For context, start at the introduction.
As mentioned in the previous post, the Bible is a collection of smaller works written at different times by different authors. The “canon” of the Bible is the list of books that are included in the Bible. If I want to use some kind of claim about the Bible, for example, that the Bible is divinely inspired or that it is inerrant, then I have to combine that claim with a notion of the limits of the Bible.
While the previous post was a grab-bag collection of the books that didn’t make it into the Bible, this post focuses in on the question of how the church chose which books to include in the Bible that we now have. To that end, I present summaries of three books that seek to explain and understand the canon of scripture:
- “The Canon of Scripture,” by F. F. Bruce
- “The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission and Authority,” by Lee Martin McDonald
- “The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance,” by Bruce Metzger
I assume that you are familiar with the contents of the 66 books of the Protestant Bible. Catholics include more books; they have a different canon. Given the magnitude of the force of the Bible in defining our culture, if you were to read one new book that I mention in this series, you ought to read the Bible. The English Standard Version (ESV) is a reasonably good, recent translation and was favored by the Biblical inerrantist crowd that I used to belong to. The ESV is more of a ‘word for word’-type translation. If you want more of a ‘thought for thought’ translation, then the New Living Translation (NLT) is one option that I like. A middle of the road (and slightly older translation) is the New International Version (NIV). I have read the entire (Protestant) Bible at least three times, at least once in each of these three translations. A great place to read the Bible online in various translations is Bible Gateway.
In his conclusion, McDonald says “Those who argue for the infallibility or the inerrancy of Scripture logically should also claim the same infallibility for the churches in the fourth and fifth centuries, whose decisions and historical circumstances have left us with our present Bible.” This quote illustrates how a careful and historical study of the origin of the Biblical canon lead me to forcibly reject the Bible as the sole source of spiritual truth.
To wit, if the Bible is the source of absolute, indisputable truth, and all that’s left for us is to understand the Scripture through study, exegesis and a sniff of church-sanctioned debate, then the Bible ought to stand on absolute, indisputable pillars of justification. But a careful study of the origins of the canon shows me that the Bible’s table of contents is deeply human, somewhat arbitrary and, ultimately, not justified to the standard required for a source of absolute, indisputable truth. This is a coup de grâce that blows Evangelical Christianity to smithereens. And that is before starting the necessary analysis of the potential problems with the authorship, historicity and contents of the canonical books themselves! “But,” one might argue, “that’s too high a standard.” Exactly! No system can reach such a high justification. Therefore, I accept no system as absolute or indisputable.
You might or might not agree with my conclusions, but this post is mostly concerned with analysis of the canon of the Bible and my approach is through presenting my own summaries of others’ work. I placed the summaries in increasing order of length. Last is Metzger’s book, which is the best one and I flatter it with the longest summary. For that book, I’ve even summarized the appendices, which include fascinating minutiae.
The Canon of Scripture
By F. F. Bruce
Summary written in 2017
Bruce presents a view of the history of the development of the canon of the Christian Bible. I strongly felt that Bruce affirms his preconceived conclusion that the finally accepted canon was the right selection. To be generous, I would say that Bruce makes no argument as to whether or not the selection of the canon was correct in any sense but rather he takes the approach of “this is how it is; how did it come to be this way?” Bruce examines the developments of both the Old and New Testaments, tracing the history from ancient times until the present, with an emphasis on the first five centuries AD. In two illuminating appendices, Bruce presents his analysis of Secret Mark (concluding that it is an ancient fraud) and his analysis of the “primary and plenary senses” of scripture. This book is an adaption of a lecture series by the author and is surprisingly well typeset.
The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission and Authority
By Lee Martin McDonald
Summary written in 2015
McDonald aims to answer the question "Why did some ancient books make it into our Bibles, and others did not?"
In part one, McDonald introduces his questions & explains the adaptability of the Bible as a key criterion for its continued use, explains the emergence the Old and New Testaments, and describes how canonization was a process. McDonald discusses the notion and use of scripture and the notion and use of the word canon. McDonald invites his readers to think critically about how mere quotation does not imply that the author holds the quoted book in authority. He describes how books were viewed as authoritative before they were collected into a fixed canon. Therefore, one can discuss books becoming authoritative as a gradual process and then how those books and not others were accepted into a fixed collection.
In part two, McDonald examines the origins and development of the Old Testament canon/the Hebrew Bible. Interestingly, the only part of the Old Testament that is viewed as canon in the Old Testament is the law of Moses. We do not have hard evidence that the Old Testament canon was fixed in the time of Josephus, c. 100 CE. Like the development of the New Testament canon, the books of the Old Testament were first accepted as scripture over a wide range of times. The canon of the Old Testament was not fixed in the time of Jesus. Rather, the Hebrew Bible formed in the first few centuries CE, in parallel to the acceptance of the various Old Testament books in the Christian church. In some cases, Jewish opinion of a book was diminished because that book was held in positive esteem by Christians. In other cases, the Christian opinion of books was supported by the Jewish esteem, for example, Jerome’s view of the Old Testament books was influenced by the practices of Jewish people. So, in some ways, the Protestant rejection of Old Testament deutrocanonical books is strange because those books were rejected by the Jewish people precisely because they were sometimes thought to support Christianity.
In part three, McDonald examines the development of the New Testament canon. McDonald considers the emergence of the New Testament writings as "scripture," then the transition of these writings from scripturally accepted individual books to a fixed and limited canon of books. McDonald then considers the influence of factors such as heretics and the development of the codex. McDonald asks which textual variant is canonical and he seems to settle on the opinion that the question of canon in the first several centuries did not extend to the textual variant but only to whole books. McDonald catalogs various collections of Christian Scripture lists and collections of quotations from various early Christian books of the existing New Testament books. In a divergence from an earlier scholarly consensus, McDonald maintains that the Muratorian fragment dates from the 4th or 5th century CE. (Wikipedia says that the Muratorian fragment dates from the 7th or 8th century; I presume that Wikipedia follows the “scholarly consensus.”) Finally, McDonald examines the criteria used by the church in determining which books were canonical: whether the book was apostolic, whether the book was orthodox, how old the book was, and how many churches used the book. Like Bruce Metzger, McDonald concludes that inspiration was not a factor used by the early church in determining which books were canonical, rather inspiration is a corollary of canonicity.
McDonald gives several useful appendices: an outline of canon research with primary sources & questions, Old Testament lists in the early church, New Testament lists in the early church, and New Testament citations of allusions to apocryphal and pseudepigraphal writings.
I found McDonald's book to be overly verbose and too concerned about what other scholar may think of his writing. Perhaps the intention was for this book to be more of a textbook than of a “start at the start, and end at the end” book. However, I found the content to be interesting and useful in my exploration of the Bible's origins. Indeed, the process of selecting the books in the Bible was murky and not without controversy. There was a diversity of opinions about which books should go in the Bible. This diversity is much wider, if one includes so-called "heresies.” In the same way that there was a diversity of opinions about which books should go in the Bible, there is a diversity of theological opinion within the books of the New Testament.
One interesting question that McDonald raises in his conclusion is: “Those who argue for the infallibility or the inerrancy of Scripture logically should also claim the same infallibility for the churches in the fourth and fifth centuries, whose decisions and historical circumstances have left us with our present Bible.” This question illustrates how a careful and historical study of the origin of the Biblical canon lead me to forcibly reject the Bible as the sole source of spiritual truth. Books were chosen based on their orthodoxy, and orthodoxy was determined based on oral tradition which, ideally, was safeguarded by the successors of the apostles (= apostolic succession). It is the authority of the church that the canon's authority derives from. Another interesting idea from McDonald's book is that the church may be free now to make alternative decisions about the canon than it did in the past.
The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance
By Bruce Metzger
Summary mostly written in 2015
Metzger gives a brilliant, erudite, and scholarly examination of the origin and development of the canon of the New Testament. The development of the canon took a long time to be completed in full (~400 years), but many books were accepted sooner. Persecution (including requirements to surrender holy books; think ‘which books would people surrender?’) and heresy (e.g. Marcion) were factors that led the church to more clearly express which books were considered authoritative. The long tail of the diversity of thought and action regarding the canon is clear: some parts of the Syrian church still only use 22 books, and the Epistle of “Paul” to the Laodiceans was included in many New Testament copies through the Middle Ages. The books that may seem doubtful now were doubtful even in the 4th century: Revelation, Hebrews, James, Jude, 2 Peter and 2 & 3 John. In addition to these doubtful books that were eventually included, there were some doubtful books that were only eventually excluded, such as the Didache, the Shepard of Hermas, the apocalypse of Peter, and the Epistle of Barnabas.
I was intrigued to read about how many concerns about the New Testament today, are in fact as old as our knowledge of the texts themselves: the Church Fathers of the first four centuries were concerned about the great difference in style between 1 Peter and 2 Peter, the big difference between the synoptic gospels and John, the possibility that Revelation, John, and 1-3 John may have different authors, Jude’s quotations from apocryphal books, the mystery of the authorship of Hebrews, the supposed contradictions in the gospel accounts, and the supposed contradictions between James and Paul. Metzger seems to hold a reasonably traditional Christian perspective, and he generally seems supportive of the current canon and positive toward the Christian faith.
In chapters 1 & 2, Metzger surveys the previous literature on the canon of the New Testament.
In chapter 3, Metzger examines the early Church Fathers' use of the Old and New Testaments in order to derive their concept of what 'scripture' is. Overall, he finds that these early authors do not place the New Testament in the same category as the Old, but that the to-become New Testament was quoted widely, if not always exactly, and had an implicit but not exclusive authority. The words of Jesus, on the other hand, did carry the highest authority with the early Church Fathers. Many of the books examined by Metzger in this section are included in "Lost Scriptures" by Bart Ehrman. (See Part IV of this blog post series, “Non-canonical books: what could have been in the Bible?”.)
In chapter 4, Metzger describes the forces of time and culture that catalyzed the creation of the canon: Gnosticism, Marcion, Montanism, persecution, and other factors. In general, the church had to respond to heresy by more fully describing what it thought was true. Similarly, it seems like the move from oral tradition to written authority happened gradually, possibly for the same reasons.
In Chapter 5, Metzger lists the approaches to the canon taken by Eastern church figures, including Tatian, Theophilus of Antioch, Origen, Clement of Alexandria and others. These 2nd-3rd century Christian writers had a more developed view of the canon of the New Testament than did the earliest Church Fathers. For these 2nd-3rd century writers, the authority of the current New Testament books had increased, but it is not quite on par with the Old Testament. Clement of Alexandria and Origen are particularly fascinating to read about, including their use of ‘agrapha’ or unwritten (at least outside major books anyway) sayings of Jesus, such as “Be approved money-changers,” (apparently scholars consider this to be a genuine saying of Jesus). Other agrapha include “You have seen your brother; you have seen your God,” and “Ask for the great things, and the little thing will be added to you.” Origen wrote extensively. He quoted from many apocryphal books that are now outside the New Testament, and even considered some of those books to be ‘inspired,’ even if he didn’t consider those same books to be scripture. I wonder why most Christians today have zero interest in reading books outside the Bible that the early church considered inspired.
In Chapter 6, the practices of Western 3rd generation Christians such as Irenaeus and Tertullian are considered. While similar to their Eastern counterparts, my impression is that the authority of the New Testament is more closely matched to the Old for the Western Christian writers. Tertullian appeals to the epistle of Jude as a testimony to the authority of the book of Enoch.
Metzger explores apocryphal New Testament literature in chapter 7. Metzger has a low view of the non-canonical gospels: "Even the gospel of Peter and the gospel of Thomas, both of which may preserve scraps of independent tradition, are obviously inferior theologically and historically to the four accounts that eventually came to be regarded as the only canonical gospels," p. 174. When referring to the apocryphal acts of apostles, Metzger says that "in the credulous temper of the age, almost anything was believed." Ironically, this could also apply to the canonical books. Metzger claims that the author of the apocalypse of Peter is the first to introduce pagan ideas of heaven and hell into Christianity.
In chapter 8, Metzger describes two early canon lists in detail: the Muratorian Canon and Eusebius' classification of New Testament books. The Muratorian fragment (of some unknown but early date likely before 200 AD) lists all the New Testament books except 1 & 2 Peter, James and Hebrews. In addition, it lists the apocalypse of Peter as disputed and The Shepard of Hermas as acceptable only for private reading. Books were identified as being accepted or rejected based on whether they were read publicly in church and whether they were written by "eye- and ear-witnesses, i.e. apostles."
Eusebius (c. 360-340 AD) classified books based on their use by early Christian authors as universally accepted, universally rejected, or of divided usage. Significantly, when Eusebius wrote, there was no official canon issued by a synod or any kind of official agreement, so Eusebius was left with taking a guess at the canon based on the usage of each book in his vast (for its time) library. Eusebius found these books to be universally accepted: the four gospels, the Pauline epistles (which probably includes Hebrews here), 1 Peter and 1 John, and maybe Revelation. The disputed books are James, Jude, 2 Peter and 2 & 3 John. The spurious books are the acts of Paul, the Shepard of Hermas, the apocalypse of Peter, the epistle of Barnabas, the Teachings of the Apostles and the gospel according to the Hebrews. The "fiction of heretics" are the gospels of Peter, Thomas, and Matthias, and the acts of Andrew, John and other apostles. In some sense, the books are first divided into orthodox and unorthodox (all the subcategories are orthodox except "heretical"), and second by canonical status: recognized, disputed or spurious. Metzger explains the strange status of Revelation by saying that Eusebius the historian recognizes the canonical status that Revelation enjoys in the eyes of some authors but Eusebius the churchman was annoyed by its use by the Montanist heretics, so he points out its rejection by other authors. Eusebius was commanded by Constantine to produce 50 copies of the Bible, but strangely he made no (lasting) record of which books he included.
In chapter 9, Metzger examines the attempts to close the canon in the Eastern church in and after the 4th century. In about 350 AD, Cyril of Jerusalem made a closed canon list of 26 books, excluding Revelation. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in 367 AD, made a book list of the Old and New Testaments which excluded the deutrocanonical Old Testament books (permitting them only for devotional reading) but presented all 27 of the New Testament books as the only canonical books. Athanasius’ list was not universally accepted; Gregory of Nazianzus later made a bible book list the same as Athanasius, but lacking Revelation. Especially noteworthy is Amphilochius, a contemporary of Gregory and Athanasius, who expresses uncertainty over the canon list.
Epiphanius of Salamis (d. 403 AD) accepted Revelation and also the wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus as canonical New Testament books in his list. John Chrysostom, patriarch of Constantinople, was the first to give the Bible its current name, literally "the books." Despite numerous quotations from other books, Chrysostom doesn't quote 2 Peter, 2 or 3 John, Jude or Revelation, implicitly matching the Canon list of the Peshitta and the "synopsis of the sacred scriptures". In 691-2 AD, the Trullan synod "sanctioned implicitly, as far as the number of Biblical books is concerned, quite incongruous and contradictory opinions... Such an extraordinary situation can be accounted for only on the supposition that the members of the Council had not even read the texts sanctioned. In view of the confusion implicit in the pronouncement made on the canon at the Trullan synod, it is not surprising that the latter history of the Bible in the East continues to exhibit uncertainty and vacillation," even up to the 10th AD!
Based on the numbers of surviving manuscripts, Metzger opines that "the canon of the New Testament was not essentially a dogmatic issue whereby all the parts of the New Testament were regarded as equally necessary (The Gospels exist in 2,328 copies; the Book of Revelation in 287 copies)."
Some parts of the Syrian church had a Bible (The Peshitta) with 22 New Testament books, lacking 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, Jude and Revelation. Other parts later had all 27 books. The debate in the Syrian church over the list of canonical books seems to have continued into the 9th century AD at least, and even today the Syrian Orthodox Church presents lessons from only the 22 books. The Nestorian monument erected in 781 AD in China claims that Christ left behind 27 "holy books." But probably the Chinese church did not have all 27 New Testament books at the time. In the 12th century AD, the scribe Sâhdâ wrote a copy of the New Testament that included 1 & 2 Clement between Jude and Romans. The canons of the Armenian and Gregorian churches also showed signs of change even in the Middle Ages, even if only because of slow translations for Revelation. The Ethiopian church had a Ge'ez canon that includes several extra books in both the Old and New Testaments.
In chapter 10, Metzger makes a similar survey of attempts to close the canon in the Western church. Persecution, and maybe other factors, caused the Western church to more emphatically classify books as either canonical or not. Controversy was definitely present in the 4th century AD. Two undated and anonymous lists are described, both have peculiar properties, like possible scribal errors, strange book orders, and incompletely expressed ideas. Hilary, bishop of Poitiers, (d. 368 AD) is the earliest writer in the west to quote James. Filaster (d. ~397 AD), listed his acceptance of the gospels, 13 letters of Paul and seven catholic epistles, and elsewhere seems to accept Hebrews and Revelation. Rufinus (b. ~345 AD) gives a New Testament list with the same books as Athanasius, but in a different order. In addition, Rufinus lists the Shepard of Hermas, the Didache, and the Judgement of Peter (now lost) as "ecclesiastical" but not "canonical,” such that they may be read in church but they do not have authority for matters of faith.
Jerome (~346-420 AD), the leading scripture scholar of the century, included the present books of the New Testament in his Vulgate translation. He also wrote several catalogs of sacred books, one of which is complete and lists all books of the Bible, including 27 New Testament books as we have today. In some of Jerome's other writings he comments on the seven doubtful books, which are James, Jude, 2 & 3 John, 2 Peter, Hebrews and Revelation. On Hebrews and Revelation, Jerome writes "and yet we receive both, in that we follow by no means the habit of today, but the authority of ancient writers." Jerome seemed to view the Epistle of Barnabas and The Shepard of Hermas as on the borders of the canon.
Augustine (b. 354 AD), lists our present New Testament books in his treatise "De doctrina christiana." Augustine sees some books as being received on more weighty authority than others, where the weight of the authority is positively related to the number of churches that accept a book and the relative authority of those churches. At this, Metzger says that "[t]he great debate of so many generations was practically over. But it remained for someone to say that it was over." It was the synods in Hippo in 393 AD and Carthage (397 & 419 AD) that pronounced the complete and limiting list of the New Testament books. The synods attributed Hebrews to Paul.
In the Middle Ages in the west, the subject of the canon was seldom discussed, but variations in the actual list of books in written copies of the Bible remained, such as the addition of the epistle of Paul to the Laodiceans in more than 100 manuscripts of the Vulgate. The See of Rome delivered a categorical opinion at the Council of Florence in 1439-43, declaring as canonical the present 27 books in the New Testament.
In the Renaissance & the Reformation, doubts were rekindled about the authorship of Hebrews, and the apostolic authorship of James, Jude, 2 & 3 John and 2 Peter. Martin Luther (14830-1546) merely relegated his least favorite books, Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation, to the back of his translation, which, in light of the chaos of book ordering through church history that Metzger relates, seems like the slightest of condemnations. In Luther's prefaces to biblical books, he explains his opinions on the relative importance of each New Testament book and his reasons for disliking the theology of the last four books of his translation, considering those four not "the true and noblest books of the New Testament." Luther's chief evaluation of a New Testament book is theological. He decided on his theology, then he used that theology to judge the Bible.
Other reformers went further in diminishing the importance of the commonly disputed New Testament books, such as Oecolampadius (d. 1531) who listed Revelation, James, Jude, 2 Peter and 2 & 3 John as being scripture, but somehow less than the other books. In 1596, pastor David Wolder declared Luther's four lesser books as 'non canonical.'
The reformers in Geneva presented the New Testament books "in the traditional manner." According to John Calvin, "the authority of the Scriptures is based, not on the pronouncement of the Church, but on the interior witness of the Holy Spirit." Interestingly, Metzger gives the opinion that "for Luther the Word is in the Bible; for Calvin the Word is the Bible."
In response to the reformers, the Catholic Pope Paul III convened the Council of Trent which, after debating the possibility of putting books into more than one canonical importance class, issued an absolute decree accepting the books of the Vulgate (and probably meaning to include doubtful additions like John 7). Several Protestant confessions of faith in the 16th and 17th centuries AD have canon lists that match the usual 27 books.
In chapter 11, Metzger examines problems that confronted the early church concerning the canon. For the early church, "[a] basic prerequisite for canonicity was conformity to what was called the 'rule of faith,' i.e. that a book matched the normative Christian tradition." Metzger compares the requirement for an Old Testament prophet to agree with the fundamentals of Judaism to the way that a work claiming canonical status was judged in the church based on its content. Although at the earliest stages the concept of orthodoxy must not have been entirely clear, Metzger is of the opinion that at least some tradition had been established. For example, the "faithful sayings" in the pastoral letters, which include 1 Timothy 1:15, 2 Timothy 2:11-13, and Titus 3:8. The second test that Metzger lists as used by the early church is whether or not the book was apostolic. Apostolic authorship was not about dogma, but rather about identifying eyewitnesses or careful historians. The third test was continuous acceptance by the Church at large. These three criteria became generally adopted during the 2nd century AD "and were never modified thereafter." But their manner of application did vary. "What is really remarkable ... is that, though the fringes of the New Testament canon remained unsettled for centuries, a high degree of unanimity concerning the greater parts of the New Testament was attained within the first two centuries not only among the Mediterranean world but also over an area extending from Britain to Mesopotamia.”
"Inspiration" on the other hand, was not one of the criteria. Inspiration was not considered to be limited to the scripture but rather the inspiration of the Holy Spirit was considered to apply to many Christians. For example, Gregory of Nyssa applies the word for "divinely inspired" (the same as in 2 Tim 3:16) to his brother's commentary on the six days of creation. Inspiration was not consider to be a unique property of scripture. The special character of the inspiration of the Bible became a topic of theological attention later.
[Added 2022: History shows that the above criteria for canonicity are, broadly speaking, well-achieved and with a reasonably high level of consensus in the church. But consider whether this standard for reasonable inclusion in the canon is the same as the standard that ought to be required for an infallible source of absolute truth for all matters discussed.]
The early Church Fathers quote from the gospels more than from the Pauline epistles (with Matthew receiving the most quotations), which Metzger says suggests that the gospels were accepted as authoritative before the Pauline epistles. The plurality of gospels, and the apparent divergence of the different accounts, was not considered completely natural to early church writers. This was because the existence of multiple authoritative accounts implicitly implies that none is perfect. Luke 1 indicates that the multiplicity of accounts was ancient. On the other hand, Tatian's Diatessaron is one example of replacing the four gospels with a single harmonization. Another example is Marcion, the heretic who rejected all the gospels except Luke. Metzger says that long before the canon was finally settled, some areas only used one of the four gospels, for example, only the gospel of Matthew was widely read in Palestine. This may be the reason for us now having the four accounts. Irenaeus, on the contrary, defended the four-fold gospel with number symbolism (four winds, four living creatures in Ezekiel, etc.).
One strange detail regarding the canonicity of the Pauline epistles is why letters to individual churches were given universal authority and application. As evidenced by early variants of the manuscripts, sometimes people edited Paul's letters to make them seem like they were directed at the Church in general. Other times number symbolism was used to justify the general use of the Pauline epistles: along the lines of 2 x 7 churches (including Hebrews) equals the universal church.
In chapter 12, Metzger examines questions concerning the canon today, starting with the question "Which form of the text is canonical?" That is, which of the textual variants is canonical? Metzger says that "the category of 'canonical' appears to have been broad enough to include all variant readings," including for example, the long ending of Mark (which was present in the 2nd century AD).
Metzger then considers the question as to whether the canon is open (to additions or subtractions) or closed. Ultimately, it seems improbable that a book could be added to the canon, since it would need to meet the standards for apostolic authorship and orthodoxy, and also be a found, surviving document from a long time ago. He gives the example of possibly adding the Coptic Gospel of Thomas to the New Testament canon, and describes why he thinks that would not be a good idea. On the topic of removing books, Metzger points out that an individual's misguided motives may mislead an attempt to remove parts of the canon and he gives Luther as an example of such a mistake. So Metzger considers that the canon is theoretically open, but that changes are highly unlikely.
Next, Metzger asks if there is a "canon within the canon," today; if there is some way to identity which parts of the Bible are authoritative and which parts are not authoritative. Possible examples of the canon within the canon could be "the preaching of Jesus, in Paul, and in the Fourth Gospel" (Kümmel's idea), or the sub-canon might be more like the sources of the synoptic gospels perhaps with the message transformed into something addressable to the present day reader (Marxen's idea). Other searches for a sub-canon include programs for working around apparent Biblical contradictions. Metzger responds by protesting the question of "why the New Testament should have to be consistent in all its parts." Metzger holds that a diversity of thought and opinion about the most important parts of Christianity is present even in the text of the New Testament itself. "The homogeneity of the canon is not jeopardized even in the face of tensions that exist within the New Testament." The canon "make[s] the limits of acceptable diversity within the Church." "Unity will be achieved, not by an initial agreement on doctrine and practice, but by the willingness to grow together in the common search for a renewed understanding of the several traditions embodied within the entire range of the New Testament canon."
[Added 2022: For general life guidance, it's totally fine to draw from multiple semi-coherent sources. I do that now. But consider whether the New Testament's internal consistency reaches the standard that ought to be required for an infallible source of absolute truth for all matters discussed. Well, you guessed it: such a standard is impossible to achieve. So it's best to reject all systems that claim to be infallible sources of absolute truth for all matters they discuss, including systems that claim such status for the New Testament. For extra irony, notice that the New Testament makes no such claim for itself. To be clear, I still draw inspiration from the New Testament and I use its principles to guide my life, but I don't think it's absolute truth.]
Metzger addresses the question of whether the canon is a collection of authoritative books (that the books join the collection because of their authority), or that the canon is an authoritative collection of books (that the books gain their authority by being part of the collection). “If the authority of the New Testament books resides not in the circumstance of their inclusion within a collection made by the Church, but in the source from which they came, then the New Testament was in principle complete when the various elements coming from this source had been written.” Hence, we must make the distinction between “the ground of canonicity” (a theological question) "and the ground for the conviction of canonicity” (an historical question). “[T]he status of canonicity is not an objectively demonstrable claim, but is a statement of Christian belief. It is not affected by features that are open to adjudication, such as matters of authorship and genuineness, for a pseudepigraphon is not necessarily excluded from the canon.” And in a matching footnote: “Pokorny, after raising the question of whether pseudepigraphic writings should be removed from the canon, writes: ‘That would be the consequence if we regarded the canon as a direct revelation from God, somewhat as Moslems regard the Koran. The Biblical canon, on the other hand, is a human testimony to the revelation of God. If the Church has received and canonized even pseudepigraphic writings as apostolic witness, that means for us (and we see it today more clearly than earlier) that even the Biblical canon is validated through God’s grace and not through the work of any human being.”
Some authors (like Marxsen) would claim that the development of the canon looks like an historical accident, but to the contrary, Metgzer claims that “the whole process can also be rightly characterized as the result of divine overruling.” “[T]he Church did not create the canon, but came to recognize, accept, affirm, and confirm the self-authenticating quality of certain documents that imposed themselves as such upon the Church. If this fact is obscured, one comes into serious conflict not with dogma but with history.” “History records many instances of the self-evidencing power of Scripture ... to bring a person, hitherto antagonistic to all that is good, into the presence of God and Jesus Christ in a unique way.” If I were to eliminate all of Metzger’s nuance, I would say that he answers his own question by saying that the canon is a collection of authoritative books, but he doesn’t explicitly say that.
In Appendix 1, Metzger examines the history of the Greek word for “canon.” It was not until 350 AD that the greek word “κανών” was used to describe the list of New Testament books. On a side note, it seems that Eusebius drew up “lists of numerals that corresponded to the numbered sections in the text of the Gospels, by which one could quickly locate parallel passages”. I wonder if this is related to the history of chapter and verse numbers. Wikipedia tells me that:
Archbishop Stephen Langton and Cardinal Hugo de Sancto Caro developed different schemas for systematic division of the Bible in the early 13th century. It is the system of Archbishop Langton on which the modern chapter divisions are based.
The first person to divide New Testament chapters into verses was Italian Dominican biblical scholar Santi Pagnini (1470–1541), but his system was never widely adopted. Robert Estienne created an alternate numbering in his 1551 edition of the Greek New Testament which was also used in his 1553 publication of the Bible in French. Estienne's system of division was widely adopted, and it is this system which is found in almost all modern Bibles.
In appendix 2, Metzger discusses the variants in order of the New Testament books. Before the advent of printing, there were numerous variations on the orders of the books, even within the general categories of gospels, Pauline epistles, general epistles, Acts and Revelation. The present order of the gospels was popularized by Eusebius and Jerome, but Metzger lists 8 other orderings found in various manuscripts. “The preceding survey of the very great variety in order, both of the several parts of the New Testament as well as of books within each part, leads one to conclude that such matters were of no great significance for the ancient and medieval Church; they became an issue only with later editors and publishers.”
Metzger discusses the titles of the New Testament books in appendix 3. “In antiquity the title of a book was not considered such an essential and unalterable part of the book as in later times, especially since the invention of printing.” The New Testament books did not originally have titles like we are accustomed to now. Metzger lists the variations in the titles of the gospels, Acts and the epistles, which seem to involve only minor variations, like “Gospel of Matthew” vs. “The Gospel according to Matthew.” Revelation, however, has in one case the most baroque title: “The Revelation of the all-glorious Evangelist, bosom friend [of Jesus], virgin, beloved to Christ, John the theologian, son of Salome and Zebedee, but adopted son of Mary the Mother of God, and Son of Thunder.”
Metzger presents early lists of the New Testament books in appendix 4. The Muratorian fragment lists starts in the middle of describing the second book of the list (probably Mark), then Luke, John, Acts, Corinthians (1 and 2), Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Galatians, Thessalonians (1 and 2), Romans, Philemon, Titus, Timothy (1 and 2), Jude, 1 & 2 John, Wisdom of Solomon, Apocalypses of John and maybe Peter. The canon of Origen (c. 185-254 AD) seems to include the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John only, some letters of Paul, one definite epistle of Peter and one disputed epistle of Peter, the apocalypse of John, one definite and two possible epistles of John. Origen also contemplates the authorship of Hebrews and he accepts the book without knowing the author for sure.