Several years ago, I wrote an essay titled “Choking on the Camel“, about the origins of Christian belief and the evidence for a historical Jesus, or rather the lack thereof. This essay offered a theory based on the work of Earl Doherty about how Christianity arose in the melting pot of Greek, Jewish and pagan mystery-cult beliefs that were mixing and mingling at the crossroads of ancient Roman-controlled Palestine. I later followed up with “Dating the Good News“, an exploration of when and by whom the four New Testament gospels were probably written.
However, this leaves unanswered the question of what happened next: how early Christianity, a diverse phenomenon with many incompatible threads, was unified into a single stream of orthodoxy and became the religion as we know it today. How did Christianity assemble a canon of writings that was universally (or at least widely) agreed to be divinely inspired? How did Christians come to agree on a creed? What gave rise to the single, common understanding of Christianity’s historical origins that still holds among Christians today?
In this essay, I’ll tackle some of these questions. I’ll begin with a quick summary of the orthodox picture – the version of events that Christians would like to believe and all the major churches still teach. Next, I’ll survey some of the problems with this story, pointing out ways in which it fails to find support in the evidence, as well as ways in which it’s contradicted by the evidence we do have. Finally, I’ll survey the evidence which shows the true diversity of early Christianity, and recount how these many and varied beliefs eventually coalesced and hardened into a single faith.
- The Orthodox Picture of Christian History
- Problems with the Orthodox Picture
- The Diversity of Early Christianity
- Key Events in the Birth of the Canon
- The Marcionite Canon
- Irenaeus’ Canon
- Clement’s Canon
- The Muratorian Canon
- Origen’s Canon
- Eusebius’ Accepted and Disputed Books
- Codex Sinaiticus
- Cyril’s Canon
- The Synod of Laodicea
- Athanasius’ Festal Letter
- Jerome and the Latin Vulgate
- Augustine and the African Synods
- Codex Alexandrinus
- Codex Claromontanus
- Martin Luther’s Skepticism
- Heretical Claims of Apostolicity
- Forgeries in the Modern New Testament
- Conclusion: The Closing of the Canon
After Jesus, Christianity began with the apostles. These men, who had been handpicked by Jesus and who had learned divine truth directly from him, fanned out across the Ancient Near East preaching these beliefs and founding Christian churches and communities. All these early Christian groups believed the same things about Jesus: that he was the incarnate son of God, born of a virgin, one member of the Trinity, both fully divine and fully human; that he had come to Earth to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies and redeem us from our sins by dying and shedding his divine blood as a substitutive sacrifice; and that anyone who professed faith in him would be saved.
Soon afterward, Paul of Tarsus, formerly a persecutor of the church, was converted by a divine revelation of Jesus, and immediately went to find the apostles and subordinated himself to them. He learned from them the tenets of Christianity, then went out traveling and preaching, becoming an even more effective proselytizer. Like the apostles, miracles followed in his wake, and he founded churches across the Ancient Near East. Sometimes these churches would be split by dissension over some point of theology, and Paul had to write letters to correct them, but all of them basically believed the same things as Paul and the apostles, requiring only minor chastening or clarification. Occasionally, however, a heresy would spring up, taught by evil people who willfully perverted Christianity’s teachings to serve their own selfish ends. This was more serious, and whenever it happened, one of the apostles or one of their designated successors would show up, vanquish the heretic, and set things right. (The ur-example is Simon Magus, the wicked sorcerer and arch-heretic, who was opposed by the apostle Peter. This story is hinted at in chapter 8 of the Book of Acts, while a non-canonical book called the Acts of Peter gives a longer and more entertaining account of the confrontations between them.)
This view of Christian origins is taught by New Testament documents such as the Book of Acts, as well as by church fathers like Eusebius, a fourth-century bishop who wrote the lengthy Ecclesiastical History. It’s important to note what this story implies about the origins of Christianity: that the modern version of the faith existed from the beginning, that it never had any serious competitors for the mantle of orthodoxy, and that all true Christians could trace their beliefs through a chain of transmission back to one of the original twelve apostles. It also assumes that heresy was rare, isolated, and arose de novo with no earlier continuity, and that heretics saw themselves as enemies of Jesus and Christianity, trying to stop the spread of the religion he had taught.
The orthodox picture depicts the spread of Christianity as quick, easy, and inevitable. Obviously, this serves apologetic ends by making it seem as if God must have been at work behind the scenes, which is why modern preachers and theologians try so hard to defend the historicity of Acts. Their usual strategy is to list all the details in the book which, they say, are verified by archaeology, as on this page:
“5. The proper port, Attalia, for returning travelers (14:25)
6. The correct route from the Cilician Gates (16:1)
7. The proper form of the name Troas (16:8)
8. The proper identification of Philippi as a Roman colony. The right location for the river Gangites near Philippi (16:13)
9. Association of Thyatira with cloth dyeing (16:14). Correct designations of the titles for the colony magistrates (16:20,35,36,38).
10. The proper locations where travelers would spend successive nights on this journey (17;1)
11. The presence of a synagogue in Thessalonica (17:1) and the proper title of politarch for the magistrates (17:6).
12. The correct explanation that sea travel is the most convenient way to reach Athens in summer with favoring east winds 17:14).
13. The abundance of images in Athens (17:16), and reference to the synagogue there (17:17).”
However, this myopic focus on small details misses the larger point. No one denies that the author of Acts lived at approximately the right time and place, give or take a few decades, to have known these things (but consider the intriguing hypothesis that the historical details in Acts are simply drawn from the writings of Josephus, who was a historian and a good one at that). The question is whether the story itself is true, not merely whether it’s set against a true-to-life backdrop.
And on that score, Acts doesn’t fare nearly as well. Regardless of whether the author got the titles right for the Roman governor of a particular province, there are well-established historical facts which he doesn’t acknowledge and which contradict the grand sweep of his narrative. This essay will briefly discuss three of the most important: the abundance of heretical and dissident sects, which suggest that evangelism wasn’t as easy or as trouble-free as the orthodox picture claims; the extent to which even orthodox authors disagreed with each other, contradicting Acts’ claim that harmony prevailed within the early church; and the profusion of apocryphal gospels and epistles that didn’t make it into the canon, suggesting that there’s another side to this story that isn’t being told in the New Testament.
The narratives of the New Testament, especially Acts, depict the spread of Christianity as swift, easy, and certain. For example, in Acts chapter 2, three thousand people are immediately converted after hearing a single speech by Peter. The text goes on to say: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (2:42).
However, other verses in the NT and beyond show that this is a highly idealized picture. In attempting to spread their message, the early Christians faced far more competition and dissent than the book of Acts acknowledges. Nor was it the case that everyone who was converted immediately and permanently acquired a completely orthodox understanding of Christian belief. On the contrary, the Christians’ own record shows that heresy was an omnipresent phenomenon, both convulsing the church from within and pressing upon it from without.
For example, 2 Corinthians 13:1 states that Paul had to visit the straying Corinthian church a minimum of three times to calm dissension and correct their repeated errors, and 11:4 warns the Corinthians against those who preach “another Jesus” and “another gospel” (whom it sarcastically calls “super apostles”). 1 Corinthians 15:12 shows that some of the Corinthians even believed there was no resurrection from the dead!
The other churches that Paul planted apparently did no better. In Galatians 1:6, Paul writes, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel!” He adds, “If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed” – which must mean that there were people teaching a gospel contrary to Paul’s preaching. He refers to these people as “false brethren” (2:4).
The other epistles contain the same warnings against heretics, who, it seems, were an omnipresent threat. 1 Timothy 1:3-7 warns against those who teach “other doctrine”, as well as “teachers of the law” who “understand neither what they say nor whereof they affirm”. 1 John 4:1 laments that “many false prophets are gone out into the world”, and labels those who do not believe that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh “that spirit of antichrist” (4:3). Titus 1:10-16 warns against “empty talkers and deceivers” who “profess to know God, but they deny him by their deeds”.
Even after the New Testament books were written, heretics of the second and third centuries continued to cause strife and evoke the fury of the orthodox. Ignatius of Antioch, a bishop of the late first and early second centuries, wrote several letters in which he called heretics “mad dogs biting by stealth” (Epistle to the Ephesians 7) and “beasts in human form” (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 4). He warns his readers not to meet or talk to these people. Dionysius of Corinth, who was bishop around 160 CE, warned of “the devil’s apostles” who were tampering with Christian works. Tertullian’s Prescription Against Heretics, sometime between 160 and 220, wrote that his fellow orthodox authors were “scandalized by the very fact that heresies prevail to such a degree”.
Heresy wasn’t an isolated phenomenon, arising only on the fringes of Christian influence and power; nor was it quickly or easily overcome. We know of a heretic named Valentinus who taught in Rome during the second century, at the very heart of Christianity while it was beginning its ascent to power, and who “acquired a large following among Christians there” (Ehrman 2003, p.127). Apparently, Valentinus was sufficiently popular and threatening that the orthodox author Irenaeus wrote five books devoted to refuting his views, collectively titled Against Heresies. Similarly, there was Marcion, founder of a heretical Christian sect that was hugely popular in Asia Minor. The orthodox apologist Justin Martyr wrote that Marcion taught “many people of every nation”, and as late as the fifth century, bishops warned their congregants to be on guard when traveling, lest they accidentally attend a Marcionite church without realizing it (Ehrman 2003, p.109).
Strictly speaking, this doesn’t overturn the orthodox picture of Christian history. But modern believers ought to find it disconcerting to realize just how common heresy was in the early days of the church. It wasn’t a rare phenomenon that could be blamed on a few bad apples, but a constant challenge that the orthodox had to battle wherever they went. And many of the heretics, though their names are all but forgotten today, had major followings in their own time and stood as serious, compelling alternatives to the version of Christianity that eventually became dominant and that we think of today as orthodox.
Even if we ignore the rhetorical wars waged between heretics and defenders of orthodoxy, there’s another problem with the classic picture of Christian origins: it seems that even the orthodox Christians didn’t all agree with each other. There were disputes and confrontations in which Christians fought bitterly, even though both sides consisted of people who are thought of today as heroes and founders of the faith. This is a serious contradiction with the rosy picture painted by the Book of Acts, in which all the first generation of Christians are depicted as harmoniously teaching the exact same gospel.
The most obvious example is the relationship between Paul and the other disciples. According to the Book of Acts, after Paul’s conversion, he went straight to Jerusalem and sought to join the disciples (Acts 9:18-26). But Paul’s own letters emphatically contradict this, saying that after his conversion, he did not “confer with flesh and blood”, nor did he go up to Jerusalem, but went away into Arabia for three years (Galatians 1:15-17). It wasn’t for fourteen more years that Paul went back to Jerusalem to “communicate unto them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles” (Galatians 2:2) to see if they agreed with it. This seeming indifference doesn’t paint a picture of early Christian apostles taking pains to ensure their beliefs were all in harmony.
That later visit of Paul to Jerusalem was the basis for what’s called the Jerusalem Conference, also described in Acts 15. One of the most pressing debates in the early church was whether Christians needed to observe the Jewish law, i.e., by getting circumcised and obeying kosher dietary rules and purity laws. According to Acts, “the matter was easily, quickly, and effectively resolved” (Ehrman 2003, p.97), with everyone, including Paul and Peter, reaching an agreement that this was no longer necessary. But again, Paul’s own letters tell a different story: in Galatians 2:11-14, he writes of an argument he had with Peter, whom he harshly condemned and demanded, “How can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” Evidently, Peter was teaching that the Jewish law was still in effect – and Paul writes that he “withstood” Peter, which sounds much more as if the two sides agreed to disagree, rather than that one convinced the other.
Besides the debate between Peter and Paul, there are other hints that the orthodox picture of Christian history contains some wishful thinking. Another tenet of this picture is that the exact same faith was handed down from the time of the first apostles, and church councils like Nicaea did nothing but formalize what all Christians already believed. But this doesn’t seem to be the case with many of the early apostolic fathers, especially when it comes to the Trinity. One example comes from the writings of Origen, an educated and prolific theologian of the third century and an instrumental figure in the formation of the New Testament canon. Origen believed that Jesus was a created being who had taken on God’s attributes through a “transference” of being (Ehrman 2003, p.155), and that Christ and the Holy Spirit were subordinate to God the Father and less powerful. The Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553 pronounced Origen a heretic, in part for his views on the Trinity.
Why did the Christian church choose the books it did to be part of the New Testament? This is an important question for Christians to answer, not least because it contains an implicit truth that few of them realize: the church could have chosen other books. The 27 books that are found in the modern New Testament are not the sum total of everything that was written by Christians in the ancient world. Much to the contrary, the first and second centuries saw an explosion of competing Christian works – gospels, epistles, acts, apocalypses, and countless more – most of which expressed different and incompatible theological views, almost all of which presented themselves as having been written by one of the apostles or an apostle’s companion. Here are just a few of them:
The favorites include Peter, James, John and Paul. For each of these there are letters, a collection of acts, and either a gospel or a revelation (apocalypse). Other writings could also be attributed to them, examples being the Preaching of Peter and the Correspondence of Paul and Seneca. For Matthew, we have the gospel attributed to him and lore about an earlier Gospel According to the Hebrews. For Thomas we have the Gospel of Thomas, the Acts of Thomas, an Apocalypse of Thomas, an Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and a Book of Thomas the Contender. There is also a Gospel According to Philip, the Acts of Andrew, and the Questions of Bartholomew, as well as many other writings, such as A Prayer of the Apostle Paul. But that is not all. Literature was also written under the authority of the twelve apostles as a unit, such as the Didache (Teaching) of the Twelve Apostles, the Epistula Apostolorum (Letter of the Apostles), and the Apostolic Constitutions (a manual of instructions for Christian faith and liturgical practices). (Mack 1995, p.203)
For far more of these, there’s the website Early Christian Writings, which lists both canonical and apocryphal works of every kind from the first three centuries. As one author puts it, the New Testament represents “a very small selection of texts from a large body of literature produced by various communities during the first one hundred years” (Mack 1995, p.6).
Most of these books, of course, weren’t written by the people they claim to be written by. In the ancient world, it was standard practice for members of a philosophical or religious school to write in the name of their founder (Mack 1995, p.7). In part, also, it was due to writers consciously practicing deception – either seeking to gain a hearing for their opinions by putting them in the mouth of some famous historical figure who commanded respect, or just trying to make a profit by selling “lost” writings of those famous personages. And lastly, in the Roman world, there was a widespread perception that nothing new could be true – that only the views which had come down from antiquity deserved respect and consideration (Ehrman 2003, p.112). All these factors combined to make forgery rampant in the ancient world, and not just in religion. The physician Galen, for example, wrote a booklet called On His Own Books, trying to help people tell his real works apart from the numerous forgeries in his name (Ehrman 2003, p.30).
The writings of early Christians show that they had to grapple with this problem as well. 2 Thessalonians 2:2 warns against forged letters claiming to be from Paul (ironically, many scholars think 2 Thessalonians is itself a forgery, which will be discussed more later). Bishop Dionysius of Corinth wrote that “the devil’s apostles” had been tampering not just with his own letters but even with the “scriptures of the Lord”, by “taking away some things and adding others” (quoted in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History 4.23).
So, again: Why did the church choose the books it did? And how did it tell the genuine ones apart from the forgeries? These are crucial questions for Christians, and the answers we find probably won’t be reassuring to them. Several of the books in the New Testament, as we’ll see, were the subject of vigorous debate. Some of those that ultimately made it in were fiercely debated for a long time, and only made it into the canon over vigorous objection (and in some cases, modern scholarship has confirmed the skeptics’ reasons). Others that were widely used in the early church didn’t make the final cut.
So far, I’ve been using the words “orthodox” and “heretical” more or less the same way that modern Christians use them. Before going any further, I need to say a few words about that. In the traditional picture of Christian origins, there was one church, founded by the apostles, which was essentially unified save for the occasional corruption of heretics. But again, this rosy vision doesn’t accurately describe the reality.
The truth is that, in its early years, Christianity wasn’t one monolithic movement but an extremely diverse phenomenon, made up of many different sects with different founder figures, different scriptures, and different, incompatible teachings and beliefs. In some cases, sects that both called themselves Christian had essentially nothing in common, other than that they both claimed descent from Jesus and the apostles. For a time, all these diverse Christianities existed side-by-side, but eventually they became embroiled in an all-out war for dominance. Ultimately, one particular sect won out over the others, and then the winners of this struggle declared themselves to be the “orthodox” – which literally means “right belief” – to imply that their victory was divinely ordained because they taught the truths God wanted people to teach.
In an audacious move, this victorious sect then rewrote history – producing their own records which made it seem as if Jesus and all the apostles held the same views as them, as if their triumph was a foregone conclusion, and as if their theological enemies were motivated by greed and wickedness. But all this is just self-congratulatory back-patting. There was nothing foreordained about the outcome of this struggle: a different sect might have won, and then Christianity as we know it today would be very different. And the sects that lost out weren’t wicked heretics who saw themselves as enemies of Jesus and Christianity. They saw themselves as faithful followers of Jesus, doing his will and teaching the message he had wanted people to learn, just as the orthodox did. They just disagreed with the orthodox on what that message was and how it was meant to be interpreted.
To see this more clearly, this section will showcase some of the true diversity of early Christianity, and show how many sects had dramatically different interpretations than the one that finally prevailed. For purposes of convenience, I’ll continue using the term “orthodox” to describe those who opposed all these groups – but this shouldn’t be taken as conveying any sense of approval or inevitability regarding the outcome of the battle.
The Ebionites, simply stated, were Christians who saw Christianity as a sect of Judaism. They believed that the Jewish laws were still in force and should be obeyed – circumcising the men, keeping kosher, refraining from work on the Sabbath, and so on. While they believed that Jesus was the prophesied messiah who had come in fulfillment of the Jewish scripture, they apparently didn’t believe he was divine. Most of them believed instead that Jesus was an ordinary human being who, due to his superlative righteousness, had been chosen by God to be the messiah and given the holy mission of sacrificing himself on the cross for the sins of the world (Ehrman 2003, p.101).
As you might have expected, the most fervent opponent of the Ebionites was Paul, who insisted vehemently that the Jewish law was no longer in force. Some of the most vicious condemnations of heresy in Paul’s letters were apparently directed at the Ebionites or other, similar groups – such as in Galatians 3:10, where he writes, “All who rely on works of the law are under a curse”, or 5:2, which adds, “If you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you”. In a charming coda to this polemic, Paul expresses his hope that while such people are getting circumcised, the knife slips and they accidentally castrate themselves (5:12).
For their part, the Ebionites claimed to take their inspiration from Peter – and since Paul’s own letters indicate that he clashed with Peter on this issue, that may not be far from the mark. For their scripture, according to Irenaeus, the Ebionites used a version of the Gospel of Matthew that omitted the virgin birth, which they didn’t accept (either they deleted these chapters from the orthodox gospel, or orthodox editors added them to the gospel later to counter this belief). Eusebius refers to their scripture as the Gospel of the Hebrews (this may or may not have been the same document). The fourth-century bishop Epiphanius quotes some passages from the Ebionites’ gospel; they appear to be a harmonization of the three synoptic gospels (Ehrman 2003, p.102).
The Ebionites were just one of several sects within early Christianity that apparently had this outlook. Another one with similar views was called the Nazareans (Mack 1995, p.41). Many of these Jewish Christian communities “lasted for centuries” (ibid.) before finally being stamped out.
Of all the heresies of the first several centuries, probably none was more influential in its day, or more threatening to the orthodoxy, than Marcionism. The sect was founded by Marcion of Sinope, the wealthy son of a bishop in the province of Pontus. He initially traveled to Rome around 144 CE to get a hearing for his new religious idea, but when he was rejected by the bishops there, he returned to Asia Minor, where he founded the sect that bore his name. Marcionism thrived for several hundred years; as previously mentioned, bishops as late as the fifth century CE warned their parishioners not to enter a Marcionite church by accident.
Marcion saw himself, first and foremost, as a Christian. As he wrote in his Antitheses, “O wonder beyond wonders, rapture, power and amazement is it, that one can say nothing at all about the gospel, nor even conceive of it, nor compare it with anything!” (Mack 1995, p.253) He was evidently familiar with accounts of Jesus’ life, but when he turned to the Hebrew Bible, he saw many of the same contradictions that atheists have noted between Jesus’ instructions on love and forgiveness and the Old Testament God’s emphasis on wrath and judgment. Marcion had a neat solution to this problem: he believed that these were two different gods. According to his theology, the God of the Hebrew Bible was a brutal, wrathful, inferior deity. Jesus Christ had nothing to do with Yahweh, but was an emissary of the true, higher deity, who was loving and merciful but had been unknown to the world until then.
Marcionism held to a belief, also common among Gnostics, called docetism. According to this belief, Jesus wasn’t a mortal human being at all but only seemed to be so (the Greek word dokeo means “to seem”). He was a sort of illusion, a purely spiritual being in the “likeness” (Romans 8:3) of flesh and blood. This probably stemmed from Marcion’s belief that the world of matter was the creation of the inferior Old Testament god, and the true, higher god wouldn’t pollute himself by association with it.
Marcion also assembled his own version of the New Testament – in fact, he may have been the first Christian of any sect to put together a canon. This will be addressed in a later section.
Unlike the Ebionites or the Marcionites, the Gnostics weren’t just one sect, but an entire movement within early Christianity. And they were an influential movement, at that: church fathers such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Hippolytus of Rome wrote entire books devoted to refuting Gnostic beliefs. What made them so dangerous was that, unlike other heretical sects, Gnostics didn’t segregate themselves; they worshipped within other churches, believing that they understood the gospels and epistles at a deeper and more spiritual level than the ignorant orthodox who foolishly read them as literal truth (Ehrman 2003, p.185).
Gnostic theology was highly symbolic and almost incomprehensible to outsiders – by design, since their beliefs were intended for the spiritual elite only. But what all Gnostics apparently had in common was a belief that the creation of the material world was a grave misfortune – usually, like Marcion, they attributed it to an ignorant, inferior deity who was far below the one true God – and that human beings were spiritual beings, “sparks” of divinity, whose essence had become trapped in physical bodies by accident. They also believed that by learning this secret knowledge (gnosis is Greek for “knowledge”) and realizing the truth of their own nature, they could free themselves and return to the higher, spiritual plane from which we all originally came. Most Gnostics, in contradiction to orthodox Christians, believed that Jesus’ death and resurrection were at best unimportant. He came not to save us from our sins by dying, but to impart to us the secret truth of our divine origin and the knowledge of how we could return there.
The Gnostics stand out in another important way. In the case of the Ebionites and the Marcionites, we know of their beliefs only second-hand, through the writings of the church fathers. All the original material written by actual members of these sects was deliberately destroyed or just left to decay by orthodox copyists, and so all the evidence we have is from apologists who quoted their beliefs in order to attack them. But in the case of the Gnostics, we’ve had very good fortune: the amazing discovery of the Nag Hammadi library. This was a secret cache of documents buried in Egypt over a thousand years ago, discovered by pure chance by a Bedouin fieldhand in 1945. The Nag Hammadi documents collectively comprise over 1000 pages, all written from various Gnostic perspectives – the first time in modern history that such an ancient and long-lost Christian sect has spoken to us in its own words. Among them is the famous Gospel of Thomas, a collection of sayings believed to represent a very early stage in the evolution of Christian beliefs about Jesus.
The next group of heretics is a particularly interesting one, for they contradict a key apologist claim about the first generation of Christianity. I’ll let the evangelical New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg make the assertion, as interviewed in Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ:
“It’s important to acknowledge that strictly speaking, the gospels are anonymous. But the uniform testimony of the early church is that Matthew, also known as Levi, the tax collector and one of the twelve disciples, was the author of the first gospel… that John Mark, a companion of Peter, was the author of the gospel we call Mark, and that Luke, known as Paul’s ‘beloved physician,’ wrote both the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.”
“How uniform was the belief that they were the authors?” I asked.
“There were no known competitors for these three gospels,” he said. “Apparently, it was just not in dispute.” (p.26)
Blomberg acknowledges that there is “some question” about the authorship of the Gospel of John, but all he’s willing to concede is that the church father Papias discusses two people named John, one the apostle and one a church elder, and it’s not clear which one he means to attribute the gospel’s authorship to. “But granted that exception, the rest of the early testimony is unanimous that it was John the apostle – the son of Zebedee – who wrote the gospel.” (p.27)
However, this claim is flatly untrue. There was a debate over who wrote the Gospel of John, and Strobel and Blomberg are hiding this fact from their readers. Around 170 CE, there was a Christian sect in Asia Minor who rejected the Gospel of John and its doctrine of the Logos, which depicted Jesus as God’s incarnate word. Epiphanius, who’s already been mentioned, is our best source of information about them. He nicknamed them the “Alogi” as a play on words – both to suggest their rejection of Logos theology, as well as to imply that they were illogical (alogi can also be translated as “without reason”). But more importantly, according to Epiphanius, the Alogi denied that the fourth gospel had been written by the apostle John at all! They attributed it to a first-century heretic named Cerinthus, who’s usually depicted in Christian legend as John’s mortal enemy. This information can be found in book II, section 51 of Epiphanius’ Panarion. They also attributed authorship of Revelation, which they similarly rejected, to Cerinthus.
One of the surprising truths about the history of Christianity is that there never was a single, definitive proclamation by the united church of which books were and were not to be included in the canon. In fact, for the first several hundred years CE, it doesn’t seem to have been a question that even occurred to most Christians.
Most of the early church fathers and theologians quoted freely from the various gospels, epistles, apocalypses, and other Christian books floating around in their time, without any concern for settling on a systematic list of which ones were to be trusted and which were to be rejected. It wasn’t until the fourth century, almost three hundred years after the origins of Christianity, that we first began to see serious efforts to put together a canon. Even then, many of the proposed canonical lists disagreed with each other. (In fact, various Christian denominations have different canonical lists to this day.)
This section will recount the twists and turns in the formation of the New Testament canon, highlighting key figures or important events that played a major role in shaping the Christian Bible as we now have it.
Early orthodox Christians don’t appear to have been very interested in determining exactly which books could be taken as divinely inspired. Ignatius, for example, never cites any written gospel in support of his claims about Jesus. Justin Martyr, writing around the middle of the second century, quotes from documents he calls “memoirs of the apostles”, which appear to correspond to our gospels, but his use of them isn’t systematic; he never names the authors or says how many separate books there are. Ironically, the first systematic attempt at putting together a New Testament canon which we can date with reasonable certainty was the work of a heretic!
As previously discussed, Marcion of Sinope was the founder of a Christian sect that began around 144 CE. Marcionism held that the God of the Old Testament was a vengeful, inferior demiurge who had nothing to do with the appearance of Jesus, who was the emissary of a higher and previously unknown god. But what’s remarkable is that Marcion was also the first known Christian, orthodox or heretic, to create a canon of scripture. Some scholars think that Marcion’s canon may have been what first inspired orthodox authors to create a competing canon of their own (Ehrman 2003, p.107).
Obviously, given Marcion’s beliefs, his canon didn’t include any books from the Hebrew Bible. It consisted of just eleven books, ten of which were letters attributed to Paul – the same ten that are currently found in the New Testament, except for 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. The eleventh was a version of the Gospel of Luke. According to the polemics of church fathers such as Justin, Polycarp and Tertullian, Marcion had edited this to remove passages that weren’t in keeping with his beliefs, such as those that claimed Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies. However, as with the Ebionites and their altered Gospel of Matthew, it’s also possible that later orthodox scribes added these passages to counter Marcionism. We have no solid evidence one way or the other.
As I mentioned in an earlier essay, the second-century bishop Irenaeus of Lyons is the first orthodox author we know of who listed the four canonical gospels by name. This was in his anti-Gnostic treatise Against Heresies, written around 180 CE, which also quotes other books that appear in the modern New Testament.
However, Irenaeus never presents a single, definitive list of which books he considered to be canonical. Instead, this information has to be inferred from which ones he quotes and treats as authoritative. And the interesting thing is that this list doesn’t completely correspond with the books Christians use today: he quotes at least two books that were later rejected from the New Testament, and clearly believes them to be divinely inspired along with the others.
The first of these is a letter called 1 Clement, attributed to a semi-legendary figure who’s believed to have been the second bishop of Rome following Peter. It takes the form of an epistle to the church in Corinth, urging them to cease from a theological debate they were having and obey their superiors. Irenaeus describes this letter in a way that makes it clear he regards it as authoritative:
In this Clement’s time no small discord arose among the brethren in Corinth, and the Church in Rome sent a very powerful letter to the Corinthians, leading them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which they had recently received from the apostles… Those who care to can learn from this Writing that he was proclaimed by the churches as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and so understand the apostolic tradition of the Church, since this Epistle is older than those present false teachers who make up lies about another God above the Demiurge and maker of all things that are. (Against Heresies, 3.3.3)
Irenaeus also quotes, and describes as “scripture”, another apocryphal book called the Shepherd of Hermas. This is a strange book which presents itself as the narrative of a Christian named Hermas, who received a series of visions from an angel. It also contains a distinctly non-standard, adoptionist-like Christology (see also).
There’s one more highly interesting passage in Irenaeus for understanding the formation of the Christian canon. In it, he explains why there are exactly four gospels:
The Gospels could not possibly be either more or less in number than they are. Since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is spread over all the earth, and the pillar and foundation of the Church is the gospel, and the Spirit of life, it fittingly has four pillars, everywhere breathing out incorruption and revivifying men. From this it is clear that the Word, the artificer of all things, being manifested to men gave us the gospel, fourfold in form but held together by one Spirit…. For the cherubim have four faces, and their faces are images of the activity of the Son of God. For the first living creature, it says, was like a lion, signifying his active and princely and royal character; the second was like an ox, showing his sacrificial and priestly order; the third had the face of a man, indicating very clearly his coming in human guise; and the fourth was like a flying eagle, making plain the giving of the Spirit who broods over the Church. Now the Gospels, in which Christ is enthroned, are like these. (Against Heresies 3.11.8)
This ought to be a worrying passage for Christians concerned about the integrity of the canon. Irenaeus doesn’t select four gospels because, say, they’re the most historically reliable. Instead, he relies on explicitly mystical, numerological criteria to conclude that there must be four – and who can say if he didn’t shoehorn in writings of dubious authenticity, or exclude others that were equally reliable, just to meet his arbitrary standard?
Clement of Alexandria – not to be confused with Clement of Rome – was the head of one of the earliest Christian seminaries, established around 180 CE. As Richard Carrier (2000) writes, he was one of the first true scholars in the early church: he had a superb classical education and a great depth of learning, and his works quote from a broad variety of pagan literature as well as Old and New Testament sources. One of his surviving books, the Stromata (“Miscellanies”), is particularly helpful in establishing which books Clement regarded as authoritative.
At various points, Clement cites all the books that are currently in the New Testament, except for Philemon, James, 2 Peter, and 2 & 3 John (Mack 1995, p.287). However, as quotes from his works show, he also treated several books that did not make it into the New Testament as divinely inspired scripture. Among these are the “Gospel of the Hebrews” and the “Gospel of the Egyptians” – both of which he clearly treats as separate documents from Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, and gives quotes from them that don’t appear in any of the four canonical gospels. (Carrier writes that the Gospel of the Hebrews was widely used by Christians in some areas as late as the fourth century.) He also cites other books which he places on a level with the others, including the Traditions of Matthias, the Preaching of Peter, the Apocalypse of Peter, 1 Clement, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Didache.
Out of all these books, the Apocalypse of Peter is especially worth mentioning. This book, known from fragments, takes the form of a revelation given by Jesus to Peter, depicting in graphic detail the tortures of the damned souls in Hell, as well as the raptures of the saved in Heaven. It clearly drew on pagan literature of the day for some of this imagery. According to the Early Christian Writings website, it rivaled Revelation in popularity among the early Christian community, and was widely quoted by Christian writers in the first four centuries. Even much later, medieval writers like Dante and his Divine Comedy show distinct influences derived from it.
One of the oldest, and most enigmatic, orthodox documents that explicitly sets out a canon list is the so-called Muratorian fragment, named after the Italian scholar who discovered it in the early eighteenth century (Ehrman 2003b, p.331). The actual author of this document is unknown.
The document begins abruptly, in the middle of a sentence, and lists Luke and John as the “third” and “fourth” canonical gospels. It’s likely that it listed Mark and Matthew as the first two, though we can’t be absolutely sure of this. It goes on to list Acts, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Galatians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Romans, Philemon, Titus, 1 & 2 Timothy, Revelation, Jude, and 1 & 2 John. These are most of the books in the modern New Testament, though notably, the author doesn’t mention Hebrews, James, 3 John, or 1 & 2 Peter. It also endorses as scripture two books that didn’t make it into the New Testament, one called the Wisdom of Solomon and the other the Apocalypse of Peter, though of this latter one, he says that “some of us are not willing that it be read in church”. It also mentions the Shepherd of Hermas, endorsing its use in churches, though cautioning that it was recently written and isn’t apostolic.
The dating of this document is extremely uncertain. The author refers to Pius as recently being the bishop of Rome, and he held that office from 142 to 157, so this clue would date the Muratorian fragment to the second half of the second century. However, some scholars have argued for a date as late as the fourth century. Even using the earlier date, however, it’s clear that the canon was by no means settled by that time.
Origen was Clement’s successor as head of the seminary in Alexandria. He was considered one of the greatest writers and theologians of the early church, which is ironic, considering he was anathematized by later church councils for his unorthodox views on topics such as the Trinity (discussed above). In large part, this was because the orthodox position on these issues hadn’t been settled yet – the Council of Nicaea, which formally defined what Christians were required to believe, wouldn’t be for another eighty years – so to retroactively denounce him for heresy seems a little unfair.
Origen is one of the first Christians to cite all the books that are in the modern New Testament (according to the NTCanon.org website). Most notably, he’s the first person we know of to mention the epistle 2 Peter, in his Commentary on John (Mack 1995, p.208), although he acknowledged that its authenticity was “disputed”. He also mentions some doubts about the authorship of 2 & 3 John, and while he quotes extensively from Hebrews, he admits that it probably wasn’t written by Paul (Ehrman 2003b, p.334).
Like his predecessor Clement, Origen endorses some books that didn’t make it into the New Testament. He quotes from the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of the Hebrews and the Acts of Paul (though implying that other Christians may not have accepted these), 1 Clement, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache, and the Shepherd of Hermas, which he calls “divinely inspired”. He does reject the Preaching of Peter, which Clement approved of.
As mentioned earlier, Eusebius of Caesarea was the fourth-century bishop whose Ecclesiastical History gives an orthodox picture of the origins of Christianity. Although Eusebius presents a heavily slanted and sanitized account and is no longer accepted uncritically, he does name and quote from many books and other sources that are now lost to us, which makes him a valuable resource.
Like his predecessors, Eusebius also describes his view of the canon. He divides the Christian books circulating in his time into four categories: “accepted” (believed to be canonical by all churches), “disputed” (believed canonical by some churches but rejected by others), “spurious” (books that present orthodox ideas but are forgeries in the name of legendary figures), and heretical. In the last category, he rejects books such as the Gospels of Peter, Thomas and Matthias; in the first, he lists the four gospels, Acts, the fourteen epistles of Paul (he includes Hebrews), 1 John, and 1 Peter.
But it’s the middle two categories that are interesting. As disputed books, he lists James, Jude, 2 Peter, and 2 & 3 John (Mack 1995, p.288) – all books that made it into the New Testament. As spurious, he includes the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, the Apocalypse of Peter – and Revelation. Confusingly, he actually lists Revelation as both “accepted” and “spurious” (Ehrman 2003, p.244; see also).
It’s not clear why Eusebius couldn’t make up his mind about the status of this book, but what is clear is that, as late as the fourth century, Christians were still arguing among themselves which books were or were not apostolic, which books were or were not forgeries. And if they hadn’t figured it out by this time, what additional evidence is there for later generations to draw on to help them settle the matter one way or the other?
Around the middle of the fourth century, we start coming across the first biblical codexes. A codex is a complete or nearly-complete copy of the Bible, written out by hand and bound into a single book (as opposed to a scroll, which the codex eventually replaced as the dominant form of writing). One of the earliest and most important is the Codex Sinaiticus, named for the Sinai Peninsula where it was found in a Greek Orthodox monastery in the nineteenth century. It’s been argued that the Codex Sinaiticus is one of fifty copies of the Bible which the emperor Constantine commissioned Eusebius to create after Constantine’s conversion.
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, though they’re standard inclusions in codexes from this time. It contains all 27 books currently in the New Testament, plus two more that this essay has mentioned previously: the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas. The text breaks off partway through Hermas, so we have no way of knowing if there were still more apocryphal books included originally.
Cyril was the bishop of Jerusalem in the mid- to late fourth century. He’s best remembered for his Catechetical Lectures, a set of twenty-three lectures meant to instruct new converts on which beliefs were orthodox and which were heretical. As Richard Carrier writes:
This is the first time anything like this had been done: an official pronouncement from a high-ranking church official on what the Bible was to consist of, enforced on a major diocese by an imperial Church authority. Moreover, Cyril declares that no other books are to be read, not even privately. This was the decree and decision of one man, and we are given no insights into what criteria he employed. (Carrier 2000)
Cyril’s canon is identical to the modern New Testament, except in one important detail: it’s missing the book of Revelation. As Carrier says, Cyril doesn’t describe what criteria he used to judge, nor does he explain why he chose some books and rejected others. (See also the NTCanon.org website.)
[Editor's Note: An earlier version of this essay said that Cyril was the instigator of the mob that murdered the pagan philosopher Hypatia. This is incorrect; it was a different Cyril, Cyril of Alexandria, who was responsible for this. Thanks to a helpful reader for this correction.]
The Synod of Laodicea was a council convened between 363 and 364 CE in what’s now Turkey, with about thirty bishops in attendance representing their respective churches. The results of the council were a list of several dozen decrees for all Christians, including one that’s the first known collective church statement on the contents of the Bible. The gathered bishops decreed: “Let no private psalms nor any uncanonical books be read in church, but only the canonical ones of the New and Old Testament” (source). What follows is a list of books identical to Cyril’s – i.e., the New Testament as it is now, except without the book of Revelation. (The actual list of books is missing in some reports of the conference, leading some scholars to believe it was a later addition.)
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 (the Library of Alexandria was still standing at this time, though its destruction was soon to follow). The city’s intellectual reputation persisted into the Christian era, especially in astronomy, and every year the bishop of Alexandria traditionally wrote a so-called Festal Letter which informed the rest of the Christian world, from Egypt to Syria to Rome, about the proper dates of Easter and Lent for the coming year.
In 367, Athanasius used his 39th Festal Letter to list what he felt were the canonical books of the New Testament. Significantly, it consists of the same 27 books that are in the modern NT (source). This is the first time in history that any Christian proposed a list consisting of only those and no others. Due to the widespread influence of the Alexandrian church, the impact of this letter was immense – although, like his predecessors, Athanasius did not explain what principles guided his selection, or why he disagreed with previous Christians who had come up with different lists.
After Athanasius, probably the most important figure in the development of the canon was Jerome. Jerome was born on the Adriatic Sea, around 350; was educated in Rome, traveled throughout the Roman Empire, and finally established a religious community in Bethlehem where he remained for the rest of his life (Mack 1995, p.289). He was a scholar, historian and expert in both Latin and Greek, which is probably why Pope Damasus I asked him in 382 to create a single, authoritative Latin version of the Bible that would reconcile the numerous conflicting Latin translations then in use.
The result of Jerome’s work was called the Vulgate (from Latin editio vulgata, or “common version”), and it would be the definitive version of the Bible used throughout Europe for over a thousand years. It seems clear that it contained the same 27 books currently used in the New Testament, which Jerome listed in his Epistle to Paulinus (53.9) – although some older manuscripts of the Vulgate, including the oldest one in existence, the Codex Fuldensis, also contain a forgery called the Epistle to the Laodiceans which presented itself as a letter of Paul. As the NTCanon.org website describes it in a quote, “for more than nine centuries this forged epistle hovered about the doors of the sacred Canon, without either finding admission or being peremptorily excluded”.
Unlike most other compilers of the canon, Jerome gave us some insight into his criteria. According to Carrier 2000, “On several occasions he makes statements… that those books were to be accepted which had gained authority merely by having been long held in respect by the churches”. However, this is a problematic standard. Since Jerome largely just followed the opinions of his predecessors, his selections can be no more reliable than theirs were, and most of them, as we’ve seen, had no clear standards of their own. More to the point, when Christians before Jerome disagreed about which books were canonical – which they did, as detailed in various entries above – there would be no obvious way for him to resolve the dispute.
And we know that there were conflicts of precisely this kind which Jerome wrestled with. For example, in chapter 2 of his book De Viris Illustribus, he writes regarding the Epistle of James:
James, who is called the brother of the Lord… wrote a single epistle, which is reckoned among the seven catholic epistles, and even this is claimed by some to have been published by someone else under his name, and gradually, as time went on, to have gained authority.
And in chapter 4, about the Epistle of Jude:
Jude, the brother of James, left a short epistle which is reckoned among the seven catholic epistles, and because in it he quotes from the apocryphal book of Enoch, it is rejected by many. Nevertheless by age and use it has gained authority and is reckoned among the Holy Scriptures.
Passages like these make it clear that Jerome wasn’t exercising any kind of independent or critical judgment. He had reasons to doubt the genuineness of several NT books; nevertheless, he included those books in his canon simply because they were old and many churches used them. This is not a reliable way to tell genuine books apart from forgeries. (How does he know those churches weren’t just unintentionally using the oldest forgeries around?)
Meanwhile, in chapter 2 again, Jerome uses and appears to endorse a book that didn’t make it into the canon:
The Gospel also which is called the Gospel according to the Hebrews, and which I have recently translated into Greek and Latin and which also Origen often makes use of, after the account of the resurrection of the Saviour says, “But the Lord, after he had given his grave clothes to the servant of the priest, appeared to James (for James had sworn that he would not eat bread from that hour in which he drank the cup of the Lord until he should see him rising again from among those that sleep)” and again, a little later, it says, “‘Bring a table and bread,’ said the Lord.” And immediately it is added, “He brought bread and blessed and broke and gave to James the Just and said to him, ‘My brother, eat your bread, for the son of man is risen from among those that sleep.’”
The writings of Athanasius and Jerome, even though they didn’t agree exactly, were greatly influential in framing the New Testament canon as it exists today. The third and probably most decisive vote of support came from the renowned Christian theologian and bishop Augustine of Hippo, who threw his weight behind their work at two church synods on the canon held in the late fourth century: one at Hippo (393 CE), then another at Carthage (397 CE) (Ehrman 2003, p.246). Both these councils affirmed the collection of books in the New Testament exactly as we have it today and commanded that “nothing shall be read in church under the name of the divine scriptures” except for these.
Now, in regard to the canonical scriptures, he must follow the judgment of the greater number of catholic churches; and among these, of course, a high place must be given to such as have been thought worthy to be the seat of an apostle and to receive epistles. Accordingly, among the canonical scriptures he will judge according to the following standard: to prefer those that are received by all the catholic churches to those which some do not receive. Among those, again, which are not received by all, he will prefer such as have the sanction of the greater number and those of greater authority, to such as are held by the smaller number and those of less authority.
Like Jerome’s standard, this reduces the composition of the New Testament to essentially a popularity test – and, of course, by limiting this test to the “catholic” (i.e., orthodox) churches, the effect was that any books which taught a theological viewpoint which Augustine did not agree with were rejected out of hand, regardless of age or popularity. It also doesn’t explain why some books that were frequently disputed (like Revelation, which was omitted by Cyril and the Synod of Laodicea) made it in, while other books that were popular in their own day (such as 1 Clement, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Apocalypse of Peter or the Shepherd of Hermas) were left out.
Despite the work of Athanasius, Jerome, Augustine and others, the biblical canon was not completely settled even by the early fifth century. We know this from Codex Alexandrinus, another early and important codex of the Bible found in Alexandria. Its exact date is uncertain, but it probably belongs to the late fourth or, more likely, sometime in the fifth century (Ehrman 2003, p.143).
As with Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus contains all 27 books in the modern New Testament, plus others: the epistle 1 Clement, which was highly influential in the early church, plus an even more dubious sequel called 2 Clement. Again, the text breaks off partway through 2 Clement, so there’s no telling what other books it may have contained.
Like Codex Alexandrinus but even later, Codex Claromontanus shows that the debate over the contents of the Bible was still ongoing at least 500 years after the origin of Christianity. Discovered in the town of Clermont, France, in the sixteenth century, the codex has been paleographically dated to the sixth century by the majority of scholars who’ve studied it. Although the text as we have it contains only the Pauline epistles, there’s a catalog page listing books of the Old Testament and New Testament. Most of this list is the same as the Bible in its modern form – but among the NT books, it includes the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Acts of Paul, and the Apocalypse of Peter. This list is also missing Phillippians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, and Hebrews, although that may be due to a copying error (source).
Doubt about which books properly belong in the Bible is not merely an ancient phenomenon. The Roman Catholic church, for example, still has a Bible which contains the apocryphal, or deuterocanonical, books that aren’t accepted by Protestants. And this phenomenon runs in the other direction also, as in the case of Martin Luther, founder of the Protestant Reformation.
In 1522, Luther published a translation of the Bible into German. But he had harsh words for several of the books in it, which he added as prefaces to those books. In particular, he disliked Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation. He wrote of Revelation that he “consider[ed] it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic”, that Hebrews “is not an epistle of St. Paul, or of any other apostle”, and that Jude was not written by the apostle and was merely “an extract or copy of St. Peter’s second epistle”. But his greatest scorn was reserved for James, which he called “an epistle of straw” and said that it had “nothing of the nature of the gospel about it”. (See here, here and here.)
Granted, Luther’s skepticism is mainly on theological, not historical-critical, grounds: he doubted these books because they contained verses which he saw as contradicting his belief in justification by faith alone. Then again, as we’ve seen, that’s no different from the standard employed by those who assembled the canon in the first place. The church fathers and founding theologians of Christianity rejected out of hand any book which they viewed as teaching heresy, even if that book claimed to be apostolic and they had no information to the contrary. They simply made the assumption that theirs was the true form of Christianity, that Jesus and all the apostles must have held the same beliefs as they themselves had, and therefore that any book which taught something different had to be the work of a heretic.
The main argument used by orthodox Christians in support of their beliefs is that they were apostolic, i.e., they were teaching the views that had originally been handed down to them by Jesus and the apostles. However, it wasn’t just the orthodox who were claiming this. Many sects, documents and other sources eventually condemned as heretical, sources which made claims diametrically opposite to those of the orthodox, claimed the same authority for themselves.
For example, the Gnostic sect called the Valentinians, which flourished in Rome during the second century, claimed apostolic sanction for their views through the following chain of transmission: the leader of the sect, Valentinus, claimed to have been taught by one Theudas, who was Paul’s companion and learned his views from Paul (Mack 1995, p.258). A Valentinian Gnostic named Ptolemy wrote in a letter that his sect’s views came from the “apostolic tradition” and were founded in “our savior’s teaching” (Ehrman 2003, p.131). According to Clement of Alexandria, another Gnostic, Basilides, studied under Glaukia, who was said to be a disciple of Peter (ibid., p.193). The Ebionites, meanwhile, asserted that their beliefs were taught to them by James, the brother of Jesus (ibid., p.271); they also claimed descent from Peter as well.
And then, of course, there are the countless gospels, acts, epistles, and revelations which contained heretical views and which, just like their orthodox counterparts, claimed to be authored by the apostles or their companions. For example, among the more important of the Nag Hammadi documents is the famous Gospel of Thomas, which contains Gnostic teachings and opens with the line, “These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded” (source).
Another important apocryphal text is the Gospel of Peter, a very old document that was known to the early church fathers. Serapion, who was a bishop in Antioch, Syria around 200 CE, heard that some churches under his jurisdiction were using this text and took it upon himself to investigate. When he read it, he realized that the gospel could be interpreted as teaching a docetic viewpoint (i.e., that Jesus was pure spirit who had only the appearance of a human body), and forbade its use.
Remarkably, we still possess some fragmentary copies of this document. Even the longest of these contains only a passion narrative and a resurrection. Nevertheless, it has some interesting divergences with the canonical gospels; among other things, it contains a bizarre resurrection scene which includes a giant apparition of Jesus, taller than the heavens, and a cross that could walk and talk. But more interesting, as Bart Ehrman points out, is that we have thirty surviving papyrus fragments of gospels from the second and third centuries. Of these, only one contains verses from the Gospel of Mark, while there are three each containing parts of the Gospels of Thomas and Peter (Ehrman 2003, p.23). If we go by this evidence, it would seem that both these gospels were more popular and more widely used in the early church than Mark!
In fact, as late as the sixth or seventh century, we know of an ostracon (a pottery fragment with images and writing) created by a Christian church. On one side of it is a crude drawing of a man, with Greek letters reading “Peter the Evangelist” (note that this is often a technical term for a gospel author). On the other side, there is text which reads, “Let us venerate him, let us receive his gospel” (Ehrman 2003, p.24). We also have a copy of the manuscript from the 8th or 9th century, which was found in the tomb of a Christian monk at Akhmim, Egypt. Clearly, even several hundred years after Serapion forbade its use, several centuries after the canon was supposedly settled, there were still Christian communities who used and revered this gospel.
Also, there are two other important facts about the Gospel of Peter: it’s written in the first person and explicitly names its author as an apostle (something that the Gospel of Thomas does also). Note that neither of these things are true of the four canonical gospels, which never name their authors and which – except for a brief preface to Luke – are not written in the first person, but from a third-person omniscient viewpoint. They never say things like “I saw” or “I heard” or “I did”, and in fact, some of them contain details that no one could possibly have eyewitnessed. Going by this evidence, it would seem that the Gospels of Peter and Thomas, both rejected as heretical, have a stronger claim to be part of the canon than any of the gospels that actually did make it in.
As we’ve already seen, there was a huge quantity of literature, both orthodox and heretical, floating around within early Christianity. People on all sides claimed their views came straight from Jesus and the apostles, and nearly all of them had purportedly apostolic texts confirming this. Obviously, the orthodox church rejected these books, labeling them heretical forgeries in the name of the apostles. But the question naturally arises: how did they know that the books they accepted weren’t also forgeries?
Based on the historical record, it appears that very little thought went into the question of authenticity when the church was selecting the books we now know as the New Testament. If a book taught doctrines that were safely orthodox, its claims of authenticity were for the most part accepted without question. With this process, it would be small surprise if forgeries made it into the canon – and in fact, that’s just what a majority of critical scholars believe to have happened in several cases. This section will discuss the canonical books that are today widely considered to be non-genuine. (For purposes of this essay, I won’t mention the four gospels, though they’re also believed to be pseudonymous – if only because I’ve written about them elsewhere.)
Hebrews: In any discussion of pseudonymous writings in the New Testament, the natural place to begin is the Epistle to the Hebrews. Strictly speaking this isn’t a forgery, since Hebrews, like the canonical gospels, is anonymous; it never claims to be by Paul or by anyone else in particular. But it was widely believed to have been written by Paul – although even ancient Christians didn’t unanimously agree on this – and that attribution is probably what ensured it a place in the canon.
Despite this, Hebrews is obviously not a product of Paul. The language and style are distinctly un-Pauline – the literary style is far more elegant and sophisticated, indicating an author of considerable education and refinement, while Paul deprecates himself as “not a trained speaker” (2 Corinthians 11:6). When it quotes from the Old Testament, it uses the Septuagint – a contemporary Greek translation – whereas Paul, a former Pharisee, relied on the Masoretic text (the original Hebrew) when using the OT. The epistle uses a large number of words, terms and concepts that appear nowhere else in the New Testament, indicating a unique authorship, and it doesn’t contain a personal salutation to the intended audience the way Paul’s epistles do.
For these reasons, the majority of modern scholars agree that the true authorship of Hebrews is unknown. Even the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia says that “every competent judge must recognize a great difference” between Hebrews and the Pauline epistles.
There were doubts about this book even in ancient times. As already mentioned, Hebrews doesn’t appear in the Muratorian Canon or Codex Claromontanus, and Origen of Alexandria didn’t believe it was written by Paul. Tertullian believed that it was written by Barnabas (On Modesty 20). Eusebius cites a Christian named Caius, “a very learned man”, who also rejected Pauline authorship (Church History 4.20.3), and adds that “unto our day there are some among the Romans who do not consider this a work of the apostle”.
The Pastoral Epistles: 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus are collectively known as the Pastoral epistles. Unlike Hebrews, they do explicitly claim to have been written by Paul. But this claim is false, making all three of them examples of out-and-out forgery that made it into the New Testament.
There are several reasons why the majority of critical scholars believe these letters to be forgeries. First and foremost is that they assume a very different and more organized church structure than existed during the founding generation of Christianity. They’re called the “pastoral” epistles because they’re addressed to pastors – that is, to specific individuals holding positions of authority over a congregation – and discuss requirements for higher offices like bishop and deacon. That’s an anachronism, because in Paul’s time, the church didn’t have that level of hierarchical organization. Churches in Paul’s time were charismatic communities, loose gatherings that answered to no higher authority, as we can see from genuine letters like 1 Corinthians (Ehrman 2003, p.141). Letters like the Pastorals could only have been written at a later date, probably around the mid-second century, when the church was becoming bureaucratic and stratified. Not coincidentally, this is when quotations from these letters first begin to appear, in works like Irenaeus’ Against Heresies (Mack 1995, p.206). They’re also missing from earlier collections, particularly that of Marcion, whom we know thought very highly of Paul and who probably would have included them if they had been written by his time.
The theology and vocabulary of the Pastorals also seems different from the other Pauline epistles. As this site notes, they lay a greater stress on obedience, good works, and adherence to doctrine than on justification by faith, and include many words and concepts not found in other NT books.
2 Thessalonians: Although 1 Thessalonians is generally agreed to be genuine, scholars have more doubts about its sequel. Most of the clues indicating forgery in this case are stylistic. First of all, most of it is simply a verbatim copy of the previous letter (Mack 1995, p.112). Some scholars have also argued that it’s more dry and didactic, lacking the personal references and reminiscences in 1 Thessalonians, and reading more like a generic sermon than a personal letter.
The most notable difference, however, is in the eschatology. 1 Thessalonians pictures the end of the world as arriving very soon, within the author’s lifetime (4:15). 2 Thessalonians, however, explicitly rejects that view (2:2), and instead sets out an elaborate scheme for what must happen before the apocalypse (2:3-12). This would fit with a later composition date, when Christians were starting to worry why the end of the world hadn’t happened on schedule and needed to rewrite their literature to justify this delay. Also consistent with this is that 1 Thessalonians pictures Jesus’ return as a joyful occasion for Christians (4:17 is the famous verse that’s inspired belief in the Rapture), while its successor emphasizes wrath, judgment and doom (1:7-9, 2:8-12). This would make sense as a way of recapturing disillusioned believers who had begun to drift, by terrifying them back to obedience.
Ephesians & Colossians: Although these two are the subject of the greatest debate, there’s broad agreement among critical scholars that both Colossians and Ephesians are forgeries by someone writing in Paul’s name (Mack 1995, p.183). There’s a clear literary relationship between the two, and aside from the usual stylistic and vocabulary differences (see also here and here), this is largely because of differences in theology. As with 2 Thessalonians, the differences consistently indicate a more evolved theology and a less imminent expectation of the apocalypse, a greater concern for the future development of the Christian community. For example, Ephesians 5:22-24 praises marriage as the image of Christ’s union with the church, while 1 Corinthians 7:9 commands celibacy but dismisses marriage as a grudging improvement over fornication, if absolutely necessary. It seems unlikely that both these verses came from the same mind.
James: The Epistle of James is difficult to date, though there’s a general consensus for sometime around the end of the first century, i.e., circa 100 CE. This notwithstanding, there are no clear references to it until Origen, in the third century (Mack 1995, p.214). Origen listed it as disputed, meaning that not all churches accepted it:
“These things are recorded in regard to James, who is said to be the author of the first of the so-called catholic epistles. But it is to be observed that it is disputed; at least, not many of the ancients have mentioned it…” (Church History 2.23.25)
As previously mentioned, Jerome also wrote that it was believed by many to be pseudonymous: he said it was “claimed by some to have been published by someone else under [James'] name, and gradually, as time went on, to have gained authority.”
If this letter was truly written by the apostle James, it’s difficult to explain how this circumstance came about. Why would it have emerged gradually from obscurity, as Origen and Jerome indicated that it did, rather than being widely known from the beginning due to the credentials of its famous author? (By contrast, that is the pattern we’d expect from a pseudonymous forgery.) And what information could later generations possibly have had that persuaded them to accept it, even though their predecessors didn’t?
Jude: The Epistle of Jude was probably written between 90 and 120 CE. As Burton Mack (Mack 1995, p.211) points out, it suffers from “confusion in the historical placement of the implied author”. It presents itself as written by the apostle (“the servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James”, v.1; compare Luke 6:16), yet when speaking about the apostles as a whole, it says “they told you” (not “we told you”) that “there should be mockers in the last time” (v.18). The author also adds that he felt the need to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (v.3). Clearly, this isn’t written from the viewpoint of an apostle and contemporary of Jesus, but from the viewpoint of a later author looking back on that long-ago time. These are obvious errors to make, which is why Mack dismisses this letter as “sloppy literary production” (ibid., and see also).
1 & 2 Peter: 1 Peter is described as being “perhaps the most literary composition in the NT” (source), written by an author who had a sophisticated vocabulary and probably possessed some formal education in rhetoric or literature. But according to the New Testament itself, the apostle Peter was a poor fisherman who was described as “unlearned and ignorant” (Acts 4:13). Reinforcing this point, the author of 1 Peter uses the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, showing that he was thoroughly versed in Hellenistic culture. The historical Peter, a Galilean Jew, would much more likely have been familiar with a Hebrew or Aramaic text. Some Christian apologists have suggested that Peter merely provided the outline of the ideas in this letter, and that it was ghostwritten on his behalf by a more educated scribe – but if so, shouldn’t that scribe, and not Peter, be credited as the true author?
2 Peter stresses its apostolic authorship much more heavily than 1 Peter. Nevertheless, it’s much more obviously a forgery. First of all, it shows a clear literary dependence on Jude, which was written around the beginning of the second century. It also contains a strong polemic against those who ask why the second coming of Jesus was delayed (3:1-9), which is likewise a second-century concern – born of disappointment after the first generation of Christians insisted the apocalypse was imminent and turned out to be wrong. The letter explicitly points out that by the time it was written, “the fathers” had “[fallen] asleep” (3:4), indicating a date some time after the birth of Christianity.
Early Christians were also unfamiliar with this epistle. Origen, in the third century, was the first to mention it, and he labeled it “disputed”. Eusebius also grouped it with the disputed books. Earlier apologists such as Clement, Irenaeus and Tertullian apparently knew nothing of it.
After several centuries of doctrinal debate among the various Christian sects, one of them happened to win the ear of an emperor, and the course of Western history for the next two millennia flowed from that development. The Roman emperor Constantine, who reigned at the beginning of the fourth century CE, was the first to embrace Christianity and set a trend for his successors. The stories about his sudden, miraculous conversion are almost certainly later hagiography; he seems to have continued believing in the pagan gods throughout his life, and wasn’t baptized until he was on his deathbed (Hecht 2004, p.188). Nevertheless, he did end the persecutions of Christians and returned their confiscated property, and issued an edict which granted religious toleration to those under his rule.
Although Constantine was relatively liberal and tolerant despite his conversion, later emperors weren’t so benevolent. Theodosius I, who reigned at the end of the fourth century, issued an edict in 381 which declared that Trinitarian Christianity, as established at the Council of Nicea in 325, was henceforth the only acceptable religion in the Roman Empire. Bishops suspected of holding unorthodox views were expelled and replaced with orthodox loyalists, who would now be the only ones to enjoy the wealth and privilege that came with imperial favor. Heretics and other dissenters, meanwhile, were threatened with “the punishment which our authority, in accordance with the will of heaven, shall decide to inflict”. For the first time in Western history, orthodoxy and heresy were formally defined by law.
Theodosius’ successor, Justinian I, took this theocracy even further. Under his reign, non-Christian faiths were suppressed by force, and in 529, he decreed that all the pagan schools which for eight hundred years had preserved and taught the philosophies of ancient Greece – the Epicurean Garden, the Skeptic Academy, the Lyceum, the Stoic Porch – were required to shut down (Hecht 2004, p.208). Nicene Christianity became not just the dominant but virtually the sole religion, and although skepticism and heresy continued to exist at the margins, the course of the Western world for the next several centuries was irrevocably set.
The most important lesson to take away from this long and tortuous process is that the list of books which made it into the Bible was never determined by rational debate, by critical scholarship, or by a dispassionate examination of the historical evidence. It was determined, in the earliest stages, by mystical criteria, by popularity among lay believers, and by the fact of which books happened to agree with the beliefs of those doing the choosing. Later, it was reinforced by the promulgated decrees of church authorities; and still later, it was set in stone by the power of Roman imperial law.
It’s only recently, in historical terms, that critical scholars have finally regained the intellectual freedom to critically examine the origins of the New Testament and of Christian orthodoxy, and to start peeling back the layers of rewriting, revision and false attribution that have gone unchallenged for so long. Granted, much important evidence has been lost in the intervening centuries; but if that’s a reason to doubt the conclusions of modern scholars, it should equally be a reason to doubt the beliefs of Christians, since they lack evidence proving conclusively that their forebears’ choices were the correct ones. But there’s a crucial difference: for the most part, it’s critical scholars who are willing to consider all views and countenance the possibility of error. Fundamentalist believers, meanwhile, refuse to even consider the possibility that the church fathers made any mistakes at all in assembling the canon. This stubborn clinging to dogma has served the church for almost two thousand years. But the more we learn, the less tenable it becomes; and as our society becomes increasingly enlightened, the suffocating shroud of orthodoxy must inevitably fade away.
Carrier, Richard. “The Formation of the New Testament Canon.” Online at http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/NTcanon.html, 2000.