Why the canon of the New Testament varied from 33 AD - 400 AD: Geographic variation
It need not disturb the Bible-believing Christian to learn that the canon of the New Testament was not universally set until about 300AD. The canon underwent a progression of development, which by faith, we believe was guided by divine providence to what we have today in the 21 century.
Although it is true that Hebrews seems to have been unquestionably accepted as scripture earlier in the east, than in the west; and while Revelation seems to have been unquestionably accepted as scripture earlier in the west, than the east, the fact remains that both east and west had copies of both Hebrews and Revelation from 100 AD.
Questions for Roman Catholics and Orthodox:
- If the Roman Catholic church gave the world the Bible, being infallible, then why did Rome reject or question the inspiration of James and Hebrews , then later accept it? Conversely, Rome accepted as scripture books that were later rejected. If the Catholic church really is illuminated by the Holy Spirit so that men can trust her as "God's organization", why was she so wrong about something so simple? Should not the "Holy See" have known?
- If the Orthodox church gave the world the Bible, then why did the eastern Orthodox churches reject or question the inspiration of Revelation, then later accept it? Conversely, the east accepted as scripture books that were later rejected. If the Orthodox church really is illuminated by the Holy Spirit so that men can trust her as "God's organization", why was she so wrong about something so simple?
A. Summary overview of the development of the canon of the New Testament:
- 33 AD, Pentecost: Jesus initially made the promise of divine inspiration through the Holy Spirit exclusively to His apostles. (Jn 16:12-13) This promise was fulfilled when the church is born on the day of Pentecost. (Acts 2:1) The 3000 who were baptized by immersion for the remission of their sins, (Acts 2:38-41) who have no canon at all, except for the Old Testament. They had to rely upon the verbal inspiration and revelations of the apostles. (Luke 21:12-15)
- 33 - 49 AD On the day of Pentecost, Peter promised the same inspiration to believers in general saying that the promise of Joel 2:28 would be sent also upon them through the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38-39). This gift of inspiration was normally imparted only through the laying on of the apostles hands. (Acts 8:17-18) During this period the church grew rapidly relying exclusively on the verbal inspired revelations of Christians. None of the New Testament books were yet written.
- 49 AD: first inspired New Testament book written: Acts 15:19:29. We learn about this first book, because it is embedded within the book of Acts. This marks the beginning of the creation of the canon. 27 more books will follow.
- 50 - 67 AD: During this 15 year period, the majority of New Testament books are written, including all of Paul's writings. During this time, the canon varied greatly depending upon where you lived. This is because Paul wrote specific letters to different cities. Initially at least, it is likely that when Corinth got its first letter from Paul, they had no idea other letters were sent to other cities. So the New Testament canon of Corinth consisted of a single letter, whereas the churches of Galatia only had Galatians. By 67 AD, when Paul was killed, his letters had been collected and circulated widely by most churches.
- 96 AD: The last book written was Revelation. (Even if some agree Revelation was the last book written, but in 69 AD, not 96 AD, it matters not to this study because the principle we are illustrating is unchanged.) This marks the end of the apostolic age and the end of inspiration. Books written after this time were eventually excluded from the canon because they were written too late.
- 100AD: It is clear that at this time the New Testament canon was universally accepted by all churches as containing: All 27 books of our current canon were in use as soon as they were written, but 5 books were questioned and were not as universally accepted as the rest were: 2 Peter, James, 2 Jn, 3 Jn, Revelation. Notice that all the New Testament was in wide circulation by 100AD. The 5 "disputed" books, were only questioned in certain areas, whereas they were always accepted in others areas. We are not saying that all of these 5 disputed books were accepted in any one place at the same time, rather think of it as a mosaic and patchwork of acceptance. What is most important to note here, is that if we exclude these 5 disputed books from the discussion, we can safely argue that the rest of the New Testament was intact from 100 AD, at the very close of the apostolic age.
- 100-400 AD: For whatever reason, the canon was not formally closed until about 400 AD. Contrary to what the Roman Catholic church teaches, it was an African synod that made the historic proclamation, entrenching the 27 books as the canon. Rome had nothing to do with it! It was not an initiative of the church at Rome. Interestingly, the churches where this proclamation was made, eventually split became aligned with Constantinople, which became the Orthodox church of today. During this time, a number of additional "disputed" books were read in a few churches at various times: Shepherd of Hermas, 1 Clement, Didache, Epistle of Barnabas, Wisdom of Solomon, Apocalypse of Peter. This does not mean that early Christians considered them inspired, but that they felt they were worthy of reading in the assemblies. Just as our modern Bible's have uninspired writings like essays, historical information, the apocrypha, dictionaries, concordances bound together with the Bible books, so too the early Christians practiced the same thing.
B. What scholars have said about the way the canon varied over time and geography:
First, it may be argued that the "orthodox" church, from an early time on, collected books it regarded as sacred. Although the boundaries were not clear (and not the same) in different regions, a main body of scripture reached "canonical" status perhaps by the second century. The church did not decide on the content of the canon; rather, it recognized as canonical those books (in an ever-widening circle) which were used as authoritative writings from early times on. (Lee Martin McDonald, James A. Sanders, Editors: The Canon Debate; Peter Balla, Evidence for an Early Christian Canon: Second and Third Century, p 372, 2002)
The early church's use of writings not later accepted should not prevent us from seeing that the larger part of the present New Testament canon was undisputedly held to have the authority of scripture, the same authority as the writings of the "Old Testament." The fact that writings attributed to the apostles were copied repeatedly, as per the manuscript evidence, and that they were published in codices, points to their widespread usage in the congregations, probably in worship from an early date, though we do not know exactly when. Yet, it must be acknowledged that a given book may have been accepted at different times in different regions. It is likely that the "canons" of the different regions influenced one another. The boundaries of the canon were fluid in the second and the third centuries. To sum up, the church recognized as scripture in the fourth century those writings that had guided its life, at least in some regions, in the preceding centuries. (Lee Martin McDonald, James A. Sanders, Editors: The Canon Debate; Peter Balla, Evidence for an Early Christian Canon: Second and Third Century, p 385, 2002)
Thus it is entirely possible to possess scriptures without having a canon, and this was in fact the situation in the first few centuries of the Christian church. (Lee Martin McDonald, James A. Sanders, Editors: The Canon Debate; Geoffrey Mark Hahneman, The Muratorian Fragment and the Origins of the New Testament Canon, p 380, 2002)
The shared assumption was that each of the New Testament's writings had been circulating separately for a considerable period before a lengthy and complicated collection process began. The process produced differing results in the various geographical regions. This eventually forced the emerging Catholic Church to issue authoritative lists of those writings that should be part of the Christian Bible and those that must be excluded. (The first edition of the New Testament, David Trobisch, 2000, p 4)
"First, it should be noticed that a remarkable consensus among modern scholars has emerged regarding certain features of the history of the canonization of the New Testament. There is broad agreement that the canon of the New Testament gradually developed as a part of the larger growth of the Christian church during the second century. By AD 200 the four gospels were widely reckoned as Scripture on a par with the Old Testament along with a corpus of Pauline letters. However, the process of determining the outer limits of the apostolic writings developed, often in heated debate, until the end of the fourth century at which time both the Eastern and Western branches of the church reached a decision regarding the canon's scope which then generally became normative for the ancient church. (The New Testament as canon, Brevard S. Childs, 1984, p 18)
C. Roman Catholic and Orthodox confuse the issue:
"Most churches only had parts of what was to become the New Testament." (Which Came First: The Church or the New Testament?, Fr. James Bernstein, Orthodox churchman, 1994, p 6)
Different Churches, however, had different collections of books. This was due not only to the difficulty in circulating exactly the same books in communities stretching from Judea to Asia Minor to Gaul, but also to the sheer number of different texts being distributed. Many people simply assume that there were twenty-seven New Testament books circulating and that all that was required to have a complete canon was to get a copy of all twenty-seven manuscripts. The fact of the matter is that there were dozens of other texts circulating during the first couple of centuries that claimed apostolic authority. Sometimes, these texts, which were eventually to be excluded from the canon, were used as Scripture in Churches. (THE WAY: What Every Protestant Should Know About the Orthodox Church, Clark Carlton, 1997, p 95)
Refutation of James Bernstein and Clark Carlton (Orthodox):
- Carlton and Bernstein, being an Orthodox apologist, has a direct vested interest in promoting the superiority of "man made church tradition" over what the Bible says. If he can make you think the Bible did not exist until the fourth century, then he can deceive you into thinking that perhaps the Orthodox position on "church tradition" is correct.
- Notice both imply that many of the 27 New Testament books were not even known to many churches. While this certainly must be true during the few years after each individual New Testament book was written, the Orthodox and Roman Catholics actually misrepresent history by implying the occurred well into the 4th century. By 100 AD all the New Testament books were being distributed almost universally in the church.
- Although it is true that Hebrews seems to have been unquestionably accepted as scripture earlier in the east, than in the west; and while Revelation seems to have been unquestionably accepted as scripture earlier in the west, than the east, the fact remains that both east and west had copies of both Hebrews and Revelation from 100 AD.
- This is entirely different than the way Orthodox and Roman Catholics paint the picture. Orthodox and Catholic leaders give you the wrong impression. Just because we have the first complete list in the 4th century, doesn't change the fact that all the 27 books of the New Testament were in full circulation since 100 AD, the majority by 70 AD.
- A more accurate and responsible way of depicting the historical data is that the entire New Testament was in full use and only about 5 books, were questioned. The geographic variation of the New Testament was only for a small number of books. Even so, these 5 books were still being used in churches throughout the world from 100 AD.
God through His providence, ensured that all but 5 New Testament books that are in our canon today, received universal acceptance from 100 AD forward. Now imagine for a moment if we removed the "disputed" books from our canon: 2 Peter, James, 2 Jn, 3 Jn, Revelation. (not that I am suggesting that of course) What doctrines would you not be able to prove without these books? None! This is what I believe Jesus meant when he said, "Scripture cannot be broken." and 1 Peter 1:23 that the "word of the Lord endures forever." And the word of God is "living, and active, and sharper than any two edged sword" (Heb 4:12)
By Steve Rudd
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