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A process of selection: the canon of Scripture

30 November, 1999

This is the second chapter of Henry Wansbrough’ book “The Story of the Bible: how it came to us”. It tells the story of what Karl Rahner calls the Church’s own “self-definition”, that is how it came to decide which gospels and texts define its own reality and which do not.


The Gospel of Thomas
The four canonical gospels were those eventually accepted by the Church, not without some controversy, particularly over the Fourth Gospel. Irenaeus argues ingeniously that there had to be four because there are four points of the compass, four zones of the world, four beasts supporting the Chariot of God in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 1). He was the first to suggest the equation of the evangelists with these four beasts, though not in the order which later became standard (Adversus Haereses 3.11.8: the lion is John, the calf Luke, the man Matthew and the eagle Mark). Some scholars, however, especially those of the notorious Jesus Seminar in the United States, (1) claim equal authority – at least as a source for the sayings of Jesus, though not ecclesiastical authority – for a fifth gospel, the Gospel of Thomas. One saying not contained in the synoptic gospels which has been emphatically accepted by the members of the Jesus Seminar as authentic is no. 42, ‘Become passers-by’, seemingly a gnomic counsel not to become attached to the world.

This Gospel of Thomas made its debut – or perhaps, to be more exact, its come-back – on the world stage at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Three fragments of papyrus purporting to contain sayings of Jesus, discovered in Egypt, were published in 1897 and 1904 among the Oxyrrhynchus Papyri. Then, in 1945, an Egyptian peasant family, digging for fertilizer-soil, unearthed at Nag Hammadi a jar containing thirteen leather-bound papyrus books. There followed the various shenanigans invariably associated with such peasant discoveries in the Near East, murder, concealment, black market rackets (The supreme example of this concerns the Mesha Stone. Discovered in Transjordan in 1868, this crucial stone inscription provoked so much quarrelling between the French and the Germans about who should have it that the bewildered bedouin discoverers eventually blew it up. The scholarly world has had to rely on a provisional and imperfect ‘squeeze’ of the inscription). Eventually scholars established that this was a library of mostly gnostic texts, now written in Coptic, but the majority translated from Greek. Since they were discovered within sight of the Coptic monastery of St Pachomius, Helmut Koester of Harvard, one of the scholars most closely associated with the publication of the finds, plausibly suggested that they might have been buried by a monk on the publication of Bishop Athanasius’ famous Easter Letter of AD 367 , which listed the canonical books of the Bible and ordered the burning of all apocryphal texts with heretical tendencies. The most convenient publication of the texts is The Nag Hammadi Library in English, edited by James M. Robinson (Leiden, Brill, 1977).

A Collection of Sayings
Among these texts is a full version of the Gospel of Thomas. It is not a gospel in the sense of a narrative, but is a collection of 114 ‘sayings of Jesus’. This has been treated by some reputable scholars with the respect which would be due to the Sayings of the Lord dubbed ‘Q: (if it ever existed and were ever to be found). Among the first was the great Joachim Jeremias in the 1970 revision of his important work, The Parables of Jesus (SCM Press, 1972). He considers the form of parables given in the Gospel of Thomas as possible sources for the sayings of Jesus on the same terms as the form of parables given in the synoptic gospels. On the other hand the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (1974 edition, p. 1370) coolly comments: ‘It has been thought possible that it preserves a few sayings of the Lord not found in the canonical Gospels which ultimately go back to genuine tradition; but its contents hardly warrant the extravagant claims made for it when it first became known in 1959’. By contrast, Professor Koester claims unblushingly that ‘the Greek (or even Syriac or Aramaic) collection was composed in the period before about 200 CE, possibly as early as the second half of the first century… A comparison of the sayings with their parallels in the synoptic gospels [and 68 of the 114 sayings have such parallels] suggests that the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas either are present in a more primitive form or are developments of a more primitive form of such sayings’ (The Nag Hammadi Library, p. 117). The controversy continues whether they reflect more directly the sayings of Jesus than those given in the synoptic gospels or whether they are later excrescences. 

Some of the sayings are parables, eleven of which occur also in the synoptics, but four of which have no parallel there, for instance no. 97:

The kingdom of the Father is like a certain woman who was carrying a jar full of meal. While she was walking on a road, still some distance from home, the handle of the jar broke and the meal emptied out behind her on the road. She did not realize it; she had noticed no accident. When she reached her house she set the jar down and found it empty.

The claim to be more primitive than the synoptic parables is supported by the absence of allegory. These parables are mostly simple images, teaching a single lesson. One-to-one correspondence of each element in a story to an aspect of interpretation, as in the Sower (Mark 4: 13-20) or the Wheat and Darnel (Matthew 13:37-42 gives a ‘key’ to the meaning of each element), has been established to be a progressive growth. A parable starts simple and acquires more detailed meaning as it is re-told by later authors. Thus the parables of the Gospel of Thomas might be drawn from a source used by the synoptic evangelists, who in some cases have developed their sources.
There are four cases where sayings come in the same grouping in the Gospel of Thomas and the synoptics (one case is nos 92, 93 and 94 in the same grouping as Matthew 7:7, 6, 8). (2)   This cannot be coincidence, and must show some link between the Gospel of Thomas and the synoptics. But it does not show in which direction the dependence lies. We cannot tell from this which came first, Matthew or the Gospel of Thomas. The link could, of course, have occurred at an intermediate stage of sayings, before the final composition of the gospel.

The Theology of the Gospel of Thomas
The theological angle of the sayings is, of course, different from that of the synoptic gospels. There is no mention of the Passion of Jesus (no passion-predictions, let alone an account of the Passion), and no expectation of a Saviour who will return at the end of time, as in the synoptic apocalypse (Mark 13; Matthew 24-25). In the Gospel of Thomas to the question ‘When will the new world come?’ Jesus replies, ‘What you look forward to has already come, but you do not recognize it’ (no. 51, cf. 113).

A notable feature is that the sayings are very Christ-centred, returning again and again to the point that true understanding is to be found in Jesus. This is an emphasis different from that of the synoptic gospels. These have isolated sayings like Matthew 11 :28, ‘Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened and I will give you rest’ (parallelled in Gospel of Thomas 90), but from Mark it is clear that Jesus came to proclaim the Sovereignty/Kingship of the Father rather than himself. The Gospel of Thomas, however, abounds in such sayings as, ‘I shall give you what no eye has seen and what no ear has heard and what no hand has touched, and what has never occurred to the human mind’ (no. 17), or  ‘It is to those who are worthy of my mysteries that I tell my mysteries’ (no. 62), or  ‘He who is near me is near the fire, and he who is far from me is far from the Kingdom’ (no. 82).  Salvation is not from any exterior influence; it is from the light which is within; so, when the disciples say ‘Show us the place where you are’, Jesus replies, ‘There is light within a man of light and he lights up the whole world. If he does not shine, he is darkness’ (no. 24).

There are some claims which go even beyond the Johannine claims: ‘It is I who am the light which is above them all. It is I who am the All.  From me did the All come forth, and unto me did the All extend. Split a piece of wood and I am there. Lift up the stone and you will find me there’ (no. 77), or  ‘He who will drink from my mouth will become like me. I myself shall become he and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him’ (no. 108).

Reaction to the Gospel of Thomas has been very mixed. Pheme Perkins in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary (art. 67, #67) denounces the sayings as reflecting the gnostic spirit of the final editor. Larry Hurtado (3) finds the whole tone of the sayings objectionable, and repeatedly criticises them as ‘revisionist’, ‘elitist’, ‘disdainful’. ‘The Jesus of the Gos. Thom. is a talking head, whose whole significance and role consist in speaking the cryptic statements collected in this text’ (p. 473). Three features, especially, would become suspect in later theology:

  • A certain suspicion of the body: ‘wretched is the body that is dependent upon a body and wretched is the soul that is dependent on these two (no. 87, cf. nos. 29, 112).
  • A strange transsexuality: ‘I myself shall lead her [Mary] in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven’ (no. 114). This may be connected with a baptismal rite of renewal, which could form the background for no. 37: ‘When you disrobe without being ashamed and take up your garments and place them under your feet like little children and tread on them, then will you see the son of the living one, and you will not be afraid’.
  • The introductory phrase, ‘These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down. Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death.’   Secret sayings, the penetration to secret knowledge, and salvation through knowledge alone were soon to become characteristic of gnosticism. Furthermore, ‘Didymus’ means ‘twin’. The implication appears in the third century that Jesus had a twin brother called Judas Thomas (‘Thomas’ is the Aramaic for ‘twin’); this would soon become unacceptable in the catholic tradition.

The Gospel of Thomas is considered by many to be the most important of the non-canonical possible sources for the Jesus tradition. We do not know why it was not accepted by the catholic tradition, but we can say that if it had been accepted, the catholic tradition would have been somewhat different. It is certainly less weird than many of the more maverick non-canonical gospels which were current in the second and third centuries. Some of the sayings do seem slightly strange, but this strangeness would no doubt be diminished if they had become as familiar as the synoptic gospels, and had been as frequently commented over the ages as those gospels. Without sympathetic explanation, sayings from the synoptic gospels also can shock: ‘Anyone who comes to me without hating father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes and his own life too, cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14:26).

From time to time voices are heard proclaiming that such collections of sayings, such ‘secret gospels’, were guiltily suppressed by Christianity by secret and unfair plotting or pressure, a deliberately orchestrated campaign by the Church against the truth.  Elaine Pagels writes, ‘fifty years later [than Irenaeus’ denunciation of the gnostic writings in AD] Hippolytus, a teacher in Rome, wrote another massive Refutation of All Heresies to “expose and refute the wicked blasphemy of heretics”. This campaign against heresy involved an involunary admission of its persuasive power; yet the bishops prevailed’. (4)  She suggests that the same fear of the truth was responsible for the delays in publication of the Nag Hammadi texts: ‘Access to the texts was deliberately suppressed not only in ancient times but, for, different reasons, in the more than thirty years since the discovery [of the texts at Nag Hammadi in 1947]’ (p. xxiv), as though some undercover Roman FBI had orchestrated the delays. In the second century it is true that choices were made, and that one interpretation of Christianity became generally accepted
‘orthodoxy’ while others gradually lost ground and withered away.  There was controversy but no compulsion. In the twentieth century the true reasons for the delay were academic squabbling and administrative stalling. (The Egyptian ambassador to London once remarked to me, ‘There is no hurrying your application.  We have a five-thousand-year-old bureaucracy.’)  Sensational theories of secret gerrymandering are without foundation.

Other Non-canonical Gospels
It is, however, instructive to compare the Gospel of Thomas with some of the other non-canonical gospels which were current on the fringes of early Christianity. In many of these Christian piety seems to have run wild. One example may be taken from the second-century Infancy Gospel of Thomas, no. 4:

After this he again went through the village, and a child ran and knocked against his shoulder. Jesus was angered and said to him, ‘You shall not go further on your way’, and immediately he fell down and died. But some, who saw what took place, said, ‘From where was this child born, since his every word is an accomplished deed?’ And the parents of the dead child came to Joseph and blamed him and said, ‘Since you have such a child, you cannot dwell with us in the village; teach him to bless and not to curse, for he is killing our children’ (quoted by J.K. Elliot, Oxford Bible Commentary 1320; more fully M.R. James, 1924, p. 50).

Other stories relate the child Jesus causing a salted fish to swim around, or making clay birds fly (M.R. James 1924, pp. 58-59).  One can only be glad of the Christian discernment which excluded such stories from the canonical writings. They show a flippancy and irresponsibility in the use of the miraculous wholly absent from the miracles of the canonical gospels. They are m ore akin to conjuring-tricks than to the advance of the Kingdom of God.  Another story which would be extremely influential Christian art, leading to a whole series of splendid mosaic representations of the Descent into Hell, is about Christ in the underworld after the crucifixion:

While Hades was thus speaking with Satan, the King of Glory stretched out his right hand and took hold of our forefather Adam and raised him up. Then he turned to the rest and said, ‘Come with me, all you who have died through the tree which this man touched.  For behold, I raise you all again through the tree of the cross.’ With that he sent them all out, and our forefather Adam was seen to be full of joy; said, I give thanks to your majesty, 0 Lord, because you have brought me up from the lowest Hades’ (Oxford Bible Commentary, p. 1322).

This imaginative scene is reminiscent of those apocalyptic works which were not accepted into the canon of scripture.   The personification of Hades, Satan, Adam and the ‘King of Glory’ makes an attractive dramatic scenario which could mislead if taken literally. The identification of the tree of the cross with the tree of the Garden of Eden is suggestive of later romantic legends absent from the New Testament. Such imaginative representations of Christian legends, often over-stressing one aspect and undervaluing others, proliferated in the early centuries of the Church. As they have been rediscovered in the archaeolog excavations or chance discoveries of recent years, it has become popular to claim underhand conspiracy theories: they were censored or treacherously suppressed by the Church. The true story is less conspiratorial: after a brief vogue they simply did not stand the test of time. Of gospels only Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were felt to be sufficiently expressive of the truths Christianity to be read in Church and to be copied and re-copied over the centuries, while others simply fell away and were forgotten. Some, particularly the more lurid scenes of apocalyptic, left traces in art. Thus the skull and crossbones often depicted at the foot of the Cross represented the skeleton of Adam, buried at the foot of the tree of the Garden of Eden, whose wood later supplied the Cross of Jesus. Others had to await the archaeologists’ quests in the sands of Egypt and the libraries of Europe. (5)

Marcion Enters the Fray
The approach of Marcion, though related to that of the Gnostics, was significantly different. His was the first serious challenge to what was to become the Christian ‘canon’ or normative selection of books of the Bible. Marcion was a rich shipowner – Tertullian calls him nauclerus – the son of the bishop of Sinope, near the Black Sea.   Hippolytus tells us that his own father excommunicated him for raping a virgin, but this may simply be standard abuse. So the venerable Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna (martyred AD 160) calls him ‘first-born of Satan’ (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 3.3.4).  Justin Martyr, writing in AD 150, says that he was alive, active and successful at that time: ‘he has caused many of every nation to speak blasphemies’ (Apology 26.5).  He came to Rome shortly before the middle of the century and made the Roman Church a gift of 200,000 sesterces (one year’s take-home pay for 300 legionaries). When his theological aims became clear, the Roman Church returned this money to him, and he set about organising his own parallel church community.  In this he was so
successful that towards the end of the century Clement of Alexandria (Stromata 7.17.106) numbers him among the outstanding personalities of the previous generation.  Eusebius (Hist.Eccl. 4.15.46) acknowledges that there was at least one martyr from his community, and his communities remained strong enough for Cyril of Jerusalem to warn his own catechumens against mistaking a Marcionite church for an orthodox one when visiting a strange city.  It was a church with sacraments, catechumenate, presbyters, deacons and bishops. According to Bishop Ephrem, they remained strong in Eastern Syria right up to his own day; he died in AD 374. This remains the more remarkable because of his rejection of all sexual activity: according to Tertullian (Adversus Marcionem 1.29) Marcion would accept for baptism only virgins, widows and celibates.

Marcion’s manifesto, Antitheses, has perished, or rather survives only in quotations from refutations of his views by orthodox ecclesiastical writers. One cannot always form a coherent picture by reading one side of a controversy, for controversialists will always pick out the weaker points of their opponents’ arguments and present them in the least convincing way possible, no doubt omitting links which would make them more persuasive or at least less nonsensical. However, Marcion’s views are tolerably clear from these extensive refutations, particularly the five-book treatise written against him by Tertullian. Clarity is added by quotation in ecclesiastical writers of excerpts from the carefully expurgated Bible which he sponsored. (6)  His basic thrust was a rejection of Judaism, the Old Testament and the God of the Old Testament.  It is not without relevance that his views would have been being formed in the decade after the disastrous Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (AD 132-135); this may account for his hostility to everything Jewish, even the Jewish God.  Marcion’s Antitheses expressed what Marcion saw as contradictions between the God of justice in the Old Testament and the God of love in the New.  There seem to have been two principal problems which bugged him, God’s punishment of evil and the suffering of Christ. The first of these problems is not unlike that of those Gnostic thinkers who found the existence of evil incompatible with a good creator; Marcion’s problem, however, is not so much the existence of evil as God’s punishment of it.  The second of these real theological difficulties he shared with the Gnostics. It was perhaps typical of a successful businessman that he set about solving them in a practical way, by tailoring the basic texts of Christianity to his own ends.  First we will outline (from Tertullian’s refutation) the basic parameters of his thought, and then we will see how he tailored the Bible to fit them.

The Well-springs of Marcion’s Thought
1. The problem of divine punishment is a real one. There is indeed a real contrast between the severe God of the Old Testament who punishes, and Jesus who not merely forgives but searches out sinners to bring them back into the sovereignty of God. This is, of course, only a partial and slanted view of the God of the Old Testament, for the God of the Old Testament is also a God of forgiveness. So much is clear from the exegesis of the name ‘Yahweh’ in Exodus 34:6-7, to which there are constant allusions throughout scripture. Marcion, however, sharpened the problem by fastening on various biblical texts:

I am Yahweh, and there is no other,
I form the light and I create the darkness,
I make well-being and I create disaster.
(Isaiah 45:7, quoted by Tertullian 1.2)

Did God deliberately create disaster? Can the Father of Jesus Christ have sanctioned retribution, ‘An eye for an eye’, which Jesus explicitly abolished in the Sermon on the Mount (quoted by Tertullian 2.18)? Can love of others be restricted to fellow Jews when Jesus extends it to all people (quoted by Tertullian 4.16)?  How can a good God be responsible for the two bears savaging 42 boys who had merely teased the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 2:24, quoted by Tertullian 4.23)?  Or the massacre of the Amorites while ‘the sun stood still’ Goshua 10: 13, quoted by Origen, Homily on Joshua 13)? Marcion of course follows this up with claims that the God of the Old Testament is ignorant: God does not know where Adam is in the Garden when he asks, ‘Where are you?’ (Genesis 3:9). Similarly God needs to ask Cain: ‘Why are you angry and downcast?’ (Genesis 4:6).  Tertullian reasonably answers that God is not really asking, but speaks with a threatening tone (Tertullian, 2.25).  The modern solution would be that the Yahwist tradition in the Pentateuch represents God anthropomorphically.

Marcion’s solution, however, was that there were two Gods, one producing good, the other evil. He quoted, ‘There is no sound tree that produces rotten fruit, nor again a rotten tree that produces sound fruit’ (Luke 7:43, instanced by Tertullian 1.2).  A God who produces evil must in fact be evil.  The one, the Creator God, is the God of the Old Testament and of Judaism, the other is the Father of Jesus Christ.  God the Father of Jesus is the unknown God proclaimed by Paul in his speech at Athens (Acts 17:23). ‘The God of the Law and the prophets was not the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  For the former was known, the latter unknown. While the one was righteous, the other was benevolent. Jesus was derived from that Father who is above the God who made the world’ (quoted by Tertullian 1.27). This is not without analogy with Philo’s teaching (Leg. Alleg. 3.51-54) that God (theos) is the creative power who is responsible for goodness, and the Lord (Kyrios) is responsible for punitive action.  This problem of Philo and Marcion was the same, but their solution different, and there is no suggestion that Marcion was dependent on Philo. 

2. Marcion’s second problem was the suffering of Christ. If Jesus is divine, how can he suffer on the Cross? Does God himself suffer? According to Tertullian (4.12) Marcion held that it was only a ‘phantasma’ of Jesus which breathed out its spirit on the Cross (and Tertullian mocks the idea of a spirit breathing out a spirit). Marcion deduced from Philippians 2:7-8 that Jesus was only in ‘the form of a man’ (Tertullian 5.20). Had he taken on a genuine human body born of a woman it would have been dependent on the Creator God, so thoroughly evil, ‘stuffed with excrement’, as Marcion delicately phrases it (Tertullian 3.10). So he was never genuinely born of woman, but took on only a human appearance in the same way as the mysterious three visitors to Abraham in Genesis 18 (Tertullian 3.9), for this diviner apparition shimmers between being called ‘three men’ and ‘Yahweh’. Nevertheless, this apparent death had redemptive value, and Jesus descended to the dead and saved those whom the punitive Creator God had punished in accordance with strict justice.

Marcion’s Bible
In order to sustain these interpretations Marcion was obliged to be highly selective in his acceptance of scripture. The two pillars of his theology were a ten-letter collection of Paul and an expurgated gospel of Luke. He rejected the Old Testament in its entirety, and all the other letters of the current New Testament, including the pastoral Letters of Paul (Timothy and Titus), as being infected with Judaism, and concentrated especially on Galatians, with its opposition between law and gospel, particularly in the first two chapters.  Marcion accordingly places Galatians at the head of his Pauline corpus (the order is clear rom Tertullian’s discussion). There Paul proclaims assertively – against the envoys whom James, leader of the Jerusalem community, had sent down to Antioch and those Jews who were ‘upsetting’ Paul’s converts in Galatia – that salvation is to be found only in ‘his gospel’  and not in the works of the Law:

We have learnt that someone is reckoned as upright not by practising the Law but by faith in Jesus Christ; and we too came to believe in Christ Jesus so as to be reckoned as upright by faith in Christ and not by practising the Law, since no human being can be found upright by keeping the Law (Galations 2:16).

Marcion’s true attitudes can, however, be seen most clearly in his treatment of the gospels. He accepted only that of Luke. Presumably those of Matthew and John were too obviously based on Judaism (‘salvation comes from the Jews’, says Jesus in John 4:22) and Mark went with them. Of the Gospel of Luke Marcion omitted the first two chapters, the birth and infancy of Jesus, since Jesus was not carnally born. These chapters are obviously shaped to show that the message of Jesus is the fulfilment of the Jewish hopes, and the fidelity of all concerned (Zechariah, Mary, Simeon, Anna) to the Law is heavily underlined. An alternative suggestion is that these first two chapters were not present at all in the textual tradition known by Marcion. It is true that the quotations given by Tertullian from Marcion reflect a particular tradition of the text, commonly known as the ‘Western text’, which departs from the normally accepted text. These two chapters, however, are obviously written by the same author as the rest of the gospel and are in integral part of it. The most economical hypothesis is that they were cut out by Marcion, rather than that he received the text without them.

According to Tertullian (4.7) Marcion’s version starts off abruptly:

In the fifteenth year of the principate of Tiberius Jesus came down to Capernaum. They were astonished at his teaching which was against the Law and the prophets.

The second sentence is a modification of Luke 4:31-32, which in the canonical text runs: ‘He came down to Capernaum, a town in Galilee, and taught them on the Sabbath. And his teaching made a deep impression on them because his word carried authority.’

According to Irenaeus the opening of Marcion’s Luke (he does not ascribe it to any particular author, nor does he need to, since it is the sole gospel) is even more explicit, inserting the italicised words:

In the time of Pontius Pilate the governor, procurator of Tiberius Caesar, Jesus came into Judaea from that Father who is above, the world-creating god, manifest in the form of a man. He dissolved the prophets and the Law and all the works of that god who made the world.

Jesus was not born, which would have been unworthy of him, but suddenly appeared, ‘came down’ [from heaven?] to Capernaum (Tertullian 4.7). Marcion continues to hammer home his message by minor but significant adjustments throughout the rest of the gospel. Among many others, he avoids mention of prophecies of Christ in the Old Testament, cutting out references to Jonah and Nineveh, the Queen of the South and Solomon in Luke 11 :29-31, and the whole passage Luke 11 :49-51, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles… so that this generation will have to answer for every prophet’s blood. .. from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah’.  He deletes the parable of the Prodigal Son, presumably because it suggests the return of Israel to the Lord. For ‘the Law’ at 16: 17 he substitutes ‘my words’ so that it reads ‘It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for one little stroke to drop out of my words’, thus avoiding Jesus’ endorsement of the Law. In accordance with his views on the bodily resurrection, at the appearance of the risen Christ in the Upper Room he omits the words in italics: ‘Touch me and see for yourselves; a spirit has no flesh and bones’ (Luke 24:39).

Marcion’s Legacy
This brings home that perhaps the chief lasting importance of Marcion was the reaction of the wider Church. In rejecting Marcion’s approach they saw the necessity of declaring what was and what was not part of scripture, of reaching agreement on a canon of scripture which was authoritative for the Church, both in the books which it contained and in the matter of the text of those books, for Marcion had not only cut out books of the scripture but had also cut up the books he retained! Part of the difficulty lies in the question itself. We can quite simply ask about a passage, ‘Is it part of the New Testament?’ Such a question was impossible until the time of Origen, for the term ‘New Testament’ as a collection of books did not exist. True, Paul had used the expression ‘old testament’ in 2 Corinthians 3: 14, but it is clear that he does not mean a collection of writings but rather merely ‘the old dispensation’; there is certainly no corresponding expression with ‘new’. In fact all Paul’s 8 usages of ÄéáèÞêç. clearly mean ‘disposition’, ‘arrangement’, ‘covenant’.  He can, anyway, hardly refer to a collection of writings called ‘the Old Testament’ unless he can also envisage a ‘New Testament’, which would have been absurd at that time.   Hebrews 8:8 and 9: 15 uses the expression Êáéíç ÄéáèÞêç.in the sense of ‘old dispensation’ and does not thereby refer to any collection of writings. In fact Marcion, with his detestation of all things Jewish, freely uses ‘old’ and ‘new’ of the two dispensations. It is even possible that he deserves the credit for inventing the expression ‘New Testament’, referring to a collection of writings, for Tertullian writes (4.6.1), ‘He directs the whole of his work to setting up an opposition between the Old Testament and the New’. If he did initiate the use of ‘New Testament’ to mean a collection of writings – and it can also be understood in the sense of ‘the old and the new dispensation’ – Marcion’s use of the term could well account for the avoidance of the expression ‘New Testament’ by ecclesiastical writers for another half-century. In the end, however, it triumphed, and the legacy of Marcion may possibly be to have provided not only the impetus to defining the books which belong to the collection, but even the expression itself. (7)

Tradition Versus Innovation
Conventionally, the period of the New Testament ends with the death of the last apostle as he finally closed his eyes.  Raymond Brown, however, gives more latitude, for he holds that ‘all the works eventually accepted into the New Testament were probably written before AD 150’. (8)  But when was that, and why should this
event conclude the New Testament period?  The Second Letter of Peter is normally considered the latest of the writings of the New Testament, and that was probably written well into the second. century. It can hardly have been authored by Peter, who is traditionally held to have been martyred in Rome in AD 64.

Peter is often held to have been the first Bishop of Rome, and possibly even the founder of the Christian community in Rome. This bristles with difficulties, chief among which is that it is difficult to conceive that Paul can have failed to mention Peter if he was or had been at Rome when, in the mid-fifties, Paul wrote his Letter to the Romans. 

The long list of greetings in Romans 16 does not suggest that there was any official approximating to a bishop at this time. In that list of greetings are included ‘the household of Aristobulus’ (Romans 16:10). Aristobulus, the grandson of King Herod, died at Rome in the late forties, and it is an attractive suggestion that among his household were Jews who had become Christians. They would therefore have a strong case to be regarded as the founders of the Christian community at Rome, some dozen years after the Resurrection. A more likely link of Peter with Rome is that he sanctified Rome by his blood and so became the patron of the Christian community there. It is obviously appropriate that the chief of the Apostles should be the patron of the chief city of the Empire.
The traditional link of Mark with Peter and Rome is similarly unfounded.  It rests on 1 Peter 5:16, ‘Your sister in Babylon, who is with you among the chosen, sends you greetings. So does my son, Mark.’ It is acceptable that ‘Babylon’ is a cryptogram for ‘Rome’. But the identification begs two questions:

1. Is the apostle Peter really author of the letter, or is the letter pseudepigraphic? and
2. ‘Mark’ is a very common name in the Roman world. Is this Mark the evangelist?

It was certainly not considered necessary that all the books of the New Testament should have been written by members of the Twelve Apostles. How would Paul have crept in? More attractive is the suggestion of Karl Rahner (9) that the books of the New Testament are the foundation documents of the Church, expressing in writing the Church’s own self-definition. They are normative for the Church’s existence in the exactly the same way as the Twelve themselves were originally normative, representing the authentic oral tradition of Jesus.

A Second-century Kaleidoscope
At the beginning of the second century the variety within the Christian communities was kaleidoscopic. It is not surprising that there was disagreement about which writings were authoritative and which not. Already at the end of the first century differences among the followers of Jesus had been clearly foreseen. In Mark and Matthew Jesus’ prediction of the future of the Church is full of the threat of false Christs and false teachers (Mark 13:21-23; Matthew 24:23-25), that is, of teachers and messianic figures with whom the writer disagrees. The Letters of John give painful evidence of a split between two schools of thought, each claiming to be the true heirs of the Johannine tradition.

There are different views unreconciled within the New Testament itself.  The first major problem in the Christian community had been the question of the observance of the Jewish Law in Christianity. This problem had caused Paul’s virulent split with Peter and the Jerusalem Church. In the next generation it no longer seems to have been so important. This is the implication of the Deutero-Pauline Letter to the Ephesians: ‘You that used to be so far off have been brought close by the blood of Christ. For he is the peace between us, and has made the two into one entity and broken down the barrier which used to keep them apart’ (Ephesians 2: 13-14). Perhaps the strength of the Judaising party had waned with the dispersal of the Christian community of Jerusalem at the destruction of that city in AD 70.

Even so the legacy of Judaism continued, for in AD 374 St John Chrysostom still found it necessary to forbid Christians to attend the synagogue. The background of the Letter to the Hebrews must surely be a community which still hankered after the rites of Judaism. There can hardly have been agreement between communities like those which lived by the Gospel of Matthew and the Letter of James, a modified, Christianised Judaism, and the communities of Paul, who had rejected outright all observance of the Jewish Law. Where does the community which sponsored the Gospel of John stand with regard to Judaism? In that work, although ‘salvation is from the Jews’, nevertheless ‘the Jews’ is still the generalised name for the opponents of Jesus, and there is talk of those who accept John’s high Christology being put out of the synagogue.

A Thousand-year Reign?
Eschatology, the teaching on the ultimate future of creation, was also a major problem. The fourth gospel finally settled for a realised eschatology: the second coming of Christ has already been realised in the coming of the Spirit into the Christian community, and there is nothing further of theological import still to occur; what (if anything) will happen to close down the system is of no interest to Christians. But even the fourth gospel does still show traces of a future eschatology, the sort of expectation of a second coming of Christ on the clouds of heaven evinced by the synoptic gospels (Mark 13; Matthew 24-25) and by Paul (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31). The Book of Revelation (especially Revelation 20: 1-10), and perhaps 1 Corinthians 15:22-25, attests a certain millenniarism, an expectation that there will be a thousand-year period of Christ’s triumphant rule on earth before the end of the world. Although this was later to be rejected by the Church, it remained the world picture of theologians of the second century all over the Christian world, such as Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, Justin Martyr in Palestine, Irenaeus of Lyons, Melito, bishop of Sardis, Hippolytus of Rome and Tertullian in North Africa. It was not until Origen, Eusebius and Augustine that the picture changed and this reign of Christ came to be understood as the time of the Church, a ‘spiritual’ interpretation. This millenniarism is no doubt the reason why there was considerable doubt in the fourth century whether the Book of Revelation was part of the sacred scripture.

The Gentile Influx
The greatest problem of all, however, was the opening up of the Christian Church to gentiles, who had a completely different background to the Jews and ‘godfearers’ (gentile sympathisers with Judaism, attracted by such features as Jewish monotheism and morality, who had not taken the decisive step of fully embracing Judaism by accepting circumcision) to whom the message had first been addressed. They came to Christianity with their own mental baggage, and naturally tried to understand their new beliefs in those terms. There were great original thinkers among them, such as Basilides (fl. 125-155) and Valentinus (fl. 140-165).  Basilides was ‘a seminal thinker of great speculative power and sensitivity’ (Frend, 1984, p. 206), and even grumpy St Jerome grants that Valentinus was ‘possessed by nature of an outstanding intellect and had gifts provided by God’ (Commentary on Hosea, 11.10). He taught at Rome, and the fact that he was almost elected bishop of Rome shows the influence and persuasiveness of his teaching. Unfettered by Jewish concepts of tradition and ecclesiastical discipline, these speculative free thinkers set about putting the truths about God, Christ, creation and evil into terms which made sense to them. By comparison, the unadventurous Christian apologists, struggling to remain true to what had been handed down to them, were of limited vision. Origen admits that one of these free thinkers, Celsus, described the proponents of what would later become orthodoxy as – alluding to Plato (Phaedo 109B) – ‘frogs sitting round a marsh, discussing who was the most sinful among them’ (Origen, In Celsum 4.23). At the end of the century Irenaeus more than any other figure became the standard of emerging orthodoxy, but ‘Irenaeus would have been deeply offended had it been suggested to him that he was an original thinker.. .. Irenaeus is unlikely to have been embarrassed by the accusation that he derived all his theological insights from others.’ (l0)

For these philosophers of the neo-Platonic school there were two vital factors, knowledge and myth. Knowledge was to them the supreme good, whence the name ‘gnostics’, from Γνώσις or ‘knowledge’, whereas for Irenaeus, the champion of orthodoxy, faith rather than knowledge was the means to salvation. (11)   For the gnostics it was knowledge which saves. Jesus is above all ‘the Revealer’. This led them to regard the fourth gospel, with its stress on knowledge, truth, understanding and λογος , as their favourite: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God’ (John 1:1).  By knowledge God dwells in human beings: ‘I have made your name known to them… so that I may be in them’ (John 17:26).  Such championship by the gnostics made John’s gospel for some time suspect to the more orthodox, and prevented its universal acceptance until well into the third century.

Plato had used myth, or more exactly ‘story’, to convey his understanding of reality and the world, most famously in the Myth of the Cave (Republic, book 6). In Greek religion the myths of the gods were endlessly rich and varied. The same inventive and imaginative spirit licensed the gnostic philosophers to explain the world by creating myths around the Christian God. They built on a dualistic conception of the world, in which evil must be caused no less than good. And how could a good God create evil? For Basilides the answer was a dual origin, a distinction between God and Yahweh. God created good, and Yahweh created evil. Sprung from paganism, with its multiplicity of gods, the Jewish stress on monotheism does not seem to have been a concern for these thinkers; they were perfectly content with a multiplicity of divine beings. From God emanated Mind, Reason (λογος), Prudence, Wisdom, Power.  From these emanated 365 heavens and the angels who created the world. But one of those was Yahweh, chief of the creator angels and cause of evil and strife. It was to liberate the world from evil that God sent his Logos into the world. For Valentinus the evolution of the world was equally elaborate, though different: God originated in Depth, whence emanated pairs such as Mind and Truth, Word and Life, to the number of 30 Aeons. The final Aeon was Wisdom, from whom the universe came into being.

A similar dualistic division solved the other major problem: if Jesus was divine, how could he suffer? The solution was the laughing Jesus. The thought and wording are obscure, but somehow the fleshly part of Jesus is nailed to the Cross while the living Jesus looks on laughing:

And I said, ‘O Lord, do I see that it is you yourself whom they take? Or who is this one, glad and laughing on the tree? And is it another one whose feet and hands they are striking?’ The Savior said to me, ‘He whom you saw on the tree, glad and laughing, this is the living Jesus. But this one, into whose hands and feet they drive the nails, is his fleshly part, the substitute being put to shame, the one who came into being in his likeness.’ (Apocalypse of Peter, Nag Hammadi Library, 7.2.81, p. 344).

Or in another passage:

Yes, they saw me; they punished me. It was another, their father, who drank the gall and the vinegar; it was not I. They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. It was another on whom they placed the crown of thorns. But I was rejoicing in the height… I was laughing at their ignorance (The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, Nag Hammadi Library, 7.2 56, p. 332).

This is possible through his dual nature, as another obscure passage attests:

Now the son of God was son of man. He embraced them both, possessing the humanity and the divinity, so that on the one hand he might vanquish death through being son of God, and that on the other through the son of man the restoration to the Pleroma might occur… I know that I am presenting the solution in difficult terms, but there is nothing difficult in the Word of Truth (Treatise on Resurrection, Nag Hammadi Library, 1.44-45, p. 51).

It is evident that the passion narrative of the Gospel of John is the most sympathetic – or perhaps the least unsympathetic – of the four canonical gospels to this approach. Far from the gutwrenching horror of Mark’s account of the Agony in the Garden, the wordless final shriek on the Cross, John’s account shows a Jesus in total control. He is not arrested till he has given permission and the arresting-party has acknowledged his divinity by falling to the ground at the ‘I am’ (John 18:5-8). Crowned as King on the Cross, he dies with dignity and only when he has signified his readiness with ‘It is completed’ (John 19:30). He dies nevertheless, and it is this which put John, suspect though he was in some circles, finally on the side of emerging orthodoxy at the end of the second century.

Amid this variety of sacred writings one importance of Marcion’s theory was, as we have seen, to stimulate the Christian community towards a standardisation of the list of sacred books. Besides the Gospel of John some other writings continued to be regarded with suspicion in various parts of Christianity. In the West the Letter to the Hebrews did not win universal acceptance; this was partly because it claimed no apostle as its author, but perhaps principally because it refused forgiveness to those who committed serious sin after baptism (6:4-6). Such rigour would have made difficulties in the severe persecutions which assailed the early Church. Not all had the heroism to stand firm, and there was much controversy over whether apostates should be granted a second chance.

Until recently it used to be held that the first list of accepted books was the Muratorian Fragment, a list discovered in a seventh-century codex at Milan in 1740 by Ludovico Muratori, and held by him to date from the late second century. More recently, however, scholars have come to agree that this Fragment is a late fourth century eastern document. The first firm list now commonly accepted as authoritative is therefore the list given in the Festal Letter of Athanasius of AD 367. (12)   This was soon confirmed by approval of the same list at the Councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397), both important Christian centres at that time.

1. A good example of the products of the Jesus Seminar is Gerd Lüdemann’s Jesus after 2000 Years. A thorough criticism of its methods is given by Luke Timothy Johnson in Johnson 1996, pp. 1-27, and by Witherington 1995, pp. 42-57. Briefly, it is a seminar of like-minded North American fellows, not including any from Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Duke or any Catholic university. In no way does it represent a cross-section of scholars. It met regularly during the 1980s and 1990s, with maximum possible publicity, to vote with coloured beads on the likelihood of individual Jesus-sayings actually being from Jesus. Only 18% got through.
2. See the article by Ron Cameron in Anchor Bible Dictionary, ‘Thomas, Gospel of’.
3. Hurtado 2003, pp. 452-474.
4. Pagels 1979, p. xviii.
5. The strangest fragment of all deserves a footnote. Professor Morton Smith 1973, p. 17, claims to have discovered in 1958 in the monastery of Mar Saba in the Judaean desert a fragment of a le~r of Clement of Alexandria, quoting The Secret Gospel of Mark as follows: ‘After six days Jesus told him [a youth] what to do, and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan’. Scandal-mongers have, of course, made much of this text, but to this day it has proved impossible to authenticate it.
6. See Anchor Bible Dictionary vol. 4, ‘Marcion, Bible of’.
7. See Kinzig 1994, 519-544.
8. New Jerome Commentary, p. 1044, #55.
9. Inspiration in the Bible (Herder, 1961).
10. Minns 1994, p. 132.
11. Vallee 1980, p. 185.
12. For the text (PG 26, 1436) see Brakke, 1995, p. 329.

For the Bibliography of this article, see the article by Henry Wansbrough OSB, “The Story of the Bible: how it came to us”.