Hello, friends! Having taken a short vacation, I'm back and ready to tackle the next two chapters in Natasha Crain's Keeping Your Kids on God's Side. We're moving into the fourth section of her book, which is titled "Conversations About THE BIBLE." Chapter 25 asks the question, "How were the books in the Bible selected?" while Chapter 26 asks, "Why were books left out of the Bible?" My goal is to just briefly summarize these two chapters and then add my thoughts at the end. So, let's get started.
Natasha begins Chapter 25 by offering some popular skeptical perspectives regarding the New Testament canon: 1) that rival versions of Christianity existed but were suppressed by authoritative figures, 2) the books of the New Testament that we currently have simply won out over time, and 3) it took 300 years post Jesus' death to determine these winners of which political favor influenced. Hmm...not bad. She asks, "What if we're getting Jesus all wrong because we've been handed erroneous books as an unfortunate consequence of political history?" What if, indeed. Of the hundreds of early writings regarding Christianity, Natasha states that there are generally four categories in which these books can be divided into:
1) Books accepted by all
2) Books accepted by most
3) Books accepted by a few
4) Books rejected by all
The 27 books of the New Testament canon fell into the first 2 categories, while the others fell into the last 2 categories. She notes that "the apostolic church fathers (those who wrote in the first half of the second century) quoted extensively from and alluded to almost all of our New Testament books in their writings." However, it wasn't until the emergence of heretical factions within Christianity, namely the Marcionites and the Gnostics, that the early church fathers were forced to agree upon a specific list of books. Natasha goes on to list some of the influential church fathers and their contribution to the canon and further explains that it was the Council of Hippo in AD 393 that formally ratified the 27 books of the NT.
In Chapter 26, Natasha covers the third and fourth categories listed above. While there were a handful of books that were deemed valuable in their teachings (accepted by a few), they ultimately were not recognized as part of the canon. Natasha describes the books that were rejected by all as "books that were obvious forgeries, books that were knowingly written too late to be associated with the apostles, and books that clearly did not conform to the teachings of the books already known to be authentic." In relation to the last category, Natasha expands on Gnosticism (a group within Christianity who believed that not all would be endowed with the revelatory knowledge necessary to receive salvation, that Jesus was spirit in nature, and that the material world was evil, in contrast to the spirit and soul which were good). She explains that the Gnostic teachings lacked both the apostolic association and the theological soundness to be accepted by the early church fathers, thus being deemed heretical.
So, for the Christian reading Natasha's book, one might be inclined to think that the canonization of the NT was a simple process, one obviously being guided by the hand of God. Nothing could be further from the truth, and it would honestly take multiple posts to just skim the surface of this subject. There were, in fact, many different groups (whose views regarding Jesus and salvation varied enormously) within Christianity; and oddly enough, they all believed they had the correct sacred books to validate their beliefs. Sound familiar? In his article titled "The Formation of the New Testament Canon (2000)," ancient historian Dr. Richard Carrier notes, "Every church had its favored books, and since there was nothing like a clearly-defined orthodoxy until the 4th century, there were in fact many simultaneous literary traditions. The illusion that it was otherwise is created by the fact that the church that came out on top simply preserved texts in its favor and destroyed or let vanish opposing documents. Hence what we call "orthodoxy" is simply "the church that won."
So, who won out in the end? New Testament scholar Dr. Bart Ehrman calls the winning faction the proto-orthodox Christians, "the spiritual ancestors of those whose views later became orthodox." (Jesus, Interrupted p.197) Given that there were varying competing forms of Christianity, all of which were claiming apostolic authority (Gnosticism, Marcionism, Ebionism, etc.), why did this proto-orthodox group prevail in the end? Well, there are several different reasons, but location is key. Dr. Ehrman explains in his blog post titled "Why Did 'Orthodox' Christianity Win?" that "the form of Christianity that was principally dominant in Rome began to assert its power and to acquire more and more converts - more than the other kinds of Christianity (Gnosticism, etc.)." Okay, so how did they accomplish this feat, molding Christianity into the form that we're most familiar with? He discusses this in Part 2 of the same post.
1) The Clergy: While the church had not always had a structured hierarchy, the proto-orthodox group emphasized this, one in which only males had leadership positions. These leaders, of course, had the "correct" or orthodox beliefs vs. heretical ones and exercised control over communities within their region.
2) The Creed: The proto-orthodox demanded that they had the monopoly on correct beliefs and every true Christian must affirm these. These were eventually written down as the creeds that we are familiar with today (e.g. The Nicene Creed).
3) The Canon: The books that came to be accepted as sacred scripture were those that the proto-orthodox claimed to be authored by the apostles and their companions prior to dying. By dictating this apostolic authority of some books over others, they were able to suppress dissenting interpretations. The only problem, as Dr. Ehrman points out, was that the apostles were no longer around to be consulted.
And there you have it. I'd like to leave you with one final quote by Dr. Ehrman from the aforementioned post that so profoundly sums things up in an ever so humanly sort of way: