Where did our Bible come from? Part 10: the next three criteria

This post is part of a series, click back to the home page to review any part of it you may have missed.

Last time I talked about two (of six) criteria that were used, though likely not consciously, by the early church to determine which books, letters, and other writings would be considered part of Scripture. This time, I’m going to talk about the remaining four. As a reminder, I’ve based these criteria (though slightly modified) off of F. F. Bruce’s found in The Canon of Scripture.


While this seems to put the cart before the horse (doesn’t Scripture establish what is, in fact, orthodoxy), it is a useful criteria. In this case, what it means is that nothing that directly contradicts another section of already accepted Scripture could be included in the final product. This is a way to explain why Marcion’s canon, which wanted to pit the Old Testament against the New Testament, failed: Marcion contradicted what was already accepted as orthodoxy.

Also keep in mind that the Scripture were written as a response to the actions of God as they were observed. First and foremost in the writers’ minds was that Jesus was truly God, and truly human, and that he really died and was raised from the dead. Anything that contradicted that (as many of the “Gnostic” texts did) could not be considered part of the canon. Again, this wasn’t something they decided to sit down and apply, but came about likely due to common sense.


This should be understood in terms of “universality.” In other words, the only things that were considered part of the canon were things that could be (or had been) accepted widely. An example might help.

The letters of Clement were widely accepted and highly praised in parts of the Roman Empire, particularly near Rome. However, they did not enjoy much acceptance in other parts of the Empire (and beyond) where the Church was well established. In short, these letters didn’t seem to apply to everyone. That is an important criteria for the Scriptures: they are universal in their scope. That also means that the Scriptures we read today are, in that same way, timeless. Yes they may have been written for a specific situation at a specific time, but early on people recognized that they could apply well beyond that narrow purpose to the broader purpose of Scripture.

Use as Scripture

I’ve argued this a few times already in this series so I won’t belabor the point. The main thing I want to keep in mind here is that before any Church council acknowledged what was, in fact, already Scripture, these documents had already begun to function in that way. These books showed evidence of all of these criteria mentioned so far and had already begun to be used with some authority. The final criterion, though, is probably the most significant. Because of that, I’m giving it its own post.

So come back next time as I talk about the many nuances behind what we mean when we say Scripture is “inspired.” Yes, the next post will be all about Inspiration.


Where did our Bible come from? Part 9: The first two Criteria for Canonicity

This post is part of a series. To catch up you clan click to read parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8

As I’ve already mentioned, following the Diatesseron (which wasn’t itself really a controversy), there no real major controversies surrounding the acceptance what we now take to be the bible. While there may have been minor disagreements, these gradually faded and by the time of Eusebius, the Murotorian Fragment and Athanasius most of these had dissipated to the point where the council that finally approved the canon was merely confirming what the churches had already decided was authoritative. The books that were accepted all seemed to meet the same criteria, which, while never formally written down in this period, can help to shed light on why these books were seen as somehow authoritative. In the following list, I’ll follow, more or less, the scheme laid out by F. F. Bruce in his book The Canon of Scripture which I would highly recommend if you want to read more about this history.


For the New Testament, one of the most important factors seems to have been that the book in question had some direct link to an apostle. By this, apostle should be understood in the sense of someone who saw the risen. Paul could lay hold to this claim because he saw Jesus on the road to Damascus before beginning a period of instruction in the dessert.

This means that anything written by an apostle would meet the criteria. Paul’s letters therefore fit the bill, as do the gospels of John and Matthew, along with the letters of John. This idea of a link also seemed to have included those who studied directly with an apostle. For this reason Luke and Acts (Luke was known as Paul’s companion and seems to have accompanied Peter for a time) could be included as could Mark (who, it is believed, was collecting stories recounted by Peter), as well as Hebrews, if it wasn’t written by Paul (I personally like Martin Luther’s argument that Apollos wrote it). And it seems every book in the New Testament would meet this criteria.

Early Composition

It seems that this served more to eliminate certain books than include others. For instance, the Sheperd of Hermas was very well received for a long period of time, and could have been written by someone who knew one the apostles. However, it was written very late relative to when the rest of the New Testament was written. Why, however, is this important?

As I’ve mentioned a few times, the New Testament was written in an incredibly narrow period of time. While the Old Testament took centuries, if not millennia, the New Testament was written in a matter of a few decades. That, together with apostolicity, serves to highlight two points.

First, what we have in the bible is first hand accounts or the record of first hand accounts. In dealing with history, these are people who saw something and wrote as a response to what they saw. In short, they were true witnesses. This lends their statements a certain (high) amount of credibility. While most ancient sources may have long periods of history between when the events they describe occurred and when it was written down, no such historical gap exists for the bible. Although it may seem like a long time to us now to have a distance of 30 or 40 years between the resurrection and the emergence of the four written gospels, in ancient terms this was an incredibly short distance. Additionally, it can be argued that this time was needed both for the early work of building the church and so that the events could adequately be processed. It seems very clear from the gospel accounts that at the time the events happened the disciples didn’t really grasp the full weight of what they had seen. It took time to process this before they understood it. The resurrection made them realize that it was important, but only time spent with the Holy Spirit could make them realize why and how it was important.

Second, this brief period of time during which the New Testament was written highlights the true impact of the resurrection. The resurrection, like the incarnation and crucifixion, was a game changer. Unlike those other events, though, the resurrection could not be explained away as simply coincidental phenomena. This was something unique. Not only was it unique, though, it also fundamentally changed the nature of God’s relation with man, both in our direct relationship with him as adopted child to father or bride to a groom, and also in our relation with his self-revelation. Here, as had never before occurred, in Jesus people saw God unmediated. There he was as a person. In the resurrection, the limitation of human flesh was stripped away and we caught a glimpse not only of God the Son, but of the heavenly reality of the Kingdom of God. So impactful was this encounter that it demanded a huge explosion of writing. Not only that, but the writing could not even keep up, prompting John to note that we would never be able to write down everything Jesus did.

The resurrection, along with the ascension and then the receipt of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, also meant that the nature of revelation had changed. No longer would revelation be of this authoritative sort. This doesn’t mean that God isn’t active or even that he doesn’t reveal himself today. Instead, it means that Jesus was the apex of revelation. Not until his return will anything be close to the level of revelation witnessed at the resurrection. Thus the New Testament, in a way, is more important than the Old Testament because it bears witness to this height of revelation. Let me just add the caveat, though, that without the Old Testament as a backdrop, the New Testament makes very little sense to us. Not only that, though, now through the Holy Spirit the Church has a sustained direct access to God that was not available prior to the Incarnation of Jesus. This access is available to everyone allowing us to have an intimate relationship with God and, as the New Testament makes clear, the primary means the Holy Spirit guides us is through this already established revelation (though I would admit not exclusively).

Since that is the cases we can say that the canon is closed, even ignoring these other criteria. However, it may still be fruitful to explore these other criteria and since I’ve gone on for so long about these two, I’ll have to come back to them next time.

Where did our Bible come from? Part 8: The Diatessaron

Ok, I’ve been bad, really bad, about keeping up with blog posting. That’s not to say I haven’t been busy. Unfortunately, I’ve been busy writing the sort of stuff that probably wouldn’t work to well in a blog post (I doubt anyone (or more than a handful of people) wants to read a 25,000 word piece about German idealist philosophers and their impact upon the continental theology of a later German theologian’s idea bout contingency). That said, I hope to get back into blogging on trains and such. To be honest, though, I may still be a bit patchy the next couple weeks, but I will make an effort to at least get two posts a week out (maybe getting back to three). Today, I’m going to briefly make mention of the Diatessaron, which really drove home the point that the church needed all four distinct gospels, not a single harmony, and then next time (whenever that is) try to move towards a slight conclusion as to what the probable criteria was for determining which books were, in fact, Scripture. Following that, I may say something about translation and the use of the bible today, but we’ll see.

The Diatessaron

If you want to review (hey it’s been a while) feel free to click back to other posts in this series. Here are parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

Last time I made mention of the first attempt to bring about a single gospel. Marcion’s purpose, however, was a malicious one. He sought to expunge any evidence of the Old Testament from the bible and so simple cut out those parts that didn’t match his worldview. He tried to shape the Word of God, rather than be shaped by it. Because of this, he was one of the earliest heretics of the early church. Please note that he was not considered a heretic because the views he held were mistaken (which they were), but because he refused any correction and actively sought to convert others to his mistaken view at the cost of unity to the church. Today, however, I’d like to talk about the more “virtuous” attempt to produce a single gospel: The Diatessaron.

Between rough 150-175, the Diatessaron was produced by Tatian, who was a Christian Apologist (the group who came right after the Apostles and Apostolic Fathers). I say that the Diatessaron was a “virtuous” attempt to produce one gospel because Tatian’s motives were not to divide the church, nor did he want to edit out parts of the text that didn’t fit his worldview. Instead, he attempted to blend together all four gospels into a single “harmony” of the gospels that could be read, chronologically, straight through. In doing so, he attempted to explain seeming contradictions. In a few places, however, he simply removed the seeming contradiction (he famously did not include the genealogies of Jesus from either Matthew or Luke. Still, of the four Gospels as they are accepted today, remarkably only 56 verses do not have a corresponding or analogous verse in the Diatessaron.

Rejection of the Diatessaron

While the Diatessaron was accepted in the Syrian until the early 5th century, the overwhelming majority of the church, though appreciative of it, rejected it as genuine Scripture. What was the reason for this rejection? While we can only speculate, we nevertheless have good reason to believe that the early Church felt that it was important to maintain the four unique perspectives on the Jesus event, warts and all. The “four winds” as they were often called, were important in their unique peculiarity. The church may have rejected the Diatessaron, but it did so primarily because it needed the authenticity, the “realness” of the four Gospels.

This should give us cause, on the one hand, to consider that these four gospels are likely what they say they are: namely historical accounts written by real people who were either themselves eyewitnesses, or who were in conversation with eyewitnesses of the Christ event. On the other hand, it should cause us to appreciate the gospels in their uniqueness. Why did Mark leave out things that Matthew and Luke thought important? Why does John seem to follow a wildly different chronology from the other three (and include completely different accounts of miracles)? Why does Matthew use the term “Kingdom of Heaven” instead of “Kingdom of God”? Why does Mark skip past the infancy of Jesus? And on and on the questions could go. The fact is, we have four unique accounts of what happened. While the general story is the same in all of them, they chose to tell it in different ways. Therefore, although all four have the same purpose (something akin to promoting faith in God and Jesus Christ), they each, nevertheless, seem to have distinct, not homogenous, purposes beyond that. The truth is, we have four, not one, and that is important.

Transition between this time period and the criteria

With regard to the rest of the New Testament, there were a lot of more minor shifts, and no major pronouncements until the canon was more or less identified. I mentioned in my first post on the New Testament some of the timing related to when certain books were accepted. It seems, though, that the recognition of the rest of the New Testament  occurred without much incident, at least compared to the acceptance of the four Gospels as four different Gospels. Next time, I’m going to look at some of the criteria that may have been used to determine which writings could be accepted as Scripture very early on, and what that means for us.

Soul Fusion May Article

Sorry for the interruption, I hope to get back to my series on where the bible came from on Friday. In the meantime, please feel free to read this article by me from this month’s Soul Fusion magazine on the Trayvon Martin Case (getting controversial over in here):

As a general rule, I try to avoid overtly divisive issues, especially ones that tend to be highly politicized. However, in this case the crime that may or may not have been committed is so egregious, and the response has been so entwined with the Church, that it cannot be ignored. While this case may, on a practical level, be about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, in reality it is about all of us.
From the outset let me be incredibly clear about something. Trayvon Martin’s death seems to be a clear case of an innocent person being killed. He was a teenager with no history of violence, he lived in the community in which the slaying occurred, and he was entirely unarmed. As such Martin’s death is both tragic and one that demands justice, regardless of any other fact about the case.
The initial response seems obvious. We should immediately rally around the family of the victim. This is what it means to live in community, we side with those who are victimized, especially those who are victims of such systemic evils as racism. Those who are pushed to the fringes of society, whether because of socio-economic status, gender or ethnicity, are at the center of the Church. Of that there can be no question. This is a death that requires that the Church comfort the families of victims and seek proper justice for misdeed.
Second, the death of Trayvon Martin should be a wake up call to churches around the world to deal with the lingering racism present within their communities. Human nature tends to be racist toward the minority. This is not how the Church functions. The church is a community that is…..[Continue Reading]