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Christian Canon - New Testament

Within a hundred and fifty years from the time of the birth of Christianity the young religion created for itself an extensive and varied literature. It was as natural and inevitable that, sooner or later, out of this literature it would form a sacred book, as it had been that Judaism should form a sacred book out of the literature of its religious experience and life. This was what actually happened.

There is a popular impression existing, not quite indeed that the Bible authors wrote in English, but at least that the Hebrew and Greek Old and New Testaments can be traced straight back to the manuscripts of the inspired penmen, so that there can be scarcely more doubt about moderns having their precise words than there is about having the exact words of the Declaration of American Independence, or of a book printed from an author's manuscripts yesterday.

There are a very much larger number of manuscripts of the New Testament than of the Old, and many of these go back much farther. The five oldest and most valuable Greek manuscripts are the Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Vaticanus, both dating from the fourth century AD; the Codex Alexandrinus, and the Codex Ephraemi, dating from the fifth century; and the Codex Bezce, of the sixth century. These manuscripts are all written in what are known as uncial letters; that is, in large capitals. They are without division of words or punctuation, and in part without accents or breathings. These absences, of course, introduce something of an element of uncertainty into the meaning of many passages. The use of the uncial letters continued for some centuries, being gradually displaced by what is known as the cursive, or running hand, about the ninth or tenth century. The chapter divisions as they are now were made by Cardinal Hugo in the thirteenth century, and the present verse divisions first appeared in an edition of the Latin Bible (the Vulgate) printed by Robert Stephens in 1555.

Up to the beginning of the second century none of the Christians seemingly conceived it possible that there could be any other sacred Scriptures except those of the Old Testament. After the Gospels and various Epistles came into existence, they were for a long time much less esteemed than the old scriptures. Indeed, up to about the middle of the second century they were not so highly esteemed as the oral traditions of the churches in which any of the apostles had preached.

But by the close of the second century a change appears. Certain New Testament books have come into more general favor than the rest, and are beginning to be classed to a certain extent by themselves as a new sacred collection. As time goes on, these grow more and more into use among the churches. Yet for centuries the various churches continued to use, side by side with the writings which make up the New Testament to-day, various books later called spurious.

It is curious to note that hardly one of the great writers and "Fathers" of the early Church draws the line of canonicity of New Testament books just where it was ultimately drawn. In almost every case they either include some books that were rejected, or else rejected some books that were included. For example, Irenseus, one of the earliest and most authoritative, rejects five books which were later included in the New Testament; viz., Hebrews, Jude, James, Second Peter, Third John; while he put great value upon the Shepherd of Hermas, one of the so-called apocryphal books which was rejected, and called it scripture. Again, Clement of Alexandria classed three apocryphal books to wit, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas as of equal value and authority with three New Testament books, Hebrews, Second John, and Jude. The celebrated Tertullian cast out all the books of the New Testament, except the four Gospels, Acts, thirteen Epistles of Paul, the Revelation, and First John. Even Athanasius quotes a number of the apocryphal books as of equal value and inspiration with those which are included in the present Canon.

After all that Biblical critics and antiquarian research have raked from the dust of antiquity in proof of the genuineness and authenticity of the books of the New Testament, credibility still labors with the fact that the age in which these books were received and put in circulation was one in which the science of criticism as developed by the modernsthe science which scrutinizes statements, balances evidence for and against, and sifts the true from the false did not exist; an age when a boundless credulity disposed men to believe in wonders as readily as in ordinary events, requiring no stronger proof in the case of the former than sufficed to establish the latter, viz., hearsay and vulgar report; an age when literary honesty was a virtue almost unknown, and when, consequently, literary forgeries were as common as genuine productions, and transcribers of sacred books did not scruple to alter the text in the interest of personal views and doctrinal prepossessions.

The exact principles that guided the formation of a Canon cannot be discovered. Definite grounds for the reception or rejection of books were not very clearly apprehended. The choice was determined by various circumstances. The development was pervaded by no critical or definite principle. No member of the synod that might be at any time engaged in considering the subject of what books ought to be regarded as canonical exercised his critical faculty; a number would decide such matters summarily. Bishops proceeded in the track of tradition or authority. Moreover, a great deal of bigotry and partisanship and bad blood was manifested from first to last. Bishops freely accused bishops of forgery of sacred writings and of alteration of the oldest texts; and, altogether, the debates and proceedings of the synods and councils that had part in settling the Canon remind one very much of some of the worst political conventions of the present day.

Definite and final results were never reached. It is claimed by some that the Council of Laodicea (363 AD) settled the Canon finally. Notwithstanding the numerous endeavors both in the East and West to settle the Canon during the fourth and fifth centuries, it was not finally closed. The doubts of individuals were still expressed, and succeeding ages testify to the want of universal agreement respecting several books. Indeed, if that council did settle what books properly belong in the Old and New Testaments, then moderns are wrong to-day in not including Baruch in our Old Testament, and in retaining Revelation in the New. Moreover, if, as is sometimes claimed, the Council of Carthage (AD 397 ?) settled the Canon, then moderns are wrong in not including Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom, Tobit, Judith, and First and Second Maccabees in the present Bible.

Indeed, the Romanists allow that the Canon was not settled until the modern Council of Trent, held from 1545 to 1563, in the midst of the German Reformation. This council proceeded to pass a formal decree declaring what books properly belong in the Bible. The list is that of the present Protestant Bible, with the addition of the fourteen books of the Old Testament Apocrypha. Luther was decidedly of the opinion that our present Canon is imperfect. He thought that the Old Testament Book of Esther did not belong in the Bible. On the other hand, in translating the Old Testament, he translated the apocryphal books of Judith, Wisdom, Tobit, Sirach, Baruch, First and Second Maccabees, and the Prayer of Manasseh. In his prefaces he gives his judgment concerning these books. With regard to First Maccabees, he thinks it almost equal to the other books of Holy Scripture, and not unworthy to be reckoned among them. Of Wisdom, he says he was long in doubt whether it should be numbered among the canonical books; and of Sirach he says that it is a right good book, proceeding from a wise man.

The great Swiss reformer Zwingli maintained that the Apocalypse is not properly a biblical book. Even Calvin did not think that Paul was the author of Hebrews, or Peter of the book called Second Peter; while as to the Book of Revelation, he denounced it as unintelligible, and prohibited the pastors of Geneva, from all attempts at interpreting it.

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Page last modified: 12-11-2011 18:19:23 ZULU