The Criteria for the New Testament Canon

August 16, 2015

This is part of my classroom lectures handouts

Key Terms

  • Biblia (βιβλία): the plural Greek term for “books”
  • kanōn (κανών)/canon: a reed used as a measuring standard; the criterion used to make a judgment (“rule of faith”); a list of authoritative or canonical writings

Quotations of the New Testament as Scripture

  • References/Allusions to the Gospels or Epistles in the Apostolic Fathers, but it is difficult to tell whether they cited NT texts or oral traditions.
  • … but as the Lord commanded in his Gospel, pray thus: “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy Name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, as in Heaven so also upon earth; give us to-day our daily bread, and forgive us our debt as we forgive our debtors, and lead us not into trial, but deliver us from the Evil One, for thine is the power and the glory for ever.” (Didache 8:2)
  • …as it is said in these Scriptures, “Be ye angry and sin not,” and “Let not the sun go down upon your wrath [Ephesians 4:26].” (Polycarp, Philippians 12.1)
  • So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. (2 Peter 3:15-16)
  • …on the day called Sunday… the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read…. (Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 67.3)

Competing Christian Movements

  • “Gnostics”: an ignorant or evil Demiurge (craftsman) created matter rather than the highest divine being in the divine realm (pleroma). Salvation is liberation from the material world through knowledge (gnōsis) of one’s divine origins. The Gnostics composed texts or decoded the New Testament ones to expound upon their pleromatic myth and interpret Jesus as a revealer of esoteric teachings. Some famous Gnostic teachers include Basilides and Valentinus.
  • Marcion of Sinope: a rich ship owner who believed that the loving Father of Jesus was a different god from the Old Testament god of justice (the Demiurge). He accepted only 10 letters of Paul and a single Gospel most akin to Luke’s Gospel as authoritative and composed a text entitled Antithesis. According to tradition, he was excommunicated from the Roman church in 144 CE.
  • Some Jewish Christians (the “Ebionites”, from ebionim or poor ones) believed in Jesus as the Messiah, though they denied Jesus’ divinity and some rejected reports of his Virgin birth, and remained Torah observant. They preferred the Gospel of Matthew (or a “Gospel according to the Hebrews”) and despised the apostle Paul as an apostate from the Law. Epiphanius and Jerome describe another group of Torah observant Jewish Christians (“Nazoraeans”) whose Christology was more aligned with the larger fourth century Church.

Apocryphal (“Hidden”) Gospels

  • The Gospel of the Hebrews/Ebionites/Nazoraeans, The Gospel of the Egyptians, Papyrus Egerton 2 Unknown Gospel, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of the Saviour, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Infancy Gospel of James, the Epistle of the Apostles, the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter, the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, the Secret Gospel of Mark (cf. Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make it into the New Testament [Oxford University Press, 2003], v).
  • These Gospels may be harmonies of the NT Gospels, expansions on the events of Jesus’ birth/childhood/death, or revelatory discourses that depict Jesus as a gnostic revealer figure.
  • The Gospel of Thomas Movie
  • Cartoons of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas

Irenaeus of Lyons on the Four Gospel Canon

“For the Ebionites, who use Matthew’s Gospel only, are confuted out of this very same, making false suppositions with regard to the Lord. But Marcion, mutilating that according to Luke, is proved to be a blasphemer of the only existing God, from those [passages] which he still retains. Those, again, who separate Jesus from Christ, alleging that Christ remained impassible, but that it was Jesus who suffered, preferring the Gospel by Mark, if they read it with a love of truth, may have their errors rectified. Those, moreover, who follow Valentinus, making copious use of that according to John, to illustrate their conjunctions, shall be proved to be totally in error by means of this very Gospel… It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh.” (Against Heresies 3.11.7-8)

Criteria for Canonicity

  • Council of Carthage (397 AD)
  • Affirmed the current NT Canon of Scripture
  • Criteria for Canonicity
    • Apostolic Origin (written by one of Jesus’ chosen apostles or a close associate of an apostle)
    • Catholicity (i.e. widespread Christian usage of the text)
    • Antiquity (i.e., long history of use by ancient authorities)
    • The Rule of Faith (theological content)

Canon Lists

Muratorian (late 2nd cent) Eusebius (ca. 265-340) Athanasius (ca. 298-373)





1/2 Corinthians





1/2 Thessalonians




1 & 2 Timothy


1 & 2 John

Apocalypse of John

Apocalypse of Peter

Wisdom of Solomon

Shepherd of Hermas



Most of NT



Hebrews [?]



2 Peter

2 & 3 John

Revelation [?]

Hebrew Gospel






Acts of Paul

Apoc. Peter





Introducing the Book of Revelation and Apocalyptic Literature

August 9, 2015

This is part of my classroom lectures handouts

The impact of apocalyptic thought in popular culture: Left Behind Series

  • The origins of the pre-tribulation rapture in the dispensationalist system of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) and popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible. A scholarly form of progressive dispensationalism is best represented at Dallas Theological Seminary. The rapture doctrine is a corollary of the theological distinction between two covenant peoples, Israel and the church, and the belief that the church must be raptured so that all the biblical promises pertaining to Israel can be “literally” fulfilled in an earthly millennial kingdom.
  • Check out Matthew 24:40-41/Luke 17:34-35, 1 Thessalonians 4:17, and Revelation 3:10 in their literary context.
  • Is dispensationalism an adequate hermeneutical lens for interpreting ancient apocalyptic literature? What might be the social and ideological/theological implications of a dispensationalist worldview?

What is an “apocalypse”?

  • apokalypsis (ἀποκάλυψις): uncovering, unveiling, revelation
  • The revelation of Jesus Christ [is Jesus doing the revealing or is he the content of the revelation?], which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place” (Revelation 1:1).
  • Distinct from Eschatology: from the Greek term eschatos (ἔσχατος, last, final) and having to do with the end of the present age.
  • “‘Apocalypse’ is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.” (SBL’s ‘Apocalypse Group’ published by J. J. Collins, Semeia 14 [1979], 9).

Characteristics of the Apocalyptic Genre (see further Aune, “Understanding Jewish and Christian Apocalyptic”)

  • Form: a record of visionary experiences often mediated by a heavenly messenger.
  • Content: visionary tours of the heavens/hell or eschatological prophecies about the end of the age. It is also often characterized by cosmic dualism in which the current age is ruled by hostile spiritual forces and, instead of hoping for a resolution through ordinary historical processes, expects a dramatic divine intervention and transformation of the social order as the only solution to the author’s plight.
  • Function: to encourage a minority group under (or perceived to be under) oppression and implore the audience to modify their behaviour.
  • Authorship: often ascribed to ancient authorities pseudonymously (Enoch, Abraham, Daniel, Ezra, Peter, Paul), with the exception of Revelation and the Shepherd of Hermas. This genre of writings seems to have been popular between 200 BCE and 200 CE.
  • Example: The apocalyptic section of Daniel 6-12 seem to be composed around 167-164 BCE, though the visionary is set in the Babylonian and Persian periods. Antiochus IV “Epiphanies” (manifest) came to power in 175 BCE and enforced an aggressive program of Hellenization (i.e. spreading Greek culture), transforming Jerusalem into a Hellenistic city (“Antiochia”) with a gymnasium. He forbade Jews from practicing their native customs (cf. 2 Maccabees 7) and attempted to profane the temple by offering a pig on the altar, which was prevented by the priest Matthias. Matthias’s sons, led by Judas “Maccabeus” (hammerer), revolted. Daniel 7 envisions four beasts (=Babylon, Persia, Media, Greece), with the last beast having 10 horns (=rulers) and a particularly arrogant horn (=Antiochus IV), and the eschatological vindication of a human-like figure (=the saints of Israel or their angelic representative).

The Book of Revelation: Introduction

  • “John”, a seer who was exiled to the island of Patmos for his testimony about Jesus (Rev 1:1, 4, 9; 22:8). There was debate in the early church about whether the author was the apostle John (cf. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.1-7; 7.25.1-16), but the book seems to refer to the twelve apostles as figures of the past (Rev 21:14).
  • There are some parallels with the Gospel of John (“Lamb”, “Word of God”), but the author’s facility in Greek is very different.
  • “Moreover also among us a man named John, one of the apostles of Christ, prophesied in a revelation made to him that those who have believed on our Christ will spend a thousand years in Jerusalem; and that hereafter the general and, in short, the eternal resurrection and judgment of all will likewise take place.” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue 81.4)„
  • “For that [vision] was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.30.3). Other scholars date it earlier to the reign of Nero or propose that there might have been an earlier or later edition of the book.
  • Directed towards seven historic churches in Asia Minor (Rev 2-3)

Guidelines for interpretation:

  • The book had to effectively communicate to its earliest audience or else it would not have been preserved.
  • Apocalyptic texts use coded symbolism to speak about political powers in the author’s time. For instance, the condemnation of “Babylon” in Revelation 17-18 (cf. 1 Peter 5:13) seems to be a cipher for Rome as the city of seven hills (cf. Rev 17:9). The beast with a mortal wound in Revelation 13 may be an allusion to the Nero redivivus myth and the number of 666 may stand for Nerōn Kaisar (cf. Ian Boxall, “Gematria“)

Interpretive schemes:

  • Preterist: most/all of the events in the book took place in the first century CE.
  • Historicist: Revelation covers events throughout Christian history.
  • Futurist: Revelation foretells a yet future eschatological scenario.
  • Idealist: Revelation symbolically represents the battle of good versus evil in a way that is timelessly true.

Interpretations of the millennium (Revelation 20:1-6):

  • Pre-Millennialism: there will be a future 1000 year rule of Christ on earth before the final judgment. Whether the Church or Israel will be the primary participants in the millennial kingdom is the major difference between the historic and dispensationalist view.
  • Post-Millennialism: there will be a future time when Christians will experience unprecedented success in their missionary expansion and Christianization of the world.
  • Amillenialism: the prefix “a” stands for “no” and this view interprets the millennium as symbolic of the church age as the devil has been bound due to what Christ has already accomplished.

„„Further resources:

Classroom Lectures

August 5, 2015

As an update on my current status, I have the privilege of teaching three courses this Fall as an adjunct lecturer at The King’s University in Edmonton. Two of the courses are an introduction to the whole Bible, focusing on its main contents and different scholarly methods of analysis, and an advanced course on the problem of evil in various biblical texts. I have posted some of my introductory materials for a New Testament course under “student resources“, but I want to go back and revise some of my notes as well as add some new ones. Feel free to use them if they are of benefit to you as you explore the world of the New Testament and Christian origins.

My Bible and Interpretation Article about Christology

July 31, 2015

I have posted an article that critically interacts with the “Early High Christology Club” for the online journal Bible and Interpretation. I really do believe that the scholarly proponents of this model have made a genuine advance beyond older proposals about how a “high Christology” could only emerge at the end of a lengthy process of development in a non-Jewish milieu and that neglected the Second Temple literary evidence in favour of strained parallels to later or diffuse texts (e.g., the theios aner or “divine man”, the Gnostic redeemer myth). Yet, I have raised some theoretical questions about the rhetoric that sometimes seems to surface that a “high Christology” was the earliest, unanimous, and exclusively-Jewish influenced viewpoint of the Christ congregations. I also make some remarks about the relationship between historical and theological concerns, an issue that is important to me since I currently teach in a Christian confessional context. Larry Hurtado has already added written an extensive response on his blog and Michael Bird has offered a response as well, and the article has received some positive feedback from Daniel O McClellan, Jim West, and others on Facebook. I hope all the parties concerned are anticipating the debate about Markan Christology at this upcoming SBL. Let the conversation continue.

Peter Head Reviews a Book on Mark 16:9-20

July 24, 2015

I came across Peter M. Head’s continuing blog review (here, here, here) of N. P. Lunn’s The Original Ending of Mark: A New Case for the Authenticity of Mark 16:9-20 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2014). I have posted my views on the longer ending of Mark in The Gospel on the Margins: The Reception of Mark in the Second Century (pp. 257-264). I am currently convinced that it is a scribal addition in the first half of the second century (external references in Irenaeus, Tatian and possibly Justin Martyr) that compensates for the ending of Mark at 16:8 and has contact with singly attested details in the other New Testament Gospels (especially Luke and John). However, I could not go into the level of detail that a whole monograph devoted to the subject can so I will be interested both in what Lunn brings to the table and Head’s review as an expert text critic who graciously provided input on an earlier draft of my thesis.

Christopher Skinner Recommends the Gospel on the Margins

June 22, 2015

I appreciate the latest shout out for my book The Gospel on the Margins: The Reception of Mark in the Second Century over at the blog Crux Sola. Christopher Skinner, an expert on the Gospels of Thomas and John as well as literary characterization in the Gospels, writes, “I must recommend it to those with interests in the Gospel of Mark, the formation of the NT canon, and reception history.” I will look forward to responding when he posts his full review and keeping the conversation going. Thanks Chris!

Introducing the Synoptic Problem to the Person in the Pews

June 9, 2015

At the blog Bible Study and the Christian Life, I have started a series on the Synoptic Problem (the literary relationship of Matthew, Mark and Luke as well as their sources) primarily for a lay audience. Instead of going through every technical argument for/against Markan priority and the debate over the existence of Q, my purpose is to give a broad overview of the subject with links to do further research and examples that will show how it might be relevant to their everyday Bible reading. Please let me know if my explanations are clear for those who may have no prior knowledge of the subject and if they are pastorally sensitive to those who may have a difficult time accepting that one Gospel writer would edit another.

  • Post 1: Introducing why there must be a literary connection between the Synoptic Gospels.
  • Post 2: An overview of the three major theories.
  • Post 3: A specific example of triple tradition, double tradition and unique material in the account of John’s baptism of Jesus.
  • Post 4: A specific example of double tradition in the beatitudes.
  • Post 5: A discussion of the relevance of the Synoptic Problem to historical, literary and theologically minded readers.