Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

Canonization of the Christian Scriptures

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One of the very fascinating aspects of Christianity one may study is the lengthy process that occurred in the early years of the Christian Church which led to the compilation and canonization of the New Testament scriptures. Indeed, it is a field may seem uninteresting or irrelevant to the one who has never acquired a taste for historical inquiry; and it is all the more so for him who has not yet begun a study of the scriptures themselves. But of course, when one approaches biblical history with a right heart, one comes to realize that he is not studying a mere historical processnot a mechanical and, as it were, incidental developmentbut truly a major work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the burgeoning church.

The Sowing of the Seed
The canonization process was long and gradual. It was not accomplished overnight, not by a single pronouncement of any Church Father, not even by the decision of a single Church council. In fact, the early Church did not have in mind the direct intention of forming a new canon of scripturethe scripture of the early church was the Septuagint. But all the books of the New Testament soon after being written inevitably came to be an integral and living part of the Churchs worship. The Pauline epistles, for example, were cherished and read over and again by the churches that received them, and by others who came to appreciate them as valued testimonies from the Apostolic Age. If St. Paul would write an epistle to the church in Rome, their reaction would not be, This is the New Testament, or This is Scripture, but they would see it as simply a very illuminating explanations of Christian doctrine.

In the decades immediately following the birth of the Church, the sayings and works of our Lord Jesus Christ were not known by written gospels but were remembered and preached by the apostles and thereafter passed on to posterity by oral tradition. They were known as the good news that was quickly spreading throughout the churches, rather than as a new Scripture that needed to be reverently written down and preserved. That is, the gospel was seen more as, Hark, the Scriptures have been fulfilled! The Messiah has come! and less as, We have a new doctrine to follow now.

We can take a small example of this from the book of Acts. When the very early Christians quoted our Lord Jesus Christ, they would typically say, Remember the words of the Lord Jesus. instead of the familiar Old Testament line As it is written. In quoting Psalms, the book of Acts employs the phrases, The place in the Scripture which he read was in 8:32 and, As it is written in the Psalm in 13:33. In contrast, St. Paul is recorded saying, Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, It is more blessed to give than to receive, in 20:35.

Although our Lord Jesus Christs words and deeds were initially only passed on by oral tradition, they were the one oral tradition in the Church that was given as much authoritative weight as the Septuagint. This was because while on earth, the people recognized that He spoke with an authority no less than that of the Jewish Scriptures; He put His utterances side by side with the precepts of the ancient Law, correcting and fulfilling them. So the early Church treasured and quoted the words and works of Christ as being equal or even superior to those of the Old Testament. This is why St. Paul appeals so strongly to the words of the Lord when enforcing a lesson (1 Cor 9:14) or confirming a holy mystery (1 Cor 11:23).

The Holy Gospels in Written Form
By the mid to late 1st century, the four evangelists finally put the Holy Gospel down into written form. Why God waited several decades before putting it in print is something no one can really say; but it is important to note that they were not writing an account of our the Lord Jesus Christ which no one had before heard about. They were giving written expression to the faith and tradition of our Lord Jesus Christ that was already going throughout the churches. Or put another way, the gospel did not begin with the evangeliststhe gospel was already alive in the churches. But God chose it to be finally recorded on paper, which the Holy Spirit accomplished through the evangelists.

But even when the Holy Gospels were written down, they still were not primarily seen to be part of a Christian Scripture. The Church did not begin binding them together with other New Testament books and writing verse-by-verse commentaries on them. Their primary function, as seen by the Church, was liturgical: prayer and worship. That is, the gospels were written down in order to be incorporated into the prayer books of the churchesin a very similar manner to the katameros of the Coptic Church. And thus it can be seen why the Coptic Church so rightly and so correctly chants the Holy Gospel during the Divine Liturgy and has the entire congregation stand up: she is telling us we are not just listening now, but we are worshiping.

In the years immediately following the first century, the Christian literature had grown into a sizable corpus, and there grew a need to formally declare which books were essential to the life of the Church and which were only edifying. Second-century church leaders such as Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Rome, for example, were still writing epistles to their churches which were marked by great spiritual depth. But there simultaneously rose a recognition among these writers of the superior standing of the apostolic writers, who lived so close to the time of our Lord Jesus Christs earthly ministry. For all the light shining from an epistle of St. Clement, it could not compare to the radiance of an epistle of St. Paul or St. James. And since the gospels were seen as the center of the Good News, it was natural that the Church aspire to first delineate which gospels were truly canonical.

There were two different but complementary dangers that raised their heads at this time which put immense strains on the canonization process.

The first was a group of writings that came out of the second century known as the apocryphal gospels, a collection of fantastic and legendary accounts of our Lord Jesus Christs life that claimed to be of equal authority as the Four. These gospels were written mainly to fill in the gaps in our Lord Jesus Christs life, apparently to satisfy peoples curiosity. For example, one major blank left by the Four Holy Gospels (for so God would have it) was our Lord Jesus Christs childhood. We know nothing about it except for one brief incident of the twelve year old Jesus in the temple. The apocryphal gospels, however, furnish us with a multitude of incidents of His childhood, such as the following: five year old Jesus was playing by a brook one day and made 12 sparrows from clay. A Pharisee complained to Joseph that Jesus broke the Sabbath; Jesus clapped His hands and said, Off with you! and the birds flew away chirping.

One can immediately feel the difference in an apocryphal miracle like this one. It has a strange, occultist cast to it, and it is done purely for show; no one is healed, no one is given faith, no problem is set right. Although the apocryphal gospels sometimes mimicked the Four very closely and were widely circulated, the Church was quick to condemn them. And their rejection was a catalyst for the Churchs efforts to bring to completion her canonized scriptures.

The second threat to rise in the early centuries was a paganizing heresy known as Gnosticism. It was a syncretistic (mixed and confounded) religion based on elements of oriental mysticism, Greek philosophy, Judaism, and a warped Christianity which pervaded the intellectual atmosphere of the first centuries. Very basically, Gnosticism taught that human souls are divine sparks temporarily imprisoned in physical bodies as a result of a precosmic catastrophe; so our bodies, along with the rest of the material creation, are fundamentally evil. The only way to salvation is to revile and spit upon our bodies and the earth, as well as by possessing a special gnosis, or knowledge, of the spiritual world.

The poison of Gnostic teaching was copiously transfused into most of the apocryphal gospels; the apocryphal writers were themselves Gnostic. A certain one named Macion even produced his own bible composed of an edited form of Luke and several epistles, and he began a whole Marcionite church which lasted several centuries. Another by the name of Tatian decided to blend the Gospels into one continuous narrative (the Diatessaron) to do away with the apparent differences and difficulties of the Four. But the Church soon repudiated it for its elimination of the multiplicity of the gospelsa key trait ordained by God Himself.

Toward Canonization
Starting in the third century, in order to attend to an increasing need for a standard Christian scripture and to protect against heresy, the Church began making a deliberate effort to define exactly which books belonged to the Christian canon. Church Fathers began making lists of what the canon should include: Ss. Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, Augustine, and others. And most western and eastern scholars agree that the most influential Father in defining the canon was St. Athanasius in 367 AD, who was the first bishop who used his position as head of an extensive and important diocese (Alexandria) to deal with the question of the biblical canon.

It was ancient custom that every year after Epiphany, the bishop of Alexandria would write a festal letter to all the churches and monasteries of Egypt, informing them of the date of the Resurrection feast and the beginning of the Great fast. In Athanasius 39th festal letter of 367 AD, he makes a complete list of the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments. Twenty-seven NT books are listed. These, he declares, are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied by the living words which they contain. In these alone the teaching of godliness is proclaimed. Let no one add to these; let nothing be taken away from them.

Thus, 367 marks the first time the scope of the whole New Testament is clearly defined. Also, in the West, two church councils also defined the same canon: in Hippo (393) and Carthage (397), on both of which St Augustine had considerable influence.

Typically, to be considered canonical, a document had to pass three basic tests. It had to be: (1) written by an apostle or an immediate disciple of an apostle; (2) recognized as authentic by most of the churches at large; (3) consistent with apostolic doctrinethe rule of faith preserved by the living tradition of the Church.

Again, no one Father or church council can be given final responsibility for defining the boundaries of the Christian scriptures. All these did were to simply give official approval of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament that were already widely used and recognized among the churches to be unique and divine in their message. That is, the Church did not endow the New Testament with authority but simply recognized its long-standing existence. And the same Holy Spirit who guided the apostles in writing the holy books also guided the Church in determining its canon.


Cronk, George. The Message of the New Testament. New York: SVS Press, 1990.

Kesich, Veselin. The Gospel Image of Christ. New York: SVS Press, 1992. (not recommended)

Metzger, Bruce. The Canon of the New Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church. Michigan: Eerdmans, 1995. (recommended)

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