Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Who wrote the New Testament? - Part 2

The history of the New Testament canon and its development is a fascinating subject — and crucial to the understanding of both the Bible and the Church. For over two hundred years a number of books we now take for granted as being part of the New Testament were disputed by the Church before being included. Many other books were considered for inclusion, but eventually excluded. I was shocked when I first discovered that the earliest complete listing of all twenty-seven books of the New Testament was not given until A.D. 367, by Athanasius, a bishop in Egypt.

This means that the first complete listing of New Testament books as we have them today didn’t appear until over 300 years after the death and Resurrection of Christ. Imagine it! If the New Testament were begun at the same time as the U.S. Constitution, we wouldn’t see a final product until the year 2087!

During the first four centuries there was substantial disagreement over which books should be included in the canon of Scripture. The first person we know of who tried to establish a New Testament canon was the second-century heretic, Marcion. He wanted the Church to reject its Jewish heritage, and in so doing dispense with the Old Testament entirely. Marcion’s canon included only one Gospel, which he himself edited, and ten of Paul’s epistles. That’s it!

Many believe that it was partly in reaction to this distorted canon of Marcion that the early Church determined to have a clearly defined canon of its own. The destruction of Jerusalem in A.D.70, the breakup of the Jewish-Christian community of Jerusalem, and the threatened loss of continuity in the oral tradition probably also contributed to the sense of urgency to standardize the list of books Christians could rely on.

The four Gospels were written from thirty to seventy years after Jesus’ death and Resurrection. In the interim, the Church relied on oral tradition—the accounts of eye-witnesses—as well as scattered documents and written tradition. I was very surprised to discover as I first studied the early Church that many “Gospels” besides those of the New Testament canon were circulating in the first and second centuries.These include the Gospel according to the Hebrews, the Gospel according to the Egyptians, and the Gospel according to Peter, just to name a few.

The New Testament itself speaks of the existence of such accounts. Saint Luke’s Gospel begins by saying, “Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which are most surely believed among us. . . it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account. . .“ In time, all but four Gospels were excluded from the New Testament canon.

In the early years of Christianity there was even a controversy over which of the four Gospels to use. The Christians of Asia Minor used the Gospel of John rather than the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Based upon the Passion account contained in John, Christians in Asia Minor celebrated Easter on a different day than those in Rome, which resisted the Gospel of John and instead used the other Gospels. The Western Church for a time hesitated to use the Gospel of John because the Gnostic heretics also made use of it in addition to their own “secret Gospels.”

Another controversy arose over the issue of whether there should be separate Gospels or one single composite Gospel account. In the second century, Tatian, who was Justin Martyr’s student, published a single composite “harmonized” Gospel called the Diatessaron. The Syrian Church used this composite Gospel in the second, third, and fourth centuries. This is the very Church to which “the Nazares” (Jewish Christians of Jerusalem) eventually migrated after the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in A.D. 70. The Syrian Church did not accept all four Gospels until the fifth century. They also ignored for a time the three epistles of John, and Second Peter.

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