We take a look at how the Early Church settled on the New Testament Canon; the Didache & Shepherd of Hermas & two men who led abberant/heretical groups-Marcion & Montanus.
Episode 5. This week’s episode is titled “Books.”
The history of Christianity inevitably has to touch on the importance of Books. From its earliest days the Church has been intimately linked to the Scriptures. At first, Scripture was the Hebrew Bible or what is known today as the Old Testament. But other writings were added to the Church’s Bible as the years passed.
The question of what writings to include in the Bible was one of the major topics of discussion during the first 4 centuries. But the question of what ought to be included or excluded is not nearly the contentious debate modern skeptics claim it was. With rare exception, church leaders generally agreed on what texts comprised Scripture. They were only reluctant to make an official pronouncement because humility prohibited them from claiming the authority to do so. Still, by the 4th Century, most church leaders recognized time was running out on those who were in a position to make the needed determination.
Following the age of the martyrs, the next period of Church history was marked by theological challenge. It was crucial that local congregations have a standard to go by, an authoritative body of doctrine by which to evaluate what was being taught. That authority was the Bible.
Christians started with those Scriptures the Jews already revered as God’s Word, the Tanach, or as Christians referred to it, the Old Testament. To this base of 39 books, believers added another set of writings they called the New Testament. Together, these 2 Testaments comprise what’s called the “Canon of Scripture.” Canon means a measuring rod, as in a ruler. The Canon of Scripture is the standard for measuring if something is straight, if it aligns with truth. The Bible was esteemed Truth because it was God’s Word.
That’s what proved such a daunting challenge to the church leaders as they considered what to include in the New Testament Canon. Who were they to decide what was inspired by the Holy Spirit & ought to stand as the standard by which to evaluate all else? Still, the task was necessary so they developed a criteria by which to decide what ought to be included in the Canon. The reasoning went like this…
First was the Old Testament canon of Jewish Scriptures. Then Jesus came as the Word of God made flesh. Though Jesus wrote no books, His life and words were written on the hearts and minds of the Apostles, whose teaching in both oral and written form was accepted as authoritative.
Early evidence makes it clear that letters from the apostles were circulated and read in the churches, being accepted as laying down the norms of Christian belief and practice. Hunger for stories of Jesus moved the Apostles to develop a standard oral tradition that we see today forming the core of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and to a certain degree, Luke.
But how do we get to the 27 books that form today’s New Testament canon? What criteria did the church leaders use when they finally identified those books?
1St – A candidate for inclusion had to have a self-identifying quality about it as having been inspired by God. It had to possess a certain power to affect the lives of readers toward God.
2nd – A candidate writing had to have a long reputation among the churches for having been used in Christian worship to the edification of believers.
3rd – A writing had to have a close connection to an Apostle. If not written by the Apostle himself, was the author a close associate of an Apostle and did it bear the mark of the Apostle’s influence?
Luke wasn’t an apostle but his Gospel and the Book of Acts are included in the New Testament because he was a close associate of the Apostle Paul and had interviewed the other Apostles in researching his story on the life of Jesus.
Mark wasn’t an apostle, but received his information about Jesus from the Apostle Peter.
On the other side of the issue, in the late 1st Century, Clement, the pastor at Rome, wrote a letter to the church at Corinth. That letter was read often at Corinth in the years that followed and proved of great benefit. But because Clement wasn’t deemed to have an Apostolic connection, his letter wasn’t included in the New Testament canon. There wasn’t even much debate about it if it should be. It didn’t pass the 3rd criteria so it wasn’t included.
Because the test of Apostolic origin was crucial to canonical books, the church leaders of the late 2nd Century realized the time was running out on reliable witnesses who could confirm a writing’s Apostolic authority. The pressure was on to put their imprimatur of acceptance on those works connected to the Apostles.
Another event forced their hand. A heretic named Marcion set up a counterfeit church that in some ways paralleled the Orthodox faith. But he proposed 2 gods; A wrathful, angry, violent God of the Old Testament & Jews, and a loving, kind, benevolent God of the New Testament & Christians. Marcion rejected the Old Testament and those New Testament books he considered too Jewish; Matthew, Mark, Acts, Hebrews, 1 & 2 Timothy, as well as Titus. Marcion’s Bible was a highly-edited Gospel of Luke & some of Paul’s letters.
Though the Church excommunicated Marcion in AD 144, his rejection of all things Jewish carried a certain resonance with some Gentile believers who’d been persecuted by Jews. Marcion formed his counterfeit church from their ranks. It was the heretical Marcion’s preemptive move of identifying which books were Scripture that forced the Church leaders’ hand to provide an official list of Christian Scripture.
The Old Testament was retained and reaffirmed as God’s word, and for the most part the books we recognize as the New Testament Canon today. I say, “for the most part” because there were a few books that continued to be debated until the Council of Carthage closed the Canon in A.D. 397 with the 27 books of our New Testament. If this sounds like a late date to complete the NT Canon, know that the list the Council settled on had been in circulation by church leaders for years prior to the official statement at Carthage.
A couple of decades after the heresy of Marcion, another challenge to orthodoxy arose. Around A.D. 160, 2 women and a man joined forces in Phrygia, a region of central Turkey. They formed a new movement based on what they claimed was the prophetic voice of God. Maximilla, Prisca, and Montanus led what we could call an early hyper-Pentecostalism that split the church.
The Montanists’ main message was the soon return of Christ and the need for believers to get ready. They were to do so by a strict asceticism that included much fasting, eating only dry foods, (I guess moist food was sinful because it was too easy and too enjoyable) and the requirement to abstain from marital sex. Montanists were told to relish persecution; holding it to be a badge of genuine faith and loyalty to God.
The Montanists presented such a significant challenge Church leaders convened some of the Church’s first councils, known as “synods”, to decide how to respond to the growing popularity of Montanism. It was decided that the excesses of the New Prophets were too extreme and they were excommunicated, though the specific reasons for doing so have been lost to us. All we know is that an official split occurred between the Montanists and the Orthodox Church. The split was so clear, when Christians and Montanists were both executed in the same arena , they died for the same God but tried to avoid being eaten by the same animals, lest their remains mingle in the belly of a beast.
The decision to excommunicate the Montanists was anything but unanimous among Church leaders. Many believed that while the New Prophets had gone too far in their excessive emphasis on asceticism, their renewal of the use of spiritual gifts was a return to the primitive version of Christianity practiced by the Apostles & described in the Book of Acts. The early Church father Tertullian, pastor of Carthage, was a Montanist.
What brought the Montanists into the greatest disrepute was the failure of some of their prophecies about impending events. This and their ultra-strict legalism earned them the label of being highly aberrant, if not heretical.
Though it was right for the Church leaders of the late 2nd Century to censure the Montanists for their excesses, they probably went too far in labeling them “heretics.” Because the Montanists put such emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit, rejecting Montanism tended also to put a damper on the exercise of spiritual gifts. An unfortunate turn at a time when Christians needed every bit of help they could get.
In our next episode, we’ll consider what was probably the greatest doctrinal challenge to the Early church – the heresy known as Gnosticism. This is an important subject because while Gnosticism was eventually defeated by orthodoxy and went into a long hiatus, it’s seen a revival in recent years due to the combined influence of modern novelists and some recent discoveries of their literature which critics of Christianity have latched on to.