Guiding principles
Lecture Notes for Topic 1.6.2.
Religion 102 / 305
Last revised: 1/16/03
Contained below is a manuscript summarizing the class lecture(s) covering the above specified range of topics from the List of Topics. For updated information about the class  see the class announcement board. Quite often hyperlinks (underlined) to sources of information etc. will be inserted in the text of the lecture. These should be consulted as possible sources for answering either the Objective Questions (Exam 1 option) or the Take-Home Questions (Exam 3 option). Test questions for all three exam options will be derived in part from these lectures.

In the context of challenges to orthodox Christianity in the second through fifth centuries by various splinter groups, Christian leaders increasingly became concerned over which writings should be considered reliable sources of divine revelation and wisdom. Other assigned questions deal with these dynamics and individuals who both spurred on the process and those who played an influencial role in shaping the final product, the New Testament.

Here we explore some basic principles that guided this process. First, and foremost, was the principle of apostolicity. Could a given writing be traced back either directly or indirectly to one of the original twelve apostles that Jesus had commissioned to spread his message? If you ponder the matter carefully, you will come to realize that the New Testament that we have today is composed only of documents with this apostolic connection. The pivotal role that the original twelve and the apostle Paul played cannont be over emphasized.
        One important caution in this regard, however. To use the modern label 'author' of a document in connection to the compositional origin of the 27 documents in the New Testament, as well as the other early Christian writing, is misleading and creates false, unnecessary problems. Several factors play into this. First, the method of creating written documents was substantially different than in a modern western setting. Virtually all ancient documents for public use in the ancient world were not actually written by the individual whose name is connected to them as the originator of the material. This includes the documents of the New Testament as well. A writing secretary took dictation from the composer of the material, either in detailed content or more often in summary outline sketching, and then did the actual writing of the material. It was then submitted to the composer for checking and revision. This process usually went on through three or four revisions. Once the final revision by the writing secretary was approved by the composer, the document would be released to others for reading, and if underwritten by a patron, the process of creating hand-written copies of it would begin. Thus, the modern term 'author' can be very misleading, especially if writing style, vocabulary etc. become a modern basis for evaluating authorship identity.
        Second, an investigation into the history of the canonization process over the first four centuries of the Christian era reveals clearly that various Christian groups who used a variety of documents as authoritative written sources for their belief system did not believe that these documents had to have direct origination at the written level to one of the original twelve apostles in order to be labeled apostolic. Only Matthew and John of the four canonical gospels are traced back directly to the original twelve apostles. Mark and Luke were second generation Christians who were not present nor a part of the original group of followers of Jesus. Apostolic associations with their gospel documents came through traditional understanding of these individuals being closely associated with an apostle. The church father Papias at the beginning of the second century associated Mark with Peter and the contents of the Marcan gospel as the reflections of Peter. He also associated Luke with Paul and the Lucan gospel is a Pauline reflection, but also of a later generation of followers and one who gained stature as an apostle in early Christian tradition.
        In a culture strongly oriented toward orality more than visual written materials, that personal, living human connection to Jesus either during his earthly ministry or the resurrected Christ as in the case of Paul played a dominating role in the above determinations. Plus, early Christian was deeply convinced that these individuals were designated by the Lord to occupy as very special role in the emerging Christian religion. The term apostle, often referred to merely as 'The Twelve', increasingly came to be applied exclusively to these individuals with the understanding of this unique status as uniquely authoritative sources for understanding the teachings of Jesus. What could be traced back to these individuals as the written repository of their understanding of Jesus would gradually take on the status of sacred writings and would achieve the same authoritative status as the writings of the Old Testament. The two collections of documents would gradually combine into one and become the scriptural foundation for Christian faith and practice. Second, early Christians utilized a somewhat practical approach to testing various writings. Would a particular document over time produce positive spiritual benefits in the lives of those who tried to understand and implement its teachings? More technically, the issue was whether or not the document bore evidence of having the "breath of God" permeating its pages. The ancient Greek word for inspiration literally means the 'breath of God,' as does the Latin word inspirio from which the English word 'inspiration' comes. Modern concepts of inspiration, however, go far afield from the ancient idea (for a detailed treatment, see my article on 'inspiration' in the 2 vol. patristics encyclopedia published by Garland Press in NY several years ago). If God had breathed his life into a document, then its proper use would produce positive spiritual benefits, they reasoned. Thus many, many documents were culled out because of the negative impact they had. Third, at some point the careful student of the process of canonization looks at the mountain of data coming out of the ancient Christian tradition and has to conclude, "God had his hand in all this providentially." No human effort could have ever pulled this off as successfully as it happened.

To be sure, many other factors played an influencial role in this process of canonization, but I believe these three are the more dominant ones.

For Additional Study

Athanasius of Alexandra, "Easter Letter XXXIX for 367," Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. IV, (

"The Canon of the New Testament," Catholic Encyclopedia online, (

"The Canon of the Old Testament," Catholic Encyclopedia online, (

"The Development of the Canon of the New Testament," ( A most important gateway into primary and secondary articles and texts. The Links to other sites is especially helpful.

Eusebius, "The Divine Scriptures that are Accepted and Those that are Not," Ecclesiastical History, Book III, Chapter 25, (

Sawyer, M. James, "Evangelicals and the Canon of the New Testament, " (

"Whose Canon? Which Bible?" United Methodist Women, (

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