New on Ebon Musings: The Origins of Orthodoxy

Over the past several months, I’ve been writing a lengthy new essay for Ebon Musings. I’ve finally put the finishing touches on it, and I’m quite proud of the result: go check out “The Origins of Orthodoxy“.

This essay covers a topic I’ve been interested in for a long time: the origins of the Christian New Testament canon. It’s the story of which books made it into the Bible – and which ones didn’t – and why, and all the historical twists and turns over the first three centuries that resulted in the canon as Christians have it today. I did this research because this is something that I personally wanted to know more about, but of course, I’m happy to share the end result for the use and benefit of other freethinkers.

This is an open thread. Any comments or criticisms?

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Andrew G.

    Cyril was the bishop of Jerusalem in the mid- to late fourth century. Most infamously, he’s known for being the instigator of the mob that murdered the great pagan philosopher Hypatia

    Wrong Cyril. Cyril of Jerusalem (c.313-386) wrote “Catechetical Lectures”; Cyril of Alexandria (c.376-444) was the one whose power struggle with Orestes led to Hypatia’s death. From context, it’s clear that Cyril of Jerusalem is the intended reference, so the mention of Hypatia is inappropriate.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ Spanish Inquisitor

    The favorites include Peter, James, John and Paul.

    Didn’t George and Ringo also write a few popular gospels of their own?

  • mikespeir

    Under “Jerome and the Latin Vulgate” you state, “It seems clear that it [the Vulgate] contained the same 27 books currently used in the New Testament….” Then, under “Augustine and the African Synods” you say, “It also doesn’t explain why some books that were frequently disputed (like Revelation, which was omitted by Jerome and the Synod of Laodicea) made it in[to Augustine’s canon….”

    You seem to be saying both that Jerome included Revelation and left it out. What am I missing?

  • Bob Carlson

    It is something I’ve wondered about, so I really appreciate the effort that went into writing The Origins of Orthodoxy. Alas, those who most need to read it are the least likely to.

  • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com/ Lou Doench

    Just want to say thanks for putting that together. Good Works! (I’m not sure though… do good works get you into heaven? ;)

  • Camus Dude

    The formation of the canon, and orthodoxy generally, is one of the things that lead me to question Christianity. The history of canon formation, so politicized, so violent, so hateful as it often is, just didn’t seem like it was being guided by a good god. The fathers of the canon were not examples of Christian love, but angry, spiteful writers, who denounced well-meaning “heretics” as evil, when they really just didn’t share the same views. (See also Elaine Pagels,
    The Gnostic Gospels)

  • Ritchie

    Only noticed a couple of tiny things – under the chapter about THE ALOGI, you spell Craig Blomberg’s name twice correctly, then once as ‘Bloomberg’. Also, part of the second sentence of the third paragraph of the chapter titled THE MARCIONITE CANON reads ‘the same ten that currently found in the New Testament.’

    But as a whole it’s a brilliant essay. It’s exactly the sort of thing I love to have as a reference point and which drew me to Ebon Musings in the first place. What’s notable is how rare and marginalised this kind of in-depth analysis of the Bible really is, and how little known the results of such studies are, drowned out as they are by the deafening, monotone chant of ‘It’s all true – the inerrant word of God!’ Wouldn’t it be nice if Christians really did understand their holy book in the way they think they do?

  • http://betterthanesdras.wordpress.com Abbie

    Wow, that is fantastic. Thank you for putting that together!

    My only comment is that I find this statement (regarding the Codex Sinaiticus) a bit odd:

    “The surviving part of the text contains about half of the Old Testament, including some books (2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Maccabees, Wisdom and Sirach) which Protestants consider apocryphal.”

    This makes the CS seem exceptional in it’s inclusion of these works, but this is all standard Septuagint material, found in the other Codices mentioned. Those works (and others) were standard to every Greek/Latin bible until the Protestants expunged them. (They simply got rid of all material that wasn’t found in the Masoretic text.)

    I hope you do a follow-up piece on the formation of the OT cannon!

  • 2-D Man

    I was always under the impression that Paul did go straight to Jerusalem after his conversion. I never really gave it much thought. But it does paint an interesting picture in an interesting idea I had for a story once.

    Paul, as a well-known persecutor of Christians, has been running around killing people or having them killed. This sort of action tends to stress a person out and at some point, Paul completely snaps, goes off the deep end.

    He’s heard the Christian message so much, he begins to believe it, but is unable to let go of his hatred that used to fuel his homicidal behaviours. So he makes it his new mission to inflict the worst he can imagine on the entirety of Christianity: Hell.

    He takes off on a mission to found churches wherever he goes based on teachings he knows are false, but will win converts easier, hence his refusal to apply Jewish law to his converts. And only when he’s attracted a strong following of his own converts, he returns to Jerusalem to challenge the burgeoning orthodoxy there.

    Ultimately, he leaves no point of Christian doctrine uncompromised.

    It’s just an idea.

  • http://onthewaytoithaca.wordpress.com EvanT

    367 CE, over three hundred years after the founding of Christianity, was a landmark date for the church. A certain Athanasius was the bishop of Alexandria, the city renowned since pagan times as a center of learning…

    This is nitpicking, but this Athanasius isn’t a minor character as you make it appear. It’s St. Athanasius the Great, responsible for the major opposition against Arius (along with St. Nicholas of Myra) and for the finalized text for the Creed of Faith (also known as Athanasian Creed) used today by the Orthodox Church.

    He took part in the Synods of Nicea and Alexandria and gained plenty of followers due to his repeated prosecution and exile by Constantine, Constantius, Julian, Jovian and Valentinian (because he critisized all of them, especially the pagan Julian; Constantius and Valentinian were also Arians so all the more reason to send him packing).

    He was a lot more influential than you make him appear and your text at this point makes one wonder why his festal letter was at all influential in Canon standardization. He was in fact a MAJOR character.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Wow – thanks for the comments and corrections, everyone! And I really thought I had done a careful job editing this. I guess it just goes to show the importance of peer review.

    Wrong Cyril. Cyril of Jerusalem (c.313-386) wrote “Catechetical Lectures”; Cyril of Alexandria (c.376-444) was the one whose power struggle with Orestes led to Hypatia’s death. From context, it’s clear that Cyril of Jerusalem is the intended reference, so the mention of Hypatia is inappropriate.

    Yep, you’re absolutely right. That was a sloppy error on my part. I’ve fixed the essay and added a correction. Thanks for calling me out on that!

    You seem to be saying both that Jerome included Revelation and left it out. What am I missing?

    Another error – I meant “Cyril” there. Fixed.

    Only noticed a couple of tiny things – under the chapter about THE ALOGI, you spell Craig Blomberg’s name twice correctly, then once as ‘Bloomberg’. Also, part of the second sentence of the third paragraph of the chapter titled THE MARCIONITE CANON reads ‘the same ten that currently found in the New Testament.’

    Both fixed!

    My only comment is that I find this statement (regarding the Codex Sinaiticus) a bit odd:

    “The surviving part of the text contains about half of the Old Testament, including some books (2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Maccabees, Wisdom and Sirach) which Protestants consider apocryphal.”

    This makes the CS seem exceptional in it’s inclusion of these works, but this is all standard Septuagint material, found in the other Codices mentioned. Those works (and others) were standard to every Greek/Latin bible until the Protestants expunged them. (They simply got rid of all material that wasn’t found in the Masoretic text.)

    Good point, Abbie. I’ve fixed the essay to make that clearer. My purpose in mentioning that was to point out to Protestant Christians that most ancient manuscripts of the Old Testament included books they don’t accept, but as you said, I was incorrectly implying that Sinaiticus was exceptional in this regard.

    I hope you do a follow-up piece on the formation of the OT cannon!

    I would love to, if I can find the time. :) At the very least, I’d like to write an essay on the documentary hypothesis and what scholars today believe about the origins of the Pentateuch. I have Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? – if anyone cares to suggest additional reading material, I’d be glad to look into it.

    He was a lot more influential than you make him appear and your text at this point makes one wonder why his festal letter was at all influential in Canon standardization. He was in fact a MAJOR character.

    I don’t think I give Athanasius short shrift, EvanT. I did state that the impact of his festal letter was “immense”. Granted, I didn’t go into as much detail about his contributions to Christian theology at the synods, but this essay is more concerned with the development of the canon than the development of the creeds.

  • http://onthewaytoithaca.wordpress.com EvanT

    Don’t blame me! The other guys got to the good bits first and left me with sub-details!! BTW, keep in mind that if you need feedback on Septuagint and New Testament Greek, I’d be glad to give you a hand. Speaking of which, you can add some fancy-pantiness(sic) by adding “δοκέω” along with “dokeo”. :D

  • jane hay

    I just finished “Jesus Wars” by Phillip Jenkins – somewhat similar to Bart Ehrman’s “Lost Christianities”- but covers the period following the Nicene Council in more detail. I know very few lay Christians who are cognizant of the history of their own religion, with evangelicals being the most ignorant.
    @ 2-D man – there are theories that the early church leaders/elders in Jerusalem WERE highly suspicious of Paul’s motives/doctrines (fifth columnist?), and opposed him vigorously as a consequence. My personal take is that Paul suffered a seizure on the Road to Damascus, had a religious experience that persuaded him that he was therefore the one true interpreter of Jesus’ REAL message and proceeded to proclaim it as such. His interpretation was anathema to the surviving orthodox Jewish apostles, and the subsequent struggle for power, the first schism in the Christian movement, is only recorded from his point of view, since the writings of the earliest leaders didn’t survive. Extremely interesting to read between the lines.
    Most modern Christians don’t have a clue.

  • http://betterthanesdras.wordpress.com Abbie

    Who Wrote the Bible seems to be the modern standard. I also have Friedman’s The Bible with Sources Revealed, which is his own translation of the Torah color-coded by author/group. It’s incredibly illuminating. I just wish he would do a sequel extending the exercise through Samuel/Kings. (Which contains JE material.)

    There is a book called “The Book of J” which purports to extract the entire J text from the Torah. (I haven’t read this.) Friedman has his own book, “The Hidden Book in the Bible” which is similar but he finds J in texts throughout the Deuteronomical Histories.

    I don’t really agree with Friedman on everything; for instance, he claims the J text could be one narrative penned by a single hand… I find this incredibly unlikely considering the fragmented nature of the JE text. And apparently his dating of P is contentious. But he’s definitely the guy to turn to for the downlow on the DH.

  • Brock

    One historical note, which you may find useful, if you can track down the source. I have read that the letter of Athanasius which you refer to was the reason that a certain set of monks took all their “heretical” books and buried them at Nag Hammadi.

  • lpetrich

    Ebonmuse, I wish to congratulate you on that article. The section “Forgeries in the Modern New Testament” has simple, readable explanations of why certain of the Epistles were likely not written by Paul – lots of stylistic, theological, etc. differences. Something that I’ve been looking for for a long time.