This is the second of a 3-part series [See Part 1]. The earliest list of books to be regarded as canonical came from Rome about 140CE. The heretic Marcion believed the god of the OT to be inferior to the god of the NT and sought to provide a list of Christian writings that removed, as far as possible, any Jewish overtones. His list consisted of an edited version of Luke (a “gentile” account of Jesus’ life and ministry) and ten of Paul’s epistles (excluding the Pastorals). This attempt to remove all Semitic influence and Jewish thought from Christianity provoked, in part, the need for a recognized canon.
Justin Martyr (c. 150CE) wrote in his Apology and Dialogue with Trypho that the Church reads the “memoirs of the apostles” (viz. the Gospels). Revelation is included in his canon as well as the Pauline epistles, Hebrews, and Acts. Later his pupil Tatian (c. 170CE) formulated the Diatessaron (a harmony of the Gospels) using all four accounts Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. This shows that Justin did know of the four Gospels.
Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (c. 177CE), cites twenty-two of the twenty-seven books of the NT. Those not included are Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 3 John, and Jude. Although he put the Shepherd of Hermas on par with the canonical books, Iranaeus’ record indicates the early formation of the canon. His account alone shows the extent of recognition both geographically and authoritatively of most of the NT books before the close of the 2nd century.
The Muratorian Fragment was discovered by Cardinal L.A. Muratori, an Italian historian, and was published in 1740. It contains a list of books to be read publicly to the whole Church deemed “apostolic” in origin. This document is dated c. 200CE. Twenty-two (possibly twenty-three if James is included; but, see Bruce New Testament Documents, p. 22 and International Standard Bible Encycopedia [ISBE] Vol. I, p. 605) of the canonical NT books are included. Those not included are Hebrews, James, I and II Peter, and III John. It has been speculated that Hippolytus of Rome (c. 217CE) is the author of the Muratorian Canon (ISBE Vol 1, p. 605). In his known writings he lists twenty-one canonical books; although those books which he includes or omits are different from the Fragment.
Tertullian of Carthage (c. 196-212CE; North Africa) left in his writings a canon of twenty-two books. Those not included were Hebrews, James, II Peter, and II, III John. His strong position against Marcion’s canon and doctrine led him to insist upon an authoritative body of writings.
Clement of Alexandria in Egypt and his successor Origen both attest to the process of a canon in the East. It is possible that Clement knew of all twenty-seven books of the NT, although he held that other non-canonical books were inspired as well. Origen, on the other hand, noted three classes of Scripture. In the first class were those books which were undisputed. In the second class were those still disputed, viz. Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude. The third class consisted of “false” works.
Eusebius’ canon (c. 260-340CE) was the same as Origen’s but included Hebrews and not Revelation. His canon is significant as the Arian heresy was hotly disputed during his time under Constantine. Although both Arius and Athanasius held to the authority of the Scriptures, both turned to them in order to reach a settlement as to the meaning of Christ’s deity and humanity. This clearly indicates the importance of a canon or means whereby truth and error can be discerned.
The most significant and complete canon was recognized by the Alexandrian theologian Athanasius in his thirty-ninth Easter letter, 367CE. All twenty-seven books were acknowledged as Scripture and fully authoritative. He insisted that the twenty-seven alone are to be canonical — nothing to be added nor taken away from them. Also at about this time (c. 386CE), Jerome was commissioned by Damascus, the bishop of Rome, to make a fresh translation of the Scriptures into Latin. In his translation he included all twenty-seven books of the NT.
The first official recognition of a complete NT canon consisting of all twenty-seven books by the Church in the West came at the Third Council of Carthage in 397CE. Augustine was present and gave his stamp of approval of the canon. The Council of Hippo (419CE) reiterated that decision with the same list of twenty-seven books. Later (c. 508CE) the Church of the East recognized the remaining books in its canon (viz. 2 Peter, 2, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation). Thus, by the beginning of the sixth century the Church in all the known world had a completed, recognized canon of the NT.
The final post in this series is scheduled in a few days.