isn't dependent on historical argumentation to lead His people to a recognition of what is and isn't scripture. But as far as the historical approach is concerned, it's significant when a large majority of scholars agree that the large majority of the earliest Christians agreed upon the large majority of the New Testament. Making a historical judgment about the minority of books that were more controversial is more difficult, but even that judgment isn't as hard as many make it out to be, for reasons I've explained elsewhere.
The vast majority of Christians aren't going to read a book on the canon by somebody like Lee McDonald or Bruce Metzger. And the vast majority of Americans aren't going to read a book on George Washington or the Revolutionary War by a historian. People form conclusions about history, and not just history as it relates to religion, on the basis of a wide variety of sources, many of them easily accessible. They believe what parents tell them, what they're taught in school, what they hear from the media, what neighbors and friends tell them, etc. Some become more discerning with the passing of time and seek increasing amounts of information from increasingly reliable sources. A person who accepts the twenty-seven-book New Testament on the basis of what his parents tell him at age five might accept that canon on the basis of the credibility of his seminary-educated pastor at age fifteen, accept it on the basis of what he's told by a Christian apologist who's more knowledgeable about the subject than his pastor at age twenty-five, and accept it on the basis of a book by a canon scholar that he reads at age thirty-five. Our beliefs about medicine, politics, science, American history, and other subjects sometimes develop in a similar manner.
The Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox who want us to follow their variety of infallible guide in order to arrive at a canon of scripture have to make judgments about history, such as what men like Papias and John Chrysostom did and didn't write, without that infallible guide. The atheist who asks how God can expect people to sort through the difficult historical issues involved in making a canonical judgment not only ignores the fact that God isn't dependent on historical argumentation in guiding His people, but also overlooks the many similar judgments he makes regularly regarding history, science, relationships, diet, medicine, and other issues in life.
There are some difficulties involved in making judgments about the canon of scripture. But those difficulties aren't as bad or as unusual as they're often made out to be.