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July 14, 2010
The Doctrine of Canonicity
A. Definition and Description.
1. The English word ‘canon’ comes from the Greek word KANON, which was borrowed from the Hebrew word QANEH. The root meaning of the word is “a reed.” The reed was used to measure things, so a derivative meaning came into use “to measure.”
2. The Greek theologian Origen (184-254 A.D.) uses the word Canon to denote what we call the “rule of faith,” i.e., the standard by which we measure and evaluate all doctrine.
3. Eventually, the word canon came to be used in the sense of a list or index. This is the sense, which lies behind the expression “the canon of Scripture;” the canon of Scripture is the list of books which are reckoned as Holy Scripture.
4. There is a distinction between the canonicity of a book of the Bible and its authority. Its canonicity is dependent upon its authority. A book of the Bible was considered canonical because the authority and accuracy of its divine truth was already established and recognized by the great majority of believers. Therefore, it was added to the list of authorized Christian books, or canonized.
5. A book was placed in the canon of Scripture because it was recognized as being inspired by God. 2 Tim 3:16, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”
6. The necessity for a canon of Scripture exists because during the Church Age, the written word is the only means by which God communicates to man.
B. The Old Testament Canon.
1. On the evening of our Lord’s ascension (Lk 24:29 cf. Lk 24:33, 36, 50-51), He reminded the disciples “that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”
2. In these words He indicated the three sections into which the Hebrew Bible was divided–the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (here called the “Psalms” because the Book of Psalms is the first book in this section.
3. Our Lord refers to the threefold body of Old Testament writings not only as divinely authoritative, but also as canonical, for the authoritative writings had been gathered together into one collection.
4. It is almost certain that the Bible with which our Lord was familiar ended with the books of Chronicles, which come right at the end of the “Writings” in the Hebrew Bible. The evidence for this is that when He wished to sum up all the martyrs whose blood had been shed in Old Testament times He used the expression: “from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zachariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary” (Lk 11:51; cf. Mt 23:35). Abel is obviously the first martyr of the Old Testament and Zachariah is the last, because in the order of books in the Hebrew Bible he is the last martyr to be named in 2 Chr 24:21.
5. In 280 B.C. the Old Testament was translated into Greek by seventy-two Alexandrian Hebrew scholars. This translation was named in their honor “the Septuagint” which means “The Seventy.” This translation was so good and so well known that many New Testament writers quote from it.
6. Just prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., a great Rabbi belonging to the school of Hillel in the Pharisaic party—Yochanan ben Zakkai—obtained permission from the Romans to reconstitute the Sanhedrin at Jamnia in order to discuss whether canonical recognition should be given to the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, and Esther. The Council of Jamnia firmly acknowledged all these books as Holy Scripture. These books were already generally accepted by Jewish public opinion. The council only acknowledged and confirmed what believers had already accepted over many centuries.
C. The New Testament Canon.
1. Long before the apostolic letters were recognized as elements in a canonical collection, they were recognized as authoritative by most of those for whom they were written. Authority is the necessary precedent for canonicity.
2. The need for recognition of the canon of New Testament Scriptures arose because of a heretic and teacher from Asia Minor named Marcion. Marcion came to Rome around 140 A.D. and introduced a new form of teaching which attracted many believers from orthodox churches.
a. He rejected the Old Testament and much of the New Testament writings.
b. His “gospel” consisted of a highly edited edition of the gospel of Luke (because he was the only Gentile author).
c. His “Apostle” consisted of the Pauline letters (excluding 1 & 2 Tim and Titus); however, he edited out anything to do with Israel, all Old Testament references, and anything that recognize the authority of the God of Israel.
d. He believed that Jesus was a supernatural being who appeared suddenly among men in the mere semblance of humanity. According to Marcion, Jesus had no human descent. He rejected Luke’s birth narratives, the ministry of John the Baptist, the baptism of Jesus, our Lord’s genealogy, and His temptation.
3. The chief orthodox writer immediately following Marcion was Irenaeus.
a. Irenaeus (c.120-192 A.D.) was brought up in Asia Minor under a pastor named Polycarp. Polycarp (c.69-155 A.D.) was a disciple of the apostle John (c.10-117 A.D.) who taught in Ephesus at the end of his life.
b. Irenaeus became the bishop of Lyons, Gaul (France) in A.D. 180. His writings attest the canonical recognition of all the New Testament books except Philemon, Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude.
4. In 1740, L.A. Muratori discovered a second century manuscript containing an early list of the books of the New Testament, which had been drawn up in the church at Rome as an orthodox counterblast to Marcion. Though mutilated at the beginning, it mentions Luke as the “third” gospel, implying that it had already listed Matthew and Mark’s gospels. It includes all the other books of the New Testament except Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 3 John.
5. Origen, circa A.D. 230, lists the Gospels, Acts, Paul’s thirteen epistles, 1 Peter, 1 John and Revelation as those books acknowledged by all Christians to be part of the Canon; he adds that Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, James, and Jude were disputed by some.
6. Eusebius, who wrote the history of the Church in the early 4th century, says that all the books of the New Testament except James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John were generally acknowledged as part of the Canon.
7. The first known list of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament appears in a letter written by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria in A.D. 367. Jerome and Augustine listed the same books shortly afterward.
8. The Synod of Hippo in A.D. 393 was the first Church Council to recognize the canonicity of these twenty-seven books, which had already been established.
D. The Making of Ancient Books.
1. Most of the manuscripts are made of either papyrus or parchment (also known as vellum, which is a superior quality of parchment).
a. Papyrus is made from the papyrus plant which grows in the shallow waters of the Nile river in Egypt. Sections of the plant were cut and laid at right angles to each other, glued and pressed together.
b. Parchment was made from the skins of cattle, sheep, goats, and antelopes. The city of Pergamum became the center of manufacture.
2. Individual sheets were glued together and rolled up to make a scroll (normally about 35 feet in length). Early in the second century the codex or leaf-form became popular. Sheets of parchment or papyrus were folded in half and sown together like our modern books. About A.D. 331, the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire, Constantine, requested from Eusebius that he arrange for the making of fifty copies of the New Testament Scriptures. The two oldest and best parchment manuscripts of the Bible we have today (codex Sinaiticus and codex Vaticanus) were probably among these fifty.
3. The Scribes.
a. Before beginning, the scribe would take a blunt-pointed instrument and draw horizontal and vertical lines to mark his margins. Some manuscripts can be dated according to the known pattern of these lines.
b. Formal literary books were written in the formal style of handwriting, called “uncials.” The letters were separated from each other and carefully written much like our capital letters. Then around 800 A.D. a reform in handwriting produced a script of small letters in a running hand; these were called minuscules. Usually no spaces were left between words or sentences and punctuation was only used sporadically.
c. In the fourth century, books were mass-produced in workrooms called scriptoria. There were many common errors committed by the scribes.
(1) The scribe would write a copy of the book being reproduced as the reader slowly read aloud the text of the exemplar or he would copy from an existing manuscript. This resulted in unintentional errors of transcription, such as:
(a) Errors of the eye—mistaking one letter for another, omitting lines of text, skipping lines of text. Sometimes he would transpose letters or words.
(b) Errors of the ear—variations in spelling from words that sounded the same (their/there; where/wear; nose/knows; see/sea).
(c) Errors of memory—between glancing at his example and writing down what he saw, the scribe would forget the correct word order.
(d) Errors of the pen—resulted in careless spelling (John 5:39 reads HAMARTANOUSAI instead of HAI MARTUROUSAI—“the Scriptures are sinning concerning me” rather than “the Scriptures are bearing witness concerning me.”)
(2) The manuscripts were often checked by a corrector. His annotations in the manuscript can be detected from differences in style of handwriting or different color ink.
(3) Worst of all was scribal harmonization, where a scribe would not copy what seemed to him to be an error or contradiction between two authors. Some scribes would remove what they imagined to be unorthodox wording. In spite of this, there is no body of ancient literature in the world, which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament. There are several rules, which have proven valuable at arriving at the correct text.
(a) The reading must be preferred which best explains the origin of the other readings.
(b) The harder reading is generally to be preferred, since scribes tended to correct what they thought was a wrong reading.
(c) The shorter reading is to be preferred, since scribes tended to add something to explain the meaning when they ran into a difficult passage.
(d) The reading which is more consistent with the known characteristics (style/word usage/syntax) of the author is to be preferred.
d. The cost of the New Testament has been estimated at about 1/15th of the annual salary of a Roman soldier.
4. Quantities of Manuscripts.
a. There are over eighty papyri of sections of the New Testament.
b. There are 266 uncial manuscripts.
c. There are 2754 minuscule manuscripts.
d. Lectionaries are church reading books containing the text of selections of the Scriptures. There are 2135 lectionaries.
e. In contrast to this only a single manuscript of the famous Roman historian Tacitus remains (and this is a copy from the ninth century). Homer’s Iliad is preserved in only 457 papyri, 2 uncials, and 188 minuscule manuscripts.
E. The Witnesses to the Text of the New Testament.
1. There are three classes of witnesses.
a. Greek manuscripts.
b. Ancient translations.
c. Early church writers (pastors).
2. Greek manuscripts.
a. The Papyrus
(1) The Chester Beatty Biblical papyri
(a) p45, circa 225 A.D., contains portions of the Gospels and Acts.
(b) p46, circa 200 A.D., contains: Romans, Hebrews, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians.
(c) p47, contains Rev 9:10-17:2.
(2) p52, The Rylands papyrus, Jn 18:31-33, 37-38, dated circa 125 A.D. proves the existence and use of the Fourth Gospel during the first half of the second century in a small town along the Nile, far removed from its traditional place of composition (Ephesus).
(3) p66, the Bodmer papyrus of the Gospel of John, circa 200 A.D. contains Jn 1:1-6:2 and 6:35b-14:15.
(4) p72, circa 250 A.D., contains Jude and 1 and 2 Peter.
(5) p75, circa 175 A.D., contains Luke and John, the earliest known copy of Luke.
b. The Uncials.
(1) ) (Aleph), codex Sinaiticus, circa 325 A.D., containing the entire New Testament, discovered by Dr. Tischendorf at the monastery of St. Catharine on Mount Sinai in a waste basket of papers about to be burned. Read Metzger’s account, pp 42-45.
(2) Codex A, Alexandrinus, circa 400 A.D., containing most of the Old and New Testaments.
(3) Codex B, Vaticanus, circa 350 A.D., containing all of the Old and New Testaments (the end of Hebrews, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and Revelation have been destroyed). This codex and codex Sinaiticus were probably two of the fifty copies of the Bible commissioned by Constantine to be made.
(4) Codex C, Ephraemi, circa 450 A.D., was erased and written over by a 12th century monk. Chemical agents were used to discover the hidden text.
(5) Codex D, Bezae, circa 500 A.D., has the Greek and Latin on facing pages, containing the Gospels and Acts. It has remarkable variations from what is usually taken to be the normal New Testament text. Read Metzger pp 50-51.
c. The Ancient Translations.
(1) The earliest versions or translations of the New Testament were done by Syriac, Latin, and Coptic missionaries and date from 100-300 A.D. However, there are problems with these translations, as Augustine said, “No sooner did anyone gain possession of a Greek manuscript, and imagine himself to have any facility in both languages (however slight that might be), than he made bold to translate it.” For example, certain features of Greek syntax and vocabulary cannot be conveyed in a translation. Latin has no definite article; Syriac cannot distinguish between the Greek aorist and perfect tenses; Coptic lacks the passive voice and must use a circumlocution. This leads to ambiguity in meaning.
(2) The Syriac versions were all written about the fifth or sixth century using Greek texts from around 200 A.D.
(3) The Gospels were first copied into the Old Latin about 175-200 A.D., however, the best manuscripts we have were copied circa 500 A.D. The Bishop of Rome commissioned Jerome to translate the Bible from the Greek and the Old Latin manuscripts into the official Catholic Bible, called the Latin Vulgate, in 382 A.D. There are more than 8000 copies which exhibit the greatest amount of cross-contamination. The oldest manuscript we have is Codex Sangallensis, circa 475 A.D.
(4) The Coptic (Egyptian) versions were translated around the beginning of the third century (225 A.D.) but none of our manuscripts are older than 350 A.D.
(5) The Gothic Bible, translated by Ulfilas, the apostle to the Goths, was done about 350 A.D., is very faithful to the original.
(6) The Armenian version is generally regarded as the most accurate of all early translations and was done around 425 A.D.
d. The quotations from the early pastors.
(1) The importance of patristic quotations is that they localize and date readings in Greek manuscripts and versions. Sometimes they even cited one or more variant readings present in their day. The problem remains whether he quoted it after consulting the passage in a manuscript or whether he relied upon his memory. Longer passages were more likely not done from memory.
(2) Clement of Rome, 96 A.D.
(3) Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, c. 110.
(4) Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, c. 115.
(5) Marcion, c. 150-160.
(6) Justin Martyr, c. 165.
(7) Tatian, c. 170.
(8) Irenaeus, c. 180.
(9) Clement of Alexandria, c. 210.
(10) Tertullian, c. 220.
(11) Hippolytus of Rome, c. 230.
(12) Origen, c. 230.
(13) Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, c. 255.
(14) Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, C. 340.
(15) Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople, c. 400.
(16) Jerome, c. 420.
(17) Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, C. 425.
F. The Criteria for New Testament Canonicity.
1. Every book must either be written by an apostle or someone closely associated with an apostle.
2. The book must be universally received by the local churches as authentic at the time of writing.
3. The contents must be consistent with the doctrine that the Church already possessed in the Old Testament and Apostolic teaching.
4. Each book must give evidence, internally and externally, of being divinely inspired. The spiritual gift of discernment (1 Cor 12:10) was used to determine canonicity.
5. Each book must be recognized as canonical in the catalogues of the Church Fathers and be used by those who had the gift of pastor-teacher.
6. Each book must contain exhortation to public exegesis of the word of God, Col 4:16; 1 Thes 5:27; 1 Tim 4:13; Rev 1:3; 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13; 2 Pet 3:15-16.
7. Four Councils of the Church settled the question of canonicity.
a. The Council of Laodicea, 336 A.D.
b. The Council of Damascus, 382 A.D.
c. The Council of Carthage, 397 A.D.
d. The Council of Hippo, 419 A.D.