The Canon of the New Testament

The formation and preservation of the Canon of the New Testament is certainly due to the direct influence of divine Providence moving second agents to execute the will of God. Still it was not the primary design of Christ to deliver to the world a written code of his doctrines. He inaugurated the great work of the Kingdom of God by oral preaching. He wrote nothing; neither did He impose any precept on those whom He had chosen to write. He bade them preach. He redeemed the world from sin; taught it his Gospel by word of mouth, and founded a living, teaching agency to carry on His work forever. These were principal. Out of these came the divine Scriptures in the designs of Providence; not to supersede Christ’s way of teaching the world, but to be a means, a deposit, whence the Church should draw, and give to the people.

In fact, all the terms which Christ used in enunciating his design of teaching the world, demonstrate that the principal and ordinary means of teaching mankind was ever to be the living word by preaching. No other means would be adequate to accomplish that which Christ willed. The world of that day could not be reached through the medium of letters. Since the invention of printing, and the general diffusion of literature, ideas may be rapidly spread by the press; but the message of Christ was given to man before such means existed for the communication of thought. Moreover, the message of Christ was for the poor and the illiterate, as well as for the savant; for busy toilers who had not time nor philosophical depth to draw the Message from the written instrument, and Christ established the only means capable of teaching all nations—the magisterium of the Church . The children of men were lambs who had need to be fed, and Christ gave them an eternal succession of shepherds.

The Apostles adopted the method of their Master. “Aided by the illumination of the Holy Spirit, and relying on the sole power of Christ, which wrought many miracles by them, they announced the Kingdom of Heaven throughout the world; neither did they take thought to write books, for they fulfilled a far greater and sublimer office. Paul, who is preeminent among all the Apostles in richness of diction and depth of thought, wrote nothing except a few epistles, although he could have expounded many mysteries. . . . And the other co-laborers of the Lord, the twelve Apostles, the seventy disciples, and many others, were by no means ignorant (of these mysteries). Nevertheless, of all the disciples of the Lord, only Matthew and John left us a written word; and we are told that they were moved to write by a particular need.” (Euseb. Hist. Eccles. III. 24.)

“What,” says Irenaeus, “if the Apostles had not left us the Scriptures? Would it not be necessary to follow the traditions of those to whom they committed the Churches? Verily this method many barbarous nations adopt, who believe in Christ without ink and paper, having the law of salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, and faithfully holding to the old tradition, believing in one God, etc.” (Irenaeus, Migne 7, 855.) Again: “The tradition of the Apostles, manifested in the whole world, may be learned in every Church by those who wish to know the truth, and we can enumerate the bishops constituted by the Apostles and their successors even to our day.” (Irenaeus, Migne, 7, 848.)

Wherefore, they err greatly who constitute the Scriptures the sole means of teaching Christ’s message; for many churches were flourishing before any of the N. T. existed. The dates of the Gospels cannot be fixed with precision. For the Gospel of Matthew, Catholic opinion ranges over the period included between the years 36 and 67 of the Christian era; the period for Mark is from the year 40 to the year 70; Luke’s Gospel is variously placed from the year 47 to the year 63, while the Gospel of St. John is assigned to the closing years of the first Christian century. Many concur in the opinion which places the Acts of the Apostles in the year 64 of our era.

The dates of some of the Epistles of Paul may be assigned with a good degree of certitude. The Epistles to the Thessalonians were written about the year 53; the first Epistle to the Corinthians, in the first months of the year 57; the second Epistle, in the autumn of the same year. The Epistle to the Romans was written toward the close of the year 57 or in the beginning of 58; the Epistle to the Galatians preceded that to the Romans, and ranges between the year 55 and 57. The Epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians, the Epistle to the Colossians, and the Epistle to Philemon are by Loisy placed during the captivity of Paul, from the year 61 to 64. It is more difficult to assign the proper date of the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and the Epistle to the Hebrews. Modem exegetes are of accord in placing them at a later date than the preceding.

The Epistle of St. James is later than the Epistle to the Romans, and internal evidence is therein that St. James was conversant with the Epistle to the Romans. Its probable date might be placed about the year 60. The Epistles of St. Peter are ascribed to the last years of his life. According to Eusebius and Jerome, the prince of the Apostles was martyred in the third year of Nero’s reign, about the year 67.

The Epistle of St. Jude has a close affinity with the second Epistle of St. Peter, but whether Peter drew from Jude, or Jude from Peter is not clear. They who defend the first hypothesis assign the year 65 as the date of St. Jude’s Epistle, while the advocates of the second hypothesis assign a later date. The first Epistle of St. John may be considered as a sort of preface to his Gospels, and written at the same time; the second and third Epistles are of a little later date. The Apocalypse according to the most ancient testimonies, and particularly that of St. Irenaeus, was written toward the close of the reign of Domitian, about the year 95.

Though these are approximate dates, they are precise enough to establish the fact that several years of intense Apostolic work had elapsed before the first writing appeared. And in that period churches had been founded in Palestine, and other parts of the Eastern world, and probably also at Rome. The Church and the apostolic priesthood was principal; the Scriptures were a means which the Church was to use. But as God wished to provide adequately for the propagation and preservation of the Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven, he also brought it about that there should be preserved in writing some of the most important truths of the New Dispensation. The spirit of truth who was sent to suggest all things necessary in the new economy, moved the holy men to commit certain things to writing. But these writings owe their origin to special occasions, and particular circumstances. Primarily they were intended for someone or few individuals or churches. Gradually they became interchanged and disseminated among the churches, and it is only in the third century that we find any church having a complete list of the Holy Books of the New Law.

We place, therefore, as a leading proposition, that the writers of the New Law wrote with no design to compile a code of Scripture. They wrote to supply some particular need that which they knew to be the Word of God; the future destiny of their writings to form a sacred deposit was hidden from them. The mode of the formation of the body of Scriptures of the New Law was by gradual accession. Documents written to some individual person or Church were copied and sent to others. Paul recognizes and makes use of this method in his Epistle to the Colossians: “And when this Epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the Church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the Epistle from Laodicea.” [Coloss. IV. 16.]

That it was likewise characteristic of the early Christians to carefully preserve writings of doctrinal import may be inferred from a passage in the writings of St. Polycarp. “The Epistles,” he says, “of Ignatius (Martyr), which were sent us by him, and others, as many as we had, we have sent to you, as you requested; they accompany this letter, and from them you will receive much profit.” (S. Polycarp. Ad Phil. 13.) If such diligence and care were bestowed on the Epistles of Ignatius Martyr, much more would be bestowed on the writings of the Apostles and Founders of Christianity. We see also in the testimony an evidence of the method of communicating writings among the churches. Both agencies combined brought it about that the several churches soon had their sacred deposit of the New Law; though many years elapsed before we find the list complete in any church; and many more, before all the churches had the complete Canon.

Even in the writings of the authors of the New Testament, we find allusions to certain collections of the Scriptures of the New Law. In his second Epistle, Peter speaks of the Epistles of Paul as of writings generally known to the Christians: “Wherefore, dearly beloved, waiting for these things, be diligent … as also our most dear brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, hath written, as also in all his Epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which the unlearned and the unstable, wrest, as also the other Scriptures, to their own perdition.” (II. Peter III. 14-16.)

“In this place,” says Estius, “Peter canonizes, so to speak, Paul’s Epistles. For in saying ‘as also the other Scriptures,’ he, in truth, declares that he placed them among the Holy Scriptures.”

Comely adduces a proof from the First Epistle to Timothy to prove that Paul was conversant with the Gospel of Luke. Paul speaks thus: “For the Scripture saith, ‘Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn’; and, The laborer is worthy of his hire.'” (I. Tim. V. 18). The first sentence of Paul’s quotation is taken from Deuteronomy XXV. 4. From the context, it is plainly evident to him who reads that the second sentence is also adduced as Holy Scripture. The passage exists in Luke X. 7, and the illation is just that Paul quotes here as divine Scripture a passage of the Third Gospel. Hence we infer that, at the writing of the Epistle to Timothy, Luke’s written Gospel existed, and was known to the Christians as Holy Scripture.

Up to our times, the universal belief of Christians held that the disciples and first successors of the Apostles placed the works of the authors of the New Testament with the books of the Old Testament, as of equal divinity and authority. The rationalistic plague which infected the world in our times, first essayed to overthrow this universally accepted truth, claiming that the writings of the Apostles are never quoted in the solemn formulas used of the Old Testament, and that the words of the Lord are quoted from oral traditions.

To meet this opposition, we must first set forth some of the characteristics of those early times.

It is true that oral communication prevailed in those times. Not every one could have a manuscript of the written word, but all heard the voice of those “who preached peace.” The intense activity of the first teachers of the New Law made Christ and his Law a living reality in every land. The Gospel was not so much a written reality as a living reality. The events had taken place in no remote age; the first Christians received their doctrine from those who announced that “which they had heard, which they had seen with their eyes—which they had looked upon, and their hands had handled.” Therefore, it is not to be expected to find numerous explicit quotations from the written deposit in those early days. The early teachers preached much, and wrote little. Much of what they wrote has succumbed to the ravages of time. They used the Gospel of Christ, not so much as a written deposit, but as a present living reality, and part of the life of the people. Men of those days received the doctrine of Christ not from books, but by the living word of preaching; they handed it down to others in the same manner in which they had received it. But yet there is evidence that when one of the Books of the New Testament did come into existence, it was recognized as the word of God. Those who received it did not make an analysis of the concept of inspiration to canonize it. It came from the men who had brought them the message of peace; it embodied what they had received from those who preached Christ to them, and this was its perfect warrant. Thus the Books of the New Law first came into the churches as individual instruments; then as groups; and, lastly, a complete list was formed by communication between the churches.

[A general introduction to the study of Holy Scriptures, A. E. Breen, pp. 529-534]