Understanding The Bible
Clarence E. Mason's "BIBLICAL
Part III - Introduction to the Canon
THE NEW TESTAMENT CANON
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Dr. Clarence E. Mason, Jr.
Philadelphia College of Bible
THE CANON OF SCRIPTURE
- THE NEW TESTAMENT CANON
- 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.
- Things which tended to retard the process of .NT
- 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. "
- 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.
- 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.
- Internal evidence was sometimes inadequate or
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).
- Things which tended to hasten the process of NT
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
Heresies had their sacred books. It became increasingly important that these
books should be carefully discriminated against and a list of true books
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.
- The three periods or stages of NT canonization
- 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.
- 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).
- From AD 220 to 405
In this period we find the acceptance of the complete canon in East and
West, even of disputed books.
- The details
- 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
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:
- Clement of Rome, AD 95--writing to the church at
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.
- 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.
- 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
The Gnostic heresy was bringing the true books into clearer relief as
the period closed.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- THIRD PERIOD - AD 220 to 405
Key to period: Acceptance of complete NT canon in East and West.
- 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.
- 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.
- Dionysius of Alexandria û pupil of Origen
He is not sure about 2 Peter and Jude.
- 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
- The acknowledged books (homologoumena)
The Gospels, Acts, and Paul's epistles (incl. Heb.), 1 John, 1 Peter.
- The disputed books (antilegomena)
James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and the Apocalypse.
- 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.)
- Cyril of Jerusalem (AD 349)
He says that the "disputed" books mentioned by Eusebius were now
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."
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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