Tuesday, June 2, 2009

the reliability of the new testament_part three: how did we get the canon?

Here are some more quotes to get us started.
Teabing paused to sip his tea and then placed the cup back on the mantel.
“More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relatively few were chosen for inclusion—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John among them.”
“Who chose which gospels to include?” Sophie asked.
“Aha!” Teabing burst in with enthusiasm, “the fundamental irony of Christianity! The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great.”
Quote taken from The Da Vinci Code chap 55, p251.
“We have long known about these debates, and the Gospel of Judas allows us to see one side of them even more clearly—one of the sides that ended up losing. Every side laid claim to sacred books supporting its point of view; all insisted that these views came straight from Jesus, and through him from God. But only one side won. This was the side that decided which books should be considered Scripture, and that wrote the Christian creeds that have come down to us today. Bart Ehrman Gospel of Judas 103
In brief, one of the competing groups in Christianity succeeded in overwhelming all the others. This group gained more converts than its opponents and managed to relegate all its competitors to the margins.
…once it [the group of orthodox believers] had sealed its victory over all of its opponents, it rewrote the history of the engagement—claiming that it had always been the majority opinion of Christianity, that its views had always been the views of the apostolic churches and of the apostles, that its creeds were rooted directly in the teachings of Jesus. The books that it accepted as scripture proved the point, for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all tell the story as the proto-orthodox had grown accustomed to hearing it. Bart Ehrman Gospel of Judas, 118
Is it as Ehrman and Dan Brown claim? Did those who affirmed the canon intentionally and unfairly omit certain gospels? As we begin this search we need to make an important distinction. Many people sufferer in their understanding from a misplaced emphasis. Look at the following phrases and think about the error they make:
Aristotle (Socrates) invented logic.
Isaac Newton invented gravity.
Benjamin Franklin created electricity.
Al Gore invented the Internet… [sorry, I couldn’t resist that one!]
Each of these statements confuses the idea of original discovery with creation and invention. This is a similar mistake that many make when discussing the biblical canon. Thus, the following two statements are true and in order:
The canon is a result of discovery and affirmation rather than invention or creation.
The canon is received from God, not given by man.
These premises could be summed up to say the canon was developed by limiting what was believe to be God’s word—that is to separate out that which is not his word—rather than a voting process through which human writings became divine.
History of the Canon
Why do we even believe the scriptures are from God in the first place or that the books of the NT should be taken as authority? Many people believe that authority and authenticity is never actually claimed by the writers of the NT. Look at the following scriptures [emphasis mine]:
Paul speaking of himself: “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord.” 1 Cor 14:37 ESV
Peter speaking of Paul: “Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” 2 Pet 3:15-16
Paul speaking: “because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.” 1Thes 1:5
Paul speaking: “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” 1 Thes 2:13
Jesus speaking of the things to come: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” Jn 14:26
Jesus: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” Jn 16:13
John: “We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” 1 Jn 4:6
There is the internal evidence. The apostles themselves claimed that their words were from God. Jesus predicted that they would be reminded by his Spirit of his teachings and that they would speak by the unction of the Holy Spirit and not of themselves. Why do we believe the apostles words? They walked with Christ; they were eyewitnesses to his life. Why would we listen to Irenaeus? He is Polycarp’s disciple. But why listen to Polycarp? He is the disciple of the apostle John…
I want to make it explicitly clear that there is no one meeting or one group that decided the contents of the cannon. The following is a list of church fathers and the books they affirmed. By affirmed, I mean that they quoted from those books. Thus, they believed that those books were authoritative. You will notice that there are different books in different lists. Some lists are short and others are long. Why all the change? Part of the differences are due to the fact that there was not widespread circulation of the writings of the apostles—or any writings for that matter—till later. Copies had to be made in order for someone to receive a new book. Thus, many of the earlier fathers may have only known of a few books. The point is that they affirmed the books of the bible in so far as they knew them. You will see as the list progresses there are books that most people affirm and some that only a few affirm. This is important and will be discussed further.
Clement of Rome 60-100 Paraphrases from Acts, Rom, 1 Cor, Eph, Tit, Heb, 1 Pet.
Ignatius 60-117 Gospels and Pauline epistles
Polycarp 69-155 Disciple of John. Affirmed 16 NT books
Justin Martyr 100-165 Gospels, Acts, Pauline epistles, 1 pet, Heb.
Marcion 85-160 Luke, Rom, 1&2 Cor, Gal, Eph, Phil, Col, 1&2 Thes and Phil.
Irenaeus 130-202 Disciple of Polycarp. Gospels, Acts, Pauline epistles, 1&2 Pet, Hebrews
Muratorian Canon 190 20 books. Luke, John, Acts, Pauline epistles, 1&2 Pet, Hebrews, Revelation
Clement of Alexandria 155-220. 22 books. Gospels, Acts, Pauline epistles, 1&2 Pet, Hebrews, Revelation
Tertulian 160-220 24 books
Hippolytus 170-235. 25 books
Origen 185-253 22 books.
Athannasius 296-373 27 books
Origin did the church the service of sorting the books into two categories as follows:
Accepted books
-Four Gospels
-Paul’s 13 epistles
-1 Peter
-1 John
Questioned books
-2 Peter
-2&3 John
This distinction by Origen is important because it shows that the majority of what we now have as the NT was affirmed by the early church as being original writings of the true apostles. Most of the books in question were doubted on the basis of authorship. Once their authorship was established they were accepted. Thus, the canonization process was a process of limitation rather than elevation. On what basis did they limit books? Here are the criteria for Canonization which they used. It is a free world, and one can disagree with their conclusions [As did Luther and many of the reformers who doubted James and sometimes Revelation] or their methods, but what would be a better system than the following rules? What would more accurately tell us which books should be canonized?
Apostolic Authorship—or noteworthy authority
It is hard to have a better standard than that! On what basis should we take the word of someone who had never seen Jesus? It would be foolish and naïve to take the word of someone who was not an eye witness over that of an actual eye witness.
Continuity with “Canon of Truth”
The new writings must be in agreement with the truth claims of the old writings. They must offer revelation that is a completion of the old writings. This is the main reason for which I personally reject the Gnostic Gospels and the Book of Mormon. Neither of those offers anything that advances our knowledge through fulfillment and continuity yet remains faithful to the old texts [the Old Testament].
Universal Acceptance
The writings must be accepted by the church at large. Some books were only sporadically accepted by certain isolated groups. These books were not adopted.
Self Authenticating, Divine Nature
They must have the “earmarks” of being from God. This is perhaps the most fuzzy/subjective of their standards. It was on this basis that Luther did not believe James was canonical. He called it a “strawy epistle.” In comparing the books of the NT, however, to the works of the Gnostics it is easy to see the superiority of the NT.
I will dovetail another post [Part 4 of the series] with this one later about the Gnostic gospels and, specifically, the Gospel of Judas. I will give some reasons that they were rejected and why they ought to be rejected.

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