I am nearing the end of this thread on the formation of the canon of the New Testament. Rather than going into all the ins and outs of the process, I have been laying out the topics that I hope to address in a book on the matter down the road. I say down the road because it is not the very next book I plan to write, but the one *after* the one I now plan to write. I like to think ahead.
Here I talk about when the decisions were finalized (were they?) and what the major significance of “closing” the canon was.
A Final Consensus?
Many (most?) people imagine that the canon, in the end, was decided by a vote at one of the major church councils, such as the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE (as propounded by that inestimable authority, Dan Brown, in The Da Vinci Code). But the question of the canon was not even
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Nor was the canon decided by a highly placed authority, for example a Pope or an Emperor (certainly not Constantine, who, so far as we know, who apparently never gave the matter a single thought). In fact, the canon never was “officially” decided at all – at least until long after it was a fait accompli. Apart from some minor church synods early on, no decisions were officially rendered until the counter-Reformation Council of Trent.
How did the church scrape by for all those centuries before? Not by formal process but by informal consensus. By the fifth century or so, nearly everyone in the orthodox communities simply agreed and did not debate the matter much more. This informal agreement came to be cemented by the reading, citation, and copying practices of Christian leaders and scribes. Some texts were acceptable and used as authorities for doctrinal disputes, spiritual insight, and practical decisions; other texts were not. Even so, there were other ancient texts that continued to be quoted, all the way through the Middle Ages; but these were normally thought of as helpful and insightful, but not divinely inspired Scripture. These texts include, for example, the Gospel of James, which gave an account of the parentage, birth, and young life of Mary, the mother of Jesus; and the Apocalypse of Paul, known to Dante, which described the glories of heaven and the agonies of hell (similar to its predecessor the discredited Apocalypse of Peter). But such books could never contend for a spot in the sacred canon of Scripture.
The Knock-on Effects of Canon Creation.
The creation of a new canon of Scripture played a major role in the history of the Christian tradition. For one thing, it circumscribed the options available to believers for what to believe and how to practice the faith. Certain theological views, behaviors, and rituals were ruled out of course – or at least made extremely difficult to promote — given the perspectives firmly embedded in a set of authoritative texts. It became very hard indeed to argue that there was more than one God, that Jesus was not human or not divine, that sexual license was permitted, or that women could become bishops. Since even divinely inspired texts have to be interpreted, of course, they can be understood in a wide variety of ways, and readers can always promote views that seem to run counter to what the words of a text actually say. But on the whole, views endorsed by second- and third-century Gnostics, Marcionites, Ebionites, and others came to be thought heretical based on the authoritative texts of Scripture. To that extent, the creation of the canon was a magnificent success for orthodox church leaders.
But even canon books express different perspectives on major issues. Somewhat ironically, by putting all the books into the same canon, this diversity was not celebrated but tamed. All the books were read as if they were parts of one book – and therefore internally consistent.
The historical reality is that not even orthodox Christianity was ever a monolith. From earliest times it came in various forms, different authors promoting a variety of theological, practical, and ethical views within an acceptable range of options. But “acceptable” options were not always consistent with one another. There are four Gospels, each presenting a different understanding of Jesus’ words and deeds. The thirteen letters assigned to Paul contain inconsistencies and incoherencies (especially between the ones he actually wrote and those produced in his name later by others). The alleged writings of James, Peter, John, and Jude also present distinctive messages, sometimes at odds with the others.
But when all twenty-seven books were canonized into a single book, the statements of one writing came to be read in light of another, forcing readers (almost always unsuspectingly) to think they are saying the same thing….
I will develop this reflection in the next post. [/mepr-show