Here’s an interesting question I received from a blog reader long ago!

QUESTION:

Given the criteria used to determine what would go on to constitute the New Testament canon, how is it that Hebrews and the book of Revelation remain part of the canon? I understand that Christians came to believe that they were authored by the apostles which is why they made it into the canon, but we now know that they weren’t authored by Paul or John..so why are they still in the NT?

 

RESPONSE:

Interesting idea!   I sometimes get asked what I would exclude from the canon if given the choice, and I almost always say 1 Timothy, because of what it says about women in 2:11-15, and how the passage has been used for such horrible purposes over the years.  But, well, it ain’t gonna happen.  I don’t get a vote.

And that’s the problem with Hebrews and Revelation – and all the other books that were admitted when Church Fathers (wrongly) thought they were written by apostles of Jesus (in this case Paul and John).  No one is going to give any of us a vote.

By way of background, it’s absolutely true that in the early church, when the proto-orthodox and then the orthodox Christian leaders who were making decisions were debating over which books to be included in Scripture, they had several criteria in mind that books had to pass in order to “make it in.”  A book had to be ancient – going back to the time of the first generation (even a great book, if written last week sometime, wasn’t going to be counted as canonical); it had to be widely used (and not just a local favorite); it had to “toe the line” theologically (no heresy allowed!); and – among the very most important considerations, it had to be “apostolic” – i.e., written by an apostle (Peter, Paul, John, etc.) or by someone very, very closely connected with an apostle (Mark, the translator of Peter; Luke the traveling companion of Paul).

The problem was that there were lots of books claiming to be written by apostles, which were in fact not.   I talk about that at length in my book Forged, and at greater length in my scholarly monograph Forgery and Counterforgery.

In the various debates over canon, different church leaders and regular ole church folk urged for the inclusion of various books: the Shepherd of Hermas, the Letter of Barnabas, 1 Clement, the Letter of Paul to the Laodiceans, 3 Corinthians, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, and so on.   Most of these were thought to pass the “apostolic” criterion by one group of Christians or another.   But church leaders had to decide.  And how did they decide?

Not so much on literary grounds for the most part, that is, by careful analysis of grammar and writing style.  In large part the decision was made on the basis of contents.  If a book’s contents seemed at all aberrant, then it obviously was not written by an apostle.  If the book’s contents were completely acceptable and even commendable, then the apostolic label could “stick.”  But the church fathers were sometimes – often, in fact – wrong.

What happens when today scholars have established beyond reasonable doubt that whoever wrote Revelation did not write the Gospel of John (as even some scholars in antiquity argued, convincingly)?   Or that Hebrews could not have been written by Paul (again, as was sometimes recognized in antiquity)?   Even more, what happens when scholars show that Paul did not write six of the letters that go under his name in the New Testament, that Peter didn’t write either of “his” letters; that Jude and James did not actually write theirs?

These latter instances are different from those of Hebrews and Revelation.  Hebrews is anonymous, so the author is not claiming to be anyone in particular;  Revelation claims to be written by someone named John, but he doesn’t claim to be “that” John.   Whoever wrote 1 Timothy, on the other hand, claimed to be Paul.  And he wasn’t Paul.  He was lying about it.  So too the author of Ephesians.  And the author of 1 Peter who claimed to be Peter.  Etc. etc.  (I discuss all this at length in my books and show how ancient readers considered this kind of literary practice deceptive and a form of lying.  That’s why I don’t think “lying” is too strong a term for us to use either)

So.   Shouldn’t we get rid of these books since they were accepted into the canon on false pretenses?

The reality – to get back to my point – is that we do not have a say in the matter.   On the one hand, plenty of Christians today continue to think that the alleged authors of these books were the real authors, and for the vast majority of them, there is NOTHING scholars can say that will change their minds.  Nothing.  Trust me.

On the other hand, by now the canon is so very firmly set that there is, realistically speaking, absolutely no way – NO WAY – that it is ever going to change.  No one, no matter how much they want or how hard they try, is going to be able to add a book (some of my students would love to see the Infancy Gospel of Thomas in there) or take away a book.  The canon is the canon is the canon, and will be, world without end.

Scholars can, however, continue to do their work on the books of the canon (and those outside the canon) and discuss who really wrote them (or rather, who really did not, since it is easier to show that Paul did not write Titus than it is to say who did – since we have no idea who did, other than that it was not Paul).   This is a matter of historical scholarship, however, not a claim of faith.  But the canon is constructed on the basis of claims of faith (e.g., that these books are uniquely inspired; that they are a revelation from God; that they should serve as Scripture for the church), not on the basis of historical scholarship.  Like it or not!

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