Category Archives: Teaching the History of Religion

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). 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”.