Behind the familiar list of writings that make up the Christian Bible lie struggles over major issues of religious beliefs. In the earliest period of Christianity, particularly the second century CE, the shape and contents of the Christian Bible were neither inevitable nor uncontroversial matters, but instead reflected influential decisions on major struggles. The results are much more interesting and meaningful than most may realize, reflecting important developments and decisions in Christian beliefs. The process that led to a closed canon began surprisingly early and went on for a few centuries. The final list of canonical writings was not the decision of a church council but the result of a long period of Christian usage, reflection, and discussion.
The “Old Testament”
Let’s begin with basics. As any reader of the Christian Bible knows, it is made up of two main component collections, the “Old Testament” and the “New Testament,” but even this was by no means inevitable. Instead, this bipartite structure represents a particular outcome of what was perhaps the major theological struggle of early Christianity in the second century. This struggle was over two related questions about who is the Christian God and whether Christian faith is rightly understood as linked to the biblical story of Israel and her Scriptures. From the many citations of the Old Testament in the New Testament writings, it is clear that earliest (first-century) Christian circles regarded the Old Testament as Scripture, in keeping with the Jewish religious tradition that was the matrix in which Christianity was born. But by the second century, most Christians were non-Jews (“Gentiles”), and many came to see the Old Testament as problematic.
To be sure, there remain some differences among the three major Christian traditions over how many writings should be considered valid parts of the “Old Testament,” but all major Christian communions agree in having an Old Testament. For Protestants, this comprises solely the Scriptures of Judaism, although these writings are counted and arranged differentlyÂ?the twenty-two writings of the Jewish Scriptures comprising the thirty-nine writings of the Protestant Old Testament. Several additional writings, however, are included in the Roman Catholic Old Testament (including Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticu, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, and a few other smaller texts), and in Eastern Orthodox churches these additional writings plus several others (including 1 Esdras, 3 Maccabees) are treated as Scripture. But these are minor differences in comparison to the polarization of Christians in the second century over whether to treat any of the Old Testament texts as Christian Scripture, and whether the deity described in these writings was the true God whom Christians were to worship.
The most well-known exponent of the view that the Old Testament had no place as Christian Scripture is the second-century figure Marcion who broke with the church in Rome in about 140 CE. (1) He also insisted that the Old Testament deity, though a real god, was not the highest and ultimate deity from whom Jesus had come. In his view, there were irreconcilable tensions between the thrust of the Old Testament and the gospel message. For example, he contended that the Old Testament portrayed a deity of law, whereas Jesus came preaching grace. The Old Testament presented a deity concerned with Israel, whereas the gospel was a universal message. Marcion rejected any attempt to smooth over the differences, for example, through allegorizing interpretations of the Old Testament. In his view, the Old Testament writings were purely for the Jews and should form no part of Christian worship or theology.
Down the centuries since, there have occasionally been voices of a somewhat similar stance, though rarely as forthright or as effective as Marcion. When the church in Rome refused his views, he walked out (and was refunded the large contribution he had made to the church when he joined) and started what quickly became a very successful version of Christianity formed around his teachings that competed with what was then emergent orthodox Christianity. We get some idea of the continuing attractiveness of Marcion’s ideas from the five-volume refutation written by the church teacher Tertullian over sixty years after Marcion launched his teachings (Against Marcion, ca. 210 CE).
There were others as well who rejected both the Old Testament and its deity, particularly those Christians referred to as “Gnostics.” A disdain for the Old Testament and its deity is characteristic of Gnostic Christian texts. Indeed, in some cases the Old Testament god is portrayed as a tyrannical and evil being, who sought to deceive people into thinking that he was the only god, with statements such as “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god” (Isa. 44:6) presented as proof of his vanity and arrogance.
Marcion and the Gnostics did not question that the Old Testament deity was the creator-deity. In fact, they argued that this was a powerful reason to reject him. In their view, the creation of the world was a sorry event that brought with it problems of sexuality, procreation, and the entrapment of pure souls in the world of matter. They preferred a much more ascetic life, especially refraining from sexual relations and its consequence of childbearing. The ascetic tendency must have been very strong in the early centuries, for it influenced emergent orthodox/catholic Christianity as well. But in orthodox/catholic circles, there was neither the wholesale rejection of creation and its creator-deity nor a programmatic condemnation of marriage and childbearing. Orthodox/ catholic circles also insisted that the Old Testament should be read and used as Scripture, especially in liturgy and in framing theological beliefs. The frequent citation of Old Testament writings evidenced in the New Testament continued in the writings of second-century orthodox/catholic Christianity (e.g., Justin Martyr) and thereafter. Additional evidence of the use of Old Testament writings is found in the many early Christian copies of these texts. Indeed, the single most frequently attested text in identifiably Christian manuscripts of the first three centuries is Psalms, and there are multiple early Christian copies of other Old Testament texts as well. (2)
As indicated already, the question of whether the Old Testament should be treated as Scripture was connected with the larger questions of who the Christian God is, whether the creator-deity and creation itself are to be seen as good or evil, and associated issues about the body, sexuality, and other matters. These were obviously huge matters and the stakes were high, involving the whole religious orientation and nature of Christianity. Is the physical creation the cruel act of the creator-deity, a tyrant, and is salvation thus deliverance from this creator and his creation? Is the physical body a prison-house of the soul, bodily appetites and functions (especially sex and procreation) simply a participation in the delusion and evil from which the heavenly Christ came to free us? Is Jesus to be seen as the true fulfilment of Old Testament and Jewish messianic hopes, and is the gospel the further fruition of divine purposes inaugurated in ancient Israel? Or is the Old Testament irrelevant for Christian faith, and is the Christian gospel to be defined as the totally new message of a previously unknown deity who has now broken into the domain of the evil creator-god to deliver the souls of the elect from his tyranny? For a period of time, especially in the late second century CE, all these things and more were very much in dispute. It is an exaggeration to say that “Christianity” could have gone either way (it is actually not apparent that Gnostics, who seem to have had an elitist outlook, were ever all that popular or ever intended to be popular). But Marcionite Christianity certainly seems to have had sufficient success to worry orthodox Christians for some time.
That there is an Old Testament in the Christian Bible, thus, is the result of a resolute rejection of Marcion and similar views by most Christian circles of the second century CE. Old Testament writings had been regarded as Scripture in Christian circles from the beginning, to be sure, but the popularity of Marcion’s ideas shows that the retention of these writings in the Christian Bible required a decision to do so. The presence of an Old Testament in the Christian Bible is the enduring physical expression of the outcome of this major theological struggle.
The “New Testament”
It is also more noteworthy than may be realized commonly that there is a “New Testament” in the Christian Bible, and that the New Testament comprises the particular collection of writings so familiar to us. Here again, there were major issues that are now largely lost from popular sight but loomed large in the ancient churches.
As noted already, for the very first Christians the Jewish Scriptures (which became the Old Testament) were their Scriptures also; but from an early point we have indications that certain Christian writings were also beginning to be held in a similar regard. In the first two centuries or so, before canon lists or other more formal indicators, the key signal that a text functioned as Scripture is that it was read as part of the liturgical action of the gathered church. We know that the apostle Paul wrote letters to churches and that these letters were read out in/to the gathered congregation (for example, see the directive in 1 Thessalonians 5:27 and the reference to the circulation of Paul’s letters in Colossians 4:16). It is not so surprising, therefore, that the earliest reference to any Christian writings functioning as Scripture concerns Paul’s letters. In 2 Peter 3:15-16, the author refers to Paul’s letters appreciatively, but also warns that “the ignorant and unstable” misuse them “as they do the other scriptures.” Note that Paul’s letters are explicitly likened to other Scriptures and that they are used to justify and promote religious beliefs.
Indeed, 2 Peter 3:15-16 suggests that the author knew of a collection of Paul’s letters (note the reference to “all his letters”), and may even have expected his readers to know of such a collection as well. A collection of Pauline letters is significant, for it means that Paul was seen in some way as an authoritative figure, his letters gathered and copied, and functioning as instructive for Christians beyond the churches to which they were originally addressed. As Harry Gamble has noted, the New Testament canon is “a collection of collections” or a collection of component collections, each of which has its own history. (3) The Pauline letter collection seems to be the earliest of these component collections, and so may be regarded as the first stage of what became the New Testament canon.
Unfortunately, we do not know how many writings the author of 2 Peter thought comprised “all” of Paul’s letters. Gamble has proposed that there was an early edition comprising ten letters but arranged to emphasize that they were addressed to seven churches (in the order 1-2 Corinthians, Romans, Ephesians, 1-2 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon). (4) In addition to his rejection of the Old Testament and its deity, however, Marcion is also known for his view that Paul was the only true apostle. Marcion formed his own canon of scriptures, which was solely a ten-letter Pauline collection and the Gospel of Luke. In Marcion’s canon, however, the Epistle to the Galatians (which Marcion seems to have regarded as most important) headed the list of Pauline letters.
It seems that the Pastoral Epistles (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus) were not originally included but came to acquire scriptural status somewhat later, perhaps sometime in the late second or third century CE. On the other hand, in some circles the Epistle to the Hebrews was counted among the Pauline letters, as reflected in the Chester Beatty papyrus (P46, dated ca. 200 CE), the earliest extant manuscript comprising a collection of Pauline Epistles.
Another intriguing question concerns the physical format in which a Pauline letter collection may have circulated in the earliest period. Overwhelmingly, the roll was preferred for literary texts. But at a remarkably early point (earlier than any of our extant Christian manuscripts, some of which take us back perhaps to the mid-second century CE), Christians appear to have preferred the early form of the leaf-book, known as the “codex,” and especially for the writings they regarded as having scriptural significance. One theory is that this Christian preference for the codex may have commenced with the use of this format to accommodate a Pauline letter collection, but there are other proposals as well and we cannot linger over the matter here. (5) Some have suggested that the codex facilitated the formation of a biblical canon. Perhaps, but we should note that ancient Judaism also developed a closed canon (and roughly contemporaneously with the formation of the Christian canon), and yet preferred the book roll for Scriptures till several centuries later. So, it appears that the formation of a closed canon did not require the codex, and the codex may not help us much in accounting for a Christian canon.
In any case, at about the same time as the composition of 2 Peter and its reference to a collection of Pauline Epistles, the four Gospels were written and began circulating as well. The Gospel of Mark, widely thought to have been the first Gospel (written ca. 70 CE), was followed within a few years by Matthew and Luke (which exhibit a strong literary relationship with Mark), and then by the Gospel of John (typically dated to the 80s-90s CE). The available manuscript evidence and the citations in early Christian writers indicate that throughout most of the second century these writings were copied and circulated separately, and that they varied in popularity. John and Matthew were clearly the favorites among the Gospels, and Mark least cited and copied.
Nevertheless, there are indications that all four Gospels were held in high regard in various second-century Christian circles and came to be linked conceptually (if not physically copied in one book) as a fourfold Gospel collection, perhaps as early as 120-150 CE. In his large work, Against Heresies (ca. 170 CE), Irenaeus (ca. 115-202 CE and bishop of Lyons) explicitly insisted that the four Gospels familiar to us were the only valid ones, and it is now thought likely that he was defending a view that had been held more widely and for some time. Various scholars in recent years have posited still earlier evidence that a fourfold Gospel was gaining acceptance in the early decades of the second century. (6) The earliest extant four-Gospel codex is the Chester Beatty Gospel papyrus (P45, dated ca. 250 CE), which contained the four canonical Gospels and the book of Acts as well. (7) Probably sometime in the late second or early third century, Christians had begun to produce a codex adequate to accommodate all four Gospels in one manuscript.
For some early Christians, however, perhaps for many, the plurality of the Gospels posed a problem. (8) How could there be more than one authoritative account of Jesus? It was as evident to ancients as it is to us that the four Gospels differed, in some cases in striking ways. Marcion is again the most notorious example of someone who found it impossible to accommodate this. Just as he rejected the complexity posed for Christian faith by treating the Old Testament as Scriptures, he also rejected the complexity of multiple Gospels. For him, there could be only one true Gospel book, and this was the Gospel of Luke (probably because it had become associated in early tradition with the apostle Paul, whom Marcion regarded as the only true apostle).
On the other hand, another important second-century figure, Tatian, sought to resolve the problem by weaving the four Gospels together into a cohesive account, in a work known as the Diatessaron (Greek for “one from four”), which appeared sometime prior to 172 CE. This work proved enormously popular, was translated into various languages, and in Syriac Christianity quickly came to be treated as Scripture, the form in which the Gospel was read in liturgy, for a few centuries.
But, as surprising as it will seem, most Christian circles insisted on retaining all four Gospels and as discrete writings (not harmonized), allowing them to stand as they are, differences and all. This is something for which all subsequent historians must be grateful and which could also be seen as an impressively courageous stance. As we have noted, it appears that all four Gospels came to be regarded as Scripture very early, so in one sense the inclusion of them in the New Testament canon was a vote for tradition. But, nevertheless, it also had the effect of validating the diversity represented in the four Gospels. Theologically, it meant that the full witness to Jesus required this fourfold testimony, with all its diversity (which proponents of the fourfold Gospel preferred to portray as a richness).
Indeed, what became the agreed New Testament canon can be seen as a programmatic affirmation of Christian diversity, four Gospels (not simply one), and multiple apostles (Epistles ascribed to Peter, James, John, and Jude, as well as the Pauline collection). This is important to note today for various reasons. There is a popular notion that the Christian canon represents essentially an exclusion of competing texts in favor of a narrow definition of Christian faith. But it seems more accurate to see the canonizing process as a progressively wider inclusion of a certain diversity of texts and emphases, over against more narrow agendas of people such as Marcion. The shape or architecture of the resultant canon comprises real complexity, with the Old Testament Scriptures, multiple Gospels, multiple apostolic testimonies, and a variety of genres of texts. Perhaps modern Christianity could benefit from carefully examining the historical process and the important issues reflected in the all-too-familiar body of writings that make up the Christian Bible.
For further reading
For more on the figures and texts mentioned, consult the following reference works:
Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, ed. Everett Ferguson, 2nd ed. (New York/London: Garland, 1998); Dictionary of Early Christian Literature, eds. Sigmar Döpp and Wilhelm Geerlings (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1998). For an excellent collection of scholarly studies on the process of canonization in ancient Judaism and Christianity, consult The Canon Debate, eds. Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), which includes a bibliography for further reading.
1 [ Back ] Paul Foster, "Marcion: His Life, Works, Beliefs, and Impact," Expository Times 121 (2010): 269-80; and in the same issue note articles by Sebastian Moll, "Marcion: A New Perspective on His Life, Theology, and Impact" (281-86), and Dieter T. Roth, "Marcion's Gospel: Relevance, Contested Issues, and Reconstruction" (287-94).
2 [ Back ] Larry W. Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), esp. 15-41.
3 [ Back ] Harry Y. Gamble, "The New Testament Canon: Recent Research and the status Quaestionis," in The Canon Debate, eds. Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), 267-94 (citing 275).
4 [ Back ] See Gamble's discussion, 282-87.
5 [ Back ] See the extended discussion of the matter in Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts, 43-93.
6 [ Back ] For example, see G. N. Stanton, "The Fourfold Gospel," New Testament Studies 43 (1997): 317-46.
7 [ Back ] For a group of recent studies pertaining to P45, see Charles Horton, ed., The Earliest Gospels: The Origins and Transmission of the Earliest Christian GospelsÂ?The Contribution of the Chester Beatty Gospel Codex P45 (London: T&T Clark International, 2004).
8 [ Back ] Oscar Cullmann, "The Plurality of the Gospels as a Theological Problem in Antiquity," in The Early Church: Studies in Early Christian History and Theology, ed. A. J. B. Higgins (London/ Philadelphia: SCM/Westminster, 1956), 39-54.