Yesterday I did a Corinthians chronology. Today, in connection to Lisa T. Bergen's book The Begotten, I thought I'd talk about how the New Testament canon was put together.
There's a lot of misconceptions that a specific church council or singular individual put together the New Testament (the most egregious is that contained within The DaVinci Code, which states it was the Emperor Constantine who twisted Scripture to his own nefarious purpose). This simply isn't true.
Starting in the second century, the Church started disucssing which books belonged in the canon. Just so everyone is on the same page, "canon" comes from the Greek word kanon, which refers to a measuring stick. The question of the canon is this: which books measure up? Which were in? Which were out?
This discussion was prompted by a number of internal problems. For starters, you had the gnostic Christians who produced their own scriptures, none of which were in line with the orthodox faith. Also problematic was the work of Marcion, a man from Rome who had his own ideas about Christianity. He saw Paul as the best (and only true) of the apostles. The rest had been corrupted by their Jewish roots. Marcion believed that Christianity was a radical break from Judaism. For that reason, Marcion picked and choosed which books he liked. Gone was the entire Old Testament. Gone were three of the Gospels, leaving only a heavily edited version of Luke. Gone were all of the other books save Paul's letters.
In the light of the mounting problem, the Church began a lengthy discussion about which books were being used where. Church leaders wrote to each other and compared lists. In the early days, there were a few extra books included, such as The Shepherd of Hermas and The Didache, but these were eventually dismissed.
By the time of Constantine, the process was pretty much over. There were a few question marks (people weren't sure if books like 2 Peter, Jude, James, or 2 & 3 John belonged in). By the time of the Council of Carthage, in 397 AD, the discussion had pretty much petered out and the Council said the matter was closed.
So the question is, what criteria did the early church use in sorting through the books?
Well, that's the thing. They are never explicitly stated. But working backwards, there seemed to be four criteria used:
1) Apostolic origin - The book had to have been produced by either an apostle (i.e. Matthew, John, Peter, or Paul) or an "honorary" apostle (i.e. Mark, Luke, James, Jude), someone who has a close connection to an apostle.
This is why some of the books were excluded. For example, The Shepherd of Hermas and The Didache were both fine books and the early church fathers encouraged people to use them as devotional reading. But because neither were produced by apostles, they were excluded.
2) Orthodoxy - This is the main reason why many of the books got excluded, especially the ones produced by the gnostics. While these books claimed to be written by the apostles, their heretical content got them nixed.
A good case in point: there was a "Gospel of Peter" that floated around and was quite popular, even to the point where it was read in worship. But then a bishop named Serapion realized that it contained docetic beliefs. The Gospel lost its popularity after that and was no longer used.
3) Universal acceptance - Simply put, the whole church (or at least a vast majority) had to accept the book and use it.
4) Usefulness for the Church as a whole - A book had to be useful to everyone to be included. For example, we could have Paul's laundry list. It's written by Paul, there's nothing heretical in it, and everyone accepts it. Well, it probably wouldn't make it in because, really, what good would it be aside from a historical curiousity?
The reason I bring this up in connection with The Begotten is because of Bergen's main premise, that "true" 1 Corinthians somehow wasn't included in the New Testament canon and only one copy survived.
Could it have happened? Possibly. The fact that we don't have "true" 1 Corinthians and the "Letter of Tears" shows that Paul's writing could be and were lost. And it's certainly understandable that the Church would have problems with it if it surfaced again.
Tomorrow's the last day and I'll talk about the plot of the book since I've taken such a long time to lead up to it. In the meantime, go check out what other people are saying.Brandon Barr
CSFF Blog Tour
D. G. D. Davidson
Todd Michael Greene