Friday, March 4, 2016

Making the Cut: Where did the Bible come from? Part V

            Two weeks ago I wrote up a whirlwind tour of the books of the New Testament (NT) and just barely scratched the surface of who wrote these texts and when. The big question that has often been asked of me, though, is Who decided what got in? How did these 27 books become the NT? I'll be honest, the answer to these and similar questions is complex, but, since I'm ready to move on from this "Where did the Bible come from?" series, I'll try to be as succinct as possible. (I hear a sigh of relief.)

            First, a couple of things to keep in mind:

1.) Faith in Jesus Christ preceded the writings of the NT.

2.) The Church, (i.e. the community of believers and followers of Christ) existed before the Christian Scriptures were composed.

3.) Most, if not all of the books of the NT were written for audiences that already believed that Jesus was the Christ – albeit, these audiences probably needed some theological clarification about their beliefs and how they should live, which is what prompted many of the NT writings to begin with.

            A fine example of some of the above points are the early Christian hymns and creedal statements that were incorporated into the Scriptures. If you take a look at Philippians 2:6-11 (one of my favorite passages in Scripture, by the way) you have what appears to be a hymn about Christ that was possibly used in community worship. What it says about Jesus is so fitting and true, that Paul integrates it into his letter to the Philippians. Whether it was sung or not is beside the point, but try to imagine this as a song, short and catchy enough for people to learn it and sing it by memory. Of course, memories were probably a lot more adept back then because people didn't have buttons, phones, and Google remembering everything for them. Thus a profound truth about Christ issued from the community of believers and was passed down orally through this lyrical poem before it ever became "Scripture" as we know it today. In effect, this Truth was handed down to believers through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit by means of *drum roll* Sacred Tradition.

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            The Catholic rebuttal to Martin Luther's insistence on "Scripture alone" is that both Scripture and Tradition "form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church."[1] But what is Sacred Tradition anyway? Let me be quite clear that it is not customs or disciplines in the Church –like not eating meat on Fridays during Lent. Those things are "traditions" with a lower-case 't' and have little to do with essential beliefs and teachings of the Church. Just remember that if you accidently eat meat on Friday this Lent. Rather, Sacred Tradition is that "living transmission" of the word of God "accomplished in the Holy Spirit" through the Apostles and their successors, which "includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God."[2] Basically, it's the faith and Truth in which the Church believes that has been passed down orally by the Apostles and their successors.

            Why this lengthy – and somewhat boring – tangent about Sacred Tradition? (Bless you, by the way, if you're still reading.) It's because the composition of the NT and the selection of which books became canonized rests on this issue of Tradition. Sacred Scripture and Tradition are not opposed to or in competition with one another. That would be ridiculous! Rather the two inform and complement one another. Tradition is informed by the written Word, and Scripture was written as a result of oral transmissions of the faith and is interpreted in light of Tradition. It's like love and marriage... that go together like a horse and carriage. This I tell you brother: you can't have one without the other. Thank you Frank Sinatra.

            So as I mentioned in the last post, the earliest NT writings were the letters of Paul. Such writings, though some were intended for particular audiences, were shared among many other local church communities. Moreover, like the Torah and Prophets, which were obviously considered sacred by the early Church, these Christian writings were read aloud in liturgy when the community came together for worship. Likewise, the Gospels and the other NT writings were used in this way, and many of them were cited by leaders in the early Church in their own letters.

            According to Luke Timothy Johnson – without whose book, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, this post would not be possible (gotta give props where props are due, folks), "As writings were exchanged, local churches began to build collections that were more extensive than those written specifically to them."[3]  Eventually, local churches within the catholic (and by catholic I mean universal) Church had collections of Christian writings; some books of which were common to most local churches, but other books were favored by a minority. So while some of these collections agreed on certain books, like the letters of Paul, they differed on others.

            Surprisingly, however, evidence shows that within the early Church there was actually a great deal of agreement on which Christian writings were considered sacred. An early Latin document known as the Muratorian Fragment contains a list of canonical books that includes the four Gospels and Acts, the letters of Paul, the first two letters of John, the letter of Jude, and Revelation. While it leaves out some books from today's canon (3 John, 1 & 2 Peter, James, and Hebrews), it also included some books that are not in our NT: for example, the Apocalypse of Peter and the Shepherd of Hermas. (Ever hear of these books?) However, it concedes that the Shepherd of Hermas should not be read in worship, and it was debatable as to whether the Apocalypse of Peter should be or not.[4]

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            In a roundabout way I have so far hinted at some of the criteria the early Church deferred to in the complex and lengthy process of selecting which Christian writings would be part of Scripture. Here are some of the standards that influenced the canonization process.

1.) Did it have apostolic historicity? Did it seem to derive from the apostles or at least those who knew them? Again, much like the books of the Jewish canon, the older a text was the more authority it carried. Books written too late would not make the cut.

2.) Did it conform to the tradition of faith that had been handed down to them? That is, did it reflect the faith they had come to believe and know to be true, or did it reflect a heretical teaching? Thus, my lengthy tangent about Sacred Tradition.

3.) Was it read publicly in liturgy? Or better yet, should it be read in liturgy? It seems like the Shepherd of Hermas was a popular, early Christian text and not a bad one to read, but it apparently didn't have the authority to be read in church.

4.) Was it used widely among the universal Church, or was it only accepted or rejected by a handful of local churches?

5.) Did it have "universal pertinence"?[5] In other words, was it applicable to all of the Church in every place and in all times?

            I don't want to over-simplify this complex process of canonization. It is not like the early Church fathers got around a poker table with this list of criteria and a deck of potential NT books, folding if the text didn't meet enough standards and laying down royal flushes if it did. That would have been rather entertaining if it had been the case, though, I must say. And to that end I would love to see a tapestry much like the one of dogs playing poker with Athanasius, Irenaeus, Eusebius, and Origen seated around the table instead.* In any case, as the early Church discerned which books ought to be considered Scripture alongside those writings inherited from their Jewish ancestry, these standards were surely factors that guided this organic process of canonization.

It's not how it happened, but it's funny to imagine nonetheless

            It should be noted that not every book we have in the NT was readily agreed upon by every local church. There was much debate concerning the inclusion of the Book of Revelation (not surprisingly, as that book's trippy) and even some hesitancy around the Gospel of John. These books obviously made it in, but some were vehemently rejected. The Muratorian Fragment is adamant that certain letters attributed to Paul which actually derived from a heretic named Marcion as well as the Gnostic writings of Valentinus and Basilides should be not be accepted at all.[6] Early Church fathers like Eusebius, Irenaeus, and Athanasius all railed against writings considered heretical.

            How I would love to say a few things about the heresy of Gnosticism and its writings, but I'm running long as it is. I will say, however, that if you're wondering about such texts like the so-called Gospels of Peter, Mary Magdalene, or Judas, I will tell you straight up right now. Those and other such "gospels" were A.) not written by those to whom they were attributed, for, as I mentioned in my last post, writing under a different name was quite common back then. B.) These books were written much later than the NT writings, probably in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. And C.) they derived from heretical Gnostic beliefs and teachings that ran contrary to the orthodox Tradition that had been passed down in the early Church. I hope to devote a post to Gnosticism and their writings in the future, because it's a sick and twisted heretical movement, though admittedly quite fascinating, but let's just leave it there for now.

            So okay, some books were readily accepted, some debated, and some unequivocally nixed. At what point, then, did the early Church have a canonical list of the 27 books of the NT that we know and love today? In his Paschal Letter (367 CE) the bishop of Alexandria, St. Athanasius, includes those 27 books and even refers to them as the "springs of salvation."  In 397 the North African Council of Carthage decided on such a list that included those 27 and no more, stating that these "are to be read in church as divine Scripture." These 27 books for the most part went unchallenged until the Reformation of the 16th century, but the Council of Trent in 1546, as well as the Church of England shortly thereafter, reaffirmed the authority and canonicity of these books.[7] 

          So there you have it. As I mentioned in the last post, the books of the NT were composed within about a hundred years after Jesus' death and resurrection. And then less than three hundred years after that it was pretty much decided which Christian Scriptures would be part of the biblical canon. Ain't that something?

            For this week, since much of this post had to do with the complementary nature of Sacred Scripture and Tradition, I suggest reading 2 Timothy 2:1-26 and 3:10-17. In these passages we hear Paul writing from prison to encourage one of his successors, Timothy, to remain steadfast to the Gospel he has preached and is now in chains for proclaiming. He urges him to resist false teaching but not to engage in useless and quarrelsome debates, correcting opponents instead with kindness. He affirms Timothy's life of faith, love, patience, and endurance in suffering and reminds him to remain faithful to what he has learned and what he knows from Scripture. As you read this passage, considered what you have come to know and believe from the faith that has been handed onto you. What do you know to be true – about God, Jesus Christ, life in the Spirit, our relationship with God and one another? How has it "trained you for righteousness," made you more loving, peaceful, patient, or less quarrelsome? How has it brought you into conflict, and how have you responded? What about the Christian faith and Gospel message challenges you, and how might you pray to God for perseverance?

            I will be taking another hiatus from blogging for the next couple of weeks in order to work on some other things for this project, but I greatly appreciate your readership and spreading the word about Bible Codega. It has been a tremendous help as I complete the practicum for my M.A. I still encourage questions and comments via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, or the comment box below. And while I might not put up a new post for some time, I'll still be responding to questions. Until next time, may you have a blessed remainder of the Lenten season and happy reading of Scripture.

Peace and all good!

[1] Dei Verbum,  10 §1.
[2]  Catechism of the Catholic Church, 78. and Dei Verbum, 8 §1.
[3] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, Rev. ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 597.
[4] Ibib., 600-601
[5] Johnson, 600.
[6] Ibid., 601.
[7] Ibid., 603.
* For the record, I'm pretty sure Athanasius, Irenaeus, Eusebius, and Origen were never even in the same room altogether.

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