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The New Testament
In one of his online articles, Richard carrier writes:
"Contrary to common belief, there was never a one-time, truly universal decision as to which books should be included in the Bible. It took over a century of the proliferation of numerous writings before anyone even bothered to start picking and choosing, and then it was largely a cumulative, individual and happenstance event, guided by chance and prejudice more than objective and scholarly research, until priests and academics began pronouncing what was authoritative and holy, and even they were not unanimous. Every church had its favored books, and since there was nothing like a clearly-defined orthodoxy until the 4th century, there were in fact many simultaneous literary traditions. The illusion that it was otherwise is created by the fact that the church that came out on top simply preserved texts in its favor and destroyed or let vanish opposing documents. Hence what we call "orthodoxy" is simply "the church that won."
Richard Carrier's article is quite extensive, as he organizes the formation of the New Testament not by book, but rather by time period, from its earliest recorded mention to the time of the Synods, although he is clear from the beginning that the story is "inescapably complex and confusing." (ibid.) It should also be noted that this essay will not accomplish the same task set out by Richard, as I feel that he has done quite an exemplary job on his article, so I will leave the history of the canon's formation itself quite brief, and suggest that aside from the additional sources I cite, Richard's article be considered the top source for the information on that subject.
Since I will not be covering the formation of the canon, instead I will focus primarily on the books of the canon themselves, attempting to give to the best of my ability, pertinent dating and motivations for the manuscripts based on some the best scholarship available, additionally some of my own theories will be considered, and weighed against opposing arguments to see if the old positions stand up. It should be noted that all my theories rest on the complete support of evidence, both from scholars and from the texts themselves. However these theories comprise very little of the work as a whole, and the viewer can be certain that all sources will be provided for their own independent research 'which is strongly recommended'.
Keep in mind as well that this is merely an article of a much larger manuscript. A more detailed and comprehensive discussion on these issues will be found in my book due out at the end of the year. Consult my personal "FreeThoughtPedia wiki" for more details. Also submit any questions to me in regards to this article, and you may find that your questions will be addressed in future updates. Please be patient, however, as my book takes top priority at the moment, and I cannot adequately work on everything at once, thus updates to this article will be slower than one might like.
Let's get to it,
--Rook Hawkins 06:38, 18 August 2007 (CDT)
History of the Formation of the New Testament
Leaving out the texts themselves, the earliest records scholarship has of an official 'canon' comes from Marcion. Although a heretic--deemed so by the church, mainly through the new found positions of heresiologists and apologists--he was the first to ever (1) collect the Pauline epistles (Nine in total comprised his "corpus") and (2) collect them into what he considered canon, all of this happening around the year 144 CE. He was a Gnostic, and of course, the Orthodoxy would not stand by and let Marcion interpret the earliest references to Jesus in the manner that Marcion did, and thus the Church came up with their own canon--at least to some regard--as there was no official canon until much later.
With this in mind, it may surprise many Christians (and perhaps others as well) to see that there really was not an official canon before 367, which we can find under the rule of a powerful Bishop of Alexandria, Bishop Athanasius, in a letter to all the churches in his jurisdiction.
According to Bart Ehrman:
"Christians today might be puzzled by this view and wonder why these...Christians didn't simply read their New Testaments to see that their views were wrong. The reason they didn't read their New Testaments, though, is clear. There was no New Testament yet....The formation of the canon came as a result of the controversies, including the controversies over Jesus' identity in the early centuries." (Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code; 2004, p. 19-20)
Although the writings of early Christians did exist by the time of the third century (including all of the pseudonymous works of Paul, Peter, John, et al.) there were dozens of additional writings that also existed. Some of these writings also comprised of dating on early levels of the Gospels (synoptic) and the epistles themselves (Hebrews) that made no claims similar to those found in the now-official canon of the New Testament. Thus, what one is left with is a variety of competing canons prior to the forth century when the canon was officially declared.
There were several allusions to some form of the New Testament prior to the forth century, although it is hard to really call it a selection of texts. For example, Irenaeus was the first to name all four Gospels that we have in the canon today (which may result in why these four books were considered authoritative by the later Church), this is in fact due to the views of Marcion who claimed to have the words of the earliest Christians, and to have formed the first canon. Yet, even while Irenaeus was writing against what he viewed as heresy, he has a very different opinion of the Gospel Jesus (one might even call it heretical today) than say that of Eusebius a few generations later. For example, Irenaeus believed Jesus lived past the age of 30 into his 50's by the time he was crucified by Pilate, using a verse in John to provide evidence of this. Such views show a diversity of opinion on Jesus even within the Orthodoxy of Christianity in the late second century.
That being said, the New Testament has a very troubling history, which should be looked at as something that has been voted upon, and even altered by ecumenical councils for years after Christianity became the official religion of Rome in 325 at Nicea.
Canons of the New Testament
The term "Canon" comes from the Greek word κανων which means a straight rod or bar. It is metaphorically associated with a set of rules or law of an art or trade, or refer to a list. A Canon in regards to Christianity and the Bible is defined as, "the list of inspired books which the Church regarded as composing Holy Scripture, liturgical rules, esp. that part of the Mass which includes the consecration, and rules concerning the life and discipline of the Church."
However there has never really been one official canon, as the canon has changed, and after Christianity splintered after Luther left, there have been multiple canons existing at once. The earliest reference to the canon that the Catholics use today that we know of, against thanks to Athanasius, consists of the following books:
"These are, the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one; of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John."
However, it should also be noted that a few decades earlier, when Constantine ordered the Bishops of Nicea to compile 50 codices to send to the various churches to be made by the best scribes, two of these codices--the Vaticanus and Siniaticus--have different texts in them. In other words, it would be adequate to deduce that the scribes were copying books from different codices even when ordered to copy a specific canon. There simply were too many various canons to choose from, and this is probably why the two codices are different still from the 5th century Codex Alexandrinus.
Today there are several versions of the canon as well. The Catholics maintain the same canon laid out by Athanasius, yet the Protestant Church holds some of those books to be uninspired, and Luther removed them from his canon. These works included Hebrews, James, Jude, Apocalypse, II Peter, II and III John. Additionally, I and II Maccabees as well as Sirach (also known as Ecclesiasticus) can be found in the Catholic Canon where the Protestant Canon has them removed.
The Gospels and Acts
It should be noted that there are actually many Gospels, in fact the Nag Hammadi texts yielded quite a few additional ones scholars had only seen vague references to before the discovery. The word "Gospel" comes from the Greek ευαγγελιον, meaning "glad tidings" and is found in the Septuagint, in Isaiah 52:7 and Isaiah 61:1. Matthew has his Jesus referring to the Gospel as his message (Matt. 11:5), but it doesn't just appear in the Bible.
This appears to be in use by the Greeks and the Romans long before. In an inscription from Priene, it states, "for the world the beginning of things owing him (Augustus - Editor) are glad tidings (ευαγγελιον)" in relation to Augustus' birthday. The inscription is dated to 9 BCE. It is also found in Homer's Odyssey 14.147-155, " that he will never come again, and thy heart is ever unbelieving, therefore will I tell thee, not at random but with an oath, that Odysseus shall return. And let me have a reward for bearing good tidings (ευαγγελιον), as soon as he shall come, and reach his home; clothe me in a cloak and tunic, goodly raiment."
Even the Hellenized Jews used it, "Now this terrible message was good news (ευαγγελιον) to Florus; and because his design was to have a war kindled, he gave the ambassadors no answer at all." (Recounted from Josephus' Jewish Wars 2.420)
Early Christians seemed to have used this word to refer to the good news of Christs salvation. No doubt they believed it was in fact good news. However the term did not start meaning specific works about Jesus until the mid second century.
More to come.
The Gospel According to Mark
The Gospel According to Matthew
The Gospel According to Luke
The Gospel According to John
Acts of the Apostles
The Epistles of Paul
More to Come.
The Seven Authentic Epistles
The Pseudonymous Epistles and Hebrews
- Richard Carrier, The Formation of the New Testament Canon (2000), Introduction
- Joseph B. Tyson, Marcion and Luke-Acts: A Defining Struggle (2006); Richard I. Pervo, Dating Acts (2006) The following show the authorship of Luke as written to refute Gnosticism, although do not give an alternative dating: Charles H. Talbert, Luke and the Gnostics (1966) and Reading Luke (1982)
- New Advent site; Letter 39
- Adversus Haereses II.22.2-6
- Article on "canon"; Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, p. 279
- Eusebius, Life of Constantine, iv. 36
- Bart Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament (2005), p. 15
- The Sinaiticus includes the books the "Shepherd of Hermas" and the "Epistle of Barnabas," while the Alexandrinus is missing these books, and contains the two so-called Epistles of Clement. This is certainly due to the letter of Athanasius, but the addition of Clements letters is puzzling.
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