The Canon (Part 3)

Questions to think about during this lesson…

  • The Orthodox have 49 books in their Old Testament. The Protestants have 39 books in their Old Testament. Why is this — and which tradition uses the Scripture that was used by the early Church?
  • Today, almost all Christians recognize the same 27-book New Testament canon. But it wasn’t always like this. For example, the New Testament canon used by Christians in Antioch (like St. John Chrysostom) for at least the first three or four centuries had 22 books. Which five books did these Christians reject that most Christians today accept?
  • In the beginning, only Jewish Scriptures were considered “Scripture” to the Christians. Christians didn’t call them the Jewish Scriptures or the Old Testament — they simply called them “Scripture”… nothing else. Not even the gospels were considered Scripture. So when the Lord quoted Scripture — or when St. Paul said he was quoting Scripture — they’re talking about the Old Testament. That’s because, first of all, in the very beginning there were no Christian writings so there was nothing to quote. Then, after there were writings, such as the epistles of Paul or the Gospels, they weren’t immediately recognized as Scripture. All of this said, how is it that we know these books weren’t regarded as Scripture in the beginning?
  • When did the Christians begin to consider some Christian writings as Scripture… and why did that happen?
  • How long did it take the Church to decide which books should be considered in the New Testament?
  • Why did Christians start to think of their own writings as equal to the Jewish Scriptures?
  • Who were Tatian and Marcion… how and why did they tamper with the Gospels… and how did their heresies help spur the creation of the canon?
  • What was Gnosticism… what are examples of gnostic/apocryphal writings … and how did the rise of Gnosticism help spur the creation of the canon?
  • How did heresies like Marcionism and Gnosticism threaten the Church?
  • If you have a Bible that says “with apocrypha” keep in mind that it’s not referring to the fake Apostolic books. It’s referring to the Old Testament Scripture that the Protestant Reformers removed from their canon. This is different than the gnostic writings that threatened the early Church. In other words, the books that Orthodox and Catholics call “apocrypha” are the fake Christian writings that were being circulated before the New Testament canon was formed. Make sure you understand the difference between these two types of “apocryphal” books before moving on! 
  • Some examples of fake Christian gospels are the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Pilate and the Gospel of Hebrews. How do we know these were fake gospels and not genuine Apostolic gospels?
  • Some people say the Gospel of Judas is dated 250AD or 300 AD, which is pretty ancient. That’s ancient indeed, but why isn’t that old enough to be accepted as a genuine historical record? (Hint: Think about the difference between writing a historical account of what happened in WWII compared to writing one about the Civil War… using only eye-witness testimony of people who lived it.)
  • Besides fake gospels, we also have false acts, like the Acts of Peter and Paul, the Acts of Paul and Thecla, Acts of Philip, etc. There were also false epistles, like a third letter of Paul to the Corinthians (one was actually real but it has been lost), the epistle of Paul to the Laodiceans, the epistle of Peter to Philip and others. There were also false apocalypses, such as the Apocalypse of Peter. What are your thoughts on all these fake writings and how they relate to the creation of the New Testament canon?
  • The Jews rejected writings as well, such as the Apocalypse of Moses. What did the Jews call these writings that were never accepted into the Hebrew canon?
  • When deciding on the canon, for the most part the canon of the Old Testament was the Septuagint. That was not an issue. But the question of what should be considered Christian Scripture was a discussion in the Church that spanned more 200 years (from around 200AD to 400AD). While there was never a serious challenge about the acceptance of the four Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, 13 of Paul’s epistles, 1 John and 1 Peter into the canon, other books were hotly debated. Which books were these, who questioned them, and why?
  • Which books did some Christians initially accept (that appeared on some early canonical lists) but that ultimately didn’t make it into the 27-book New Testament canon?
  • Why aren’t all books that were ultimately rejected as Scripture, such as the Didache, The Shepard of Hermas, the Epistles of Ignatius, Barnabus and Clement considered “apocrypha?”
  • There was no “Bible” as we know it for early Christians. The first Christians living at the time of Paul and the Apostles didn’t even have Apostolic writings or certainly not the full canon that we have today. There was no early Christian community that had all of the copies of the books we have today. And then, even though they had some of those writings, they didn’t consider them to be Scripture. They were just some writings of the Apostles. What does this do to the “sola Scriptura” argument within the Protestant tradition? If all we need are the Scriptures, what did Christians do before they had Scriptures? Certainly they had the Jewish Scriptures but they didn’t have Christian Scriptures. And when they had some Christian Scriptures they didn’t have all of the New Testament we have today. And even if they had all of those books for some reason they weren’t considered Scripture equal to the Jewish Scriptures. And the Church was not even in agreement about which Apostolic writings should be considered Scripture until at least 400AD… and in the East not even then because the Book of Revelation wasn’t accepted as Scripture by most Eastern Christians until much, much later. Can you see why “sola Scriptura” cannot be the basis for the teachings of the Early Church? The early Church depended upon Apostolic Tradition — that’s what mattered — that you preserve Apostolic Tradition. Even your canon didn’t matter. You can accept certain books of Scripture and someone else could accept others and still be entirely orthodox in doctrine. What mattered was that you preserved Apostolic teaching — not which books, but how you understood those books was what mattered. So there was no sense of “sola Scriptura” in the early Church. What are your thoughts on all of this?

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