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January/February Issue 2004 - Volume 23 Number 1
"Fact or Fiction?"
According to an article I read in January 2004, Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code, had spent 43 weeks at the top of the New York Times' Bestseller List. But what really captured my attention was the fact the one of my teenage daughters and another of my teenage nephews asked me about it. I went to the local library to check out a copy for my daughter and me to read, and was given number 23 on a waiting list. We finally received a call from tile library that our copy was ready, checked it out, started reading, but in two weeks we were not finished. We were not allowed to recheck the book because others were waiting on the list.
It is a mystery novel, a work of fiction. While it makes some claims to historical accuracy, the truth is that it is fiction and not fact. This novel casts doubt on the validity of the books that make up the canon of Scripture. We are publishing Richard M. Soule's article on the canon of Scripture (from "Ekklesia Then and Now"). We hope this will prove an interesting read, and it will arm you to discuss the issues raised by this novel.
"Canon, Apocrypha, and The Da Vinci Code"
by Richard M. Soule (from "Ekklesia Then and Now")
The canon of the New Testament is under attack. According to some scholars whose books dot the shelves of Borders and Barnes and Noble stores, there are writings that represent “lost Christianities,” and should be considered of equal authority to the 27 traditional books.
The word canon comes from the Greek kanôn, which literally means a (measuring) rule or a standard. In reference to the Bible, the canon is an authoritative list of the books accepted as Holy Scripture. The New Testament church did not concern itself with a canon-- it was, after all, in the process of being developed. Certainly, however, many recognized that some of the documents .circulating in the first century churches were inspired by God and therefore considered Scripture. Peter, for example, saw Paul's letters as Scripture: "Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things [new heavens and a new earth], be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction" [2 Peter 3: 14- 16].
To a degree, acceptance of the canon of the New Testament is a matter of faith---confidence that God is capable of inspiring men to collect the right books. In the best-selling novel, The Da Vinci Code, one of the characters charges that, "The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Emperor Constantine the Great." According to this prevarication, Constantine commissioned a panel to decide what was and was not to be included in the Bible then instituted a campaign to destroy rejected writings.
This suggestion, like The Da Vinci Code, is pure fiction. The canon of the New Testament pre-dates Constantine by many years, and there was no campaign to wipe out competing books. Gnostic texts were condemned by orthodox Christian leaders, but it would have been impossible to destroy their texts. They disappeared for hundreds of years because their theology was thoroughly debunked, not because of some orthodox book burning.
The canon of the New Testament was determined by God and recognized by the early church. To believe otherwise is to believe in an ineffectual God unable to get His own message across! From the beginning, the church was largely able to sort out fact and fiction, relying primarily upon apostolic standards. Widely accepted writings were either written by apostles or by those directly connected to the apostles. Among the Gospels, for example, two (John and Matthew) were written by Apostles, and two (Mark and Luke) were written by close associates of Apostles Peter and Paul, respectively.
One test of apostolicity became citations by early church fathers, just one generation removed from the Apostles. Quotations by such early second century leaders as Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Papias supported the authority of a work. Even quotations by Gnostic leaders, often used inappropriately, served to validate a document. The first extant list of accepted books dates from about 200 A.D. In the Ambrosian Library in Milan, L.A. Muratori discovered a catalogue of New Testament writings within an 8th century manuscript. This document, known as the Muratorian Canon or Fragment, is so important I quote it in its entirety (with some commentary):
"...at which however he was present and so he has set it down."
(The beginning of the list is lost, but it is readily reconstructed since the church historian Eusebius testifies that Mark wrote his Gospel under the authority of Peter.)
"The third Gospel book, that according to Luke. This physician Luke after Christ's ascension (resurrection?), since Paul had taken him with him as an expert in the way (of the teaching), composed it in his own name according to (his) thinking. Yet neither did he himself see the Lord in the flesh; and therefore, as he was able to ascertain it, so he begins to tell the story from the birth of John."
(Since Luke is listed as the third Gospel, it is reasonable to assume that Matthew and Mark were the first two on the list.)
"The fourth of the Gospels, that of John, (one) of the disciples. When his fellow-disciples and bishops urged him, he said: Fast with me from today for three days, and what will be revealed to each one let us relate to one another. In the same night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles, that, whilst all were to go over (it), John in his own name should write everything down. And therefore, though various rudiments (or: tendencies?) are taught in the several Gospel books, yet that matters nothing for the faith of believers, since by the one and guiding (original?) Spirit everything is declared in all: concerning the birth, concerning the passion, concerning the resurrection, concerning the intercourse with his disciples and concerning his two comings, the first despised in lowliness, which has come to pass, the second glorious in Kingly power, which is yet to come. What wonder then if John, being thus always true to himself, adduces particular points in his epistles also, where he says of himself: What we have seen with our eyes and have heard with our ears and our hands have handled, that have we written to you. For so he confesses (himself) not merely an eye and ear witness, but also a writer of all the marvels of the Lord in order.
“But the acts of all apostles are written in one book. For the ‘most excellent Theophilus', Luke summarizes the several things that in his own presence have come to pass, as also by the omission of the passion of Peter he makes quite clear, and equally by (the omission) of the journey of Paul, who from the city (of Rome) proceeded to Spain."
(Some scholars have claimed that Acts was written near the end of the first century, but this description testifies to authorship prior to AD 62)
"The epistles, however, of Paul themselves make clear to those who wish to know it, which there are (i.e. from Paul), from what place and for what cause they were written. First of all to the Corinthians (to whom) he forbids the heresy of schism, then to the Galatians (to whom he forbids) circumcision, and then to the Romans, (to whom) he explains that Christ is the rule of the scriptures and moreover their principle, he has written at considerable length.
"We must deal with these severally, since the blessed apostle Paul himself, following the rule of his predecessor John, writes by name only to seven churches in the following order: to the Corinthians the first (epistle), to the Ephesians the second, to the Philippians the third, to the Colossians the fourth, to the Galatians the fifth, to the Thessalonians the sixth, to the Romans the seventh. Although he wrote to the Corinthians and to the Thessalonians once more for their reproof, it is yet clearly recognizable that over the whole earth one church is spread. For John also in the Revelation writes indeed to seven churches, yet speaks to all. But to Philemon one, and to Titus one, and to Timothy two, (written) out of goodwill and love, are yet held sacred to the glory of the catholic Church for the ordering of ecclesiastical discipline."
(All of Paul's ecclesiastical letters are listed, as well as the pastorals, which some modem scholars claim are not of Pauline authorship.)
"There is current also (an epistle) to the Laodiceans, another to the Alexandrians, forged in Paul's name for the sect of Marcion, and several others, which cannot be received in the catholic Church; for it will not do to mix gall with honey."
(The author here testifies to forged Pauline letters.)
"Further an epistle of Jude..."
(Despite its presence on this list, Jude is one of the more disputed books of the New Testament.)
"...and two with the title (or: two of the above mentioned) John are accepted in the catholic Church..."
(3 John later gained recognition.) "...and the Wisdom written by friends of Solomon in his honour."
(The Book of Wisdom is now part of the Old Testament Apocrypha. )
"Also of the revelations we accept only those of John..."
(This is the Revelation of the New Testament canon.)
"...and Peter, which (latter) some of our people do not want to have read in the Church."
(The Revelation of Peter is now generally considered a much later document. It is full of ghastly images of hell.)
"But Hermas wrote the Shepherd quite lately in our time in the city of Rome, when on the throne of the church of the city of Rome the bishop Pius, his brother, was seated. And therefore it ought indeed to be read, but it cannot be read publicly in the Church to the other people either among the prophets, whose number is settled, or among the apostles to the end of time."
(The Shepherd of Hermas is now part of the collection known as The Apostolic Fathers.)
"But we accept nothing whatever from Arsinous or Valentinus and Miltiades (?), who have also composed a new psalm book for Marcion, together with Basilides of Asia Minor, the founder of the Cataphrygians. ' ,
The list resoundingly rejects Gnostic scriptures. On this list, the only missing canonical books are Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, and 3 John, and the only included non-canonical books are Wisdom and the Revelation of Peter. This testifies to a very early development of church recognition of inspired books---more than 100 years before Constantine.
In about AD 180, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, wrote a lengthy description of Gnostic and other unorthodox doctrines. Against Heresies quotes from every New Testament book except Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John, and Jude. In addition to the New Testament books, Irenaeus considered 1 Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas valuable books (both are included in The Apostolic Fathers).
Tertullian of Carthage was another influential Christian writer of the late second and early third century (until he left the orthodox church for the Montanists). In his writings, Tertullian includes quotes from every canonical book except James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John. He too considers the Shepherd of Hermas valuable.
Origen was probably the most influential Christian writer of the mid-third century. His works included several commentaries and homilies (discourses) and quote from every New Testament book. He did, however, express reservations about James, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John. In addition, he considered the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Acts of Paul, 1 Clement, the Epistle of Bamabus, the Didache, and the Shepherd of Hermas to be divinely inspired. Divine inspiration does not necessarily imply canonicity---we can probably all cite modem books we would consider inspired (C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity and Oswold Chambers My Utmost for His Highest come to mind).
Taken together these testimonies by leaders across the Christian world (France, Rome, Asia, Egypt) display remarkable consistency. Only 2 Peter and 3 John are unanimously disputed.
In Constantine's day, Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, wrote a history of the church from Christ to Constantine, the latest edition dated to 324. In it, he denotes four categories of Christian writing and assigns the works known to him to one of these:
Recognized: 4 Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John); Acts; 14 Pauline epistles (he attributes Hebrews to Paul); I John; I Peter; Revelation of John.
Disputed: James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John.
Spurious: Acts of Paul, The Shepherd, Revelation of Peter, Epistle of Barnabus, Didache, Gospel of Hebrews.
Heretical: Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Thomas, Matthias, Acts of Andrew, Acts of John.
The suggestion that Constantine determined the canon of the New Testament is simply wrong. Con- stantine's own historian, Eusebius, still lists canonical books as disputed or spurious. The oldest known list which matches the New Testament comes from Athanasius of Alexandria and dates to 367. In his 39th Festal Letter, he states: "Continuing, I must without hesitation mention the scriptures of the New Testament; they are the following: the four Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, after them the Acts of the Apostles and the seven so-called catholic epistles of the apostles -- namely, one of James, two of Peter, then three of John and after these one of Jude. In addition there are fourteen epistles of the apostle Paul written in the following order: the first to the Romans, then two to the Corinthians and then after these the one to the Galatians, following it the one to the Ephesians, thereafter the one to the Philippians and the one to the Colossians and two to the Thessalonians and the epistle to the Hebrews and then immediately two to Timothy, one to Titus and lastly the one to Philemon. Yet further the Revelation of John."
The Vulgate, Jerome's translation of the Scriptures into Latin and the official Catholic Bible for centuries to follow, includes the 27 present New Testament books. It is curious that the Epistle to the Laodiceans, though never recognized by earlier leaders, some- how found its way into at least 100 copies of the Vulgate. It was never declared authoritative by the Catholic Church.
In summary, the canon of the New Testament was not determined by some arbitrary process by a group of church experts. The canon developed over a 300-year period during which the ekklesia came to recognize those writings that were inspired and edifying. The unwritten standard that was most important became a writings consistency with apostolic tradition. In this way, the New Testament canon was determined by God and recognized by the church, the EKKLESIA.
Some years ago, my wife encountered a Catholic priest while visiting a shrine in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies. As part of that conversation, he suggested to her that Protestants didn't even have the complete Bible, that they had thrown several books out. That priest was referring to the Apocrypha, which consists of seven books (Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, I and II Maachabees) as well as addition to Esther and Daniel. Are these in fact books that were discarded during the Reformation?
Absolutely not! The truth is that these books were added to the Catholic Bible on April 8, 1546 at the Council of Trent. Prior to then, the Catholic Church had not considered these books canonical, which is not surprising since Jerome, translator of the Vulgate, which is the historical basis of the Catholic Bible, adamantly denied the authority of the apocryphal books.
So tampering with the canon of the Bible is not without precedence. But the kind of assault that is beginning to build is categorically different from including the Apocrypha in the Old Testament. I have mentioned. The Jesus Seminar in other issues of "Ekklesia Then & Now." These are (mostly) men seemingly bent on tearing down the foundations of orthodox Christianity in order to build a church based on second century Gnosticism and eastern mysticism.
Overlaying such ancient names such as Valentinus, Basilides, Marcion, Cerinthus, Montanus, Paul of Samosata, Sabellius, Noetus, and Praxeaus are the modern heretics: Robert Funk, Roy Hoover, Marcus Borg, and Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar, renegade Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong, and liberal theologians Elaine Pagels and Bart D. Ehrman.
They litter the Christian shelves of the major book chains with seductive titles such as Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Jesus: A New Vision, and The God We Never Know: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith (Borg); Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, Who Killed Jesus?: Exposing the Roots of Anti- Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus (Crossan); A Credible Jesus and Honest to Jesus (Funk); Profiles of Jesus (Hoover); Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Pa- gels); Why Christianity Must Change or Die and Liberating the Gospels (Spong); and Lost Christianities (Ehrman).
Peter had appropriately strong words for such false teachers: "These are springs without water and mists driven by a storm, for whom the black darkness has been reserved. For speaking out arrogant words of vanity they entice by fleshly desires, by sensuality, those who barely escape from the ones who live in error, promising them freedom while they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved" [2 Peter 2:17-19).
The powerful phrase, "springs without water," is a perfect image for the Jesus Seminar and its confederates, for their books draw in the unsuspecting, hoping for meaning and purpose, only to encounter the discouragement of a dry well.
A major irony lies in the practices of the Jesus Seminar. Ultimately, they, like The Da Vinci Code character accuse orthodox Christianity of a massive elitist conspiracy to destroy competing ideas. For example, the description of Ehrman's Lost Christianities suggests that there were many equally valid ideas about Christ that eventually met" suppression by a powerful 'protoorthodox' faction. ' , There is no doubt that there are many who have become disillusioned by the legalism and hypocrisy of organized religion, but the 21st cen- tury false teachers would lead these people not to the authentic Christ and His ekklesia, but to the secret nonsense of second century Gnostics.
The Jesus Seminar has published a number of books, including: + The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (1993) + The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus (1998) + The Gospel of Jesus: According to the Jesus Seminar (1999) + The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version (1998)
In The Five Gospels, the "fellows" of the Jesus Seminar (dominated by liberal academic theologians) determined what Jesus really said through a voting system. For each gospel saying of Jesus, each fellow dropped one of four colored beads into a box: red for "Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it, "pink for "Jesus probably said something like this," gray for "Jesus did not say this, but the ideas contained in it are close to his own," or black for "Jesus did not say this; it represents the perspective or content of a later or different tradition."
They then assigned numeric values to each colored bead and mathematically concluded what Jesus really said. Finally, they produced a new translation of the Gospels (The Scholars Version) and published it with each saying of Jesus color-coded according to their own conclusions. Oh, and by the way, they added the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas on equal footing with the four canonical Gospels.
Care to guess which Gospel had the most red (That's Jesus) sayings and which had the most black (There must be some mistake) sayings? The Jesus Seminar conclusion: Thomas has the most reliable sayings, and John the least. But given the fact that the seminar started with the premise that the supernatural does not exist, that's hardly surprising.
Consider the Jesus Seminar's methods: a group of elitist academics votes secretly to pass judgment on the Gospels. What would they say if it were discovered that the New Testament canon was determined that way? It's a classic technique: accuse your opponents of exactly what you're doing. As I demonstrated in the Now portion of this issue, the genuine New Testament canon was recognized by the consensus of hundreds of years of church practice, not by some elitist committee.
Those of us who believe passionately in the reliability of the Bible based on our confidence in a God who is capable of delivering His message must hold tenaciously to the truth and be prepared to express it in the face of this neo-gnostic assault. The Time article I referred to in the Re-Inventing Jesus <http:// www .peculiarpress.com/ekkle- sail archive/Ekklesia-SE.htm> issue of ET &N also reported that church groups are actually reading and discussing books like Ehrman's Lost Christianities and Pagel's Beyond Belief. That would be fine if these were classes to armor Christians with a defense, but that's often not the case. People are accepting these ideas with enthusiasm-"Finally, a Jesus I can believe in,' , one participant said about a non-divine version.
And in 2005, the onslaught may well be particularly acute because Ron Howard is producing the film version of The Da Vinci Code and the conspiratorial, goddess-oriented, profane premise of that popular book will become part of popular culture, just as Oliver Stone's paranoid revisionist historical fictions have. We need to be prepared, not just because The Da Vinci Code and the Jesus Seminar material threatens genuine Christianity, but, also because it represents a major opportunity, With the release of The Da Vinci Code movie will come a perhaps-unprecedented interest in Jesus. Ron Brown and Ron Howard (what would Andy say?) will present a lie. We can present the truth.
(c) Richard M. Soule, 2004 Unlimited copy and distribution permission is hereby granted on the condition that this copyright notice is included. Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE, (c) 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.