Though the word canon can mean many things the definition of canon concerned here is the collection of sacred books accepted as genuine. That issue of genuine communication from God is one particularly pertinent to the Christian since so much hangs on the Christ that is only revealed in this text. If the text of scripture were false, the Christian would have almost no grounds to stand in faith on. The Jewish canon of the Old Testament was widely accepted from the start probably because Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles accepted them. There were and still are some arguments over the Apocrypha texts and their inclusion in canon, most Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches accept the Apocrypha while most Protestant groups do not. However, the matter of The New Testament was not so easily settled. Detweiler puts the matter this way, ” The question, what is a sacred text? … sacred for whom?, made sacred by whom? and according to what definitions of textuality?”; and Detweiler replies to these questions by stating that the readers reaction to the text is what defines the text (Detweiler, 1985, p. 213). Detweiler may have been onto a part of the reason and rationale in talking about the readers reaction, however, since this is a matter that defines the terms of belief for Christianity the criterion used when selecting the books that are or are not canon is not a light matter. Shelley outlines three over-arching important factors that played into the books that were or were not excepted by the early church: self-evidencing in their power to transform lives, used in Christian worship, and written by an apostle (Shelley, 2013, pp. 68 – 69).
The Jewish Scriptures
The Jewish text that came to be called the Old Testament were often quoted by Jesus. Perhaps the most powerful example of this is His talk with the two on the road to Emmaus when Jesus said “… beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27, NIV). This story of Jesus is not alone. Paul quoted extensively from the Jewish texts, in Romans chapter 3 alone, Paul quotes from Psalms, Proverbs, and Isaiah. The writer of Acts extols the Bereans for examining “… the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11, NIV). The only Scriptures that had been written at this time were the Jewish texts as this event was in Paul’s second trip near 49 A.D. All this usage of Jewish Scripture means that the Jewish text was not only accepted by the early church but they met with Shelley’s three important factors for canonical text: When interpreted in the light of Christ they are transformative, they were used in Christian worship and, if not written by, they were at least approved by the apostles.
The New Testament
The New testament is not so easy to outline as the Jewish text that were already in existence when Christ came. The task may not be easy but the need was evident. With Gnostic teachers creeping into the church and the power base that was Jerusalem destroyed in 70 A.D., the church needed a ruler by which to draw the line of what was to be called heresy. At this time the church was lead by Bishops and most recognizable and respected of this group of men was the bishop of the Church at Rome (Shelley, 2013, p. 77). Up to 100 A.D. there was no collection of canonical text (Shelley, 2013, p. 73). Since after the fall of Jerusalem the church at Rome was often looked to as the figurehead of the catholic church that spanned most of the known world it is not surprising that the first collection of New Testament texts were the ones used in the church at Rome. Called the Murtorian canon after its discoverer, this collection dates to about 200 A.D. (Shelley, 2013, p. 73). After this a list of the canon can be found in the writings of Origen, the books that he quoted from, near 250 A.D. (Shelley, 2013, p. 73). The canon was revised yet again by the time Eusebius was writing in 300 A.D. (Shelley, 2013, p. 73). These text that Eusebius used were probably the same texts used at the 325 A.D. council of Nicea to refute Arianism that had rapidly spread throughout the Christian world (Noll, 2012, p. 45). The matter of the canon was not fixed for the western world until 400 A.D. by the council of Carthage. Looking at the list of books that were selected it is seen that they met with Shelley’s three important factors for canonical text: transformative, used in worship, and written by the apostles.
The text of the Old Testament was validated by Jesus himself and He quoted from it and called it the Holy Scripture. The New Testament was about 400 years in the making and it withstood the most intense persecution that any text has ever faced. Down through the years men like Tertullian, Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, Jerome, and Augustine of Hippo have added their scholarship to the understanding of the sacred texts and canon (Lim, 2006). However, even the modern reader can experience the transformative power of the text, hear the texts used in corporate worship, and trace the texts back to the apostles with reasonable accuracy.
Detweiler, R. (1985). What is a sacred text. Semeia, 31213-230.
Lim, R. (2006). The Ascension of Authorship: Attribution and Canon Formation in Jewish, Hellenistic and Christian Traditions. Church History, (4), 880.
Noll, M. (2012). Turning points: Decisive moments in the history of Christianity. (3rd ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
Shelley, B. (2013). Church history in plain language (4th ed.). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.