The Canon: Thoughts on the First-Generation
6. The Literature as Collected and Transmitted
The story of the canon in the first century is the story of a
Christian oral tradition alongside the Old Testament and to this
functional canon the addition of the individual New Testament documents
as these were written.
After the New Testament writings made their appearance, they were
copied and circulated and brought together into collections. This
process began in the first century and proceeded apace in the second.
A little is known about this process from references to it in
Christian literature and from a few manuscripts surviving from the third
The Four Gospels
If these had not
been brought together into a single one-volume collection by the end of
the first century, they soon would be. The collection would be called
To Euangelion—“The Gospel.”
Nowhere in the New Testament or the earliest Christian literature
does the term euangelion exactly refer to a book. It is
always something that is spoken or preached. Luke calls written
works like his by the term diêgêsis, “narrative” (Lk. 1:1), and
in Acts he refers to the Book of Luke as ho prôtos logos, “volume
one,” as logos is a literary term for a work’s separate books.
The word euangelion became attached to our Gospels by at least
as early as the mid-second century. Justin Martyr mentions the
“memoirs composed by [the apostles] which are called Gospels” (Apology
66, dating ca. 150). These memoirs, he says, are read in church on
Sundays alongside the
writings of the prophets (i.e., the Old Testament) (Apology
The titles by which the four Gospels are now called were attached to
them when they were assembled into the one-volume edition, and are
therefore evidence of this process. The
simplest names consist of two words, such as Kata Loukan,
“According to Luke,” found in Codex Vaticanus of the fourth century.
The more usual designation is Euangelion kata Loukan, “Gospel
according to Luke.” The titles show that although there are four
books, there is one gospel. This is what Irenaeus means when he
speaks of the “four forms of the gospel” (Against Heresies
3.11.9). For Irenaeus (ca. 180) the fact that there are neither more nor
fewer than four authentic
Gospels is as self–evident as that there are four winds and four points
of the compass (Against Heresies 3.11.8–9).
It was also in the second century that some people thought it a good
idea to merge the four Gospels together into a single continuous
narrative. A Harmony of the four Gospels is known to have been made by
Theophilus of Antioch (second century), because it is mentioned by
Jerome in a letter (121.6.15, dating from
a.d. 406): “Theophilus .
. . quattuor Evangelistarum in unum opus compingens.” Jerome says that
Theophilus wrote a commentary on his Gospel harmony, and quotes a
passage from it in this letter. But both the harmony and the commentary
have otherwise vanished.
A Harmony of Ammonius of Alexandria is also known to have
existed, although it too has now disappeared. We know of it from a
letter written by Eusebius to Carpian. (This is Eusebius of Caesarea,
ca. 260–ca. 339, the well-known church historian.) Eusebius states that Ammonius made a fourfold Gospel (τὸ διὰ τεσσάρων
. . . εὐαγγέλιον) by
taking the Gospel of Matthew and placing beside it parallel sections
from the other Gospels.
Ammonius’ arrangement would have preserved the order of Matthew, but
Eusebius objected that it destroyed the train of thought of the other
Gospels. This was an obvious disadvantage, and Eusebius devised a set of
tables that showed the relationships among the Gospels without
disturbing their individual integrity. His tables are so immediately useful
that they were reproduced in Gospel manuscripts thereafter, and are
printed even today in the standard edition of the Greek New Testament.
Another harmony was made in Greek by Tatian around 170 and was known
as the Diatessaron (“Through the Four”). For some time,
in a Syriac version, the Diatessaron
served as the Gospel of the Syrian church. But by the early fifth
century, Tatian was in bad odor as a heretic, and so the Syrian church
replaced his harmony with the four Gospels.
Now the point in all this is that by the middle of the second
century, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John existed not just in widely
separated locations, but in some locations existed all together in a
scholar’s study or church library and were regarded as the four which—if
a person were disposed to do it—would be amalgamated into a single harmony. They had become the four
The Letters of Paul
The originals of Paul’s letters were delivered to widely scattered
places, from central Asia Minor to
Italy, destinations separated by over a
thousand miles. And yet within a relatively short time we find
Christians with copies of them in towns other than the ones to which
they were first sent.
Paul himself encouraged the circulation of his letters. He instructed
the Christians in Colossae, “When this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea” (Col. 4:16). Even without Paul’s
prompting, Christians knew that his letters were of great interest and
importance. They produced copies, and these spread far and wide among
By the time the second Letter of Peter was written, Paul’s writings
were known to a wide audience, were held in high regard, and in this
passage are included among the scriptures.
So also our beloved brother Paul
wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as
he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to
understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own
destruction, as they do the other scriptures. (2 Pet. 3:15–16)
Christian writings from the early years of the second century show
continued interest in Paul’s letters.
Around a.d. 100 the
elders of the church in Rome wrote a letter to the church in Corinth. Near the end, they refer to Paul’s
earlier letter to Corinth.
Pick up the letter of the blessed
apostle Paul. What was the primary thing he wrote to you . . . ? To
be sure, under the Spirit’s guidance, he wrote to you about himself
and Cephas and Apollos, because even then you had formed cliques. (1
Paul’s letter 1 Corinthians (or a copy of it) was still in Corinth some fifty years after Paul wrote it, and there was
a copy of it in Rome,
now, too. It was treated as inspired scripture, as shown by the remark
that Paul wrote it “under the Spirit’s guidance.”
In the late second century, twelve African Christians were brought into the
law court because of their faith. When the proconsul asked what they were
carrying with them, their spokesman said, “Books, and letters of a just
man named Paul.” From this we may infer that by 180, in the area around
Carthage, there existed a collection of Paul’s letters in Latin
translation. (See the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs).
By the year 200, we have a surviving manuscript of
collected letters of Paul. One of the Chester Beatty Papyri (p46) is a
single-quire papyrus codex of eighty-six leaves, all slightly mutilated,
that originally consisted of 104 leaves containing, in this order,
Romans, Hebrews, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Galatians, Philippians,
Colossians, and 1 and 2 Thessalonians. There seems however to have been
no room in the manuscript for Timothy, Titus, and Philemon.
Then two things happened, and they illustrate how the wide church
responded when someone proposed a literature other than the Old
Testament and the New Testament.
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