The story of how we got the particular books of the Bible has a tendency to confuse even historians and biblical scholars. Nevertheless, it remains an essential piece of theological history, especially for Christians committed to the basic idea of sola scriptura: the insistence that scripture alone provides the grounds to establish and adjudicate matters of dogma.
As so often is the case for early Christianity, the historical particulars can prove elusive. Without exhaustively recounting the centuries-long process, I want to challenge two hazy but common misconceptions about the formation of the New Testament canon in particular. By making a primarily negative argument, I hope to give readers a better, positive sense of how the New Testament came to be.
The present essay, Part One, addresses the role that the institutional Church played in the development of the canon. Part Two will then reconsider the influence of top-down authority—Roman political power—in the process. In both steps, I aim to trace out and emphasize what was arguably a more fundamental but neglected factor: Christian scholarship and debate.
The Role of the Church
If you overhear intra-Christian discussions of biblical canon or early ecclesiastical authority, you can sometimes discern a fuzzily-articulated idea about how these mechanisms interacted in Christianity’s first several centuries. The reasoning goes something like this: “The biblical canon with its list of books obviously did not come down out of heaven on golden tablets. Consequently, there must have been human selection involved, namely, that of the Church. Thus, it is the Church’s authority to teach that gives it the right to set the canon of scripture.”
This line of thinking sometimes crops up as a Roman Catholic rejoinder to sola scriptura, as it would seem to establish the priority of Church and Tradition. Moreover, plenty of Protestants themselves either share elements of this model or have no clear alternative account.
Definitions are crucial here. If by “the Church,” we mean the largely decentralized traditions and historical memory of many self-governing regional communities functioning as distinct institutions, then yes, the Church was indispensable to the canonization process. If, however, you mean something like the Councils of Nicaea or Trent—one may have a hazy mental image like the old icons, with many long-bearded, robed bishops sitting somberly in a circle under the aegis of the emperor or pope to define a list of books once and for all—then not so much. Such conciliar efforts did occur with the canon, but from the perspective of ancient or early medieval Christians, these conciliar definitions were comparatively late.
Window into the Canon
We get a more accurate view through the testimony of someone like Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260–339). In his famous Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius gives us one of the few windows into what the canon looked like around the year 300 for the international Church, as he himself had been studying and comparing earlier Christian authorities such as Irenaeus, Origen, and Dionysius of Alexandria who had given serious thought to the contents of the scriptures.
Here’s how Eusebius summarizes his findings:
“And the holy tetrad of the gospels must be set in first positions, which the book of the Apostles’ Acts follows. And after this, Paul’s letters must be counted, then next to these the earlier letter reportedly of John, and likewise must Peter’s letter be confirmed. On top of these must be added, if it should seem right, the Apocalypse of John, the opinions concerning which we shall expound at the proper time. These are the books that are universally accepted by consensus.
And of the disputed books that are nevertheless well-known to many, there is one called James’ and Jude’s, also Peter’s second letter, and the one named the second and third of John, either happening to be of the evangelist or of some other with the same name as him.
Among the spurious, let there be put down the book of Paul’s Acts, and the one called the Shepherd, and the Apocalypse of Peter, and in addition to these the letter reportedly of Barnabas, and the one called Teachings of the Apostles, and further still, the Apocalypse of John (if it seems right), which as I said, some reject and others consider among the accepted books.”
Eusebius has presented three tiers of literature: universally accepted, disputed, and spurious (literally “bastard” texts). To these he adds yet another category: books that heretics have entirely fabricated, to which none of his historical authorities have ever given any credence.
The Eusebian Approach
Eusebius’s schema has perplexed many a reader. Modern scholars have particularly struggled to make sense of how Eusebius can possibly list Revelation provisionally as both “accepted” and “spurious” while leaving it up to the reader, “if it seems right.” After all, wouldn’t that mean it’s the perfect candidate for the second category, the “disputed” books?
Adding another layer of difficulty, the overall thrust of the Ecclesiastical History leans toward accepting Revelation, even though Eusebius lays out both sides of the debate as it played out in the first few centuries of the Church. In effect, Eusebius lets his reader decide, and although he himself attributed authority to Revelation, he did not cut corners by slanting the debate toward his preferred position.
The whole Eusebian approach probably confuses us because we generally assume that the biblical canon must be absolutely clear and set out in black-and-white terms—lest one’s entire theology come crashing down. Nevertheless, Eusebius arguably remains our most important witness for how early Christians handled sacred writ. Even if there was a meaningful consensus about most of the books of our New Testament, Eusebius’s testimony strongly suggests not all Christians agreed on every single point of the canon. Perhaps to our surprise, this did not shatter their theological confidence.
Before the Councils
During the consequential century that followed Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, the New Testament became increasingly cemented, so that even most of the ambiguities noted by Eusebius disappear by the time we approach the year 400. It is here in the later fourth and fifth centuries that we begin to see the institutional Church (i.e. councils, major bishops) begin to make more pronouncements “from the top down” on the authoritative canon, such as Athanasius’s Festal Letter 39 in 367 or Synod of Hippo in 393 (to be discussed in Part Two).
To start a history of the New Testament canon here would overlook the preceding centuries of detailed scholarship and debate among Christian intellectuals and scholars. It was mainly these figures, men like Eusebius, who did the difficult work of figuring out which books belonged to the historical apostles. Councils did come along in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, but they mostly appear to be ratifying what Christian literary criticism had already found.
This affords some insight into how early Christians understood themselves and ultimate theological authority. Unlike our understanding of the canon, theirs was not an abstract theory. Rather, it was much more like an ongoing process to make sense of the past, to find out what the apostles had really left behind, and to keep out the spurious books or heretical fabrications that would leach off their authority. In Part Two, we shall see how this process continued after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
To be continued in Part Two.