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Should We Change the Canon of Scripture?

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 travelling companion of Paul).

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Q & A with Ben Witherington: Part 3
Was Jesus an Essene?

23

Comments

  1. Avatar
    JordanDay  June 10, 2012

    Bart, I think I remember Dr. Darrell Bock making a criticism of your NT intro textbook with regards to authorship. He said that you do not give the arguments of “the other side” when dealing with the authorship of the gospels. He points out that nowhere in your book do you mention one of the strongest arguments for Markan authorship, namely, that if the early church were trying to give their writings authority by attaching an authoritative name to an anonymous gospel, why would Mark have been chosen? Why not Peter himself? Or Andrew? He says the best explanation for a relatively less important figure like Mark being assumed the author, is that he WAS the author. How would you respond? Thanks.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 12, 2012

      This is a great question, but I don’t want it and my answer to be hidden away in this back and forth. I’ll extract it and answer it directly on the blog itself, if that’s OK with you.

      • Avatar
        JordanDay  June 12, 2012

        That would be great! Thank you!

      • Avatar
        jasha  June 13, 2012

        I’m looking forward to your answer, as I’ve been wondering along these same lines myself, although not so much with regard to Mark. For that matter, why didn’t anyone try to attribute a letter to Jesus himself? Wouldn’t that be the ultimate trump card?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 13, 2012

          Ah, someone did! Several someones. The one that survives is Jesus’ letter to King Abgar. I discuss it in my forthcoming book, Forgery and Counterforgery. Augustine knew of another one.

  2. Avatar
    tcc  June 10, 2012

    One of the first things Martin Luther wanted to do during the Reformation was cut Revelation (and James, I think) from the NT, because it contradicted his viewpoint that salvation is by faith alone and not works. And he was probably right, because Revelation…doesn’t go well with that idea. Jesus is coming back for blood in that book.

    To be honest, I still have zero idea why Revelation is in the canon, aside from a lot of Christians thinking John wrote it. Even if you look at it from a Christian theological perspective, it’s totally insane and contradicts what most churches preach. The only way to even mildly understand that book is to think that the writer was basically raging at the oppression he was facing–“well, us Christians are getting persecuted by Nero, a lot of my friends are dead, and Jesus still hasn’t come back…I better write a Jerry Bruckheimer level acid trip that details the destruction of this stupid planet”.

    • Avatar
      Kasey  June 12, 2012

      Really enjoy these sort of posts. Would you consider posting a segment on the relevant debates over the “inerrency” of the bible within evangelicalism? And quite possibly exhort your understanding of the term believed by evangelicals (even in spite of your belief in it). It seems that, within the muddled debate between evangelical scholars over the canonized bible being inspired and without error, most scholars arrive at conclusions that are incongruent with what most evangelical layman (and un-informed onlookers of christianity) view the term to mean. A good objective perspective would be interesting.

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  June 12, 2012

        Interesting idea. But I’m afraid that since I’m no longer within evangelical circles, I really don’t know what is happening in the debates. But I’m sure it’s interesting — maybe even more to outsiders!

      • Avatar
        Adam  June 13, 2012

        I spent many years in various evangelical settings until four years ago – as a leader and participant. Two modern day influential “popular” thinkers that have shaped the way evangelicals understand the Bible as inerrant are Norman Geisler and William Lane Craig (there are many others!). But these are the loud and heard voices and their books are read by those training to be pastors. Geisler makes more of an issue out of it than Craig [See Geisler, Defending Inerrancy: Affirming the Accuracy of Scripture for a New Generation, Baker Books, 2011]. Craig thinks the bible is inerrent [http://www.reasonablefaith.org/what-price-biblical-errancy], but he won’t make it his mission to “attack” someone who claims to be an evangelical yet thinks there are even minor errors in the bible like Geisler has with Mike Licona, Peter Enns, and others [example: http://versebyversecommentary.com/articles/dr-norman-geisler-apologist/mike-licona-on-inerrancy-it%E2%80%99s-worse-than-we-originally-thought/%5D.

    • Avatar
      Kasey  June 12, 2012

      sorry chap. this is directed towards dr. ehrman. I corrected it below.

  3. Avatar
    Pat Ferguson  June 11, 2012

    Several examples of why Hebrews and Revelation were or were not included in the NT Canon are detailed in a paper titled “The Emergence of the New Testament” (Daniel F. Lieuwen, 1995 @ http://www.orthodox.net/faq/canon.ht#92). None, however, seem to address the question of “why are they still in the NT?” That question might never be answered to everyone’s satisfaction. In the interim, I agree with Dr. Ehrman’s statement: “The canon is the canon is the canon, and will be, world without end” (at least until some scholarly group with both the authority and conviction to actually change the NT Canon comes forth).

    • Avatar
      Pat Ferguson  June 11, 2012

      Oops! If the link won’t open, then try http://www.orthodox.net/faq/canon.htm

    • Avatar
      simonelli  June 17, 2012

      Hi Pat, Yes the New Testament Was adulterated, I have some post in the thread parallel to this one, no I am not a scholar, but by his grace I understand the New Testament. Check me out.

  4. Avatar
    jasha  June 11, 2012

    I think the book of Ezekiel should be changed to actually include the verse Jules Winnfield (Samuel L Jackson) reels off in “Pulp Fiction” 🙂

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 12, 2012

      Great idea. It won’t happen, but great idea.

  5. Avatar
    Jacobus  June 11, 2012

    Dr. Ehrman, what about the Old Testament (of Hebrew Bible) and the Deutero-Canonical Books? During the Reformation Martin Luther propagated that only the books that had Hebrew Originals should be included in the OT canon. In the Cairo Genizah a complete copy of the Wisdom of Jesus Sirach (Ben Sira) was found. The Dead Sea Scrolls have added Aramaic and Hebrew sources of Tobit (Tobias) and one or two others.

    Furthermore, I personally think, the issue of what Christianity was in the time of the Second Temple period, could also be taken into consideration. Prof. Emanuel Tov makes an convincing argument that “mainline” Judaism (could we call it proto-Rabbinic Judaism) already contained only the current books of the Hebrew Bible in its extended “canon.” (While most accepted the first five books (the Torah) as the Word of God, the rest of the Hebrew Bible was also accepted as carrying authority.) While we find in the Dead Sea Scrolls’ caves the proto-Masoretic text tradition, a vorlage of some Septuagint books as well as proto-Samaritan versions of the Jewish Bible text(s) are available. This is excluded from Masada and other “mainline” (proto-Rabbinic) sites where parchment was found. It seems in early Christianity there was also more fluidity surrounding the Jewish texts of Scripture.

    I think this adds to the challenge of discussing the issue of a canon.

    Futhermore, what about the “canon in the canon” argument. All Christians are actually guilty of this, preferring certain books above others. I suspect that your argument on Forgery might also influence the “non-official canon” of many Christians.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 12, 2012

      Yes, these are all important points. Protestants and Catholics do indeed have different *Old Testament* canons. (But their New Testaments are the same; even Martin Luther could not completely dispense with the four NT books that he did not whole-heartedly approve of). And the relationship of text and canon is important for both testaments as well (is the story of the woman taken in adultery “canonical,” since it was not originally in the Gospel of John? Good question, I think!). And yes indeed, in my experience it has been precisely the people who deny that they have a canon within the canon who most obviously do have one!

      • Avatar
        Jacobus  June 12, 2012

        Dr. Ehrman, apologies I see that I’ve written the main thoughts behind my questions and left out some the actual questions? If it is so that Christianity was a sect like the Essenes of early Judaism (I know Josephus calls them a “sect” in The Jewish War, but that could be problematic), one could argue that like the Essenes they supposedly were comfortable with a more “fluid” textual tradition of the Jewish Scriptures (building on E Tov’s argument). Does this mean that the Christian use of the Jewish Scriptures in the New Testament – which (as far as I can see) are mainly Septuagint quotes and sometimes ‘proto-Massoretic’ quotes (not really proto-Samaritan) – are very loose? If so, could this type of “general” or less strict use of the Jewish Scriptures also have influenced the New Testament writings own way of being written? (I know that orality and literacy also complicates the issue of an “original” text (which can be a letter, gospel etc.). Furthermore the use of scribes and the possibility of dictation could also influence the concept of an so-called original. (More or less the focus of Prof. P.J.J. Botha of UNISA’s focus.)) Maybe putting it different, in your book “The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture” you make a compelling argument for the (proto-)orthodox changes (proto-)orthodox scribes made to the New Testament. Could it be that they were “allowed” to do so, i.e. to “edit” the NT, because they were already standing in a loose tradition of Scripture usage? If the question is not clear, maybe I could ask it like this, in an highly “illiterate” world, the 1st century Mediterranean world, the function of writing was very different from today (most writing was done by the State – the Roman Empire – in and on temples, monuments, for administration and on coins, which ensured that writing in itself became “holy” or at least “exclusive”). Could it be that the early Christians or Jesus-people, were seeing the various texts that later made up the NT and those outside of it, as “holy writ” (it was in Greek, not Hebrew)? The consequence thereof was that as long as it was written, it carried weight. It could be tweaked as a Christian propaganda machine, in the same way the Res Gestae Divi Augusti was tweaked in the Greek translation of the Latin on the Ancyra Imperial temple. (Am I making any sense, or am I throwing apples, pears, pineapples, maroelas etc. together?)

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 12, 2012

          Thanks for these. I”m afraid they are too many for a simple reply. If you have individual questions I’m happy to have a stab at them. If they are weighty enough (these seem to be), I can address them in the blog itself (but again, one at a time!)

      • Avatar
        James Dowden  June 18, 2012

        So the historical question has to be to explain Luther’s differential success. Why didn’t his treatment of the Old Testament meet with the same response as his treatment of the New? Where were the Sunday school teachers with pitchforks to run him out of town about Judith, Tobit, and Susanna? Where were the gratuitous chantings of the Benedicite? Where were the nasty comments about the shorter canon’s associations with Rabbinic Judaism? Where were the slightly more constructive comments observing that a Christian Bible should culminate with Jesus, not with the Second Temple? And where were the vast numbers of people who would simply ignore him? Or is this a simple matter of quite how little attention many Christians pay to the Old Testament?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 19, 2012

          “Where” were they? In Catholic circles, I believe!

  6. Avatar
    simonelli  June 15, 2012

    Hi all, I am new here; I have read all of your posts and I must say that you all need to know what appened to the New Testament. I have posted on “Should we change the canon of scripture” it is the next one up on the list.
    Mario

  7. Avatar
    Blackie  October 21, 2014

    Catholic bibles have the additional old testament text and of course various orthodox factions have the biggest canon. As a young Mennonite, I was accused by catholic friends that we didn’t have the complete bible but a smaller old testament. The Catholics have what we called the “Apocrypha” which included: Tobit, Judith, 1 & 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus or Sirach, Baruch, additions to Esther, Additions to Daniel(The Prayer of Azariah, Song of the Three Hebrew Children, Susanna and the Elders(History of Susanna), and Bel and the Dragon), as well as the Letter of Jeremiah. Attached sometimes is 1&2 Esdras and The Prayer of Manasseh. Where the Orthodox accepts 1 Esdras but omits 2 Esdras adds Third Maccabees, and Psalm 151 with Fourth Maccabees as a sometimes addition. So we have this as official canon by these churches(as well as favoured translations by certain sects and if the Mormons are considered Christians – The Book of Mormon). So the official canon can be argued about as well as the additional old and new testament deuterocanonical works. So there is a lot to consider here and what we might consider canonical works in some standard sense.

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