The NT Canon


    The best way to understand the NT Canon, I think, is Bruce Metzger's
definition of it.  It is a collection of authoritative writings.
It is not an authoritative collection of writings.  There is a big
difference, and it relates to the earlier append about adding
other documents to the NT we have.  In the early centuries of the original
"Jesus Movement", there were all sorts of documents with differing
viewpoints and purposes.  These include the Hebrew Scriptures and
the LXX translation of them, which contained extra books in some
recensions, Jewish apocalyptic writings such as the Book of Enoch
and the 2 Apocalypse of Baruch (virtually all of which claim to
be written by a figure of antiquity but virtually universally
recognized as being written some time around the 1st century CE),
the documents that make up the "canonical" NT, other "orthodox"
Christian writings,various other texts which may or may not
claim to be "Christian" in nature or origin, and pseudonymous
"Christian" writings, like the Acts of Paul and Thekla.
The early Church had to decide for itself what was the Word
of God that it would live by.  It defined this as those documents
generally felt to be by an apostle or to otherwise have apostolic
authority or close apostolic relations, such as the Gospel of Mark.

    This process is seen in the 2nd century CE, arouund 185, in what is
called the Muratorian fragment or canon (eymologically, by the way,
canon comes from the Greek kanon and means a rule, used to decide
if something was in alignment or not I believe).  In any case, the
Muratorian canon lists most of what is in the NT we commonly use.
It also lists a few documents that are NOT in the NT, but notes
that some people like them, such as the Acts of Peter I think
(I don't have my copy handy), or the Didache.  In the end,
these latter documents did not end up in the NT canon,
which was listed BUT NOT CREATED first in the Easter Sermon
of Athanasius around 321, being the 27 books in our NT, because
the early Church did not feel as a group that these books were
apostolic and/or did not ring true to them as God's words.

Could they have left something out that was authentic?  Perhaps,
but given the difficulties some books, like 2 Peter, encountered
in gaining canonical (read: generally accepted) status, the early
Church clearly sought to err on the conservative side.  Better to
let a possibly apostolic document not be included than to
include a document a large portion of the Church did not
recognize as apostolic.

    Now, as for expanding the canon, here are some points to
consider.  If we take the NT we have as being representative
of apostolic teaching and tradition, documemts with opposing
views, or written by opposing parties, would surely be out of
place.  The Gospel of Thomas, for example, which is not
actually a "gospel" but a random collection of reputed
sayings of Jesus, was never recognized by the early Church
as being apostolic.  Rather, it is part of a body of
Gnostic literature that clearly presents a radically
different Jesus from the Jesus of our NT.  Putting those
two sets of documents togehter, would be like combining
the NT and the Koran.  They have completely different
perspectives on God, Jesus, salvation, etc., and should
in no way be viewed as coming from the same body of
tradition or even the same worldview.  Also, would
this NT be of equal weight?  Should I add sayings
from the Gospel of Thomas or the Assumpiton of Moses
to one of those ever-popular book of promises Christian
book stores sell?  Should I use the contents of the Gospel
to the Hebrews in developing a NT theology text?  Just how
far should we go with these added documents?  The Gospel
of Thomas tells me something about an eclectic, Ghostic
movement at Nag Hammadi.  It doesn't tell me anything
for sure about 1st century apostolic teaching.  I also
recongize that in at least one case, the book of Hebrews,
that part of its basis for being in the canon, a belief
in Pauline authorship, may well be invalid (at least IMHO
the Greek is too different and the document structure too
different from Paul's known 13 letters, all of which I think
are authentic) to come from Paul.  Do I think Hebrews then
should come out of the canon? No, because the early Church
recognized it as being apostolic or having apostolic authority.
They heard the word of God in itn.  I can't say the
same for the book of Enoch.  The main thing I get from
Enoch or Tobit is the sleepies.

Ken Litwak
IBM, San Jose, CA