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In the quest to understand Christianity and the Bible, it is important to understand the idea under which the Christian church is grounded, as well as the process of its development and transformation into what it is today.
It is also important to understand how the different books in the Bible were written, and how they were adopted as canons that are used in Christian teachings. This paper seeks to explore the foundation of the Orthodox Christian church and the canonical books in reference to the period before the 4th century BC.
As opposed to popular beliefs, there have never been a definite time when it was unanimously decided which books should be included in the Bible. A defined orthodoxy came up in the 4th century AD, and this left the period before the 4th century AD open to different churches to adopt books of their choice.
The Bible had inspired a movement that transcended inter-generational boundaries, which is mainly due to the fact that the post-modern cultures made people view the truth as a subjective opinion and not as an objective fact. Therefore, it is imperative for us to realize that the question of how the books, to which we refer we refer as the canon books, came to be, and also the question of their authenticity is of great importance.
These books were written and compiled over a period of time that had its unique characteristics as was the entire era of the early church1. However, the validity of the New Testament has been challenged despite its huge following over time, and it has been the task of apologists to instill confidence by exploring the foundation of orthodoxy and the cannon.
The gospels are believed to have been written between the 50s and the 100s AD, which is evidenced as they are not mentioned anywhere in Paul’s epistles or in his other works, which are estimated to have been written around 58 AD. Scholars believe that the first book that was written was Mark, and it was written around 60s AD. The book was simple and evidently included the author’s personal inventions.
The second was Mathew, which was written in the 70s AD followed by Luke and then Acts which were written in the 80s AD. John was the last of the gospels to be written, and it is believed that it was written in the 90s AD2. There were some guidelines that, although not openly professed, were used to filter the content that was included in the New Testament.
Some of the books that did not make the ‘cut’ were: Paul’s epistle to the Laodiceans; the works of Clement and the preaching of Peter, the book of Peter included in the Bible came at a later date, which makes it highly unlikely that it was the original work of Peter.
Others included the apocalypse of Peter; the shepherd of Hermas; the gospel according to the Hebrews; the gospel according to the Egyptians; and the epistle of Barnabas. An individual who is of a particular interest is Marcion. Marcion was branded a heretic and excommunicated from the church in 144 AD after being convicted of heresy.
He contributed to the need of explaining what the authentic and official canons were. This was because in the spreading of his heresy, Marcion regularly disputed books that had been accepted as authoritative by the orthodox Christian church.
Principles used in recognizing the canons
Some of the principles used to explain the validity of the canonical books were quite biased. This element of bias closed out any books that were believed to solicit even the tiniest amount of audience from any heretical faction. However, other principles were valid, such as the falsification of the books by persons who were aware of the particular events.
This proposed that the books had to be tested, and those who were mandated with the task of testing these books had to have lived at the time when they were recorded. This locked out most gospels that were written after 100 AD, since there were no people who lived at the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and who were alive to validate their authenticity.
The rise of Montanists who were in the habit of regular out-bursts, as they spread their heresy that would then be understood as authentic scriptures that led the orthodox Christians to declare that the canonistic characteristics of a specific scripture should be limited to books that had apostolic and an eyewitness authority.
The authority of the writer was also tested as there was the adoption of the same principle used in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, Moses had been directly appointed by God and thus, his works were said to have been inspired by God himself.
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He then appointed Joshua whose works were adopted as well. In the canonical books, Paul was considered to be the pillar of the church and so were his associates. Hence, in the case of Luke, his works were adopted as the word of God due to his position in the church. This is why the canons as we know them were either written by the apostles themselves or their associates.
Though it may be argued that the fathers of the church based their choice of books on the inspiration provided by those books, inspiration was not a basic criterion, but just one of the aspects of a good book3. In this case, it is not a surprise that some of the works that were excluded from the canon were just as inspirational as those that were included.
The issue of whether a book was prophetic or not, as well as its contradictions from what was known as the truth, also arose. This was especially so, where the book was written after the first century when most of the eye-witnesses had already died, and its authenticity was at stake.
Most church leaders raised the issue of usage, where some of these books were of no importance to the church in terms of their usage by the orthodox Christians. There were numerous texts that were simply historical in nature, and this, coupled with their lack of inspiration, may have been subject to further debate that could have led to their withdrawal from the list of canons.
The Gnostics and other heresies
Of all the texts considered, there is one common factor, they all talked about the teachings of Jesus Christ, and they were validly written by authoritative persons. Also, since they were of little account as compared to other oral authorities, it was not a surprise that the Gnostics and other heresies thrived.
As far as 130 AD, there was no evidence of the complete text that could be considered the canon, hence it is believed that the gospel was put together to fight against thriving Gnostic and heretical teachings. Thus, the rush to canonize came by the end of the second century.
The Gnostics presented valid arguments that solicited a lot of support, especially from skeptics and un-committed Christians, who believed that some Christians were not worshiping in the right way, and this, coupled with the need to present a scapegoat to the roman legislation, led them to thrive4.
Though some of them recognized some of the epistles of Paul as true scripture, they still denied the gospel claiming that the nature of the Old Testament proved that God was punitive, and could not be reconciled with the nature of the New Testament God, who was forgiving and sacrificial as portrayed in the nature of Jesus.
In particular, Montanists disputed the inspirational nature of the Holy Spirit where apostles and their associates were known to speak in tongues by adopting the same kind of campaign that is often presented by modern day revivalists of the ‘end is nigh’.
Though the Orthodox Church settled on its own list of canons, other churches went ahead to adopt their own list. However, this is not to say that they adopted Gnostic or heretic teachings, but they did this having weighed the different books that they adopted. Among the eastern canons, the churches of Syria adopted the Diatessaron of Tatian, the Acts and the epistles of Pauline, while rejecting 1st Timothy.
The Diasatessaron of Tatian was, however, destroyed in the early 4th century. The Armenian Church accepted the Advice of the mother of God, the Epistle of Barnabas and the Books of Criapos5.
On the other hand, the Coptic Bible included two epistles of Clement, and the Ethiopic Bible included a collection of prayers that were probably written by Clement, and letters supposedly written by Peter.
Among the western canons are the ones that were influenced by individuals such as Augustine, he further commanded that the Synod of Carthage of 397 AD, that of Hippo of 393 AD and the other Synod of Carthage of 419 AD to be included in the canon. Some bibles also contain Paul’s epistle to the Laodiceans, while they rejected the book of Hebrews.
Ferguson, Everett. “Baptism in the early church: history, theology, and liturgy in the first five centuries”. Journal of Religious Studies Review 36 issue 1, (2010): 81-93. Web.
Franz-Steiner, Verlag. “The evidence of the conversion of to Christianity: book 16 of the theodosian code.” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte (1993): 66-78. Web.
Kalin, Everett R. “The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning.” Currents in Theology and Mission 15, no.5. (2003): 446-446. Web.
Nicole, Roger R. “The Canon of the New Testament.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40, no. 2 (2002): 199-206. Web.
Sheeley, Steven M. “From “Scripture” to “Canon”: The Development of the New Testament Canon.” Review & Expositor 95, no. 4 (1998): 513-522. Web.
1 Roger, R. Nicole. “The Canon of the New Testament.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40, no. 2 (2002): 204.
2 Everett Ferguson. “Baptism in the early church: history, theology, and liturgy in the first five centuries”. Journal of Religious Studies Review. Volume 36, issue 1, 84, (2010).
3 Everett, R. Kalin. “The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning.” Currents in Theology and Mission 15, no. 5: 448. (2003).
4 Verlag, Franz-Steiner. “The evidence of the conversion of to Christianity: book 16 of the theodosian code.” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte (1993): 76.
5 Steven, M. Sheeley. “From “Scripture” to “Canon”: The Development of the New Testament Canon.” Review & Expositor 95, no. 4 (1998): 520.