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19- We Need a Canon Don’t We?

January 24, 2015


Why were certain books accepted and others rejected? How soon were the gospels and epistles regarded as scripture? This episode, we take a break from the narrative to look at the development of the Christian New Testament up to c. 195 A.D.

The Muratorian Fragment


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  1. Alan (Australia) permalink

    Thanks for the great podcast. Only found it recently and have really enjoyed listening so far up to episode 14. Its excellent and quality work and I like that you include references to the books you use and what the original sources are, and how reliable those sources are thought to be. I also like that you explain when there are different historical theories or interpretations of events and why you favor one or the other. Appreciate all your hard work that goes into researching, planning, preparing and delivering these podcasts. Once i catch up to episode 19 I am going to repeat listen to all the episodes again as you have put so much into this podcast, that I will enjoy and learn just as much second time through. Thanks again for the great work.

    • Thanks so much for your feedback! I’m glad you enjoy the podcast. Getting input from my listeners is really encouraging to me. You said you like it when I discuss the sources and the different views among scholars. In that case, I’ll try to include more discussion of those things in future episodes! Btw, how did you come across this podcast? Was it Google, FaceBook, etc.?

      • Alan permalink

        Hi Terry … I discovered your podcast in the iTunes list of history podcasts.

  2. In the 27-book NT canon that we have today, did the ancient church give us any books that they did not think were apostolic (i.e. written by an apostle or close associate of an apostle)? Conversely, did they keep out of the NT canon any books that they thought were apostolic?

    In other words, does our NT canon represent what the ancient church considered to be the extant apostolic corpus?

    • Hi Mike, great question! In short, yes the 27-book canon of the NT represents what the early Church believed to be the extant Apostolic corpus, however there are some caveats to this. It is more accurate to say that the 27-book canon represents the broad ranging consensus of the ancient Church, East and West. But, many early Christians expressed heavy doubts concerning the Catholic epistles, especially Jude, II & III John, and II Peter along with Revelation. To this day many eastern Churches do not have passages from some or all of these books in their lectionaries. So, many ancient Christians advocated for a smaller corpus than 27. Others however believed some of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers should canonical, such as Clement of Rome (said to have been a disciple of Peter and Paul) or the Shepherd of Hermas, but these failed to gain wide ranging acceptance. So in short yes, but in a broad and general sense.

      • Thank you, Terry.

        That the NT canon = the extant apostolic corpus from the ancient church’s point of view is something that I have found confirmed in practically every account of NT canon formation that I have read – including the Metzger and McDonald texts that you referenced in your podcast. However, these texts (Metzger and McDonald included) usually present apostolicity as but one of multiple criteria used by the ancient church so it takes a little reflection to realize that those additional criteria – whatever they are (and they can vary slightly by author) – would have merely served to help the ancient church determine the genuineness of apostolicity. Thus, by virtually all accounts, the ancient church’s verdict was that apostolicity meant canonicity, and vice versa.

        Why then do you think scholars are not more straightforward about this?

  3. Hey Mike,

    McDonald seems pretty straightforward when he concludes his discussion of the criterion of Apostlicity with this:

    “In sum, if it was believed that an apostle wrote a particular book, that writing was accepted and treated as Scripture. There is no doubt that several books of the NT were placed in the canon because the majority believed that they were written by the apostles or members of the apostolic community” (McDonald 409).

    And a little later he writes the following:

    “The [ancient] church excluded from the biblical canon any writings that it believed were written after the period of apostolic ministry. The tradition that came from the time of Jesus’ ministry took priority over all other periods” (413).

    I think you are right in that other criteria (ie. orthodoxy and catholicity) mainly served to determine Apostolicity. This was certainly true when the Church confronted Gnostic and heretical texts which were forged in the names of the Apostles. Those texts didn’t accord with the tradition of the Church as summed up in the Rule of Faith.

    However, there is the interesting case of Clement of Rome’s Epistle to the Corinthians. Clement was (probably) a disciple of Peter and Paul just as Mark and Luke were respectively. Yet while his letter was held as authoritative by some, it failed to gain the catholic consensus needed to be considered canonical. There is also the case of the Shepherd of Hermas of Rome which some held as authoritative despite its late date.

    I don’t think Metzger or McDonald are trying not to be straightforward. I think there are just trying to deal with evidence honestly and carefully.

    • Terry,

      I struggled over using the word “straightforward” in my question for fear that it might convey negative connotations. Alas, my fear has been realized. Perhaps I should have used the word “clear” or “simple,” but neither of those is exactly what I mean either.

      I think Metzger is clearer than McDonald, but I meant no ethical disparagement of either when I used the word “straightforward.” And I readily concede the important point that they and other scholars have made about the study of the history of the formation of the New Testament canon: it’s a murky business. The ancients left no appendix to the New Testament explaining how they arrived at its table of contents. To me, however, that’s all the more reason to go for clarity whenever it’s accessible.

      I cannot deny that saying the NT canon consists of what the ancient church considered to be the extant apostolic corpus requires qualification. My point is that you make the statement and then qualify it. Most scholars of the canon seem to do it the other way around. That is, they present the decision as based on multiple criteria, yet when you sift through all the criteria and think through the process, it really boils down to one. And, occasionally, the scholar will say so (as McDonald did in the quotes you gave). That’s what newspaper folks call burying the lead.

      Oh well. Thanks for engaging with me on the subject, and thanks for the podcast.

      • It’s been a joy discussing this subject with you Mike! Thanks so much for supporting the podcast and please keep your feedback coming! Interacting with my listeners is very enjoyable and encouraging for me.

  4. James Anderson permalink

    Hi Terri, I really enjoy your podcast. It stands out to me compared to the other church history podcasts I’ve browsed. You really know your stuff, and you report the history with a fairness that Is superior to the others. Although I get the sense you’re coming from a Christian perspective, you are relate the facts with a healthy dose of nuance. All that to say, thanks for this podcast!

    • Thanks James! I’m glad you esteem my podcast fair and nuanced. I try to do my best to present the narrative and evidence accurately and fairly. I always try to read the best and most recent scholarship in my research (At least in English since I can’t read German or French). Btw, how did you come across the podcast, was it via iTunes, Google, etc.?

      • James Anderson permalink

        Sorry for the delay! I came across your podcast after searching iTunes for anything on church history. I really enjoy reading those primary sources of the early centuries, and I think it’s a shame that most American churches overlook our deeper history.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Terry Young Affirms that the New Testament Canon Is What the Ancient Church Saw as the Extant Apostolic Corpus | Reference Shelf for the Kingdom of God

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