Many people today struggle to imagine a world without the New Testament. For good reason too. These 27 books have, almost universally, served as the primary source and authority on Christian traditions, rituals, and theology throughout most of its history.
Of course, this wasn’t always the case. The Mediterranean is vast…and without efficient transportation or printing technology, it was impossible to ensure a uniform dissemination of Christian texts in the few centuries after Jesus’ crucifixion. This means we must imagine an early Christian community that may have only had a single copy of Mark…or maybe a few of Paul’s letters…or maybe nothing but the oral traditions of Jesus committed to memory. The Christian textual tradition, though vibrant, was a lot less concrete than what we are accustomed to today.
In my latest video blog episode, I tackle the misconceptions floating around about the formation of the New Testament canon. Though it pains me to engage a topic so vast in a mere 7 minutes, I like to think it only takes that long to problematize them.
1: The NT canon developed early and without any real debate. This is what I’d call a “teleological” argument. One that, often stemming from theological concerns, likes to conceive the process of canonization as guaranteed (perhaps due to divine direction). My problem with this perspective is that it doesn’t give real weight to the debates that canonization sparked. The idea that the Revelation of John honestly almost failed to make the cut or that Sunday Schools everywhere would be teaching the Shepherd of Hermas instead are not given serious enough thought.
2: The NT canon was the product of overbearing authorities stipulating what should and shouldn’t be read. This makes the clergy out to be ancient book-burners. Some conspiracy theories even persist in popular thought that Emperor Constantine had a hand in shaping the canon. This simply doesn’t cohere with our historical evidence. As I said above, in a world without printing press technology or efficient communication, the clergy were simply unable to marshal such a uniform enterprise (though I’d imagine they would have liked this).
These are, of course, extremes…and I may even be guilty of setting up two straw-men. Nevertheless, I have seen iterations of these two misconceptions cropping up in a variety of contexts, and I think it is worth our time to recognize a more historical explanation for canonization.
I posit a “middle-ground approach” that I’m calling an “organic” understanding of canonization. In short, the canon developed out of a sort of popularity contest. Certain books won huge fan bases due to a variety of reasons (perceived historicity, early authorship, or famous authorship), and therefore were copied and disseminated more readily.
This process directs attention away from overbearing authorities or intangible ideas of destiny to the down-to-earth sociological process of simple copying and publishing. Literacy was rare and copying was hard…so scribes would only copy books that they thought were worth it or had a ready audience. Christians already had a respect for texts considering their adoption of the Septuagint Bible, so it is easy to imagine this vibrant textual tradition taking off.
Of course, even this is an oversimplification, but I think it is important because it emphasizes the dynamic and unpredictable path that canonization took in the first few hundred years after Jesus. The New Testament, as we have it today, was never guaranteed and formed only after a long and messy process.
I’d like to direct you to some further reading. These are all scholarly books that go into considerable depth, and I’d encourage you to skim through them:
Kim Haines-Eitzen’s short chapter “Textual Communities in Late Antique Christianity” in A Companion to Late Antiquity edited by Rousseau.
Harry Gamble (1985): “Christianity: Scripture and Canon,” in Denny and Taylor (1985) The Holy Book in Comparative Perspective
Harry Gamble (1995): Books and Readers in the Early Church