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The Bible in a Skeptic’s Eye (Part 2)

In our continuing series, we will now look on the development of the New Testament Cannon.

According to most Bible scholars we have a better idea on how the New Testament took shape. Edgar Johnson Goodspeed (1871-1962) theorized that the surviving Pauline letters were first collected after the publication of the Books of Acts, about 95 CE and the Epistle of the Ephesians was compiled as an encyclical or “covering letter” to head this collection, being paraphrased from several of the authentic letter. This theory was widely accepted among New Testament scholars.

Basing on this theory, the original nucleus of the New Testament was the epistle of Paul, to which was added the “catholic” epistles written by James, Peter, John and Jude and the Pastoral Epistle, a supplement to the Pauline collection dating from 100 -105 CE. The Gospel was added later…they were gathered together into a “four fold evangel” about 150 CE. The whole New Testament was known as the Evangelion (Evangel) and the Apostolos (Apostle).

The first generation of the Church fathers such as Ignatius (35-107), Papias (60-130) and Justin (100-165) were more concern with the Old Testament compare to the New Testament. In fact, a definitive list of the canonical book for the New Testament came from a heretic named Marcion (d. 160).

Marcion, a shipping magnate in the Black Sea port of Sinope, traveled to Rome in about 139CE. He taught that many of the Christian literature were corrupted by Jewish ideas and that the Jewish God of the Old Testament was strict and had condemned all humanity. According to Marcion, Jesus Christ who was absolutely unrelated to the Jewish God will released Christians from this god’s clutches.

Marcion compiled only the letters of Paul (Galatians, I and ii Corithians, I and ii Thessalonians, Colossians, Philemon and Philippians) and a “purified” version of Luke’s gospel. If it’s not for Marcion, the Christian Church never would have possessed a “New Testament”.
By 95CE, there are still evidence of apocryptic books being included in the New Testament. The Codex Sinaiticus includes the book Shepherd of Hermas and the Gospel of Barnabas. The Codex Alexandrinus contains the Epistle of Clement, which was said to be written by Clement, Bishop of Rome to the Corinthian church.

The Muratorian Fragment, discovered in Milan by L.A.Muratori and was published in 1740 – was said to be written in 200CE and have rejected most of the apocryptic book, yet it also rejected I and ii Peter, Hebrews, James and iii John. It also included the Apocalypse of Peter, a book that tells the story of how Peter was granted a vision of heaven and hell.

According to Papias (c 60-130) Bishop of Hierapolis, Mark got his information from Peter himself. Papias also said that the authority of the gospel of Matthew and Mark was base on a certain John the Presbyter.

Clement of Alexandria (150-215 CE) said that the earliest gospels were those with Jesus’ family tree.

Irenaeus (c.130-200) Bishop of Lyons, gave the first historically documented list of the four gospels and its authors in 180CE. In all the many available gospels in that time, he chooses only 4 which according to him, “As there are four winds, there should be four Gospel.”

Irenaeus believed that Matthew published his gospel among the Hebrews in their own tongue, when Peter and Paul were preaching the Gospel in Rome and founding the church there. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself handed down to us in writing the substance of Peter’s preaching. Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in the book the gospel preached by his teacher. Then John, the disciple of the Lord, who learned on his breast himself, produced his gospel when he was living in Ephesus in Asia.

Irenaeus was also the first to give a chronological sequence of the writing of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. He also drew up a list of writing he considered as canonical. His list consist of 22 books which includes The Shepherd of Hermans but he left out Philemon, ii Peter, ii and iii of John, Hebrews, Jude and Revelations.

But even with Irenaeus’ list, Origen (185-254) who in 230 CE defined what he believed to be the cannon of the scripture for the New Testament included the four Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, Paul’s 13 Epistles, I Peter, I John and Revelation. He also stated that the first gospel was written in Hebrew by Matthew.

Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) stated that Mark copied and abbreviated Matthew.

The truth in this matter is that Mark is the first Gospel, with Matthew and Luke borrowing passages both from that Gospel and from at least one other common source, lost to history, termed by scholars ‘Q’ (from German: Quelle, meaning “source”).

In the Festal Letter of Athanasius (c. 296-373) Bishop of Alexandria to the Egyptian Churches in 367 he said that there are only 27 books considered as canonical. Athanasius list was confirmed by a council under Pope Damasus.

Pope Damasus (304-384 CE) proclaimed the list of the canonical books in the New Testament which was identical to the modern Bible we have now in 374 CE. Over a period of time, at the Council of Laodicea (363) the bishop agreed to the list and his cannon was later been approved by the Council of Rome in 383 and was reconfirmed at the Council of Carthage in 393, 397, and 419 CE.

However, some churches disagreed. The Book of Revelation for example, was not considered divinely inspired until the 8th century. In the Codex Claromontanus, a 6th century manuscript, the Book of Hebrews was omitted while the Epistle of Barnabas was included and placed between the Epistle of Jude and the Book of Revelation.

Even today, some Christian church, with very old roots, has different set of New Testament books. The East-Syrian Nestoriam Church has cannon of only 22 books. The Ethiopian Church has 38 books which includes the Shepherd or Hermas, i and ii Clement and the Apostolic Constitution.

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