Discussions of which books are Scripture usually uses the language of canon explained in yesterday’s rather long post. So people discuss when the canon was “closed” – which means when the list was finally agreed. Books that made it into the canon are called canonical, those that didn’t are referred to as non-canonical.
I will use some of that language in this and the next post, exploring just a little more of the history of how Christians reached agreement (or mainly reached agreement) on which books are scripture. Key to that question is recognising which books the church should read in public worship, take as foundational in discerning God’s truth, and listen to prayerfully to hear God’s wisdom and guidance.
In this post I look at the New Testament; in the next one at the Old Testament. The first is about how the early Christians collected their own literature; the second about they appropriated literature they shared in common with early Judaism.
One very important feature of the history is that while the church worked hard at its networks, it was more-or-less illegal for most of the first three centuries of its existence. There was no co-ordinating authority, far less a power of enforcement. Certain places were more influential than others: Rome, Alexandria and Antioch were at the top of the tree. But local variation was considerable, and not every congregation would have been able to afford copies of all the books that now make up our bibles. Churches could only read the books they owned.
As I mentioned in a previous post, the early Christians popularised the book, or codex form, over the traditional scroll. The typical size of a codex (the plural is codices) meant that it was relatively easy, for example, to collect the four canonical gospels in a single codex, and all of Paul’s letters could be gathered in another book-sized collection. Having a special gospel book, as many churches do today – often carried in procession – probably began with this practical necessity of codex production.
That meant that most of the groups who hewed more-or-less to the Christian mainstream, wherever they were in the ancient world, had relatively easy access to these volumes. By and large there was very little controversy around the main church centres (where most codices were probably produced) about either this gospel or Pauline epistle collection. Acts was sometimes grouped with the gospels, but later on with the catholic letters (e.g. books like Peter and James). 1
The most unusual book in the New Testament, Revelation or the Apocalypse, was also one over which argument persisted the longest. That was partly due to its strangeness, and partly due also, no doubt, to the fact that it didn’t obviously belong in a codex with other books. As a result, fewer copies of this book have been preserved from the early centuries than any other. To this day it is still not read in the public liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox churches.
Looked at from one angle, the process scholars now refer to as “the closing of the canon”, was about reaching agreement on which books people should read in church. The first list of New Testament books which is identical to the index of a modern printed bible came in 367AD, in an Easter letter written by St Athanasius, then the bishop of Alexandria. That doesn’t reflect a fully settled picture, but it is the beginning of the end of a process of agreement on which New Testament books should be read in public worship.
- The letters of Peter, James, 1 John and Jude are written to churches generally, rather than a specific church as Paul’s letters are, or the anonymous letter to the Hebrews. Most commonly these letters are called catholic, from a Greek word meaning “universal” or “general’. They are also sometimes called the “general letters”.