This is part four of a four part series about the development of the New Testament canon. Here is part one, part two and part three.
D. Trobisch has developed an interesting theory about the early canonization process. He believes that the New Testament was published as a collection by the middle of the second century. Trobisch’s analysis of the manuscript evidence for certain parts of his theory has contributed greatly to an understanding of an early canonization process. He points to various “phenomena” found throughout the manuscripts that he concludes are the result of an early editorial decision in the “original edition.” These phenomena found throughout the manuscripts, including the earliest, are the nomina sacra, the use of the codex format, conformity of content and order throughout the manuscripts, the uniformity of the titles, and the “New Covenant” title for the whole collection.
The title “nomina sacra” refers to the abbreviation of the names of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. The New Testament writers adopted the same method of writing divine names as the Jews used in the Old Testament. This abbreviation is found throughout all the early manuscripts.
Trobisch argues that the editors of the early canon chose the codex format for a number of uses, namely keeping the various collections together. It would be impossible to fit four books into a scroll format but the codex made this possible. There is also evidence of early codex collections.
Most of the manuscripts have conformity of content and order. The New Testament circulated in four units; the fourfold gospel, the Pauline epistles, Acts and the general epistles and Revelation. The order of the four circulation units can be seen in the earliest manuscripts.
The same titles span the manuscripts as well. The authors of the Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown point out that this implies that there was an editorial decision early on. Regarding this titling phenomena, the authors of The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown write, “The fact that these letters were written by several different authors makes it likely that their collection and titling were the result of an editorial decision.”
The “New Covenant” title of the whole collection also gives good evidence of an early canonization process. The authors of the Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown argue that the most compelling quote from a church father comes from an associate of Apolinarius in the second century. This associate not only used the “New Covenant” title for the New Testament but he also seemed to refer to a closed canon. This unknown associate writes, “…lest I might seem to be adding to…the new covenant of the gospel, to which no one who has chosen to live according to the gospel itself can add and from which he cannot take away.”
Though the gospels initially circulated separately, there is evidence that the fourfold gospel codex was in the codex form by the beginning of the second century and definitely by the end of the century. Justin Martyr wrote of the memoirs of the apostles being read by all the churches. Irenaeus wrote about the four gospels referring to them as the four winds. Irenaeus argued against reducing the number of gospels and against adding to them.
The authors of The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown point out evidence that the codex format supplies for the canonical status of the fourfold gospel. Amongst all the codex manuscripts, if there is more than one canonical gospel present, the other gospel is canonical. There is no known codex format where a gnostic, or non-canonical gospel is present with a canonical gospel.
Paul’s epistles are also found circulating as a collection. There are some interesting theories that Paul may have compiled the collection himself. There is evidence that during the first century when a letter was written a copy was made and kept by the author. This could have been what Paul was referring to in 2 Tim 4:13 when he asks Timothy to bring his parchments. The authors of The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown write, “The word translated ‘parchments’ (membrana) is actually a Latin word transliterated into Greek and most likely indicates a parchment codex” The uniformity of titles in Paul’s collection throughout the manuscript documents suggest an editorial decision early on.
The authors of The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown provided a very thoughtful analysis about the confusion regarding the inclusion of several of the New Testament books into the canon. They write, “…Eusebius’ discussion regarding the different books included in the canon of the New Testament might constitute a fourth-century discussion rather than indicate a continuous stream of doubt from the first or second century onward.”
In conclusion, though the evidence of the early canonization process is somewhat limited, it is apparent from the evidence that is available that the early church fathers did have an early understanding of what belonged in the collection of Scriptures that became the canon.
Erin Herbst gave her life to Jesus Christ around the age of eight and has been joyfully serving the Lord since that time. Erin is happily married and has two young children with another on the way. She has been ministering to college students since 2004, with Master Plan Ministries. As well as being a wife, mother, and minister to college students she is also working toward a Master’s degree at Liberty University.
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———The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. 2nd ed. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007.
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———“Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.” New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2005, 36. Quoted in Timothy Paul Jones, Misquoting
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Kostenberger, Andreas J., L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles. The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2009.
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