Today’s our final day looking at how the Bible was put together. Over the past two days, we’ve seen how the texts that make up the New Testament were simply the writing down of the existing authoritative teaching of Jesus and his apostles. Lists were drawn up after-the-fact (in subsequent centuries) not because a canon didn’t already exist in practice, but because heretics were starting to challenge which texts should be considered authoritative.
So what this historical process tells us is that the main rationale for the canon – that is, the reason certain books are in it – is simply usage. It was a recognition of what the church had commonly come to use as its authoritative texts. Why? Because those texts testified to the truth: the teaching of Jesus and his apostles.
However, particularly in the third and fourth centuries, people became more interested in how to justify certain books as being in the canon. Mainly the books that people disputed. And so a number of factors come into play, which we’ll take a look at now. These are reasons used after the fact to defend a book’s status status in the canon.
The rationale for the canon
Firstly, there’s age. It seemed that only writings from the time of the apostles were considered to be Scripture. Which ruled out some otherwise perfectly orthodox epistles from church leaders in the second century, like Ignatius, Polycarp, and Clement. (They don’t make church leader names like they used to.) The New Testament writings come from the apostolic era.
Secondly, there’s universality. Documents which were being used generally in all churches; and whose content was generally applicable to all churches.
And thirdly, there’s apostolicity. Were they written by an apostle, or a leader of the Jerusalem church? Or, at least authorised by an apostle? Most New Testament documents were, but by no means all. In fact, this is the most common misunderstanding about the contents of the New Testament: the idea that all the documents are in there because their contents are in some way connected with an apostle.
But really, this is an invention of the church in the third and fourth centuries. As various heretics started to dispute certain books, they felt the need to defend them with more objective criteria. And so each book became associated with an apostle, as a way of defending its place in the canon.
Now much of this tradition is probably true: the second century belief that Mark’s gospel is connected with the preaching of the apostle Peter has evidence to support it. We know Luke travelled with Paul, and so his gospel can legitimately be associated with Paul’s authority, to some extent.
But some of it looks more like wishful thinking. The most obvious one is the epistle to the Hebrews, that we’ve just finished studying. It’s anonymous. Yet in the third and fourth centuries, some included it in the letters of Paul – motivated, it seems, by protecting its status in the canon. But you’d be hard pressed to find too many Bible scholars today who’d say it’s Paul. Style-wise it’s completely foreign to anything else Paul wrote. It’s like including a speech by Barack Obama in a collection of speeches by George W. Bush. Can you spot the odd one out?
And it’s not just modern scholars. Plenty of early church leaders didn’t think it was Paul either. One of them, at the beginning of the third century, was a guy called Origen. He pointed out that the style was way too polished for Paul. Because Paul himself admits in 1 Cor that he chose not to speak in such a high, ornate style. In the end, Origen says that only “God knows” who wrote it, but suspects they were a student or follower of Paul. But – and this is crucial – he defends its place in the canon by declaring the contents to be in line with Paul’s theology, and with the apostolic teaching generally.
In the end, it’s not authorship by an apostle that makes a book canonical. Rather, it’s the consensus of the church, guided by the Holy Spirit, that this text reflects the truth about Jesus taught by him and his apostles. It may frustrate us that we can’t give a full set of objective criteria that each book in the canon perfectly meets. And other books don’t. It’d be nice if it were that simple, wouldn’t it!
But that’s the way God chose to give us the Scriptures. Not in a Joseph Smith, Book of Mormon, “hey look, God just dictated to me our holy scriptures, come and get your copy now” kind of way. (“If you act now, we’ll even throw in a second wife, absolutely free.”) But God didn’t do this. Instead, he did it through a gradual, slightly messy, human process. One that’s more in line with the way life really works.
And when you think about it, isn’t that God all over? Jesus turned up, not as a conquering king with a legion of angels behind him, announcing to the world God’s message. But in an animal feeding trough. In the middle of nowhere. With a bunch of poor shepherds as the first to hear.
And when you think about it, isn’t that how God works in your life, most of the time? Not with a great fanfare and obvious supernatural events. But quietly, behind the scenes, guiding you through the work of the Holy Spirit to be more like him. The process is gradual, slightly messy, and very human. But at the end, you look back at the changes made in your life and you say: wow, God did that!
Disclaimer: this one-week series is a brief overview for the curious Bible reader that tries to tell the story of how the Bible was put together. It’s not intended to be anywhere near a scholarly presentation showing all of the different theories of how each book was authored/compiled, or the many competing theories of the canonisation process. Further, it’s not attempting to “prove” the divine nature or authority of Scripture to the sceptical.