Breaking news: Early Christians had no New Testament (NT 2.1)

In teaching early Christianity in a university setting, there are a number of assumptions and views that need to be corrected or dismantled in order to clear the way for students to make better sense of these ancient documents. Something that does not often occur to students and which needs to be highlighted again and again is that Christians of the first three centuries (and even beyond) did not have a New Testament! You heard me.

They did have what they considered scriptures, namely the Jewish writings known as the Law and the Prophets, but the process that led to the collection of writings or canon we now know as the “New Testament” was a long one. (Obviously the notion of the Jewish scriptures being the “Old Testament” would have to await the existence of the “New” one). See Mark Goodacre’s list of links to online resources relating to canon for further discussions. In fact, the earliest evidence we have of any church body establishing a list of authoritative Christian books that coincides exactly with the 27 books now in the New Testament was in 393 CE. Even that emerged out of a local meeting of church authorities in North Africa rather than some “universal” decision that was implemented in some way.

The process that led to the collection of writings that were considered authoritative as scripture, namely the canon, was a long one which I will not detail here, except to note that early on Christians were collecting and using Christian writings of various sorts. Sometimes one community used the same writings as another community, but seldom did everyone agree which ones should be considered “scripture”, if they considered this issue at all. In some cases writings accepted by one community could be utterly rejected as “heretical” by another, as was the case with many “gnostic” writings. The process of choosing the writings that were considered canon and excluding certain other documents was, in some ways, the triumph of one Christian view over another. To provide another example, in the mid-second century Marcion of Sinope had clear ideas of what he would include in an authoritative collection, including the Gospel of Luke and certain letters of Paul, but he did so in a way that tried to excise any passages that seemed to equate the Jewish God with the God who sent Jesus (he thought there were two gods involved).

Others disagreed with Marcion, although some began to agree that it was worthwhile thinking about defining which writings were authoritative. One early list of writings that has survived, known as the Muratorian canon (perhaps from around 200 CE), happens to largely coincide with the books that were later included in the New Testament. But other Christians at this time would make a different list nonetheless, and even the Muratorian canon mentions an Apocalypse of Peter (perhaps the same one available here) which some held to be authoritative but which did not ultimately make it into the New Testament. And the issue of including or excluding the Apocalypse of John, also known as Revelation, continued to be hotly debated into the fourth century, for instance.

Rather than get further into the long and complicated history behind the formation of the canon of scripture, here I wanted to briefly mention one important implication of the non-existence of the New Testament in the first centuries. In particular, the lack of any established, authoritative collection of writings and the variations in the writings used by different Christian groups reflected and further facilitated the continuation of variety or diversity among early Christians. And when there were differences of opinion regarding belief or practice among these diverse Christian groups, there was no set of early Christian writings that everyone could agree was the measure (the meaning of the word “canon” is “measure” or “rule”) or authority to settle disputes regarding what belief or practice was right or wrong.

This means that the modern student of early Christianity should not assume that the views expressed in any one writing are somehow representative of all early Christian views. It also means that we should refrain from solving the dilemnas encountered in studying one early Christian writing by turning to another by a different author, as though they are all the same. Finally, we should consider the writings in the New Testament within the broader context of early Christian literature that did not make it in, and give each its due.

For more on the diversity of early Christianity, see my series on the Christian Apocrypha and “Gnosticism”. For more on the development of the canon, see the resources mentioned on NTGateway.

7 thoughts on “Breaking news: Early Christians had no New Testament (NT 2.1)

  1. Phil S

    A quick comment.

    I would fully grant the diversity of early Christianity, but I have a few quibbles. There is no doubt that the explicit imposition of a canon dates to the 4th century, but, as far as I’ve seen, the evidence points to a growing agreement, at least among groups which we would recognize as catholic or orthodox (or proto-orthodox, if you prefer), about what books should be read as inspired. The Gospels and many of the Letters of Paul being the earliest which were widely accepted in this category, if we are to judge from both the Muratorian Canon and the early Fathers. That means that there was a strand (or stands) of early Christianity which gradually worked out what is our canon which, the evidence suggests, was not merely local, but grew increasingly accepted throughout the Christian world. Undoubtedly, this points to a more gradual process than many literalist Christians might suggest, but I’m not sure this is as much of a coincidence as some scholars have suggested either (Bauer, if I recall him properly, seems to imply this).

    Peace,
    Phil

  2. Phil Harland Post author

    Thanks Phil S.

    I would not totally disagree with some aspects of what you are saying. In particular, there were probably a good number of Christians or Christian groups making use of, say, the gospel of Matthew or the Gospel of Luke. And Paul’s letters were among those that circulated to various groups and were used within (primarily) Gentile forms of Christianity. However, we tend to see things from the end of the process and wrongly assume that the writings in the New Testament were the only ones that were widely used. That is clearly not the case. Some that were widely used, say 1 Clement, did not make it in. And I would not assume that what later became “orthodoxy” had some clear coherence as a united group in the majority at an early point. What some scholars call the “orthodox” or the “proto-orthodox” was in fact a mixed bag itself with likely disagreements on which writings should be used most.

    On the other hand, many writings that made it in would be totally rejected by certain followers of Jesus. A Jewish-Christian of the so called “Ebionite” persuasion would certainly not accept any of Paul’s letters, which now make up a large portion of our New Testament, for instance.

    That being said, perhaps I should clarify that my concern is historical and not with evaluating who was right or wrong among the early Christians or among modern Christians (in terms of what should or should not be used as authoritative for faith). And so I would tend to include as important those groups (and their writings) who were later excluded from what developed into orthodox or “universal” (catholic) Christianity in my historical investigations.

    Phil Harland

  3. Phil S

    I had already assumed that your major concern in your entry was primarily historical and I believe I was answering in kind. As I noted in my original post, I have no issue with the idea that there was diversity among Christians in the early centuries of Christian history. That really does go without saying. A quick glance at the later letters of Paul should make clear that there was diversity in Christian beliefs, especially around an understanding of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and about the Christian relationship with Judaism. The rest of the extant Christian writers from the 1st to 3rd centuries CE support the same conclusion.

    Further, it goes without saying that any historian of early Christianity should examine the writings of non-orthodox groups. They are important sources in understanding the theological and practical debates in the Christian communities in thsi period. Ignoring them has always struck me as the historical equivilent of sticking one’s head in the sand.

    Yet, what interests me in your response is your comments on orthodox or proto-orthodox groups. I’m going to refrain from commenting too much because I suspect that we might trip up on definitions here and, as a result, argue past each other. So, I’m going to restrict myself to asking you what you mean by ‘orthodox’ Christianity? I recognize your caveat about whether this is applicable term for the period we’re talking about, but I’m trying to understand your caution in accepting the existence of orthodox or proto-orthodox groups in the early centuries of Christianity.

    Phil S.

  4. Phil Harland Post author

    Hello Phil S.

    My caution in using terms such as “orthodox” or “proto-orthodox” to describe an entire group or several groups of early Christians is that it brings together under one heading persons who would likely disagree with one another on this or that important issue or who would have disagreements on this or that writing being excluded or included in some authoritative collection or list. Often, the group is imagined to exist across time, even generations or centuries, which imagines a higher degree of continuity than I am able to find in the sources. (Some of the ancient participants, of course, posited that their views, but not their opponents’, derived from the apostles through some continuing succession; but both sides in the battles claimed similar things or claimed that the others’ views derived from Simon Magus or some such ancestor of heresy, of poorly chosen belief).

    “Orthodox” or even “proto-orthodox” is a very relative term, I would suggest, and difficult to pin on this or that person or group. While one person (or group) may view themselves as orthodox, as holding to true belief, another would think the same person (or group) was a heretic in regard to some point. As well, someone considered “orthodox” at one point may no longer be considered so later by a particular person or group, and the basis for this evaluation would be something other than something “measurable” for the historian.

    So it becomes difficult for us as historians 2000 years later to decide who to group under the rubric of the scholarly term “(proto-)orthodox” Christianity, I think, even though we certainly mean something other than what participants in those battles meant. I also question the usefulness in grouping this way since, in some ways, it feels like another way of saying that some opinion won in the end and, since we like to have relatively clear explanations, we claim we can trace the ancestors of that opinion (regarding canon or whatever).

    There’s much more to it than that, but at least my spontaneous comments here indicate the sorts of things that make me hesitant. Nonetheless, I still use such terms sometimes with extensive caveats, qualifications, and warnings; perhaps I shouldn’t at all, but I do understand why people do use them to attempt an explanation of one group (or group of groups) winning in the end. Such terms can be misleading in other ways though.

    You may find my earlier series on the early Christian Apocrypha and diversity in early Christianity of some interest on precisely these issues (look under the category Christian origins in the right column).

    Thanks again for engaging on this issue.

    Phil Harland

  5. Phil S

    Thanks for your reply and I do certainly want to have a look at your earlier writing (back to school busyness is getting in the way right now) on this issue.

    As a quick comment, I see your point, but I think what worries me about it is that there is an implicit assumption that everyone within an intellectual tradition needs to agree with each other in order to consider it a tradition. I don’t think that is true at any time, but it is particularly untrue in the earliest stages of the formation of the tradition (for that matter, in the later stages of its disintegration). The question in any disagreement is not that all adherents of orthodoxy believed all the same things, but rather whether a disagreement is so severe that the parties don’t even have a common point of authority to work towards settling the controversy. Unfortunately, the line between disagrement within a tradition and an identified heresy is thin, so this makes any scholarly assessment of where a controversy falls extremly difficult.

    I hope that makes sense as I’m rather tired tonight.

    Phil

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