Understanding The Bible
Part III - Introduction to the Canon of Scripture


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Dr. Clarence E. Mason, Jr.
Philadelphia College of Bible
Circa 1970


    1. The added test for NT books
      The authority for declaring a book canonical rests in the book itself. Along with this principle there was an added test to which a book being considered for the NT canon was subjected, namely, the test of APOSTOLICITY.

      Many spurious works were being circulated, bearing the names of venerable apostles. Obviously no book could be inspired that was falsely circulated under an assumed name. Once the evidence was clear that the book was written by an apostle or some one sponsored by an apostle, it was accepted. The canonical books written by those who were not apostles are the Gospel of Mark (who was sponsored by Peter), the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles by Luke (who was sponsored by Paul), James's epistle, and Jude's epistle. James, though not one of the original apostles, was held in high esteem and was the presiding officer in the Church, because he was the brother of our Lord, as was Jude.

      Note:      Authenticity has to do with the inspiration and divine authority of a book--and is impressed upon men by the Holy Spirit. That is Test 1.
      Genuineness has to do with the authorship of a book (in NT times, the apostolicity of a book). This is Test 2, the added test. Every authentic book is genuine, but not every genuine book is authentic.
    2. Things which tended to retard the process of .NT canonization
      1. The important place the OT Scriptures held in the time of our Lord and His apostles.
        There had been no prophet since Malachi (till John the Baptist) and no additional WRITTEN inspired utterance till Matthew or James were written. This gap of 500 years would make the Church extremely cautious of putting any other writings on a par with Isaiah, or the Law, or Psalms. It is doubtful if these loving letters of doctrine and pastoral counsel, though read and followed, were regarded when they first appeared as sacred messages to be treasured as equal in authority with the OT. It took time for people to see that God was giving a new set of books, of equal authority, which would "endure forever. "
      2. The slowness of communication
        The mails were for imperial business only. Private individuals or groups had to depend upon the visit of some one from another locality to receive any message from that locality. For example, Paul entrusts his letter to the Romans to Phebe's care (Rom. 16:1-2). It took a great deal of time for the NT books to gain general circulation.
      3. Some letters did not have a church to sponsor them or to vouch for their genuineness. Some were addressed either to Christians generally or to private individuals.
      4. Internal evidence was sometimes inadequate or misleading.
        Sometimes the author's name was missing (Hebrews); or the style of one book varied considerably from that of another bearing the name of the same author (e.g., 1 and 2 Peter); sometimes the author called himself a "servant" or "elder" rather than an apostle (James, Peter, and John).

    3. Things which tended to hasten the process of NT canonization
      1.   In the early part of the process, the death of the apostles.
      While the apostles lived, oral ministry was the usual method. Letters were resorted to only in cases of unavoidable separation. Since oral tradition tends to become untrustworthy, with the death of an apostle from time to time, their writings were increasingly treasured as forming the reliable basis of Christian faith and practice. Later, two further factors hastened their reception:

      2.   Heresy
      Heresies had their sacred books. It became increasingly important that these books should be carefully discriminated against and a list of true books given.

      3.   Persecution
      Some emperors ordered the destruction of Christian sacred books and the punishment of those who had these books in their possession. True books were worth suffering for but uninspired books were not. Thus, this hastened the elimination of unworthy books.

    4. The three periods or stages of NT canonization
      1. Summary
        1. From the time of the apostles to around AD 170
          In this period we look for evidences of a growth in appreciation of the peculiar value of the NT writings.
        2. From AD 170 to 220
          In this period we discover the clear, full recognition of a large part of these writings as sacred and authoritative (i.e., undisputed).
        3. From AD 220 to 405
          In this period we find the acceptance of the complete canon in East and West, even of disputed books.
      2. The details
        1. FIRST PERIOD - to AD 170
          Key to period: Growth in appreciation of peculiar value of books.
          Review B and C, 1.

          The books at first appeared separately in different localities and after intervals of time; were treasured by individual churches as apostolic; and read, probably with other writings, in the Christian assemblies. Gradually, as the writings of the apostles were circulated in wider and wider radius (see 1 Thes. 5:27; Col. 4:16), each church would, of course, make her own copies and have "a collection" of them for its own use. By the end of the first century the apostolic NT writings had been completed.

          It is inferred that by AD 115 there was a complete collection of Pauline epistles and of the four Gospels in existence, this inference being based upon quotations of them in the writings of the early Christian Fathers. We select three witnesses:
          1. Clement of Rome, AD 95--writing to the church at Corinth
            He uses material found in Matthew and Luke.
            He knows Romans and Corinthians.
            There are echoes of Hebrews, 1 Timothy, Titus, 1 Peter, and Ephesians.
          2. Letters of Ignatius, AD 115
            He incorporates language from nearly all the Pauline epistles.
            He shows acquaintance with other books.
            He uses the significant phrase often, "It is written," of NT books.
          3. Justin (the) Martyr- -defender of faith (apologist)
            He knows the Gospels, Epistles, and Apocalypse.
            He says the Gospels are read interchangeably on Sundays with the Prophets.
            The Gnostic heresy was bringing the true books into clearer relief as the period closed.
        2. SECOND PERIOD - AD 170 to 220
          Key to period: Recognition of a large part of NT canon as inspired.
          As we enter this period there is no longer any question as to the fact that there were inspired books to be put on a par with the OT, but rather it was a question of just what books should be included in the NT canon. That which had been slowly, but surely, shaping itself in the consciousness of the Church, now came to clear expression.
          1. Irenaeus--a disciple of Polycarp, who (in turn) was a disciple of the apostle John. The four Gospels, the Acts, epistles of Paul, severalof the Catholic (General) epistles, and the Apocalypse are Scripture to him in the fullest sense and as genuine and authoritative as the OT. His testimony is especially valuable because of his wide acquaintance with churches; he was born in Asia Minor, taught in Rome, and afterward was bishop of Lyons (France).
          2. The Muratorian Fragment--so called because it was discovered by Muratori, the librarian of Milan (Italy), in AD 1840. It dates near the end of the second century and gives a list of NT books then accepted. It does not mention Hebrews, 1 and 2 Peter, or James.

            By the close of the period, the Gospels, Paul's epistles, and the Acts were universally accepted as Scripture. However, some of the Catholic epistles were considered doubtful (as to genuineness) in Egypt, and the Apocalypse was rejected by the Palestinian and Syrian churches. 1 John and 1 Peter were by
            then almost universally received.
        3. THIRD PERIOD - AD 220 to 405
          Key to period: Acceptance of complete NT canon in East and West.
          1. Ongen--lived in Alexandria; was most voluminous of Christian writers. Either by direct statement or by implication he received all except James, 2 Peter, and Jude. He did not necessarily reject these, but had doubts as to their genuineness.
          2. Canon of the Donatists
            The Donatists were a sect who excluded from membership those who turned over Scriptures to magistrates of Diocletian for destruction. Strange to say, Hebrews is omitted.
          3. Dionysius of Alexandria pupil of Origen
            He is not sure about 2 Peter and Jude.
          4. Eusebius as a HISTORIAN (cp. (7))
            He was a great Church historian; he tells us of what was going on in the Church of his time and lists books in three
          5. The acknowledged books (homologoumena)
            The Gospels, Acts, and Paul's epistles (incl. Heb.), 1 John, 1 Peter.
          6. The disputed books (antilegomena)
            James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and the Apocalypse.
          7. The spurious books (apocrypha) (pseudopigrapha)
            Acts of Paul, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Revelation of Peter, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Teachings of the Twelve Apostles (the Didache), and the Gospel according to the Hebrews.
            These books were more or less harmless books circulating under the names of apostles, but uninspired and not genuine, and so were carefully distinguished even from the disputed books. (Concerning them Cobern has some interesting conclusions in his book The New Archaeological Discoveries, pp. 241 245.)
          8. Cyril of Jerusalem (AD 349)
            He says that the "disputed" books mentioned by Eusebius were now generally received.
          9. Athanasius
            In a pastoral letter he lists our 27 books, saying: "These are wells of salvation, so that he who thirsts may be satisfied with the sayings in these. Let no one add to these; let nothing be taken away."
          10. Eusebius's PERSONAL conviction (cp. (4))
            The progress of Christianity under Constantine had much to do with the acceptance of the entire 27 books in the East. He ordered Eusebius to prepare 50 copies of the Scriptures for the churches in his new capital, Constantinople. Although as careful historian Eusebius mentioned some questioned books (see (4)), yet he himself was satisfied with the full list of 27. This established a standard in the East which in time led to the recognition of disputed books.
          11. Augustine and Synod of Carthage (AD 397)
            Augustine in the West was a moving spirit for the acceptance of our list of 27 books. He was at this Council of Carthage, which included ALL, mentioning the books specifically by name.
          12. Jerome and his Latin Vulgate (AD 405)
            When his translation, having all 27 books, was circulated in the West, it practically closed the matter.
            Note: The Reformation made no change in the NT, which had been passed on in tact from these early times. For Romanist Counter-Reformation, see OT, F, 2.


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