Canonicity and the New Testament

Canonicity and the New Testament

Some writings took longer for the churches to recognize and circulate than others. The anonymous book of Hebrews is an example. James and Jude, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John were others. Questions were also raised about the book of Revelation. In time, however, the churches circulated and used these documents, and they were recognized as authoritative works. Other books such as the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas were used occasionally but never widely recognized as authoritative.

Recognizing the canonicity of the Old Testament writings is relatively easy. We can accept the evaluations made by Israel about which writings are authoritative. These evaluations have been endorsed by Jesus and the apostles. Israel has handed the Church an intact canon for the Old Testament.

Similarly, we can follow the example of Jesus and the apostles in their usage of the apocryphal books. They were surely aware of these documents, which (among other things) narrate important aspects of Israel’s history. Nevertheless, the Jews of Jesus’ day did not accept these writings as Scripture. Jesus never cited or used them at all. Aside from a possible allusion or two, the apostles never referenced them and certainly did not endorse them as authoritative. No Christian body formally recognized any apocryphal books as canonical before the sixteenth century.

Recognizing the canonicity of the New Testament books requires a different approach. While there is some mutual recognition among the apostles of the authority of each other’s writings (e.g., 2 Pet 3:15–16), the apostolic church never provided an authoritative list of authoritative writings. The apostles themselves were aware of the problem of forged documents written under their names (2 Thess 2:2). Also, other non-apostolic books were being circulated among the churches (e.g., the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles). By the second century, heretics such as the Gnostics had begun to produce documents for which they claimed authority (the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Thomas, etc.). The proliferation of writings forced Christian leaders and thinkers to ask which documents were genuinely inspired. Furthermore, persecution underlined the importance of knowing which books were worth giving one’s life for and which were not.

Over time, Christians came to use at least four tests to determine whether a writing qualified as canonical. The first of these was the test of apostolicity. To be recognized as inspired, a document had to have been written by an apostle or by someone with a close connection to the apostolic community. Most of the books that became the New Testament were written directly by apostles. The few exceptions (Mark, Luke, James, Jude) were written by people close to the apostles. Mark is supposed to have used Peter as a direct source. Luke was a close associate of Paul, and he evidently had access to Mary’s testimony. James and Jude were both half-brothers of Jesus, and both were seen as prominent within the early Christian church.

The test of apostolicity was simplified by the fact that the apostles had written to several churches that still possessed their writings. During the early third century, Tertullian claimed that the authentic writings of the apostles could be found in places like Corinth, Philippi, Ephesus, and Rome (Prescription Against Heretics 36).

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