Page:EB1911 - Volume 03.djvu/898

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N.T. CANON]
877
BIBLE

canonical Gospels were composed, and in their early history, which gave them a special prestige in the eyes of the faithful. The story which Eusebius quotes from Clement of Alexandria (H.E. vi. 14) seems to point to something of the kind.

3. Influences at work.—The whole process of the formation of the New Testament was steady and gradual. The critical period, during which the conception grew up of the New Covenant with its sacred book by the side of the Old Covenant, which in its written embodiment we call the Old Testament, extends roughly over the 2nd century. By the last decades of that century a preliminary list of these new Sacred Books had been formed and placed by the side of the Old with substantially the same attributes. We must briefly sketch the process by which this came about, tracing the causes which led to the result and indicating the manner in which they operated.

We have seen that the ultimate cause was the consciousness on the part of the Church that the first age of its own history was characterized by spiritual workings more intense than other times. This feeling had been instinctive, and it found expression in several ways, each one of them partial, when taken alone, but obtaining their full effect in combination. It should be understood that the goal towards which events were moving all the time was the equalizing of the New Testament with the Old Testament.

(a) Public Reading.—From the first the way in which the Epistles of Paul were brought to the knowledge of the churches to which they were addressed was by reading in the public assemblies for worship. This was done by the direction of the apostle himself (1 Thess. v. 27; Col. iv. 16). At first any writing that was felt to be useful for edification was read in this way, especially if it had local associations (cf. Dionysius of Corinth, ap. Eus. H.E. iv. 23. 11). But, as worship became more thoroughly organized, it was invested with increasing solemnity; the freedom of choice was gradually restricted; and inasmuch as lections were regularly taken from the Old Testament, it was only natural that other lections read alongside of them should gradually be placed upon the same footing.

(b) Authority of Christ and the Apostles.—As the words of prophets and lawgivers had from the first carried their own authority with them under the Old Covenant, so from the first the words of Christ needed no commendation from without under the New. And what applied to words of Christ soon came also to apply in their degree to words of the apostles. The only difference was that an authority at first instinctively assumed came to be consciously recognized and formally defined. There was also a natural tendency towards levelling up the different parts of books and groups of books. In other words, the somewhat vague sense of spiritual power and impressiveness hardened into the conception of sacred books united in a sacred volume.

(c) Controversy.—The process was accelerated by the demand for a standard or rule of faith and practice. At an early date in the 2nd century this demand was met by the composition of the oldest form of what we call the Apostles’ Creed. But the Creed was but the condensed essence of the New Testament scriptures, and behind it there lay an appeal to these scriptures, which was especially necessary where (as in the case of the Valentinian Gnostics) the dissident bodies professed to accept the common belief of Christians. In its conflict with Gnostics, Marcionites and Montanists the Church was led to insist more and more upon its Bible, its own Bible, just as in its older controversy with the Jews it had to insist on the Bible which it inherited from them. This was a yet further cause of the equating of the two parts of the sacred volume, which went on with an imperceptible crescendo through the first three quarters of the 2nd century, and by the last quarter was fairly complete.

(γ) Provisional Canon of New Testament (end of 2nd century).—By the last quarter of the 2nd century the conception of a Christian Bible in two parts, Old Testament and New Testament, may be said to be definitely established. Already at the beginning of this period Melito had drawn up a list of the twenty-two Books of the Old Covenant, i.e. of the documents to which the Old Covenant made its appeal. It was a very short step to the compiling of a similar list for the New Covenant, which by another very short step becomes the New Testament, by the side of the Old Testament. It is therefore not surprising, though a piece of great good fortune, that there should be still extant a list of the New Testament books that may be roughly dated from the end of the century. This list published by Muratori in 1740, and called after him “the Muratorian Fragment on the Canon,” is commonly believed to be of Roman origin and to be a translation from the Greek, though there are a few dissentients on both heads. The list recognized four Gospels, Acts, thirteen epistles of Paul, two epistles of John, Jude, Apocalypse of John and (as the text stands) of Peter; there is no mention of Hebrews or (apparently) of 3 John or Epistles of Peter, where it is possible—we cannot say more—that the silence as to 1 Peter is accidental; the Shepherd of Hermas on account of its date is admitted to private, but not public, reading; various writings associated with Marcion, Valentinus, Basilides and Montanus are condemned.

There are many interesting points about this list, which still shows considerable freshness of judgment, (i.) There are traces of earlier discussions about the Gospels, both in disparagement of the Synoptics as compared with St John, and in criticism of the latter as differing from the former, (ii.) There is a healthy tendency to lay stress on the historical value of narratives which proceed from eye-witnesses, (iii.) An over-ruling and uniting influence is ascribed to the Holy Spirit, (iv.) The writer is concerned to point out that letters addressed to a single church and even to an individual may yet have a wider use for the Church as a whole, (v.) The sense is not yet lost that the appeal of the Old Testament is as coming from men of prophetic gifts, and that of the New Testament as coming from apostles, (vi.) It is in accordance with this that a time limit is placed upon the books included in the New Testament, (vii.) Christians are to be on their guard against writings put forth in the interest of heretical sects.

When the data of Fragm. Murat. are compared with those supplied by the writers of the last quarter of the 2nd and first of the 3rd centuries (Tatian, Theoph. Ant., Iren., Clem. Alex., Tert., Hippol.), it is seen that there is a fixed nucleus of writings that is acknowledged, with one exception, over all parts of the Christian world. The exception is the Syriac-speaking Church of Edessa and Mesopotamia. This Church at first acknowledged only the Gospel (in the form of Tatian’s Diatessaron), Acts and the Epistles of Paul. These seem to have been the only books translated immediately upon the foundation of the Edessan Church, though an edition of the separate Gospels must have followed either before or very soon afterwards. In all other churches the four Gospels, Acts and Epistles of Paul are fixed, with the addition in nearly all of 1 Peter, 1 John. The Apocalypse was generally accepted in the West. Hebrews and James were largely accepted in the East.

In the 3rd century the conspicuous figure is Origen (ob. 253), whose principal service was, through the vast range of his knowledge, his travels and his respect for tradition wherever he found it, to keep open the wider limits of the Canon. There is not one of our present books that he does not show himself inclined to accept, though he notes the doubts in regard to 2 Peter and 2 and 3 John. Later in the century Dionysius of Alexandria applies some acute criticism to justify the Alexandrian dislike of the Apocalypse.

(δ) The Final Canon (4th century).—Early in the 4th century Eusebius, as a historian reviews the situation (H.E. iii. 25. 1). He makes three classes; the first, including the Gospels, Acts, Epistles of Paul, 1 Peter, 1 John, is acknowledged; to these, if one likes, one may add the Apocalypse. The second class is questioned, but accepted by the majority; viz. James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John. The third class, of works to be decidedly rejected, contains the Acts of Paul, Hermas, Apocalypse of Peter, Barnabas, Didachē; to these some would add Apoc. of John, and others Ev. sec. Hebr. About the same time another line of tradition is represented by Lucian and the school of Antioch. The vernacular Church of Syria represented yet a third. In Egypt the uncertainty and laxity of usage was still greater. This state of things the great Athanasius set himself to correct, and he did so by laying down a list identical with our New Testament as we have it now. It was very largely the influence of Athanasius that finally turned the scale. He was peculiarly qualified for exercising this influence, as his long exile in the West made him familiar with Western usage, while he was also able to bring to the West the usage that he was trying to establish in the East. His efforts would be helped by Westerns, like Hilary and Lucifer, who were exiled to the East. The triumph of the Athanasian Canon, indeed, went along with the triumph of Nicene Christianity. And while the movement