IN ORDER to obtain a correct understanding of what is called the formation of the Canon of the New Testament, it is necessary to begin by fixing very firmly in our minds one fact which is obvious enough when attention is once called to it. That is, that the Christian church did not require to form for itself the idea of a " canon," - or, as we should more commonly call it, of a "Bible," -that is, of a collection of books given of God to be the authoritative rule of faith and practice. It inherited this idea from the Jewish church, along with the thing itself, the Jewish Scriptures, or the " Canon of the Old Testament." The church did not grow up by natural law: it was founded. And the authoritative teachers sent forth by Christ to found His church, carried with them, as their most precious possession, a body of divine Scriptures, which they imposed on the church that they founded as its code of law. No reader of the New Testament can need proof of this; on every page of that book is spread the evidence that from the very beginning the Old Testament was as cordially recognized as law by the Christian as by the Jew. The Christian church thus was never without a " Bible " or a " canon."
But the Old Testament books were not the only ones which the apostles (by
Christ's own appointment the authoritative founders of the church) imposed upon
the infant churches, as their authoritative rule of faith and practice. No more
authority dwelt in the prophets of the old covenant than in themselves, the
apostles, who had been "made sufficient as ministers of a new covenant
"; for (as one of themselves argued) " if that which passeth away was
with glory, much more that which remaineth is in glory." Accordingly not
only was the gospel they delivered, in their own estimation, itself a divine
revelation, but it was also preached " in the Holy Ghost " (I Pet. i.
12) ; not merely the matter of it, but the very words in which it was clothed
were " of the Holy Spirit " (I Cor. ii. 13). Their own commands were,
therefore, of divine authority (I Thess. iv. 2), and their writings were the
depository of these commands (II Thess. ii.15). " If any man obeyeth
not our word by this epistle," says Paul to one church (II Thess. iii.
14), " note that man, that ye have no company with him." To another
he makes it the test of a Spirit-led man to recognize that what he was writing
to them was " the commandments of the Lord " (I Cor. xiv. 37).
Inevitably, such writings ', making so awful a claim on their acceptance, were
received by the infant churches as of a quality equal to that of the old "
Bible "; placed alongside of its older books as an additional part of the
one law of God; and read as such in their meetings for worship -a practice
which moreover was required by the apostles (I Thess. v. 27; Col. iv. 16; Rev.
3). In the apprehension, therefore, of the earliest churches, the "Scriptures" were not a closed but an increasing "canon." Such they had been from the beginning, as they gradually grew in number from Moses toMalachi; and such they were to continue as long as there should remain among the churches "men of God who spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost."
We say that this immediate placing of the new books - given the church under
the seal of apostolic authority - among the Scriptures already established as
such, was inevitable. It is also historically evinced from the very
beginning. Thus the apostle Peter, writing in A.D. 68, speaks of Paul's
numerous letters not in contrast with the Scriptures, but as among the
Scriptures and in contrast with " the other Scriptures " (II Pet.
iii.16) -that is, of course, those of the Old Testament. In like manner the
apostle Paul combines, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, the
book of Deuteronomy and the Gospel of Luke under the common head of "
Scripture " (I
What needs emphasis at present about these facts is that they obviously are not evidences of a gradually-heightening estimate of the New Testament books, originally received on a lower level and just beginning to be tentatively accounted Scripture; they are conclusive evidences rather of the estimation of the New Testament books from the very beginning as Scripture, and of their attachment as Scripture to the other Scriptures already in hand. The early Christians did not, then, first form a rival " canon " of " new books" which came only gradually to be accounted as of equal divinity and authority with the " old books "; they received new book after new book from the apostolical circle, as equally " Scripture " with the old books, and added them one by one to the collection of old books as additional Scriptures, until at length the new books thus added were numerous enough to be looked upon as another section of the Scriptures.
The earliest name given to this new section of Scripture was framed on the model of the name by which what we know as the Old Testament was then known. Just as it was called " The Law and the Prophets and the Psalms " (or " the Hagiographa "), or more briefly " The Law and the Prophets," or even more briefly still " The Law "; so the enlarged Bible was called " The Law and the Prophets, with the Gospels and the Apostles " (so Clement of Alexandria, " Strom." vi. 11, 88; Tertullian, " De Praes. Men" 36), or most briefly " The Law and the Gospel " (so Claudius Apolinaris, Irenaeus); while the new books apart were called " The Gospel and the Apostles," or most briefly of all "The Gospel." This earliest name for the new Bible, with all that it involves as to its relation to the old and briefer Bible, is traceable as far back as Ignatius (A.D. 115), who makes use of it repeatedly (e.g., " ad Philad." 5; ("ad Smyrn." 7). In one passage he gives us a hint of the controversies which the enlarged Bible of the Christians aroused among the Judaizers (" ad Philad." 6). " When I heard some saying," he writes, "'Unless I find it in the Old [Books] I will not believe the Gospel' on my saying,' It is written.' they answered, 'That is the question.' To me, however, Jesus Christ is the Old [Books]; his cross and death and resurrection and the faith which is by him, the undefiled Old [Books] - by which I wish, by your prayers, to be justified. The priests indeed are good, but the High Priest better," etc. Here Ignatius appeals to the "Gospel " as Scripture, and the Judaizers object, receiving from him the answer in effect which Augustine afterward formulated in the well known saying that the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is first made clear in the New. What we need now to observe, however, is that to Ignatius the New Testament was not a different book from the Old Testament, but part of the one body of Scripture with it; an accretion, so to speak, which had grown upon it.
This is the testimony of all the early witnesses - even those which speak for
the distinctively Jewish-Christian church. For example, that curious Jewish-Christian
writing, " The Testaments of the XII. Patriarchs " (Benj.11),
tells us, under the cover of an ex post facto prophecy, that the "work and
word " of Paul, i.e., confessedly the book of Acts and Paul's Epistles, "
shall be written in the Holy Books," i.e., as is understood by all, made a
part of the existent Bible. So even in the Talmud, in a scene intended to
ridicule a " bishop " of the first century, he is represented as
finding Galatians by " sinking himself deeper " into the same "
Book " which contained the Law of Moses ("Babl. Shabbath," 116 a
and b). The details cannot be entered into here. Let it suffice to
say that, from the evidence of the fragments which alone have been preserved to
us of the Christian writings of that very early time, it appears that from the
beginning of the second century (and that is from the end of the apostolic age)
a collection (Ignatius, II Clement) of "New Books " (Ignatius),
called the " Gospel and Apostles " (Ignatius, Marcion), was already a
part of the " Oracles " of God (Polycarp, Papias, II Clement), or
"Scriptures " (I
The number of books included-in this added body of New Books, at the opening of the second century, cannot be satisfactorily determined by the evidence of these fragments alone. The section of it called the " Gospel " included Gospels written by " the apostles and their companions " (Justin), which beyond legitimate question were our four Gospels now received. The section called " the Apostles " contained the book of Acts (The Testt. XII. Patt.) and epistles of Paul, John, Peter and James. The evidence from various quarters is indeed enough to show that the collection in general use contained all the books which we at present receive, with the possible exceptions of Jude, II and III John and Philemon. And it is more natural to suppose that failure of very early evidence for these brief booklets is due to their insignificant size rather than to their nonacceptance.
It is to be borne in mind, however, that the extent of the collection may have
- and indeed is historically shown actually to have varied in different
localities. The Bible was circulated only in handcopies, slowly and
painfully made; and an incomplete copy, obtained say at Ephesus in A.D. 68,
would be likely to remain for many years the Bible of the church to which it
was conveyed; and might indeed become the parent of other copies, incomplete
like itself, and thus the means of providing a
whole district with incomplete Bibles. Thus, when we inquire after the history of the New Testament Canon we need to distinguish such questions as these: (1) When was the New Testament Canon completed? (2) When did any one church acquire a completed canon? (3) When did the completed canon -the complete Bible - obtain universal circulation and acceptance? (4) On what ground and evidence did the churches with incomplete Bibles accept the remaining books when they were made known to them?
The Canon of the New Testament was completed when the last authoritative book
was given to any church by the apostles, and that was when John wrote the
Apocalypse, about A.D. 98. Whether the
Let it, however, be clearly understood that it was not exactly apostolic
authorship which in the estimation of the earliest churches, constituted a book
a portion of the " canon." Apostolic authorship was, indeed, early
confounded with canonicity. It was doubt as to the apostolic authorship
of Hebrews, in the West, and of James and Jude, apparently, which underlay the
slowness of the inclusion of these books in the " canon " of certain
churches. But from the beginning it was not so. The principle of
canonicity was not apostolic authorship, but imposition by the apostles as
" law." Hence Tertullian's name for the " canon " is "
instrumentum "; and he speaks of the Old and New Instrument as we would of
the Old and New Testament. That the apostles so imposed the Old Testament
on the churches which they founded - as their " Instrument," or
"Law," or " Canon " - can be denied by none. And in
imposing new books on the same churches, by the same apostolical authority,
they did not confine themselves to books of their own composition. It is
the Gospel according to Luke, a man who was not an apostle, which Paul
parallels in I
The early churches, in short, received, as we receive, into the New Testament
all the books historically evinced to them as give by the apostles to the
churches as their code of law; and we must not mistake the historical evidences
of the slow circulation an authentication of these books over the
widely-extended church, evidence of slowness of " canonization " of
books by the authority or the taste of the church itself.