The Emergence Of The Canon

Apart from familiar church buildings, the New Testament is surely the feature of the Christian religion most taken for granted. It is read in every church service and its language colours prayers and hymns. Even in secularized Western countries, it plays a part in school education and figures in many current idioms of speech. Judges and lawyers reach for it when they want to insist on adherence to oaths (even though the New Testament itself is against oath-taking!). Scarcely ever is it thought of as other than a single unit, even more so than the Bible as a whole, and it might as well have existed from the furthest reaches of time.

Yet sharp historically minded critics will point out that for the first four centuries of Christianity's existence this 'unit' did not exist as the accepted ('canonical') whole we are familiar with and that for the last four it has been subject to a creeping process of disintegration, in the form of historical and literary analysis, examining and describing it part by part, bit by bit. Other elements in scholarly opinion will rebut this striking revisionism, pointing to the role of something very close to the New Testament from early days and to its very substantial unities of theme and message. No doubt it is judicious to seek truth somewhere between these two extremes. Plainly, much depends on how close the observer stands to the history and the documents themselves and on the roles they are being asked to play in any particular context.

This chapter concerns the origins of the New Testament. Inevitably, therefore, it moves from the parts to the whole. Equally, because it focuses on matters that are in themselves small and detailed, it works by way of distinctions and diversities. That is the dominant modern manner and virtually imposes itself. It will emerge in other chapters that in other periods Christianity has had much more of any eye for homogeneity and synthesis in its view of the New Testament—as this section began by noting in relation to its everyday use.

It has to be said at the outset that much in any analysis of Christian origins remains obscure, and this subject is no exception. The evidence is meagre and even where it seems relatively abundant, it is hard to interpret and to set in context. So it is a study where there is much controversy, even among the learned, and much diversity of opinion. There is no need to be deterred from forming pictures and there is such a thing as the balance of probability, but certainty is hard to come by. Now we turn to the various kinds of early Christian writing (Aune 1987).

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