The National Catholic Review

Earlier, I discussed What is the Good Word? and What is the Good Word? (2) The Old Testament; today I want to discuss the New Testament.

The contents of the New Testament (NT) are the same whether one is Catholic, Orthodox, or any other variety of Christian - with one glaring exception. There are variations for the Ethiopic NT, with which I am not familiar except for reports regarding these books.  Otherwise, on the texts of the NT there is agreement and none of the differences obtain that we find amongst varieties of the OT. In the past, the Syriac and Armenian NTs accepted Third Corinthians, which is no longer the case today, and the Syriac canon once excluded 2 John, 3 John, 2 Peter, Jude and Revelation, but these all reflected early disagreements about the nature and limits of the canon and today these texts are included in the Syriac NT. The whole notion of the canon, of course, is about defining the nature and the limits of what is included or, stated negatively, what is excluded.  The nature of canon, it is important to state, is developed through historical and ecclesiastical processes and, of course, the question of who has the authority to make such choices.

No NT author was aware that he was writing for the NT, which is not the same as saying they were not aware that they were writing for the Church. However we want to construe “the Church,” the authors of the texts that make up the NT were writing either for individual congregations or for the Church as a whole. The authority that obtains to these writings is attached initially, I think, either to the apostolic authority of the authors themselves (e.g., Paul and John), the apostolic authority which was claimed to lie behind a writing (e.g., Mark writing for Peter) or the authority of divine revelation (e.g., John’s revelation which undergirds the Apocalypse). Even though modern biblical scholarship has challenged apostolic attribution in some (or many) cases, this was the key issue in accepting a text as worthy of being included in the defined list of what became the NT. Those who were earthly followers of Jesus were privileged hearers and this connection to apostolicity was of bedrock significance. Naturally, there is an exception, in that the Apostle Paul was not a follower of the earthly, incarnate Jesus, but of the resurrected Lord, who called him to his apostleship from his persecution of the early Church, and his 13 letters make up the bulk of the NT epistolary.

Modern scholars will sometimes today attribute the creation of the NT canon to a nefarious cabal of what is now called “proto-orthodoxy,” those followers of Jesus who became the originators of the “orthodox” Church. As with most conspiracy theories, though, the more one looks, the less there is to the claim. These “proto-orthodox” Christians chose books that agreed with their teachings about the nature of Jesus and the Church. Naturally, they chose books which agreed with their beliefs about who Jesus was, just as later Marcion and the Gnostics would choose (or write) books which agreed with their understanding of Jesus. The question that is more significant is whether they were correct in their choices and what authority they had for their choices. In this instance the best stance to take is that of the NJBC which argues that what was at first “canonical” was what Peter, James, and Paul taught “in continuity with what Jesus had proclaimed” (1043). Unless we reject that Jesus had earthly followers, and that he chose Apostles, we are wise to follow the choices of those who were closest to him and those who chosen by him to carry on his work. Gnostics, for instance, have no early writings, as compared to the NT Gospels, and none were followers of Jesus and so the books they wrote do not claim either the authority of history or the authority of apostolicity, but their own inner light.

The actual creation of the NT canon, therefore, was guided by the early Church and they chose texts which presented Jesus as they had known him and as the Church taught. The NT does not create the Church, but the Church the NT. Some scholars have argued that the formation of the NT, like the formation of the Gospels themselves, is simply an attempt to “eliminate” or “compromise” opposing definitions of Christianity by the “proto-Orthodox,” as noted above. They point to other texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas, as a counterpoint to the documents preserved in the NT, which I will discuss below. But the NT was not an attempt to “eliminate” other “Christianities,” it was an attempt to define the teaching and message of Jesus. Some scholars now point to groups such as the Marcionites or the Gnostics as being Christian groups with as much authority to define the story of Jesus as his own apostles. Well, it is true, that each group did attempt to define Jesus. The “proto-Orthodox” group, as the apostles and the Church are now sometimes referred to by some biblical scholars, did not “become” the dominant position, but accurately reflected the earliest Church and the teachings of Jesus and their development, and was from the first the “dominant” position. This is why both Revelation and Hebrews, amongst other texts, were debated in the early Church: it was not clear if they had a connection to an Apostle (John and Paul respectively). The development of the canon did take time. It was a historical process and it was not always obvious or clear-cut how texts would be chosen. The NT represents different authors and different viewpoints; the texts themselves are not monolithic in their portrayal of Jesus or the Church, but all takes place within the limits of what was the apostolic tradition.

The NT canon, it is true, does not comprise all of the early Christian literature. There is literature of many sorts found in the early Christian church:

1)      Some of the material is lost to us, such as some of Paul’s letters (some of the Corinthian correspondence; a letter to the Laodiceans; etc.) or earlier writings which might have been integrated into our Gospels (what is known as Q or perhaps even other earlier writings on the Passion);

2)      Some material was, and is, considered valuable and significant, but came not to be included in the NT canon because it did not have an apostolic origin; such material would include the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, 1 Clement and the Epistle of Barnabas. This material might be considered perfectly valid for teaching or preaching or studying, but it is not considered apostolic and so not considered inspired in the same manner as the canonical writings;

3)      Some material, such as the Gnostic Gospels, simply was at odds with what the earliest Church preached and taught about Jesus, and did not meet the criteria to be included in the NT canon.

Many people today are most interested, either through movies such as Stigmata or books like The Da Vinci Code in group 3), other Gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas, or The Gospel of Judas or the Gospel of Peter. Why were these Gospels not considered canonical?  They were not canonical, and as far as we can tell from the earliest discussions of the Gospels, in Irenaeus, the Muratorian Canon , and in Eusebius (reporting on the writing of the 2nd century Bishop Papias), were never considered in the running as canonical Gospels. They were too late, many emerging only in the 3rd century, had no connections with an apostle and were considered unorthodox if not heretical. Whatever number of ancient Gospels there were, the only four which were ever considered canonical were the four included in the NT, which are also the four earliest Gospels.

Having said this, although I do not think that the Gospel of Thomas is as early as the four canonical Gospels it is likely that the Gospel of Thomas preserves some early and authentic sayings of Jesus, which seem to be taken from the apostolic oral tradition. These early oral traditions of Jesus have become overlaid with elements of Encratism and forms of Gnosticism , but reflect to my mind authentic  Jesus sayings. (My thinking on this has been influenced greatly by April DeConick’s Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas A History of the Gospel and its Growth (London: T & T Clark; 2005; paperback 2006) and The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation With a Commentary and New English Translation of the Complete Gospel (London: T & T Clark, 2006; paperback, 2007). It is not, however, a Gospel which reflects any longer the orthodox teaching of the Church, which is my assessment not DeConick's.

Questions abounded over the centuries: Should Hebrews be included in the canon? Should the Apocalypse be included? Jude? 3 John?  Shepherd of Hermas? Ultimately, it is the Church, which desired to reflect the teaching of the Apostles, that chose the texts of the NT, and which did so in that the diverse texts reflected what was considered orthodox teaching and whose texts were used regularly amongst the early Christians.  This was a process and not an event, but was dependent, however we might assess the process today, on choices that reflected their sense of continuity with the authentic history and teaching of Jesus and the Apostles.

Next time, I want to discuss the notion of the Bible as "inspired" and other terms associated with it, such as "inerrant" and "revealed."

 John W. Martens