Friday, 19 June 2015

Creating the Christian canon

We take it for granted in the contemporary West that a religion will be based upon holy texts or scripture, but this was almost unknown in the ancient Roman world. Unlike Christianity, which thinks in terms of doctrines one must believe, Roman pagans were more concerned with what one practiced: the rituals, prayers, sacrifices and so on that would encourage the gods to intervene to your benefit. These interventions were for the present, not the grey, mysterious afterlife. The exception at that time was Judaism, which did have a set of scriptures – the Hebrew Bible. Christianity, beginning as a sect within Judaism, inherited both those scriptures and the idea of a canon.

Scripture is any piece of writing regarded by a community as authoritative and holy. However a given piece of scripture is not necessarily part of a canon (from the Greek for ‘list’): an officially approved group of books, defined by both what is on the list, and what is not. Not every religion has one. In Judaism, the canon is the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible. In Islam, it is the Quran. Christianity accepts the Jewish scriptures as the Old Testament, and has its own additional canon, the New Testament.

The writers of the New Testament texts did not think they were writing a ‘new testament’, merely an individual book or letter, and when they spoke of ‘scripture’, they meant the Hebrew Bible. Only after the New Testament was compiled did the Hebrew Bible come to be seen as the ‘Old Testament’ that had to some extent been superseded.

Unlike Roman paganism, which was generally happy to make room for the gods of other nations, and even Judaism, which was not much interested in trying to convert non-Jews, Christianity was missionary. Its adherents insisted that their religion was correct and all others were wrong [1]. This follows from its ideology as a religion addressing not one community but “all nations” (Luke 24:47). Nobody in the world could be right with God unless they accepted Christ and believed the right things. What these were was laid down by a generally accepted authority – at first this was Jesus’s surviving disciples, but as they died out authority passed to the holy books. This was problematic, for as we saw in the last article, there was no single view of Jesus, and in fact the range of belief among groups calling themselves ‘Christian’ was even more wildly diverse than we have discussed. Some groups thought Jesus was human, some that he was divine; some that there was one god, some that there two, or many; some embraced the Judaic legacy, some rejected it outright. Each group thought their version was correct, and claimed legitimisation from one or more texts.

We might see this as a vibrant example of pluralism, except that these ideologies were tied to a very material world: the long debate about which of the many Christian books were ‘correct’ and which weren’t was not purely a battle of ideas but in part a class struggle. Its eventual outcome was the canon we call the New Testament.

Early steps

As local Christian groups organised into hierarchies, the Church’s institutions expanded, and it began to feel a pressing need to settle its many internal arguments.

These Christian structures were alien to the spirit of the itinerant peasant apostles. If Acts is to be believed, the earliest Christians were egalitarian:

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. (Acts 4:32)

This seems to ring true with what we think we know of Jesus as a champion of the poor. But Christianity has always been troubled by the contradictions of the class forces it tries to embrace. By the early 2nd century power was increasingly centralised into the hands of deacons, overseen in turn by presbyters (‘elders’) and bishops. Though in the early years the bishops were elected by popular vote, this was rolled back over the next few centuries. These upper layers wished to impose what was taught, and which texts were read. The masses in the ancient world weren’t usually literate, except for some slaves trained as scribes – they depended instead upon hearing scripture read aloud – which helped keep the decision-making in the hands of the educated and privileged. It was in this context that the writer of 1 Peter, which was probably written in the late 1st century or early 2nd century, asserted a very different attitude to Roman authority to that of Jesus the Galilean rebel:

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil... Honour everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the emperor. (1 Peter 2:13-17)

As we’ve seen, the first Christian texts were Paul’s letters, written from about 50 CE. By the middle of the 2nd century a great variety of documents was in circulation, each offering a different perspective and claiming to be authoritative. One of the first attempts at a canon was made in the 2nd century by Marcion, a member of the Christian community in Sinope in Asia Minor. He and his followers argued that the god of the Hebrew Bible was false and evil, and that the father of Jesus Christ was a different god who was loving and merciful. On this basis they rejected Jewish law and scripture. The Marcionites thought the apostle Paul was right because he was against observing Jewish law, so they favoured ten of his letters – the ones they knew about – along with the Gospel of his companion, Luke. This set of prescribed texts was the first attempt at a Christian canon. While the texts of Paul and Luke look towards the Gentiles and advise them against following Jewish law, they nonetheless respect Jewish culture; Marcion ascribed this to later, Judaising adulterations, and edited them to recreate what he believed were the authentic texts.

Another 2nd century thinker, Tatian, noticed that the four main Gospels did not agree with one another, and tried to resolve this by combining them into a single, harmonised Gospel known as the Diatesseron. This text enjoyed two centuries or so of success in the Syriac churches until the authorities moved against it. An alternative early list, known as the Muratorian canon, appears on a fragment of manuscript discovered by the Italian historian Muratori, who published it in 1740. Dating to perhaps the late 2nd century, the text is incomplete. But it includes books that don’t appear in the modern Bible – the Wisdom of Solomon, the Apocalypse of Peter – and excludes a few that do, e.g. Hebrews and one letter of John.

The Roman Church reaffirmed Yahweh as the god of Christ and excommunicated Marcion as a heretic. But the debate over his scripture list encouraged the selection of a ‘correct’ list, i.e. a canon. Orthodoxy, the Church recognised, went hand in hand with power.

A canon comes together

The contents of the canon weren’t decided by an official decree. In his novel The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown fostered the widespread misconception that the Council of Nicaea (or Nicea) in 325 CE made decisions on the canon and doctored the Bible; in reality the canon was not discussed at that meeting. Occasionally a bishop or a council would publish a list of fundamental documents, but the diversity of the early Church meant that no one person or body was able to dictate to the entire Christian world. Instead, the canon evolved. In Bart Ehrman’s words, “the canon of the New Testament was ratified by widespread consensus rather than by official proclamation.” [2] This is true, but it was a consensus achieved with some fierce disputes as various figures tried to discredit or suppress the texts they considered heretical.

How did the Church leaders decide what was scripture? It was not enough for a text to be ‘inspired’, because the ancients thought most texts were inspired. Ehrman outlines four criteria that had to be met for a text to be accepted into the canon.

1) A book had to be ancient, not recent, giving them the closest historical proximity to Jesus and the apostles. All the canonical books date to the 1st century, or at the latest according to some scholars, the early 2nd century.

2) It had to be written by an apostle, or someone associated with the apostles, though we know today that the Gospels, for example, were not in fact written by apostles.

3) It had to be universally used. A book was more likely to get in if it was accepted by a large number of churches in a large number of regions.

4) Most importantly, a book had to be theologically acceptable, or to put it differently, it had to agree as much as possible with what a majority of the elite already believed. This trumped any claims to apostolic authorship. If a book was not ‘orthodox’, the reasoning went, it could not have been written by an apostle.

What eventually emerged was what Ehrman calls a proto-orthodoxy: a body of books and doctrines that later became orthodox. After a centuries-long process to decide what orthodoxy would be, the canon is the list of the winners.

Constantine and consolidation

In 312 the Roman emperor Constantine was fighting to re-unify the divided Roman empire under a single ruler. On the night before a battle against his rival Maxentius, he supposedly had a vision from God. The most powerful man in the world had (allegedly) become a Christian.

The Christian leadership had begun to assimilate the ideology of the Roman ruling class long before, acting as local government administrators, landowners and tax collectors while channelling the discontent of the masses into dreams of paradise on a pew. Constantine’s conversion was probably fake, an attempt to co-opt the widespread and resilient Church network into the power structures of the Empire. This combination of the two bureaucracies required an agreement on doctrine. At a time when the Church was still divided by dissenting theologies such as Arianism and Donatism, Constantine stepped in to pressurise its leaders to establish an orthodoxy, using expropriation, exile and force. In about 322 CE, he ordered fifty copies of the scriptures for the imperial capital of Constantinople, which the historian Eusebius says were copied and delivered in “magnificent and elaborately bound volumes” [3]. Eusebius does not tell us which texts were included, but assuming the incident is historical, these magnificent codices ordered by the Emperor himself may have exerted an influence on the canon.

The squabbling over the nature of God was to be settled once and for all at the aforementioned Council of Nicaea. The aim was to agree upon a core theology of the Church, which all followers must profess or be condemned as heretics. The meeting agreed a statement on Jesus’s relationship to God, known as the Nicaean creed (which still was not accepted by every Christian group). It is unlikely that Constantine cared much what they decided, as long as a decision was made.

Orthodoxy is an important element in canon formation, because it is not enough to establish an official set of texts: you also need to tell everyone how to interpret them. This was especially true of the Christian movement, with its diverse, contradictory texts and a radical Messiah whose original, proto-communist message was still troublingly evident.

Page of the Codex Vaticanus
The 4th century Codex Vaticanus is arguably the oldest extant copy of the Christian Bible and dates to roughly this time, though it is unlikely to be one of Constantine’s fifty volumes. It contains the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible, plus the Greek New Testament, and is nearly complete except for some damage. Because of its antiquity, it has become definitive.[4]

Constantine’s role in the Church has often been misrepresented. Partly thanks again to the unhelpful Dan Brown, he is accused of intervening heavy-handedly in the formation of the New Testament and burning the books of non-conformers. Ehrman protests:

The historical reality is that the Emperor Constantine had nothing to do with the formation of the canon of scripture: he did not choose which books to include or exclude, and he did not order the destruction of the Gospels that were left out of the canon (there were no imperial book burnings).[5]

If Constantine did not personally choose the canon, the assimilation of the Church apparatus was nonetheless a significant step. The advent of Christianity as an imperial religion saw the canon sealed within a few generations. In 367 CE, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, circulated a letter in which he lists 27 books for reading in churches. This is the first appearance of the canon as we know it today – over three centuries after the death of Jesus – and is thus a milestone in the process. Athanasius only intended the list for his own region, and rival lists continued to appear. But by the 5th or 6th centuries most Christians finally agreed to the 27-book list used today.

The Church had reached the point where people could be killed as heretics for having different conceptions of Jesus: the first Christian to be executed for heresy was the bishop Priscillian in 385. The consensus was not a benign process of wise heads comparing the merits of stimulating ideas. It was decided by powerful clerics, under a range of ruling class pressures, decreeing what texts were or were not ideologically acceptable and censoring the others. The last words of Revelation, which are also the last words of the Bible, are a direct threat to anyone thinking of tampering further:

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. (Revelation 22:19-20)

A decade or two after Athanasius released his list, a Latin Christian scholar best known as Saint Jerome began work on a translation of the Old and New Testaments that would bring the Bible to a new audience. For centuries everyone read the Bible in Greek: in the 1st century CE even most Jews had Greek as a first language and read the Hebrew Bible in Greek translation. Jerome’s Vulgate (or ‘common version’), as it came to be known, was in Latin, the common language of the Roman and post-Roman world. This book profoundly permeated Western European culture and became the definitive edition of the Bible for over a thousand years.

The codex

The shiny bestselling Bible we know today started out written by hand on papyrus. The only way to preserve and propagate books created with such perishable materials was for scribes to make fresh copies of them. If a text was considered scripture, it was more likely to be copied. The authorities did not necessarily have to destroy books it did not like: non-canonical books were considered less worth copying, and many simply wore out, fell apart and disappeared.

Ancient books worked on the same principle
as this Torah scroll.
One of the things that helped solidify canon was a technological innovation. Early books were written on scrolls. To read a particular section, you had to unroll it all the way to the place you wanted, and a long text might be written on multiple scrolls. This cumbersome system was superseded in the Roman era by the codex, which became established by the late 3rd or 4th centuries. This used parchment (animal skins) rather than papyrus (made from the reed-like papyrus plant), still written on by hand but cut into pages and sewn together. These codices were much more efficient than a boxful of scrolls, and made it much easier to refer to texts. It might have been Christians who championed the codex, to assist them in their constant disputes.

There are practical considerations when you start to preserve your text in a codex. Removing a book from a collection of scripture is easy when it only requires removing a scroll from a box. Removing passages from a codex, however, requires either the mutilation of a very expensive object or starting over, so you need to make final decisions about what is included. This doesn’t of course mean that everyone immediately adopted Athanasius’ list of 27 books. The contents of early codices like the Codex Sinaiticus (4th century CE) and Codex Claromontanus (6th century CE) still don’t quite match our canon. But the invention of the codex, as historic as that of the printing press centuries later, provided an impetus towards uniformity.

The books that got away

The sealing of the canon meant that a great number of Christian texts, considered scripture or even canonical by somebody at some point, were suppressed. These books are known as apocrypha (from the Greek, ‘hidden things’).

One major work was the Shepherd of Hermas, a book written in Rome in possibly the 2nd century, which was highly valued by many early Christians and rated as scripture by some Church fathers. It was eventually rejected, perhaps because of its relatively late and non-apostolic authorship.

Some apocrypha were more controversial. Among these were the books of the Gnostics (from the Greek gnosis or ‘knowledge’), an important and varied group of early Christian philosophers interested in the nature of good and evil. The Gnostics wrote their own texts, which were once thought to have been lost thanks to the struggle to establish orthodoxy. Fortunately, in 1946 near the village of Nag Hammadi in Egypt, thirteen codices were discovered, including works such as the Gospels of Thomas and Philip and the Secret Book of John, that were considered scripture by some Gnostic groups. A more recent discovery was the Gospel of Judas, in a copy possibly dating to the 3rd-4th centuries.

In Gnostic philosophy, the spirit was good, and the body and the world were evil – the result of a kind of cosmic disaster. A good Christian must reject the material world and learn, through the help of special knowledge, to liberate the spark of the divine within him so he might return to the world of the spirit. The Gnostics therefore seem to have been rather ascetic. Bart Ehrman takes this view:

Their logic was that since the body is evil, it should be punished; since attachment to the body is the problem of human existence, and since it is so easy to become attached to the body through pleasure, the body should be denied all pleasure. Thus it appears that the typical Gnostic stand on how to treat the body was rather strict.[6]

Their opponents however accused them of the opposite – a “cavalier”, anything-goes attitude to the body and sexuality – and it’s hard to say to what extent that was true. Whether libertine or ascetic, with its limited mass appeal (only an elite enjoyed the special knowledge required for salvation) and its rejection of the material world, this was not a doctrine attractive to the Roman ruling class that had allied itself to Christianity, and it had disturbing implications for the Church’s coffers. By the end of the 4th century Gnosticism’s leaders were ostracised and its sacred books destroyed.

Another contentious text, rediscovered in 1896, was a 2nd century account of Jesus whose central character is a woman named Mary. This is widely believed, for example by the scholar Karen L. King, to be Mary Magdelene [7]. Mary, assuming she existed, seems to have been an important follower of Jesus, credited in the canonical Gospels as one of the first witnesses of his resurrection. It is not difficult to see why the Gospel of Mary, the only New Testament text attributed to a woman, was rejected by early Church leaders, because it argues that women were fit to hold authority within the Church. Though the surviving text is fragmentary, it includes a passage where Peter complains about Mary’s apparently privileged relationship with Jesus:

“Did He really speak privately with a woman and not openly to us? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did He prefer her to us?”[8]

Then a disciple named Levi steps in and berates Peter:

“Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Saviour made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Saviour knows her very well. That is why He loved her more than us.”

Women have always played an important part in Christianity. Jesus seems to have welcomed their participation in his movement, the New Testament mentions female disciples, and it is women who are the first witnesses to the Resurrection. Apocryphal texts even mention women apostles [9], and in the Gnostic text Pistis Sophia Jesus grants Mary, together with John, a higher status than the other apostles. Despite this, women seem to have been pushed out of significant roles in the leadership. Most notoriously, from around the 5th century Mary Magdelene entered tradition as a prostitute, though she is never described that way in the New Testament. Thus a prominent woman was brought down – not for the last time – by the smearing of her sexuality.

Again, the literature that became canonical was selected to conform to the interests of the social layers making the choices. Texts that had disturbing implications for who held power were excluded. This has contributed to the atmosphere of rumour and conspiracy theory exploited by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code.

There were also controversies over books that were eventually included. The canonicity of the book of Hebrews was disputed because the absence of Paul’s name from the text itself casts doubt on its attribution. Eventually Paul was agreed to have written it – contrary to the views of most modern scholarship – and it ended up in the canon. Revelation too was much disputed. It was not clear to the early Church whether the John who wrote it was the apostle John. But the objections ran deeper. This strange apocalyptic book identified Rome with an abominable female character known as the ‘Whore of Babylon’, and envisaged an age where the Romans and the wealthy were overthrown. We cannot be sure exactly on what basis it became canon – perhaps it was agreed to be the work of John the apostle and thus canonical despite the many reservations.[10]


The books of the New Testament were not written until decades after Jesus died, and even then it took hundreds of years for them to be regarded first as scripture and then as part of a canon. By the end of the long process, we eventually had by far the most influential work of literature in the West.

If it weren’t for the finds at Nag Hammadi, we would still know very little about many of the losers in the contest. Even now, there is no universal agreement among the world’s Christian communities on what counts as scripture. The 27 books of the New Testament are accepted almost everywhere, but Revelation is rejected by some eastern churches, and there is a huge variety of Old Testaments that supplement the Jewish scriptures with additional books – such as Tobit, the Wisdom of Solomon, and Baruch – that are not part of the Hebrew Bible. The sealing of a canon was also unable to stop Christianity from splitting into a multitude of denominations – Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant – and subgroups – Methodists, Baptists, etc.

The assorted Christian Churches maintain that the writers of the New Testament texts were inspired in one way or another by God, and that the early Church leaders were guided by God in their decisions about the canon. If God’s guidance seems rather messy and overlong in execution, that is because in reality scripture is the work of human beings. Canon formation was part of an attempt to establish an authoritative, ‘catholic’ (universal) version of Christianity. The problem with the project is the contradictions within Christianity itself. It is impossible to square the peasant labourer Jesus, who said “woe to you who are rich”, with the fabulously wealthy, imperial and warmongering institution that eventually prevailed, its earthly hubris symbolised by the staggering pomp of St Peter’s basilica in Rome.

[1] Thus Christianity introduced the concepts of orthodoxy and heresy, where ‘orthodoxy’ means literally ‘right belief’ and ‘heresy’ refers to dissenting opinion deserving of punishment. This approach would have made little sense to the pagans.
[2] Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities (2005).
[3] Eusebius, Life of Constantine.
[4] Another early Bible, the Codex Sinaiticus, was ‘discovered’ in the 19th century and dates to between 325-360. There is some debate about which of the two books is older.
[5] Bart D. Ehrman, Truth And Fiction In The Da Vinci Code (2006).
[6] Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities (2005).
[7] As Jesus was Jesus the Nazarene (from Nazareth), Mary was Mary the Magdalene (from Magdala).
[8] You can read the Gospel of Mary here: 

[9] There may be one reference in the New Testament (Romans 16:7) to a female apostle, named Junia, but scholars debate whether this refers to a man or a woman.
[10] From the early Church’s standpoint, that would mean Revelation and the Gospel of John were written by the same person. Scholars no longer believe this.

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