Monday, May 11, 2009

Popes, Councils, And The New Testament Canon

It's often claimed that the New Testament canon, or the entire canon of scripture, was taught by one or more councils in the fourth century or by one or more Roman bishops in the fourth and fifth centuries. Sometimes it's claimed that the canon was settled by such a council or Roman bishop, as if they were exercising some sort of infallibility or were fallible, but widely followed. For example:

"The fact is that the Holy Spirit guided the Catholic Church over time to recognize and determine the canon of the New and Old Testaments in the year 382 at the synod of Rome, under Pope Damasus I. This decision was ratified again at the councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397 and 419). You, my friend, accept exactly the same books of the New Testament that Pope Damasus decreed were canonical, and no others." (Catholic Answers)

Whatever Catholic Answers means by "determine", it seems that many people have the impression that fourth-century councils and Roman bishops around the same time played more of a role than they actually did. It's often claimed that the Council of Nicaea promulgated a canon, even though it didn't. Councils and Popes had less of a role than is often suggested:

"For the first fifteen centuries of Christianity, no Christian Church put forth a definitive list of biblical books. Most Christians had followed St. Augustine and included the 'Apocrypha' in the canon, but St. Jerome, who excluded them, had always had his defenders." (Joseph Lienhard, The Bible, The Church, And Authority [Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1995], p. 59)

"in the fifth century a more or less final consensus [on the New Testament canon] was reached and shared by East and West. It is worth noting that no ecumenical council in the ancient church ever ruled for the church as a whole on the question of the contents of the canon." (Harry Gamble, in Lee McDonald and James Sanders, edd., The Canon Debate [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002], p. 291)

"[Athanasius was] a witness to a consensus that had long been emerging in the churches. The councils of the church played little part in the canonization of scripture. When councils did speak on the subject, their voice was a ratification of what had already become the mind of the church. Canon 60 of the Council of Laodicea (c. 363 C.E.) is likely a later insertion into the decrees of the council; it lists a twenty-six book New Testament, lacking Revelation. The first councils certainly to speak on the subject of the canon were in North Africa: Hippo (393) and Carthage (397 and 419). They were under the influence of Augustine, who regarded the canon as closed: 'For the canon of the sacred writings, which is properly closed' (Civ. 22.8)." (Everett Ferguson, in Lee McDonald and James Sanders, edd., The Canon Debate [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002], pp. 319-320)

"Revelation was added later in 419 at the subsequent synod at Carthage [after being left out in the synod that occurred there in 397]." (Lee McDonald, in Lee McDonald and James Sanders, edd., The Canon Debate [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002], n. 19 on p. 595)

"Since the study of canon should also include the documents collected much later into the 'Christian Bible,' notably the New Testament, additional documents must be included and the timeline extended to about 1000 CE when the Greek Orthodox Church accepted the Revelation of John (which is still not canonical according to the Syriac Church)." (James Charlesworth, in Craig Evans and Emanuel Tov, edd., Exploring The Origins Of The Bible [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2008], p. 59)

"But, as evidence from subsequent writers reveals, not all in the Church were ready to accept precisely the canon as identified by Athanasius, and throughout the following centuries there were minor fluctuations in the East as well as in the West." (Bruce Metzger, The Canon Of The New Testament [New York: Oxford University Press, 1997], pp. 7-8)

"Eventually lists of apocryphal writings were drawn up, warning the faithful that they were not to be received as authoritative Scripture. One such list is included in an early Latin document, the so-called Decretum Gelasianum, which the manuscripts attribute indiscriminately to Popes Damasus, Hormisdas, and Gelasius. The document is in five parts, one of which gives a list of books included in the Old Testament and the New Testament (the latter is without the Book of Revelation), and another gives a lengthy list of apocryphal works (sixty-two titles) and heretical authors (thirty-five names). According to von Dobschutz it is not a Papal work at all, but a private compilation that was drawn up in Italy (but not at Rome) in the early sixth century." (Bruce Metzger, The Canon Of The New Testament [New York: Oxford University Press, 1997], p. 188)

"If one asks what was the reason for this concern [by Eusebius] in registering numerous individual testimonies concerning the Scriptures, the answer certainly must point to Eusebius' search for certainty as well as to the absence of any official declaration having an absolute value, such as a canon issued by a synod, or the collective agreement among churches or bishops. Of these there is not a trace in the long series of literary notices, so conscientiously amassed by the historian....In the absence of any official list of the canonical writings of the New Testament, Eusebius finds it simplest to count the votes of his witnesses" (Bruce Metzger, The Canon Of The New Testament [New York: Oxford University Press, 1997], pp. 202-203)

I agree with most of what the sources above have said. But I don't agree with everything.

Some scholars think that the portion of the Decretum Gelasianum listing the New Testament canon should be traced back to Damasus or might come from him. Metzger's opinion isn't shared by all scholars. But I include his comments to illustrate that it's a disputed matter and that Roman Catholics and others who make an appeal to Damasus should be expected to make a case for that appeal. And I don't know that Metzger is correct about the absence of Revelation in the Decretum Gelasianum. The copy of the document I've seen includes Revelation. But maybe one or more other copies don't. Or maybe there's some other reason to think that the original didn't include Revelation. I don't know.

Lee McDonald is the only scholar I've seen make the claim that Revelation wasn't included by the council of Carthage in 397. Other sources in that region around the same time and in earlier generations, like Tertullian and Augustine, treat Revelation as scripture. Even if Revelation wasn't included in the canonical list of the council in 397, it may have been left out unintentionally. In a recent post, I gave some examples of other canon lists that seem to have unintentionally left out one or more books. I don't know whether McDonald is right. But it's a disputed issue, and that fact should be kept in mind.

And these issues surrounding the Decretum Gelasianum and the council of 397 aren't of much significance. The twenty-seven-book New Testament was advocated by earlier sources. It's found in other sources around the same time as Damasus and the 397 council in Carthage. And we don't have any reason to believe that Damasus, a council in Rome in 382, or the council in Carthage in 397 was acting infallibly or was widely perceived as having settled the issue in some other manner.

My main point in this post is that there was nothing like a promulgation of the canon by an early ecumenical council or an early papal decree that was widely considered definitive. Rather, the fourth-century councils that produced a canon were regional councils that seem to have reflected an earlier consensus that arose without anything like a ruling from a Pope or ecumenical council. People in the West and East continued to advocate other Old Testament and New Testament canons for centuries afterward.


  1. Hi Jason, I'm really enjoying your canon posts so far. I thought somebody on Triablogue might want to take a look at this:

  2. Thanks for the encouragement, JD.

    The article you've linked doesn't make much of an argument for its conclusions. It ignores large amounts of evidence we have for the genre of the gospels, Acts, and other relevant documents. The early Christians and the earliest enemies of Christianity were agreed in interpreting the gospels and other relevant documents in a highly historical manner. That's why Jesus was commonly referred to as a sorcerer, magician, empowered by Satan, etc. The article's claim that the gospel authors were unconcerned with evidence is ridiculous in light of the often repeated Biblical themes of fulfilled prophecy and eyewitness testimony, for example. Why were those who held the highest church office, that of apostle, required to be eyewitnesses of Christ? Why were the most prominent churches in early post-apostolic times the churches that had been in contact with one or more of the apostles? Etc.

    The article also presents an unbalanced view of how the New Testament portrays the resurrection witnesses. The women didn't doubt that they saw an empty tomb. Matthew 28 refers to some doubting, not all. Paul didn't doubt his encounter with the risen Christ. Etc. The gospels and other relevant sources portray the early Christians as inconsistent. They sometimes doubt, but not always. Some of the Jewish authorities reject Christ, but others don't (Joseph of Arimathea, Acts 6:7, etc.).

    There were factors other than evidence involved, so I don't see how the author of that article gets from the doubts mentioned in the New Testament to his conclusion about a non-historical genre for the gospels. Those who saw Jesus' miracles had more than those miracles to take into account. They also had to take into account the possibility that Jesus was empowered by Satan, whether Jesus was fulfilling common Messianic expectations, the consequences of following Jesus in the society of their day (and thus a corresponding desire for more evidence before accepting those consequences), etc. If the author of the article is suggesting that people who experienced such evidence for Jesus wouldn't have doubted, so the gospels must not be giving us historical accounts, then how does he explain later arguments from Christianity's enemies to the effect that Jesus was empowered by Satan, a sorcerer, etc.? If later sources could accept the historicity of His supernatural activity, yet reject Christ, then why couldn't earlier sources? If the author of the article believes in the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, as the article seems to suggest, then does he maintain that those who experience that power never sin? If people can experience that power, yet sometimes sin, then why couldn't the people who lived in the New Testament era? Does he dismiss Galatians 2 as unhistorical, as if Peter wouldn't have been unfaithful to the gospel if he had actually seen the risen Christ? Experiencing a miracle could move a person in the direction of God, but there would be other factors in the person's life moving him away from God. People have a variety of influences in their lives, and they don't always make the most reasonable decision about what to do.

    The author of the article seems to want to allow some room for evidence and appeals to evidence, but I don't know just where he draws the line. Some of his comments go too far in the direction of downplaying evidence. He writes, "Because to their [the gospel authors'] tastes, the proof of the pudding was not evidence but experience." What's the distinction he's making between "proof" and "evidence"? Can't an experience be a form of evidence itself? Didn't the witnesses of the resurrected Christ experience seeing Him, hearing Him, touching Him, etc.? He writes, "The band of believers, even in the presence of the resurrected Messiah, was rather a group of demoralized doubters. One event changed everything. Pentecost. While hope may be based on the evidence of the resurrection, faith is based on the experiential in-filling of the Holy Spirit." But the resurrected Christ expects Thomas to believe by means of evidence for the resurrection (John 20:27). Thomas shouldn't have needed that evidence. The evidence he already had, such as Jesus' predictions of His resurrection and the testimony of the others who saw the risen Jesus, should have been enough (John 20:29). But Jesus does expect Thomas to believe by means of the evidence of his experience with the risen Christ. The work of the Holy Spirit can be accompanied by evidence. And the hope we get from the resurrection involves faith. You don't have Christian hope, then attain faith later. The witnesses of the risen Jesus had faith prior to Pentecost.

    The article consists largely of unsupported assertions, and the assertions are often incoherent or demonstrably wrong.

  3. Thanks, Jason. I pretty much agree with everything you say here. I guess the general worry I sometimes have is that the early Christians had a looser evidential standard for their beliefs than we do in the modern age. Certainly there were Christians not averse to making up ex nihilo stories and teachings of Jesus. The question is whether the transmission of the Jesus story in our canonical gospels was highly conservative or not. I suppose there's good evidence for that, though.

  4. JD Walters wrote:

    "I pretty much agree with everything you say here. I guess the general worry I sometimes have is that the early Christians had a looser evidential standard for their beliefs than we do in the modern age. Certainly there were Christians not averse to making up ex nihilo stories and teachings of Jesus. The question is whether the transmission of the Jesus story in our canonical gospels was highly conservative or not. I suppose there's good evidence for that, though."

    Craig Keener addresses the degree of reliability in ancient historical sources in his commentaries I cited in the genre article linked above. You're correct in noting that different ancient sources had different degrees of concern for historicity. And ancient sources, including ancient Christian sources, had some disadvantages in comparison to us. Likewise, historians living a century or a few thousand years from now should be better off than historians are today. The tendency is for one generation to benefit from and build upon the knowledge of previous generations.

    The main issue is whether ancient standards were sufficiently good, not whether they were exhaustively good or as good as today's standards. The ancient Christians would be unlikely to have been wrong about as much as critics suggest they were wrong about. It's one thing to note that modern historians generally have higher standards than ancient historians, for example. It's something else to argue that the ancient Christians were so unreliable that they were radically wrong about Jesus, they experienced widespread hallucinations, etc. It's doubtful that the early enemies of Christianity would have agreed with so much that the ancient Christians were saying if the ancient Christians were as wrong as modern critics suggest. And once we accept some of the facts that are credibly reported by the early Christians, such as Jesus' fulfillment of some prophecies, His resurrection, and what He taught about apostolic authority, a case can be made for the scriptural status of the New Testament documents. Once that factor is involved, then we have more than ancient historical or evidential standards to go by.

  5. JD,

    We have an example of how NT writers transmit the Jesus tradition. According to the standard solution to the synoptic problem, Matthew and Luke make use of the Jesus tradition in Mark. This gives us a chance to examine how they transmit primitive tradition. Based on comparative analysis, Matthew and Luke are quite conservative in their handling of the Markan source material. They may tighten up the wording a bit. There's a bit of audience adaption. But the redaction is quite conservative.

    As to Mark, based on retroversion from Greek to Aramaic, Maurice Casey has documented just how close the Synoptics are to primitive dominical tradition.

    Or take the editorial asides in the Fourth Gospel, where the narrator explains for his audience why Jesus did something or what he meant by what he said.

    John relates an event involving Jesus. Then explains it to his audience.

    This involves a distinction between the time of the event, a past event, and the timeframe of his audience. The time of writing.

    John doesn't merge past and present in a creative synthesis.

    If he were fabricating events or speeches, there would be no need for these editorial asides. For he would build the interpretation direction into the story. He'd put the editorial aside directly into the mouth of Jesus.

  6. Actually 2nd Nicea does ratify the canons of some of the earlier minor synods.

  7. Acolyte4236,

    I was familiar with Second Nicaea. And Roman Catholics would cite Trent. That's why I referred to "early ecumenical councils" and specified the fourth and fifth centuries.

    The sources Second Nicaea points to advocated different canons. Disagreements over the Old and New Testaments continued after Second Nicaea.