How did we get our New Testament? As I pointed out in my last article, human authors wrote the texts that would eventually comprise what would become the New Testament. There were, however, many other writings from early Christianity, some very popular among early Christians, that would not be selected for inclusion in the New Testament. So the question I want to address in this column is, “How was the New Testament formed?” I can only give a brief history of the canonization of the 27 books of the New Testament, but such knowledge is essential for not only understanding the history of the Bible, but also for a more informed practice of reading the Bible as a theological text.
The first step in the canonization process was the writing of texts in response to God’s definitive revelation in Jesus Christ. These texts were then copied and disseminated to churches throughout the land. While other Christian literature would be written and copied during and after this period, the 27 books that do become the New Testament were completed by the end of the first century.
A second stage was already taking place by this time and would continue into the following centuries; the reading of texts in worship. There were practical reasons for this as most people were illiterate, and the possibility of everyone having a copy of a text was unfeasible. But a greater reason has to do with the theology of these early believers. Early followers of Jesus offered worship to him that was normally reserved for God. As part of their worship, they heard the gospel read and preached from these texts. Thus, already in the first century certain texts were considered as “scripture”, even though there was no New Testament. Indeed, even texts that would not become a part of the New Testament were also being read.
A third phase in this process was the gradual collection of these writings, which was assisted by the invention of the codex, or the book form, in which texts could be bound together. By the late second century, a survey of texts, known as the Muratorian Canon, appears which lists 22 out of the 27 books that will eventually be incorporated into the New Testament. While other texts that did not make it into the canon are included in the Muratorian Canon, and some texts that will be in the New Testament are not on this list, the Muratorian Canon demonstrates that there was a degree of unanimity in the church of the second century.
Around this period a man named Marcion was teaching that the God of the Hebrews was an evil and wrathful God and the God of the Christians, Jesus, was a compassionate and forgiving God. Marcion’s influence was significant enough to garner the attention of church leaders, especially when he attempted to define what the Christian Bible should contain. Marcion excluded the Old Testament and included in his scriptures only the letters of Paul and a particular version of Luke, which no longer exists. About this same time, another person, Tatian, wrote what is called the Diatesseron, a continuous narrative that amalgamated the four Gospels into one in an attempt to smooth out the inconsistencies between them. Both of these men and their ideas were rejected by the church.
However, the actions of these men, especially Marcion, convinced the church that a canon of scripture needed to be finalized and made required reading for all churches. This would be the only way to root out potential challenges to the growing orthodoxy. Yet, as far as we know, it was not until A.D. 367 that a list of the 27 books was affirmed as the canon of the New Testament. This list, which excludes some popular Christian texts, appears in a letter written by a bishop named Athanasius. Following the circulation of this letter, church councils affirmed Athanasius’ list, and the New Testament was closed. Thus, the canon of the New Testament was not finalized until the late fourth century.
Why should all of this matter to modern Christians who have lived all of their lives with a complete New Testament? Primarily, this historical process of canonization demonstrates that humans, in reaction to opposing views, made decisions about what would become the Christian Bible, and thus the Bible is as much a human book as it is a divine book. But the canonization of the Christian scriptures also testifies to a theological understanding of a sequence of divine actions that has a direction leading toward fulfillment. The very shape of Bible moves from promise to fulfillment, and fulfillment often exceeds promise. Thus the Bible can be affirmed as the Word of God in that it testifies of God’s redemptive aim to reconcile alienated humanity.