Monday, November 29, 2010

The Canonization of the New Testament

This is an essay that I wrote for my English 101 class on how the New Testament- as we have it today- came to be. Studying the origins of the Bible is a vast topic, and this brief research paper is an extremely summed up version of the story. It is a fascinating subject and if you find this interesting, I encourage you to do your own research that is not confined to a 1,375-word-essay.

The Origins of the Bible:
A Brief Study on the Creation, Compilation, and Closing of the Christian Canon

The Christian Bible is the best selling book of all time and more copies of it are sold each year than any other piece of literature.  This is not surprising when one considers that a staggering one third of the world’s population claims to be Christian.  Theoretically, this means that one third of the people on the planet hold the Bible to be the authoritative text for their lives.  These “Holy Scriptures” have shaped people, nations, and history.  Although over two billion people give authority to the Bible, very few actually know where it came from, who wrote it, and who decided how to put it together.  The Christian portion of the Bible is the New Testament and its origins are generally more obscure than the long established Jewish Old Testament.  While the question of the universality of the Old Testament for Christians is an immensely debated topic, most Christians currently believe that, while the Old Testament is still holy, the New Testament is the ultimate authoritative word.  It is curious that so few Christians want to know where their book of authority originated, especially when Jesus, whose word the Church holds as the highest authority, never wrote any books or told his followers to do so (McDonald 70).  What people don’t know is that the New Testament was, in a sense, put together by radicals in the early church, because it was the Church’s reaction to these key figures of the first and second centuries that decided what writings would be canonized as scripture.

As F.F. Bruce points out, one of these early radical thinkers named Marcion is the first known to produce a collection of Christian writings.  Marcion was born around the beginning of the first century and was especially fascinated with the works and teachings of the apostle Paul, whom he studied fanatically.  He interpreted one particular message from Paul to lay the foundation for his entire theology by implying “that not only the Old Testament law, but the Old Testament itself, had been superseded by the gospel” (134-135).  Marcion took this concept of the Old Testament’s authority and usefulness being thrown out, and turned it into a form of anti-Semitism.  For Marcion, the Jewish religion became inferior to his own, and he wanted a form of Christianity that had nothing to do with its Jewish roots.  Bruce illustrates the extremes taken to purge the Christian faith from the Jewish culture and religion by calling to attention Marcion’s assertion that even the God of Israel was a separate entity from the Father God of whom Jesus spoke.  When the Roman church leaders rejected his teachings, Marcion established his own small church that eventually died out after a few generations.  The “bible” that he printed for his followers was comprised of an edited version of the Gospel of Luke and ten letters of Paul.  Any lines of these texts that hinted any kind of support towards Judaism were omitted completely (135-139).  Even though the Church did not accept Marcion’s bible, he was still a crucial influence on what would later become the Christian canon simply by forcing the Church to think about which scriptures reflected its beliefs (McDonald 88-89).

Justin Martyr
The next notable figure of the early Church that had a prominent role in forming the Biblical canon was Justin Martyr.  Justin’s teachings and writings were a direct response to Marcion’s rejection of the Old Testament.  Justin preached that the Old Testament was still a Christian book, and he was “the first orthodox writer to set forth a doctrine of holy scripture” (McDonald 89).  It was Justin who set the precedent for viewing the Jewish texts as the precursor for Christianity and began the practice of reading the Old Testament alongside with Christian writings to prove the legitimacy of the origins of the Christian religion (Mack 285).  McDonald observes that after Justin had established this practice, Irenaeus of Lyons made the bold claim that Christian writings were also holy scripture.  Irenaeus reinforced Justin’s defense of the Old Testament, but focused namely on arguing that these Christian writings were scriptural and that they had authority (92-93).  He compiled the texts and declared them to be the norm for the Christian faith and so, by definition, created a scriptural canon (Lienhard 79).  Although Irenaeus did not necessarily intend to create the first canon, his defense of these Christian scriptures had just that effect.  Lienhard discusses the way in which Irenaeus created such a canon and coined the title of New Testament around 180 A.D.:
The New Testament appears for the first time, but in full clarity, in Irenaeus’s work Against the Heresies.  Irenaeus has a closed canon of four Gospels. His canon of Pauline letters is not closed, but he puts Paul’s letters on the same level as the Gospels.  He calls Acts “Scripture,” and has two apocalypses in his canon of Scripture: the Apocalypse of John and the Shepherd of Hermas. He may be the first to use the title “New Testament” of a collection of books. (27)
With his creation of the New Testament and the concept of a Christian canon, Irenaeus radically shaped the thinking of early Christians.  His teachings and declaration of scriptural authority resting in only one book began the transformation of a predominantly oral tradition into the closed canon faith of Christianity that is known today.

Manuscripts of Iranaeus
Despite the impact and influence of the canon that Irenaeus formed had on early Christianity, it was by no means agreed upon by all Christians.  It wasn’t until the reign of Constantine that the Church came under any widespread unification and uniformity (McDonald 110).  The conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 313 A.D. was really the key event that “triggered the creation of the Christian Bible” (Mack 287).  After his conversion, Constantine became extremely involved in the advancement of Christianity as a major religion.  The new Christian emperor ordered the construction of churches and baptisteries, organized councils of Christian bishops, established the regularization of Church doctrine and practices, and called for the standardization of the Bible (Mack 287).  Constantine gave the assignment to a bishop named Eusebius who, as Mack notes, made a list of all the writings he considered putting in this new standard Bible, but did not say which ones he decided would go into the final draft for Constantine.  Another bishop named Asthanasius, however, recorded a list of the books included in this Bible that looks exactly like the Protestant Christian Bible currently in circulation except for the order of a handful of New Testament letters (289).  While there have been some disagreements over the centuries between now and then, the vast majority of Christians do not dispute the contents of the New Testament that was established in the 4th century.

Constantine's Vision
 After three hundred years, Christianity was taken under the wing of the Roman Empire and its scriptures made the leap from being squabbled over to being canonized as the New Testament.  The Christian Bible is an extraordinary work of literature when one considers how many authors penned its pages and how long it took to go through its drafting process.  An important question about this drafting is raised by Meade: why was the canon was ever closed?  As Christianity continues to grow and thousands continue to write when “inspired by God,” why aren’t these new writings considered for scriptural status (216-217)?  To answer these questions one must simply analyze the process by which the New Testament was canonized.  When radical theologians arose, the Church would respond to their teachings.  It is the response of the rest of the early Christian community that decided if the radical ideas reflected their own beliefs and whether or not the Church would follow them.  Once the Church gained power through the Roman government, its leaders were able to settle the dispute over what was scripture once and for all with the official canonization and spread of the New Testament.  After the Church held its supreme authority on the seat of the Roman throne, it became impossible to question the canon with any real hope of it changing.  And so through outspoken radicals, intense debate, and the eventual final say of the early Church, came the canon of the Christian New Testament that is known today.

Works Cited
Bruce, F.F. The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1988. Print.

Lienhard, Joseph T. The Bible, the Church, and Authority: The Canon of the Christian Bible in History and Theology. Collegeville: Liturgical, 1995. Print.

Mack, Burton L. Who Wrote the New Testament?: The Making of the Christian Myth. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1995. Print.

McDonald, Lee Martin. The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon. Nashville: Abingdon, 1988. Print.

Meade, David G. Pseudonymity and Canon: An Investigation into the Relationship of Authorship and Authority in Jewish and Earliest Christian Tradition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986. Print.

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