How the Bible Came to Be (pt 7)

External Evidence for Closure
In addition to this internal evidence, there are several lines of external evidence for the closure of the Christian canon. Three important types of this evidence include early lists, the writings of key church leaders, and the evidence of widespread usage of these particular texts among the earliest churches.

Early Lists: Eventually, church leaders begin discussing the contents of the Scriptures in a more formal way. At some point, they begin listing which books they consider to be “scriptural” or “canonical.”
  • For the OT, one of the earliest lists is from Melito, bishop of Sardis in the second century (AD 170). In a letter, Melito recounts the basic shape of the OT. All of the OT books are accounted for here except Esther. He mentions, for instance, the “five books of Moses.” Melito’s list is very close to the later canonical ordering of the Hebrew Bible. Melito also excludes most of the apocryphal books.
  • For the NT, an important document is one called the Muratorian Fragment. This document was named for it discoverer and is possibly dated to the late second century. This very important writing discusses the content of the New Testament writings. Though the list is fragmentary, the outline of what will become the NT is strikingly in place. For example, the fragment begins with Luke, but calls it the third Gospel, implying that Matthew and Mark came before Luke in the missing part of the document.
  • Athanasius’ 39th Easter Letter. In the year AD 367, early church leader Athanasius wrote his yearly Easter letter. This letter was particularly significant because it set the date for Easter each year and established the liturgical calendar for churches in the region. So, the letter would have carried weight and been widely circulated. Part of this letter discusses the content of the biblical canon and lists all of our present NT and OT books. Athanasius’ list is hugely significant because he confirms what has been established for a long time among the churches. He also lists a number of apocryphal writings that are “not indeed included in the Canon” but still read by church members (see NPNF, vol 4, 551-52). His letter demonstrates that by the fourth century, the nature and extent of the Christian canon was relatively fixed and stable.
  • In AD 397, at the Council of Carthage, a group of leaders representing the Western churches affirmed the same list found in Athanasius’ letter. Here, the canonical books were generally assumed and formally recognized. There was no big debate or “decision” made at this council. Rather, they simply recognize what had been established in earlier generations.
Key Figures: In the early church period, several leaders begin to discuss the content, order, and status of the biblical documents. In these discussions, the NT documents are particularly highlighted and most of the Old Testament as a whole is generally assumed.
  • Josephus was a Jewish historian who wrote in the late first century. In one of his writings, he mentions the “22 Books” of the Hebrew Bible. He also talks about how the Jewish community has had this collection of books with this number established for a long time. In other words, he sees himself drawing from an “ancient” and established tradition rather than articulating a new innovation. Josephus’ comments are significant because they provide a Jewish perspective that confirms an established Hebrew Bible during the time of the New Testament.
  • Papias was the bishop of Hierapolis in the early second century (AD 70-150). A later writer characterizes Papias as a “hearer of John and his companion Polycarp” (via Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.33.4). At this point, the emphasis is still on the oral proclamation of the gospel message. People were still talking to those who had heard the apostles in person. Papias discusses the Gospels as a collection and remarks that John wrote last with an awareness of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. He also talks about the overall shape of the NT. So, with Papias, we have a early church leader within “ear shot” of the apostles speaking of the broad shape of the burgeoning New Testament collection.
  • Justin Martyr was an apologist in the early church from the second century (AD 100-163). Justin speaks of the “memoirs of the apostles,” and when he quotes from these “memoirs” the content typically comes from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and sometimes John. These references are significant because Justin is utilizing the Gospels individually but also conceiving of them as a collective entity (the “memoirs”).
  • Irenaeus was a bishop of Lyons later in the second century. Irenaeus clearly affirms the existence and number of the four canonical Gospels. He writes that the church has “the gospel in fourfold form, held together by one Spirit” (Against Heresies 3.11.8). He defends their authority and gives a creative justification for why there are four and only four Gospels. Irenaeus’ comments imply that the order and number of the Gospels had already been established before his time. He recognizes something that has already been handed down. In other words, he affirms rather than establishes the fourfold Gospel grouping.
  • Eusebius was the great historian of the early church who wrote in the mid-fourth century. He is the historian who records Papias’ discussions that we mentioned above. He also speaks at points about the content and order of the New Testament canon. He helpfully gathers the various opinions regarding individual writings and makes a distinction between 1) those books that were agreed upon, 2) those that were disputed, 3) and those that were rejected outright. Eusebius also discusses external factors in the canon formation process like the Roman emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians at the turn of the fourth century, the burning of Bibles in the following decades, and also the emperor Constantine’s order of 50 copies of the Bible. Eusebius provides important evidence of the formation and discussion of the New Testament and the Christian canon as a whole.
  • Athanasius was a bishop of Alexandria in the mid-fourth century. Athanasius was one of the first great Christian theologians. As mentioned above, in his Easter letter of AD 367, Athanasius lists the books of the Old and New Testament. Significantly, this letter is one of the first to give the exact content and sequence of the New Testament. What is more, in Athanasius' famous works on the incarnation of Jesus and the nature of the Trinity, Athanasius makes use of the full scope of the biblical canon that he lists in his letter. 
The writings and discussion of these key figures in the early centuries of church history provide a rich snapshot of the reception of the individual canonical books and also of the Old and New Testaments as established collections.

Widespread Use Within Believing Communities:
Finally, evidence of widespread use of the biblical books in the worship practices of the earliest churches helps identify and establish the scope of the biblical canon. Though the final outer boundaries of the canon did not solidify until the middle of the fourth century, oftentimes a writing was deemed authoritative in the believing community as soon as it was written and began circulating. For this point, we can consider manuscript evidence of this usage among the churches.

We actually have manuscripts that predate the lists of the fourth century, so we don’t have to wonder whether these certain books were being used or viewed as authoritative in some way. The existence of a manuscript that has been produced and copied demonstrates that someone thought it useful or significant enough to go to the considerable trouble of producing it. So, that these writings are being copied at a rapid rate is important, but the way these manuscripts are being produced is also insightful.
  • Codex Form: In this time period, the “paged book” or the codex form was just becoming a realistic option. However, among the earliest churches, there was an early and unanimous preference for the codex. The early adoption of this book form by early Christians outpaces the broader Greco-Roman culture by at least a century. One of the reasons, in fact, that book production in this area progressed the way that it did was because Christian communities consistently produced and copied their literature in codex form. Being able to solidify groupings by placing them physically beside one another was a striking means by which you could demonstrate their organic connection. For example, being able to produce a physical book that contained four and only four Gospels had an impact on those reading the Gospels in this form.
  • Larger Size: Many of the early Christian manuscripts are larger than typical manuscripts of the period. In fact, a whole stream of manuscripts (lectionaries) are produced for the expressed purpose of being read aloud in a public setting. Noting this physical feature is a way for historians to learn something about how a text functioned from observing the way a text was produced. Many manuscripts tell a story about the way they were intended to be used. Often, this intention included the public reading of biblical texts in the congregation of believers.
  • Reading Aids: As we just mentioned, among the earliest churches, the Old Testament Scriptures and New Testament writings were consistently read in public settings. As these manuscripts were copied and produced, Christian scribes introduced “reading aids” that assisted those who were to read the texts aloud. Features of a text that contemporary readers take for granted now were innovated for the specific purpose of reading Scripture in the churches. These features include things like paragraph divisions, new lines, section markers, “sense divisions,” spaces between words, and even larger print. These innovations assisted the reader as he or she read the Scriptures in the context of church gatherings. 
For apologetic purposes, these features serve to demonstrate that these texts (that bear these features) were intended for broad use in corporate settings.

Many studies of the formation of the biblical canon begin with the external evidence outlined above. This historical data is typically the starting point for understanding the biblical canon and the believing community's role in producing the canonical collection. However, as we have seen in previous sections, internal catalysts and internal evidence play a significant role in the canon formation process. In light of the internal evidence, then, the spectrum of external catalysts and external evidence for canon formation serves as a fitting conclusion and complement to the story of canon formation rather than its starting point or sole source of information.

After surveying this historical data, we can now ask a follow up question about just how the believing community sifted through these sometimes competing testimonies about what was and was not "canonical." In other words, by what criteria did the early church discern whether or not a specific writing was to be understood as a legitimate part of the collection of Scripture?

Or: Go to pt 1
Biblical Canon
August 4, 2017


Popular Posts

Why did Jesus have to heal the Blind Man Twice in Mark 8?

In Mark 8:22-26, Jesus encounters a blind man in Bethsaida. To heal the man, Je…

Complete List of Luther’s Works, American Edition

Recently, I was attempting to find a certain volume of Luther's works in En…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Historical Theology w/ Madison Grace

In this episode, I talk with my friend Dr. Madison Grace about Dietrich Bonhoef…