CH101 - The Second Century

The Persecuted Church, 90 - 202 AD
The New Testament Canon, Part 3

Key People:
Clement of Rome
Ignatius of Antioch
Justin Martyr
Irenaeus of Lyons
Clement of Alexandria

The New Testament Canon, Part 3
We have seen that most of the earliest non-NT Christian documents cite the OT as "scripture" and only make allusion to what is now NT text. Ignatius of Antioch is full of allusions to, and paraphrases of, NT texts. It is only when we come to the second century apologists that verified citations from what we now call NT texts begin to be common.

In the 140's Marcion constructed his own canon which included most of Paul's letters in edited form, along with Luke's gospel. Marcion rejected the other gospels as having been tainted by the Jews. This list by Marcion is the first known listing of what is called a New Testament canon.

Modern Day Critics
There are many modern day scholars (like Bart Ehrman or Elaine Pagels) who accuse the early fathers of "silencing" these other gospels.
It is important to understand that most of these other gospels had too many strange texts and simply did not attract a big following. Modern critics want you to believe that the early church made these decisions based on inherent human weaknesses and prejudices.

In fact, these modern scholars make a critical mistake that good historians strive to avoid - applying modern-day ethics and sensibilities to another historical timeframe. You cannot judge the first three centuries by 21st century standards, especially when those judgements are based on 21st century political correctness.

Read my reviews of Bart Ehrman

Justin Martyr does not cite any NT writing by name, but he designates his several NT citations with "it is recorded," or the "memoirs of the apostles." He refers to the "Gospels" saying,

For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, "This do ye in remembrance of Me..."   First Apology 66

Sometime around 170-175 Tatian, possibly a disciple of Justin, created a harmony of the four orthodox gospels known as the Diatessaron. This text was accepted in some circles, even being used to replace the four gospels, but this success was short lived. What this harmony reveals, however, is that the church recognized four gospels.

The four gospels are confirmed by Irenaeus of Lyons in Against the Heresies (cir. 175),

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.   A.H. III,11.8

Irenaeus also quotes from, or alludes to, almost all the documents that become the orthodox NT. These citations are mostly from Pauline works (25+ occurrences from each of these: Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians and Ephesians). His Pauline citations/allusions include all three "Pastoral" epistles. The other general NT letters get scant recognition and a few are totally absent (Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John, and Jude). He also refers to a few non-NT documents as "inspired" (1 Clement, Shepherd of Hermas).

By the time we come to the end of the second century and look at the citations of Clement of Alexandria (writings cir. 195-202) and Tertullian (writings cir. 205-225) we find hundreds of references from almost every NT document. The NT writings that are excluded by these two men are very similar to that of Irenaeus, but Clement then includes many writings as "scripture" that did not get final acceptance. One can take the citations from Clement and Tertullian and reconstruct the entire NT excluding the 4 or 5 small epistles which they neglect. Indeed, this is a very important factor from this point forward - "Did Clement/Tertullian cite from it?" These are the first two prolific Christian writers. From this point forward we find an increasing number of fathers writings great numbers of documents filled with biblical citations.

The Muratorian canon is a manuscript fragment that represents the oldest known list (or canon) of the New Testament. The beginning and ending of the MS is missing. The document is dated by most scholars about 170 AD. It was discovered in a library in Italy by Ludovico Antonio Muratori, a famous historian of the time. This list consists of the following:
- (Matthew and Mark were apparently named in the beginning of the fragment which is missing)
- Luke and John
- Acts
- all 13 of Paul's letters
- 1 and 2 John is assumed since the writer only names two letters of John
- Jude
- the Revelation of John

This listing omits Hebrews, 1 and 2 Peter, and 3 John. It also names a few documents that do NOT appear in the orthodox NT.

So by the middle of the second century most of the 27 documents in the orthodox NT canon had already gained widespread acceptance, especially the four gospels. It is critical to understand the importance of why only four gospels were accepted. These early fathers were very familiar with the other gospels that were floating around - Marcion's gospel of Luke, various gnostic gospels, and other "proto-orthodox" gospels that simply were not well accepted.

Gnosticism was at its zenith during the second century. There were many Gnostic texts and many orthodox ones as well that did not make the NT canon. Most of the documents that were not accepted had too many bizarre texts and thus did not have a large following. One aspect of why a gospel/document was affirmed to be in the NT was how much acceptance it received among the churches in various regions. This acceptance was also reflected in if, and how much, the church fathers cited the document.

In our next section on the NT we will illustrate some of the bizarre texts that one finds in the various documents that failed to make the orthodox NT canon.

Go to -  The New Testament Canon, Part 4
Download the paper, How the New Testament Canon was Formed

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