Thursday, September 15, 2011

Brief history of the New Testament Canon

This was a book report for my New Testament Canon class. I used this book called "A General Survey of the History of the New Testament Canon" reprinted as "the Canon of the New Testament" by Brooke Westcott. You can download his book for free from Google books. Its a good introduction to the Canonization process throughout the history of the church. Enjoy:

I selected “The Canon of the New Testament” by Brooke F. Westcott. This was a good in depth background of the formation of the Canon through the years of the church. Westcott gave the early church the most pages, which is quite important with the understanding that the Canon at that time was quite flexible. Westcott's aim for his book was to present the canonization process through church history (Wescott vii). He showed that the individual books of the New Testament were not considered separately but claimed to be part of the Apostolic tradition of Christianity.
After thoroughly considering the views of most of the early church leaders regarding the books they deemed sacred, Mr. Wescott then connected it to the rest of the church, from Augustine down to Luther. Wescott purposefully didn't take a controversialist's attitude to this project, but more of an unbiased observer (viii).

Before diving into specifics, the author introduced the subject with a survey of the history of the canon. Here he teaches that there was a gradual change from the authority of oral tradition to written apostolic rule (1). Today, Wescott writes, the question of canon has become a position in Theology. The bible is no longer seen as a “common storehouse” but rather made up a various different parts. Only when one understands this can the Bible's true harmony be realized (2).

After the introduction, the author dives right in with the age of the Apostolic Fathers, from 70 – 120 AD (19). Wescott determines that though there are only a few writings preserved of these ancients, it is proven that this age regarded the writings of the apostles as authoritative (21). Wescott introduces the reader to Clement of Rome (22), Ignatius (28), Polycarp (36), Barnabas (his epistle) (40), and concludes with a section on how their testimony relates to the canon (47). In this conclusion, Wescott argues that these apostles of the apostles used language and doctrine of the New Testament, and they recognized the “fitness” of the canon, yet understood its limits as well (59).

The second period, 120 – 170 AD, which Westcott labels as the age of the Greek apologists, is given the most attention, with nearly half the book devoted to it. In this age, the church can no longer rely on oral tradition to silence her attackers, instead she turned to Greek philosophy and reason to dress up the ways of God (65). This period is also characterized by the wide variety of literature that was used to express doctrine and the like. In regards to the canon, in the Age of the Apologists the church witnessed not to what books were Scripture, but the content of Gods holy word (69).

Westcott mainly highlighted Justin Martyr, who he believed to be the “best type of the natural character of the Greek Apologist” (65). For Justin, Philosophy was truth, reason a spiritual power, and Christianity the fullness of both (65). The author also highlighted the Muratorian Canon (211), which is quite a witness to the state of Scripture of that time. What is so important about this manuscript is that it is not suggesting what books an individual feels are inspired, but it had more of an air of what the church as a whole considered inspired (220).
Brooke Wescott wraps this section on the individual Greek apologists up by stating that church history up to this point has only omitted one New Testament book (second Peter) and included only one non-canonical book. Everything else is the same. Not only this, but Westcott also argues that he has shown sufficient evidence that apostolic oral tradition and the canon we hold to today are no different (231). But of course, this evidence alone is not enough when considering the canonization of the New Testament. Westcott next takes us to the Early versions of the New Testament and then on to how the early heretics felt about the canon. In the interest of time, I will have to breeze through these next sections.

The author first examines the two early versions, The Peshito of Syria and the Old Latin Version. Out of todays canon, the Peshito omits second and third John, second Peter, Jude, and the Apocalypse of John – basically the disputed books (244). Wescott believes that the Old Latin version, which is quite hard to pin down, is basically the same as the Muratorian canon (258). According to his conclusion, both east and west agreed on a canon of the four gospels, Acts, thirteen epistles of Paul, First Peter, and First John (328). Even the heretics, though they forged their own gospels and epistles, based their works on that of this acknowledged canon (328). And unfortunately I am going to have to leave it at that, as I now must evaluate this mountain of material.

Now it will be quite hard to comment as I am very much ignorant on this subject which is why I am taking this class. I was blown away at the depth on the subject but happily and greedily ate it up, as this is what I am most interested in for my studies. I found it quite interesting that the earliest church leaders, Clement of Rome and Ignatius, barely referred to the New Testament documents. In fact, Wescott doesn't even mention that Clement quoted at all from the New Testament, but merely alluded to it (19-28). Westcott does mention that we can see a lot of the standard Church practices, which proves to be invaluable in reconstructing the early church. The author does state that Ignatius referred to the New Testament, but referred almost exclusively to Paul’s letters (33). If I remember correctly, Metzger in, the Canon of the New Testament, wrote that the Apostolic fathers quoted and referred more to the Old Testament as their authority.

Now Polycarp, the alleged disciple of John, settles the case a bit more for the New Testament. According to Westcott, Polycarps epistle contains far more references to the writings of the New Testament that we have today (36). He does follow the pattern of his contemporaries by not always quoting from it explicitly, but just by using the same phrases and terminology, and sometimes just combining things. For example, and I love this, Polycarp combined three different writers – Peter, John, and Paul, the big three with:

“built up into the faith, given to them, which is the mother of us all, hope following after, love towards God and Christ and towards our neighbor proceeding” (37).

Thats also a great example for what I just mentioned, the way the early writers referred to the New Testament.

Westcott also uses Barnabas as a witness for the Apostolic age which is something I never would have thought to done. In fact, I thought it was neat how Wescott used the early versions of the bible (which makes complete sense), and even the testimony of the heretics to prove what the church held to as authoritative. I have always had a fascination with the early church and have done a bit of research before this class to see what was happening in that first century after the Apostles. I never would have used those two areas to research, but I see now why they are important. But I should have thought about it because I would even use the argument that there was no known claim against the church that she was making everything up with unbelievers who believe that Christianity was all made up. I was definitely using the witness of outsiders to prove my point then, so why wouldn't I check that for the cannon?

Ok, I see, to be rambling a bit so I will try and cut it short. Overall, I was very impressed with both the depth and the width of Westcott's “The Canon of the New Testament.” He gave me a great introduction to how the church handled the word of God and what she deemed authority throughout her history. Unfortunately, I only got to touch on the first half of the book in this paper, and I actually only read about 430 of the 500 pages due to time constraints. It worked out though because I am very interested in early age before the councils and especially the apostolic age. And the questions are just starting to come as I become more and more familiar with this interesting subject on the Canonization of the New Testament.


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