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The Canon: Thoughts on the First-Generation Christian Literature


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 century.

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 67).

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).

Gospel Harmonies

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 collected Gospels.

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 the churches.

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 Clement 47.1–30)

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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