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