Early Canonical book lists & quotations
So what are the earliest canonical lists that we know of? Or what inferences can we discover from individuals who quoted large collections of books? What we’ll explore here in this section is what books people affirmed as scripture. Amongst this are the church fathers, the ones who followed on from the Apostolic era as well as heretics because, through inference, they affirm books of the New Testament through methods of their own manipulation.
This would be the time in which the New Testament is being written and we wouldn’t expect much of lists here because like we spoke of earlier, the reasoning for a physical bound canon was only just emerging. But what we can glean is quite interesting and we’ll get into this more in a later section where we look at the canon before the lists and what we can clean from the disciples of the apostles and the chain of command when it comes to their testimony.
- Clement of Rome
One initial link which is not a list, but a great inference through what he quotes is the disciple of John named Polycarp. Polycarp lived in the first century though we date his letter 108, he was clearly active in the first century and quotes many New Testament books and he was martyred at the age of 86. Polycarp wrote the Letter to the Philippians around the turn of the century. In his letter, what we are interested in are how many books a disciple of an apostle would mention. The letter to the Philippians quotes or alludes to the books or letters of Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, Hebrews, and 1 Peter. This is a pretty substantial set of books for a man coming out of the first century, and even so, this isn’t a list, this is just purely quotes we can pull from his single surviving letter. Imagine if Polycarp gave us a list of books he recognised if he’s already given us through quotation most of the New Testament? Polycarp is a man who likely heard John in his 20’s and sat at his feet. He then he passed on to his disciples what he heard from the preaching of John which we’ll get into in a alter section when it comes to chain of testimony. One of Polycarps disciples was Irenaeus of Lyon and he says
“So we have his unbreakable chain taking us back to the very students of the disciples of the Apostles themselves!”Irenaeus of Lyon
Clement of Rome
Another claim of equal significance is Clement of Rome. Clement was based thousands of miles away from Polycarp, yet he affirmed much of what Polycarp affirmed through quotations in his surviving works. One such surviving work is the First Epistle of Clement. This is said to be penned in 95AD and in this letter he quotes from Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, 1 Corinthians, Titus, Hebrews, and 1 Peter.
The third and final contemporary or the era was Ignatius. Another disciple of John with Polycarp we can also glean a handful of New Testament books through their early quotations which are direct or near direct. Ignatius was active as early as 70AD to 110AD and he wrote seven Epistles and in them he quoted Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, James, and 1 Peter.
In a culture where perhaps much of the New Testament was orally known without any list intentions at the time, much of the New Testament can be revealed through these early authors through quotations. As we get into the second century and the death of the apostles (John who died toward the end of the first century) we see how the critics of begin to seep in.
- Marcion ~144AD
- Basilides 125AD
- Valentinus 135-160 AD
- Muratorian Fragment 170AD
- Irenaeus toward end of 2nd century AD
So the official lists coming from archaeology show that Heretics were first to put together lists of New Testament books as a formal proclaimed list to use to their advantage. This is not to say the Christians did not formally have a strong canonical list, it could be lost to history if it were first century as is most of antiquity. But what we do know is Heretics Like Marcion, Basilides & Valentinus give us great reason to affirm the New Testament books written in the century before them. We can observe their botched attempts as enemy attestation to the books we have in the Bible.
Marcion is the first individual of interest when it comes to canonical lists
second century including the popularity of a famous Bishop gone wrong by the name of Marcion Marcion predated one of the conversations we had last night at the panel believing that the God of the Old Testament was a god of Wrath and the God of Jesus Christ in the New Testament was a God of love and therefore he rejected the Old Testament and he rejected many Christian books that seemed too positive towards the Old Testament and had a truncated canon of some of the letters of Paul and parts of the Gospel of Luke and he was rejected and roundly censored and censured by the majority of the church as being far too narrow in his thinking
Marcion was the son of a Bishop in pontus (100-160AD) and he was quite the nonconformist. He tried to get his views accepted in Asia minor, but with no success. He then went to Rome, the centre of the empire, and failed there too. So, Like many after him, he formed his own church. He was an interesting man. He built up an organisation that in less than a generation rivalled the Orthodox church. It had the same organisational structure. It had the same sacraments. It had excellent organization, and presented the ideal, attractive to many. He held a high view of the church, which he saw as the bride of Christ and the mother of Christians. And he even claimed to be the proper successor of St. Paul. Yet all the orthodox Christians of the second century agreed that he was a wolf in the Pauline fold.
Macions problem was that the God of the Old Testament to him seemed harsh and was quite different to the God of the New Testament. He was determined to remove any suggestion of continuity between the God of the Jews and the God of the questions. So he formed his own Canon. It’s basically, scrap the Old Testament and use only one gospel, which was emasculated Gospel of Luke. The reason why he chose this gospel is he had the least to say about the Old Testament and it would leave him less to have to remove from the book. To reject any connection with the Old Testament Marcion heavily manipulated not only the Gospel of Luke, but also the epistles of Paul.
So he was the first known person to us to publish a fixed collection of what we would call New Testament books. However, It is very unlikely that he invented the concept of Canon or sacred books as mentioned earlier. Church Father Tertullian, Who wrote a brutal attack on Marcion, accused him of excluding some of the sacred scriptures of the church, and Marcion himself claims to have purged the epistles of Paul and the Gospel of Luke. That suggests that there was some sort of canon before him for which Marcion could basehis editing from.
So Marcions list of edited books consists of a Gospel of Christ (which was Marcion’s version of Luke, and that the Marcionites attributed to Paul, that was different in a number of ways from the version that is now regarded as canonical. It seems to have lacked all prophecies of Christ’s coming, as well as the Infancy account, the baptism, and the verses were more terse in general) and ten of the Pauline epistles, in the following order: Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Romans, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, Laodiceans, Colossians, Philippians, Philemon.
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcionism; The Books The Church Suppressed, Michael Green
The next Heretic of interest springs up around 125AD. He doesn’t use a whole canon, but accounts nicely for John’s gospel which by the time of 125AD would be more widely circulated than in the late first century. Here’s some example verses:
“That each man has his own appointed time, he says, the Sovereign sufficiently indicates when he says, my hour is not yet come.”John 2:4
“…this, He says, is what is mentioned in the Gospels: he was the true light, which lights every man coming into the world.”John 1:9
Now remember, he’s not on our side but he’s using the Gospel of John! Now the Gospel of John says things like “the word became flesh” which is very problematic for a Gnostic like Basilides. But Basilides wants to be considered a good Christian so he tries to use John in a gnostic way to his own failure. He uses the Christian Gospels because he can’t get away from them because the undeniable at this point. So this is a heretic writing at the same time as Papius affirming the Gospels. Though this heretic doesn’t provide us with a list, it is the first mention of John by a heretic from a gospel that is incredibly difficult for heretics to get around! The heretical movement of Basilides which he tried to create just didn’t quite catch on like Marcion and Valentinus.
The church father Tertullian once said in his writings that there are two ways of destroying the scriptures. The first method was Marcion’s way which was to use a knife on scripture to cut out what he did not like. The other was adopted by the heretic Valentinus. He was a contemporary of Marcion who lived in Rome from about 135 – 160 AD. He was leading one of the early gnostic sects.
Despite having the documentational evidence of Tertullian’s attacks, we do believe we now have this heretics work in the name of the document called the Gospel of Truth. It was found in the sands of Egypt, and it is one of the Nag Hammadi texts found in 1945, written in coptic, which perhaps formed part of the library of a Gnostic monastery.
Clement of Alexandria writing end of second century tells us Valentinus made a distinction between the things written in common books and those found written in the Church of God [Stromateis 6.6.52]. This strongly suggests that Valentinus knew a canon of church books
It is probable that the massive impact of Valentinus was another factor that urged the church to give sharper definition to the contents of its message. Valentinus clearly knew all the New Testament, but produced a totally new and speculative gospel, full of Gnostic ideas, tendentiously called the Gospel of Truth. It is not a gospel as we know it, but an amalgam of Oriental and Greek speculations, a little Christianity, and a lot of his own fertile imagination. It has almost nothing to say about the life and ministry and death of Jesus, but has to do with emanations from the father, the fall of Sophia, the Pleroma, and the Secret knowledge that Jesus is supposed to bring… For the church it became abundantly clear they needed a way to make sure such crazy works didn’t influence Christian Believers again.
These Church heretics forced the likes of Clement, Origen, Tertullian and Irenaeus to respond to what is true. They made plain that they accepted not only one gospel but 4 (See Justin Martyr). They accepted not 10 letters of Paul as Marcion had done, but 13. They accepted not only Paul’s writings, as Marcion had done, but those of other Apostles. They firmly rejected the unorthodox Gnostic Gospel of Valentinus and they accepted Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the apostles, which has not been much referred to before that but which, as they realised, was the critical link between the Gospels and the letters of the apostles.
Archaeological dynamite, the Muratorian fragment is our earliest written list of New Testament books. The document is dated to around 170AD to middle 2nd century (150AD) named after its discoverer. What we know is the first page is lost, but from where the top page we do have begins, inferences can be made as to what came before…
The second page starts with
“…at which nevertheless he was present, and so he placed [them in his narrative’.”…“The third book of the Gospel Is that according to Luke. Luke, the well known physician…”…“The fourth of the gospels is that of John, [one] of the disciples. To his fellow disciples and bishops, who had been urging him [to write]…”Muratorian Fragment
So this tells us Luke was third, John was last and it starts with the same idea the church fathers tell us: Mark was present while Peter was preaching in Rome and wrote down what Peter taught. So we know Mark was second and first place is highly likely to be Matthew and completes the order of our New Testament Gospels.
This shows in orthodox circles people began to list authoritative documents which ones should be included. The Muratorian canon refers to 21 of 27 books that now make up the New Testament. We see no 5th gospel here, just the ones we know and Matthew being synoptic to Mark and Luke fits the bill perfectly. This document not only had four gospels but also had arguments to objections against them! This is second century apologetics. The rest of the books are Acts, the 13 Pauline Epistles, Titus, Philemon, 1 John (possibly 2 & 3 John), Jude, Apocalypse of John (Revelation), but also includes the additional books of Apocalypse of Peter, Wisdom of Solomon on this occasion and the Apocalypse of Peter is said in the fragment not to be read in other churches (it’s a local book, not canonical in status).
Other second century authors
Justin martyr AD133
A man who converted from Paganism, studied various Greek philosophers before his conversion. He battled the heretic Marcion and later was martyred in Rome. He was potentially to write the first Defence of the Christian Faith, what we now know as an apologetic response. In his apologies of the faith, he quotes the four New Testament Gospels, along with 1 Corinthians and Hebrews.
Irenaeus, Bishop in Lyon toward the end of 2nd century
Irenaeus was a student of heresies and wrote about them and refuted them at length and a useful source of information about rejected book (we’ll get to later). He discussed in more detail about the original canon. He had a list of 22 documents. This included the 4 gospels for which he says were being widely and without debate accepted by all major portions of the Christian world. His justification was not a theological one, he treated it as a known fact. He quotes all testament books except Philemon, II Peter, III John, and Jude.[http://www.ntcanon.org/Irenaeus.shtml
In the year AD 200 church father named Caius provides a list of accepted books similar to second century Christian writings. He lists the same twenty-one canonical books that are found in the Muratorian Canon, so this shows that there was a pretty firm conviction about those books at that time.
So he affirmed four gospels, Acts, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Galatians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Romans, Revelation, Philemon, Titus, Timothy, Jude, 1 & 2 John and wisdom of Solomon.
Fragments of Caius, From a Dialogue or Disputation Against Proclus, Canon Muratorianus
Active between 160-220 AD Tertullian was a Presbyter in the church in Carthage. He quotes the New Testament more than 7,000 times. of which 3,800 are from the Gospels alone. He wrote in Latin and was the first to use the expression “New Testament”. He lists 23 Canonical books and again there is no debate over the four gospels.
Clement of Alexandria 150-212AD
Based in Egypt, Clement quotes scripture 2,400 times, from all but three of the books from the New Testament.
Again these books are the small books: Philemon, James, II Peter, II John, and III John. Often shorter books as we’ve talked of earlier didn’t get quoted as much so don’t be surprised for them not always appearing. Clement also revealed other writings he considered of values that are not in the present New Testament. Like with our own Christian external literature, I have several books I keep on hand like Bible commentaries but I wouldn’t consider them scripture. Here’s some of the non-canonical books he saw of value: Gospel of the Egyptians, Gospel of the Hebrews, Traditions of Matthias, Preaching of Peter, I Clement, Epistle of Barnabas, Didache, Shepherd of Hermas, Apocalypse of Peter. The key difference is knowing useful texts and Inspired texts.
He was a second century theologian and disciple of Irenaeus, the disciple of Polycarp who was the disciple of the apostle John. In his writings he quotes New Testament scripture ~1,300 times.
This vociferous writer compiled more than 6,000 works. He lists more than 18,000 New Testament quotes (I think he occasionally slept in between writings!). He lists 27 books from the New Testament he saw as on par with the Hebrew Scriptures. He states that 7 of them are disputed but none of these are the Gospels, Acts, any of Paul’s letters, 1 Peter nor 1 John. The disputed and ones people wrestled with were Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, Jude and Revelation (or as some call, the apocalypse of John).
What does Origen tell us about these disputed books? With Hebrews no one is quite sure on the author, it is Pauline but not Paul, perhaps an associate. The book written by James people were suspicious of ‘Faith without words being dead’ as contradictory compared to Paul who talked about Grace by Faith alone. Though this is taken out of context, we can see why people might assume this at first. In 2 Peter, the style is said to be dramatically different from 1 Peter. 2 & 3 John were really short and people were suspicious they contained teaching for all time in a small book. Jude again was short but quoted non-canonical intertestamental books. When it came to the book of Revelation, no one was ever quite sure what to do and how to interpret it. They may be disputed but they were included. Other books were proposed occasionally, all of which were largely orthodox or apostolic. Like the didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, a letter attributed to Barnabas (1st century leader). There were others which had hints beyond New Testament doctrine but nothing Gnostic. Gnostical books being canonical is very much a modern invention by wishful conspiracy theorists.
Another with data to input it Cyprian. He was a Bishop of Carthage and used approximately 740 Old Testament citations and 1,030 from the New Testament.
Eusebius AD 325
We have two important figures of Christianity emerge in the 4th century, the first of these was Eusebius. Eusebius is considered the first real historian of the Christian church when it comes to collecting all the early church father histories and cataloging them. He recorded the information about the origins of the books first used as scriptures. One of the reasons Eusebius is so crucial is that he preserve the reasons and the words of some church fathers whose works have otherwise been lost or only recently been discovered and verified by Eusebius’ faithful recording of history.
Eusebius relied heavily on the church fathers as they quoted scripture so frequently allowing him to see where they quoted it, when, to whom, and what value they placed on such scriptures. He was able to divide the canonical books into three categories. Firmly Canonical: Rarely in question (22 of the New Testament books); Widely accepted as Canonical: These would be the books of James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John; Rejected: These are texts that had the appearance of scripture and were used for instruction or worship but fell short of the canon requirements either being forgeries or non-apostolic; and Heretical which a handful of texts did fall into.
Using Eusebius’ structure, we will explore the Accepted books and widely accepted and look into the reasonings behind those books. As well as them, the rejected and heretical books will be analysed and seen why they were indeed rejected.
Athanasius AD 367
You could write a book on what this man had done for the Christian faith, but when talking about the canon, he made some helpful affirmations to seal the deal on something. Athanasius was the Bishop of Alexandria, Egypt and in 367AD listed the same 27 books of the New Testament as Eusebius in his Easter letter. He speaks of them in this letter as universally accepted and there was no need to defend them at this point.
By the end of the first century we have amazing first century attestation for the New Testament which was still developing through the apostolic age with the aid of the Holy Spirit. With just three authors, disciples of the first apostles, we learn that they quoted from Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, Hebrews, 1 Peter, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, James, Titus. This isn’t saying other books weren’t canonical, they just aren’t mentioned in the quoted works as these authors in the works we do have didn’t provide solid canonical lists for two reasons:
- We don’t have all their works so perhaps one had a list or at least would’ve quoted other books
- In this oral culture, it wasn’t seen as a necessity to have a list of 27 books, but to have what was needed for the people and the church.
The second century features the beginning of written lists at the hands of the heretics starting with Marcion. In a need to distance himself from the church fathers before him with attributions he provides a cut and paste version of the New Testament Canon, devoid of anything Jewish at all. This took the forms of. Basilides, although we don’t glean much, what we do see is his quotations from John and for a Gnostic to have to try to manipulate that Gospel meant it was likely common knowledge and Basilidies tried to distort it to his own ends. Valentinus, a heretic also of this age made distinctions between common books and those written in the Church of God suggesting he knew the church had chosen books. Of course he tried to add his Gospel of Truth to the pile but in the end did not succeed as it was far too late. So what we have from Valentinus is knowledge of church books and what we get from Marcion & Basilidies is Luke, John, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Romans, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, Laodiceans, Colossians, Philippians, Philemon. Following these was the discovery of the Muratorian Fragment, the first Christian document with a canonical list. This features in terms of relevant books to our canon: 4 gospels (Likely Matthew, then Mark, Luke & John), Acts, 13 Pauline Epistles, Titus, Philemon, 1 John (possible 2 John & 3 John), Jude and Revelation. Justin Martyr further qualifies the four gospels, Hebrews & 1 Corinthians in what he quotes through his writing. Irenaeus mentions 22 canonical books. Irenaeus gives us all the books except Philemon, II Peter, III John, and Jude and considered the canonical books a known fact.
The Third century brings References from Caius who lists the four Gospels, Acts, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Galatians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Romans, Revelation, Philemon, Titus, Timothy, Jude, 1 & 2 John and wisdom of Solomon. Tertullian lists 23 books in his writings but did state that while there was plenty of discussion in the early church over the New Testament canon, the “major” writings were accepted by almost all Christian authorities by the middle of the second century [Wikipedia]. Clement of Alexandria 22 only exempting the smaller books Philemon, II Peter, II John, III John and James (probably suspicious over the faith and works passage). Origen also also gives us the full 27
And unlike previous authors, tells us which ones people wrestled over. They were Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, Jude and Revelation (or as some call, the apocalypse of John). Now if the other authors mentioned disputed books perhaps the early lists would be longer. But Origen crucially gives us the first full list prior to the 4th century.
The 4th century continues on from Origen with Eusebius in the West, the first true church historian speaking of those Canonical, those widely accepted, heretical and rejected books. Our 27 books today are within those first two. Athanasius in the Eastern church affirmed the same 27 canonical books in his Easter letter. So by this point we have united opinions both sides of the western world.
We have strong evidence that the disciples, and then onto the church fathers knew what they were talking about, that from even within the first century, church fathers quoted generously from most of the New Testament books. Geisler and Nix rightly conclude that “there were some 32,000 citations of the New Testament prior to the time of the Council of Nicaea (325AD). These 32,000 quotations are by no means exhaustive, and they do not even include the 4th century writers. But just adding the number of references used by one other writers like Eusebius, who flourished prior to and was a contemporary with the Council at Nicaea, will bring the total number of citations (prior to AD325) of the New Testament to over 36,000. [Geisler and Nix, GIB, 353-354]
See this table of quotations from just a few church fathers. We see from the church fathers making It’s abundantly clear that they saw these essential works as a source of scriptural knowledge. What is impressive is from just quotations here and there, when we consider all the church fathers, we are missing just 11 verses though some argue as few as 7, which is incredible!
Polycarp — Smyrna, West Turkey
Clement — Rome, Italy
Ignatius — Antioch, West Turkey/Syria
Marcion — Sinope, East Turkey/Syria
Basilides — Alexandria, Egypt
Valentinus — Rome, Italy
Justin Martyr — Rome, Italy
Irenaeus — Lyon, France
Caius — Rome, Italy
Tertullian — Carthage, Tunisia
Clement — Alexandria, Egypt
Origen — Alexandria, Egypt
Cyprian — Carthage, Tunisia
Eusebius — Caesarea, Israel
Athanasius — Alexandria, Egypt
So in the North we have Lyon and then Rome south of that. West, we have Carthage in North Africa. To the south we have Alexandria and Caesarea. East of there would be Smyrna, Antioch and Sinope. From the very first century we’re affirming similar books thousands of miles apart and by the start of the second century we’re getting similar in France and then North Africa after that. There was never a time or place where a single authority could force the canon to be what they wanted. The New Testament books were quoted and seen as canonical on three continents with similar lists accepted with all the essential Christian doctrine contained within from as early as the second century.
One of the essential factors to notice is this is a historians dream when it comes to historical documentation. No other leaders, be Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Mohammed, Plato, Aristotle, Homer’s Iliad come even remotely close to having any historical documentation within a generation, nor really several generations! What also is important to note is there is no other tradition of testimony that attributes authorship of These Gospels, Acts, Pauls 13 letters to anyone else. There is no existing competition to them at all and we will attest to their authorship later on.
See this table for a thorough list on who recognised each book as canonical (key below)
- Ig = Ignatius
- Po = Polycarp
- M = Marcion
- Va = Valentinus
- JM = Justin Martyr
- IR = Irenaeus
- C = Clement of Alexandria
- T = Tertullian
- MC = Muratorian Canon
- O = Origen
- E = Eusebius
- CS = Codex Sinaiticus
- A = Athanasius
- D = Didymus the Blind
- P = Peshitta (Bible of the Syrian church)
- V = Latin vulgate
Some of the sources in this table I haven’t covered here but you could find out more at ntcanon.org/table.shtml