From the very beginning the Christians had revered the Jewish scriptures, had seen in them the preparation for Christ, and had read them in their services. Gradually, by common usage and consent, books of Christian authorship were also brought together. From a very early date several of the letters of Paul were read in the assemblies of Christians, The Four Gospels won acceptance, so that Irensus, writing in the second half of the second century, while recognizing that some questioned the position of The Gospel according to John, stoutly maintained that there must be four Gospels, no more and no less. Marcion, as we have noted, seems to have been the first to assemble some of the Christian writings into a well-defined collection. This, as we have seen, included The Gospel according to Luke and some of the letters of Paul, edited to make them conform to Mar-cion's convictions.
It is possible that Marcion's initiative accelerated the formation of an authoritative collection by the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church obviously wished to have a recognized body of documents to which it could appeal as containing the records of the life and words of Jesus and what had been taught by the original apostles. As against Gnostics and Marcionites it could point to them for dependable data to determine what the Gospel was on which the Christian faith was based. The test for inclusion in the collection was authorship by an apostle or a close friend of an apostle.
Only gradually was universal assent given to the twenty-seven books which now comprise the New Testament. Some books were later than others in winning inclusion. The Gospel according to John, as Irensus is evidence, was not accepted as quickly as were the first three Gospels. The Revelation of John, the only prophetic book to be admitted, was long questioned. The letters called Hebrews, James, II Peter, and II and III John were included in some lists but one or more of them were omitted in others. Several books not now among the twenty-seven were for a time here and there used in public reading as though they belonged in the canon. Among them were the letter of Clement to the Corinthians, already noted, the Didache, The Shepherd of Hermas (a series of revelations originating in Rome), the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Epistle of Barnabas.
It may be that The Revelation of John was viewed with suspicion and that the other writings of Christian prophets did not find a permanent place in the canon because of the distrust with which those prophets claiming to be the mouthpieces of the Holy Spirit were viewed by the bishops and their clergy. The Montanists, with their assertion that Spirit-inspired prophet's continued to arise in the Christian community, were a challenge to the administrative regularity represented by the bishops, and their rejection by the Catholic Church may have accentuated the distrust for the prophets and their writings. Certainly prophets, accorded a place in the early Church next to the apostles, were no longer granted recognition by the Catholic Church. Inspiration through prophets was supposed to have ceased with the apostolic age.
The first list which has come down to us of the twenty-seven books which embraces only those which appear in our New Testament is in a letter written by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, in the year 367. While it was not until long after that date that uni form agreement on the list was found among all teachers in the Catholic Church, by at least the end of the second century a body of writings embracing a majority of the present twenty-seven was being regarded in the Catholic Church as the New Testament and was being placed alongside the Jewish scriptures. The latter were thought of as the Old Testament and were interpreted in the light of the former.
It was, then, by the slow consensus of the Church that the New Testament was assembled and accorded recognition as especially inspired. It was not merely supposed actual apostolic authorship which ensured for a book inclusion in the New Testament. This had an important place. It was also by the test of experience through long use that the Christian community came to recognize in the writings which were admitted to the accepted canon a quality which distinguished them from those books which were rejected, a quality which to the Christian mind was and continues to be evidence of a peculiar degree of divine inspiration, the crown of the process of revelation recorded in the Old Testament.
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