This is the fourth installment in our series on The Heresy of Orthodoxy. In this video, Dr. Kruger and I discuss the formation of the New Testament canon. We argue against Bauer’s claim that there was diversity of belief in early Christianity because the New Testament canon was formulated late (in the fourth century). You can also follow the previous installments to our series: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
How and When Was the New Testament Canon Put Together?
AK: Let’s continue talking about … how did we get our New Testament—both the specific books and how do we know that the manuscripts have been faithfully copied and reliably preserved? Starting with the canon—how did we get the canon, and especially, what’s the relationship between canon and covenant?
MK: That’s a great place to start. One of the things that Bauer always claims, as you know, is that when it came to which books Christians read, it’s all over the map. Bauer gave the impression that it was this literary free-for-all. So, our section in this book on canon was designed to push against that to say, “Hold on a second …” Canon is not this sort of wide-open affair that’s late and formulated by Constantine. But it seems to be sort of innate to early Christianity and grows up within it. And one of the ways I show that is by the link between canon and covenant. People think that early Christians were only interested in oral tradition—they weren’t interested in having books anyways—and it was only later that it got pushed on them. But when you realize that the early canon was seen as covenant documents, as God’s deposit of a new covenant arrangement, then you realize: “Well, hold on a second …” Christians thought of what they were in as the new covenant from the start. Jesus, at the Last Supper, declared that “this is an inauguration of the new covenant in my blood.” So, if old covenant arrangements had a written deposit of texts, we just simply make the argument that a new covenant arrangement would likely also have a similar written deposit of texts. And if so, then that just shows you that this idea of a sacred collection of writings is not a late idea. It’s sort of born up within the Christian movement; it grows naturally and innately from within. So, we could even argue in some sense that the seed of the covenant idea was already in the soil even if you couldn’t see the plant yet.
AK: I think that’s a brilliant argument. And I think some people watching this may be interested: “Let’s look at the Gospels, for example. Is it really true that it was only the fourth century that the church decided, we’re going to pick those four Gospels and not just of the Gnostic Gospels like Thomas or Philip or some of the others?” How would we respond to that?
MK: This is a common narrative for those who follow the Bauer thesis—this idea that some people read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but then the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary were equally popular and just as valid and, like you said, not until much later were the decisions made. But when you look at the historical evidence, that’s just not the case at all, as you well know. First of all, as far back as we can see when we look at citations from Gospels, the citations from the canonical Gospels are so much more frequent, so much more common, and outweigh in dramatic fashion citations from any other Gospels.
AK: So, you can go to the Church Fathers, an important body of writings.
MK: Yes, the Church Fathers make it very clear that we’re using these four and not others. And on top of that, you could ask the question: Which books, which Gospels, did the Church Fathers cite as Scripture? And once again, it seems to be Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I also talk about the manuscripts left behind. When we want to know which books Christians were reading, we can determine that by the amount of copies we can find. Again, the canonical Gospels outmatch the apocryphal ones in great numbers. So, all that tells us that when you ask the question about what Gospels Christians were reading, it’s not as if it were up in the air. It seems to be that there was a core collection of Gospels from a very early time and, in a way, that doesn’t seem like it was ever really that much in doubt.
AK: Even in Bart Ehrman’s book The Lost Scriptures, if memory serves, he of course left no stone unturned to find those alternative Gospels. But I think there’s only about 17 Gospels in total listed, including the secret Gospel of Mark, which I think has been unmasked as a hoax, and others that are infancy Gospels, not even covering Jesus’ entire earthly ministry, and sayings collections, which calling them “Gospels” is a misnomer in any case. So, once you really whittle down supposed rival Gospels, it doesn’t take long before the four Gospels are the only four that are left standing.
MK: That’s right. You can ask the question in a different way. You could ask the question this way: Which Gospels in early Christianity look like they’re finishing the Old Testament story? If you ask it like that, then there’s only four—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Because you read a Gospel like the Gospel of Thomas—it’s not at all interested in the Old Testament. It’s not finishing the Old Testament story, it doesn’t place Jesus in the context of Israel or anything like that. And as you mentioned, these sayings Gospels, these infancy Gospels, they’re clearly late, legendary, embellished without an Old Testament framework around it. If early Christians were committed to the Old Testament—and they were—we would expect them to pick Gospels and read Gospels that were viewed as finishing the Old Testament narrative. And when you read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, you can see that that’s what they’re doing. They are presenting themselves as the end of an older story. So, it’s not so much that the story of Jesus is a new story; it’s the completion of an old story. And when you realize that, you realize, “O, wait a second …” Christians wouldn’t have had to look very far to find out which Gospels would have done that.
AK: That’s right. Now, playing devil’s advocate just for another minute here, what about the Gospel of Thomas? You know that the Jesus Seminar published a book, The Five Gospels, and supposedly, listening to many of them—the fellows of the Jesus Seminar—the Gospel of Thomas is the most primitive, the earliest of all of them. On what grounds are we rejecting the Gospel of Thomas?
MK: The Gospel of Thomas, as you indicated, is the darling of many in the Jesus Seminar and in higher critical scholarship. And that’s probably the only Gospel that’s ever been seriously attempted to be placed in the first century along with the canonical four. What’s curious to note, though, is that modern scholarship as a whole has not received that. There’s always some pockets of scholars that try to put Thomas in the first century, but collectively modern scholars have not been persuaded by that. Even Bart Ehrman, whose name we keep mentioning here, doesn’t think Thomas is a first-century Gospel at all. He thinks Thomas is a second-century Gospel and recognizes that there’s very good reasons to think that. I think also of some recent books that have just come out—one by Simon Gathercole and one by Mark Goodacre that have both argued for Thomas as a second-century Gospel. So, the evidence is pretty persuasive that if you want to get back to the first century, there’s only four Gospels that get you there—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
AK: One more issue occasionally comes up, which is that of early canonical lists such as the so-called Muratorian Canon. And as you know, some controversy has swirled around the traditional date for that list, which is around 180 AD, which would be very early. Of course, that canonical list also lists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and only those four Gospels. Tell us a little bit about that controversy and how liberal scholars have tried to marginalize that important piece of historical evidence.
MK: For critical scholars that want to have the idea that there were no set Gospels in early Christianity, the Muratorian Fragment gets in the way. Because that early list, as you indicated traditionally dated in the second century, seems to indicate that everyone was fairly unified around at least the four Gospels. So, some scholars—really led by Albert Sundberg and his initial work and then followed by Geoffrey Hahneman and others—have tried to push the Muratorian list into the fourth century. But once again, what’s interesting is that modern scholars haven’t followed suit as a whole. Certainly, there have been people who’ve followed Sundberg. But as a whole, scholars across the board have regularly realized the evidence just doesn’t put it there. Time and time again, scholars have recognized that the Muratorian Fragment is really a second-century text. What’s interesting about it is that it’s really confirmed by other second-century evidence. Because it’s not alone in the second century as something that advocates four Gospels. You could say, “Look, it’s not just the Muratorian Canon, it’s Irenaeus—four Gospels; Clement of Alexandria—four Gospels; Tertullian soon thereafter—four Gospels. In this time period, the list of the Muratorian Fragment is not an anomaly; it’s just doing what it seems like everyone else is doing.
AK: And so, intriguingly, it turns out that conservatives—who are sometimes accused of maybe tweaking the evidence to make it fit their preconceived notions of doctrine—turn out to actually have the evidence—historical evidence—compellingly on their side.
MK: Yes, it’s fascinating. This is why I think the study of the canon is such a fruitful enterprise for evangelicals. Because time and time again, it seems like there’s a great deal of unity around these books. There can be an attempt to try to say there’s more diversity than there was. We’re not denying that there was some diversity and that there were disagreements here and there, or that people did read other books. But collectively as a whole, there was a core New Testament from a very early time. And that swims right in the face of Bauer’s thesis.