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How We Got Our 27-Book New Testament: The Case of Didymus

As I pointed out in my previous post, when I was a graduate student I wanted to show that I was not interested only in New Testament textual criticism (using the surviving witnesses to establish what the authors of the New Testament originally wrote) but in a range of important historical and interpretive issues in early Christianity.   I wanted to be broad ranging.  And I wanted this already at the very beginning of my graduate work.

My first semester in the PhD program I had a seminar on the “Canon of the New Testament” with Bruce Metzger.   This was a class that focused on the questions surrounding how we ended up with the twenty-seven books in the New Testament.  Who decided that it would be these twenty-seven books, and no others?  What was motivating these people?  What were the grounds for their decisions?  And when did they make them?

These are all, of course, fundamental questions, and Metzger himself wrote the authoritative book on the topic – which is still the authoritative book.  In the seminar itself we did not spend most of our time discussing such matters in the abstract.  Instead, we devoted ourselves to translating ancient lists of which books this, that, or the other early Christian author thought should belong to the canon (and then, of course, discussing what we translated).

The first day of class Metzger …

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Bruce Metzger is the author of several books including The Early Versions of the New Testament and The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, And Restoration.

Teaching Religion in a Secular Environment
My “Preparation” to Teach in a Secular Research Institution



  1. talmoore
    talmoore  April 25, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, speaking of broadening out, you once wrote that if you had it to do all over again, you might have gone into Classics. Have you ever thought of broadening your expertise into Classics? You have already mastered NT Greek (and, presumably, Koine in general) so how hard could it be to master Attic Greek? And if you already know Vulgate and Medieval Latin, how much harder is Classical Latin? I mean, how cool would it be to teach one course a year on, say, the Roman poets (Ovid, Virgil, Lucretius, et al.) or Greek histories (Herodotus, Polybius, Strabo, et al.)

    I, for one, have never been able to focus on one discipline, because every time I dive head long into a topic, I always discover that it can be covered by more than one discipline. (For instance, when I did a term paper on Henry Clay and the American System for a grad school seminar in 19th century American history, I found it difficult to stay focused merely in the US history section of the library, because as a social science student in general, I was wont to dip into the fields of sociology, economics, political science, geography, etc. As it was, I made only a brief discursion into technical aspects of the economics and politics of the American System in my paper, so as not to befuddle my professor and classmates.)

    Anyway, I guess what I’m asking is, what’s stopping you?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 26, 2017

      I originally learned Attic Greek in college, but apart from some Plato, hardly ever use it. Very rusty indeed. And I have studied Classical Latin over the years. A couple of years ago I was reading Caesar, Livy, and Suetonius. The big problem — insurmountable, really — is that I just don’t have the time. For many years I would devote an hour or two every morning to working on languages — both ones I already had (e.g., Greek, Hebrew, and German) and ones I was trying to acquire (e.g., Coptic and Italian). I just have too many other things going on right now. Maybe in the next couple of years I’ll be able to get back to it. Hope so. I miss all that. But I’ll be starting out from virtual scratch in some instances….

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    rivercrowman  April 25, 2017

    Belated congratulations on your first publication. Mine was a feature article (based on my Master’s research) published January 25, 1976 in Hoard’s Dairyman. I still have a rather tattered copy of the complete issue of the magazine!

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    nichael  April 25, 2017

    (I’ll begin by apologizing that this comment has virtually nothing to do with the subject of this post. But that said…)

    I wanted to mention an item which may be of interest to other readers of the ‘blog:
    The Teaching Company has a new course on “The Apocryphal Jesus” by David Brakke (i.e dealing with the representations of Jesus presented in the various N.T. Apocrypha, etc).

    I haven’t had a chance to take the course (yet), but it looks like it will be good. And if it’s anywhere near as good as his course on “The Gnostics” –or his book on which that course is based– then it should be spectacular.

    (Second apology: Dr Ehrman, I don’t think Dr Brakke’s new course has been discussed here before, but if it has, feel free to skip this comment.)

    • Bart
      Bart  April 26, 2017

      He’s as good as they get. I’m sure it’s a fantastic course.

  4. Avatar
    nichael  April 25, 2017

    Fascinating posting,

    Could you say something about the mechanics of how one would go about identifying which sources Didymus might be citing in the various cases (especially in cases where he might be quoting from a non-canonical source)?

    For example, did Didymus typically write something along the lines of “As John says: ‘XYZ'”? Or would he simply indicate that a passage is “scriptural” and assume that the reader “just knew” where it came from?

    And if the latter is true, how would one go about determining the source, especially in the case of “non-standard” sources? Are there places where Didymus cites “scripture” but where, today, we have no idea of his intended source?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 26, 2017

      Sometimes Didymus will name the source he is quoting (on a couple of occasions he names the wrong source!); more often he’ll quote, say, a Gospel, and it is only by seeing how the quotation is worded in different Gospels that you can decide which one he is quoting. In many instances there is no way to tell whether he is quoting, say, Matthew or Luke or some kind of jumbled combination of the two.

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    JonH  April 25, 2017

    Perhaps a mailbag question…

    What was Dr. Metzger’s view of the authorship of the various Pauline epistles? I’ve read various of his papers that I could find online (e.g., “Literary Forgeries and Canonical Pseudepigrapha” and “A Reconsideration of Certain Arguments Against the Pauline Authorship of the Pastoral Epistles”), and it seems to me that Metzger avoids taking an explicit position on the authorship of the disputed Pauline epistles. In the latter paper, he carefully notes that he is criticizing some arguments against Pauline authorship, but that “it is not the purpose of the present writer, however, to debate the question of the Pauline authorship of the Pastorals.”

    Did he ever take an explicit position? If so, do you know if his view changed over time? If not, do you have any sense of why he would have avoided doing so in various works that directly involved the issue of psuedepigrapha?

    Thanks for your time.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 26, 2017

      He was committed to the Pauline authorship of Colossians, Ephesians, and 2 Thessalonians, and leaned strongly toward the Pauline authorship of the Pastorals (arguing that we don’t have enough data to make a firm determination that Paul did *not* write them).

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    Jason  April 25, 2017

    This isn’t particularly about today’s post, but it came to my attention that one of the charities that the blog supports is trying to land a $58000 matching grant and they could use a little extra “push” from us. If you can see this, copy and paste this link into your browser to be taken straight to their networkforgood page:https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/UMDurham?blm_aid=51218 or their home donation page:
    http://www.umdurham.org/donate.html and let’s pump the match up.

  7. Avatar
    The Agnostic Christian  April 25, 2017

    I only wish I had spent the last 15 years training professionally rather studying Church history and theology on a quest to get closer to God. At least my wasted years would have been worth something.

    • Avatar
      jimviv2@gmail.com  April 27, 2017

      My condolences.
      That is why some denominations, such as JWs, actively discourage education beyond about 8th grade,
      and secular college is verboten.
      Could their motto be “Ignorance is bliss (eternally)”?

      • Avatar
        The Agnostic Christian  May 17, 2017

        Yeah, many Christians rightly see education as the enemy of faith. Even if the Christian doesn’t lose his faith he will become a liberal, which is almost worse!

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    Seeker1952  April 25, 2017

    What are thought to be the reasons for not including, in the final canon, 1 and 2 Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Letter of Barnabas: theological problems; not widely used; not thought to be Apostolic; thought to be written much later than the rest of the canon; not used by those most involved in setting the final canon; other?

    Are there significant theological differences in these non-included works?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 26, 2017

      Yes, some of all the above. The only one with real theological issues would be the Shepherd (which has a rather confusing and underdeveloped Christology). The others simply were not used widely enough or considered apostolic.

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    Tony  April 25, 2017

    The placement order of the 27 NT books has always interested me.

    The NT is thought to be an orthodox response to Marcion’s Canon with its emphasis on Paul’s letters and presumably containing a truncated version of Luke’s gospel with a docetic Jesus.

    Paul has been a problem for orthodoxy from Tertullian to today.

    Compare that to the NT starting off with not just one, but four Jesus of Nazareth stories. Following that, we get in Acts a lengthy fabricated story about the early church with an orthodox portrayal of Paul.

    Only then do we see the first letter from Paul – to the Romans. Anyone reading the NT first time, from the beginning, will now have a strong mindset of the historical gospel Jesus and the subservient Paul with his Damascus visions. Romans, with its theological acrobatics, will put most normal readers, even scholars, in a deep sleep. But most importantly, the reader will now interpret Paul’s celestial Christ with the historical gospel Jesus of Nazareth firmly in mind!

    • Avatar
      nichael  April 26, 2017

      I’m going to make a stab at why I think the standard ordering came about.

      Mainly, they’re lumped together by category: 1] Presumably anyone collecting the books would want to start with the “Historical books” (the Gospels + Acts). 2] Then come the various epistles (those traditionally assigned to Paul given pride of place, followed by the “pastoral epistles”). 3] Ending with the outlier of the Apocalypse.

      Setting aide the “singlets” (Acts and Revelation), we only need to worry about the ordering of the Gospels and the two sets of Epistles. The manuscripts contain many orderings of the Gospels[*] but the standard “modern” order (Mt,Mk,Lk,Jn) follows the ordering which they were traditionally held to be written.

      As far as the two sets of Epistles, notice that each set is ordered fairly strictly according to size, from longest to shortest (I.e. the “Paulines”: Rom=>Philemon, and the “Pastorals”: Heb=>Jude).

      This practice (“ordering a set of books by size when there is no compelling reason to do otherwise”) was a common practice among ancient texts. For examine most of the Suras in the Quran are ordered by decreasing length.

      Likewise in the Christian Old Testament (the ordering is different in the Jewish Tanakh, of course):

      Many of the “subcategories” of OT books follow an ordering “that make sense”: Pentateuch (Gen=>Deut): traditional order; “History Books” (Joshua=>Job): traditional “historical” order; The “Minor Prophets” (Hosea=>Malachai): traditional assumed order of composition. But the books in the remaining “subcategories” (“poetry/prophetic” books: Psalms=>Song of Sol; and “major prophets”: Isaiah=>Daniel) each are essentially listed by size order. (One interesting exception is the book of “Lamentations” which is tucked in after the book of Jeremiah, who was traditionally held to be the author of Lamentations.)

      [* Concerning other orderings of the Gospels in the manuscript tradition: One of the more common variations was the so-called “Western Order”: Matthew/John/Luke/Mark. Here, the Gosples ascribed to the two Apostles (Matthew and John) were held to be of greater authority and were placed first, followed by the Gosples written by “mere” witnesses.

      However, notice that even here that the books in each sub-pair (Matthew/John and Luke/Mark) are ordered by size. ]

      • Avatar
        nichael  April 26, 2017

        [Oops. When I wrote “Pastorals: Heb=>Jude” above, I of course meant the “non-Paulines”. ]

      • Avatar
        Tony  April 28, 2017

        That is a perfectly good explanation on the order of the 27 NT books.

        I take a more skeptical view of early Christian writings, because so many were agenda driven.

        By all accounts, Marcionism was huge and gave proto-orthodox Christianity a serious run for their money. Marcionism in the Eastern Empire exceeded orthodoxy in size.

        It may have been Marcion who first collected Paul’s letters. Marcion saw Paul as the only true apostle, and Peter and others as false ones. Marcion’s Jesus was not the son of the ignorant Jewish creator God, but instead the son of an unknown superior God. The Jesus in Marcion’s short gospel was docetic (not “of the flesh” or human), had no connection to Judaism, and did not suffer on the cross.

        Marcion was first out the gate with a Canon consisting of ten Pauline letters and a short gospel.

        Now ask yourself, if you wanted to produce a document countering Marcion’s canon, what would it look like?

        Well, I would first make sure that my Jesus was Jewish, has Peter (Cephas) as his premier follower, was identified as a son of the Jewish God, and was flesh and blood and certainly not docetic. I would also make sure that Paul’s letters would get pushed back into the equivalent of the fourth page in a five page newspaper.

        And this is what we got in spades in the NT! Four gospels about a Jesus who was born (ok, in two of them), was human and suffered on the cross. We also got Acts to make sure Paul was portrayed as a flunky of the Jerusalem church. Best of all, Paul’s letters are safely in the back where few will notice that Paul is not talking about the proto – orthodox Jesus of Nazareth.

        But, like I said, I’m a skeptic.

    • Avatar
      dizzy2114  April 26, 2017

      This is very spot on how it happens.

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    FadyRiad  April 26, 2017

    Dear Dr. Ehrman,
    Following on your previous answer to me that what makes a bestseller, in the end of the day, is massive media attention.
    My question now is what sparks this attention. In other words, why, out of all your books, did Misquoting Jesus receive a great attention from the media?
    The Gospel of Lie: amzn.to/2pjfno6

  11. Avatar
    Judith  April 26, 2017

    Those wanting to read more about this might find A Hiatus in the Thread: Editorial Duties 7/5/14 as interesting as I did.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 26, 2017

      Your memory is SO much better than mine!!

      • Avatar
        Judith  April 27, 2017

        Only when it has to do with fascinating insights into such a world as yours, Dr. Ehrman.

  12. Avatar
    Jana  April 26, 2017

    Have you written on why these 27 books were even decided? Was there competition among groups or individuals in determining which books? Was your insightful term paper then ground breaking ?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2017

      Yes, that’s what my book Lost Christianities is about.

  13. Avatar
    Jana  April 28, 2017

    Thank you. I just checked my Kindle and I don’t have this book. I’ll have to remedy this quickly …

    This video was kind of charming … “kids describe God to draw” …


    • Avatar
      Jana  April 29, 2017

      Deficiency corrected. Thank you. Will read it next.

  14. Avatar
    redshrek  April 28, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, can you touch a little bit on reincarnation and how ancient church theologians like Didymus and Origen viewed and thought about the subject.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 30, 2017

      Yes, I may devote a post to that. (It’s not clear they *did* believe in reincarnation, btw)

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