An Introduction to the New Testament

By Adolf Jülicher


Chapter 1 - Section 36


§36. The Preparatory Stages in the Canonisation of the New Testament Scriptures

1. A gradual process made the Books of the New Testament the most sacred writings of Christendom. They did not attain this position immediately upon their outward completion; but it would be equally untrue to suppose that on a given day the decision of a majority in the Synod transformed them from ordinary books into Divine Records. The New Testament Canon is the result of a long-continued process, the first phases of which we have to reconstruct by hypothesis, since direct testimony from such distant antiquity is not forthcoming. One thing is certain: before a book was canonised, it must have been tenderly and highly prized. And, moreover, this love and high esteem must have been very widely spread if canonisation not only aroused no opposition, but was nowhere considered as an innovation. Such a frame of mind, again, was the natural result of a close acquaintance with the books concerned, and must have been produced in an extraordinary degree in the decades before 140. Now, a knowledge of the contents of Christian books could only be obtained by the lower strata in the early Christian communities through public reading in the services of the Church. A large proportion of the believers consisted everywhere of hardworking slaves and illiterates, who could only get Christian knowledge and edification from these services in the churches. The ʽmanyʼ who before 100 A.D. had attempted to write the history of the ʽfulfilment,ʼ certainly did not wish to write for the cultured few among their fellow-Christians, who were precisely those least in need of such books. Their first object was, not to win new converts, not even solely to provide assistance for the Christian teachers, the. orators of the congregations, towards using whatever portions they pleased from among the materials thus arranged to suit their choice; they addressed themselves to all believers: they counted on being read publicly in every sphere accessible to them. The extent of these spheres, and the places where their desire was fulfilled, were matters of chance. Well-merited oblivion soon fell to the lot of much of this literature; large and favourably situated churches would very soon have possessed many of these historical books, and have used them in turns for their edification; others again would have been content with a single Gospel; but it is hardly likely that at about 140 there were any Christian communities which used no written records of the words and deeds of the Lord, or found the prophecies of the Old Testament and the addresses of their teachers sufficient for their edification, considering how little those teachers were in a position to paint the Lord for them in living colours.

The Apocalypse purported to convey a message from Heaven to Christendom—to the Christians of Asia in the first instance; among these, then, it was naturally read aloud with reverence, but no one dreamed of throwing it aside after a single reading; it was constantly introduced anew into the services of the Church, whenever the need was felt of joining in its cry of longing, ʽCome, Lord Jesus,ʼ or of receiving the comforting assurance ʽYea: I come quickly.1 And when should this need have disappeared, seeing that the fulfilment was still delayed? Even if the Apocalypse was, in the first instance, read aloud only in the Asiatic communities, its introduction into other provinces would have come about quite naturally, say, when foreign brethren, on their visits to Ephesus or Smyrna, experienced for the first time the passionate emotions called forth by the words of this book; they took it back with them to their homes, and wherever there was a taste for these ideas and the forms in which they were clothed, the Elders received the new gift gratefully, and made the whole community acquainted with the ʽRevelation.ʼ I do not wish to maintain that there was a regular, set reading of any Christian book in the Church services; when, in what order and in what portions the edifying literature of the Christians was read aloud, was a matter solely dependent on those who conducted the services. It is impossible to over-estimate the variety of custom in this respect; rules and laws on the subject existed nowhere, much less a well-organised system of pericopae for reading in the churches. The important point, however, is that in post-Apostolic times the churches did become accustomed to make use of writings of Christian origin, together with the old sacred books of Israel, for their common edification. And among such writings, beside many which disappeared later, and beside the Four Gospels and the Acts, which remained for all time, letters of the Apostles were early included.

Paulʼs Epistles to the churches were intended to be read aloud to those to whom they were addressed; but it would have been unnatural for a church which felt a strong love for its founder to have ignored his writings after a single reading. At those times, above all, in which his absence was specially felt, or when perhaps difficulties like those he had once treated had occurred again, men would turn eagerly to the letters from his beloved hand; when once they had felt how he lived again in those letters, what power emanated from such and such a passage, they would naturally determine to ensure such enjoyment to themselves more frequently in the future, and to draw goodly profit from this precious inheritance of their spiritual father. Soon, too, there would arise an exchange of possessions between communities which had friendly intercourse one with another: the Philippians would gratefully read the Epistles to their neighbours in Thessalonica side by side with their own Epistle, and so on; communities which themselves possessed nothing of the kind would address themselves to the more favoured towns. Presently there would appear no reason why Paulʼs Epistles alone should be thus honoured; they were read, not because the writer bore a high title, but because they were found to be edifying; if other communities held similar writings from their spiritual fathers or prominent teachers, such as Apollos or Barnabas, they would read and pass these on also with joy. It goes without saying that Paulʼs letters were entirely disregarded in the districts won by the false apostles who had so often made his life a burden to him; but apart from the fact that the terrible disturbances of the Jewish wars must, after 66, have considerably limited the productivity and love of agitation of the anti-Pauline movement; apart, too, from the fact that the death of ʽthose of reputeʼ could not fail to exercise an influence towards mutual reconciliation—since, as appears from 2. Cor. x.—xiil., the bitterness of the strife was due to personal animosity rather than to material differences—the triumphant success of Paulinism must soon have silenced the Judaising opposition. The Gentile Christian element in the churches alone showed steady growth: of the Jews but a few individuals still found a bridge to lead them to the faith. The younger followers of Paul, who, unlike their master, had not begun by shaking off the yoke of Judaism, held language that was in no sense anti-Jewish, or calculated to wound Jewish susceptibilities, and former adversaries met in peace on the common ground of growing Catholicism. Ancient antipathies to Paul were referred to a misunderstanding,2 the more credible by reason of the bitter complaints made by the brethren of the Pauline churches at this time, about the misinterpretation which the Apostleʼs letters suffered through the madness of the Gnostics. A small and irreconcilable minority, holding beyond the reach of argument that fidelity to the Law in the Pharisaic sense was the consummation of righteousness, had voluntarily withdrawn from public life and from connection with the ʽChurch.ʼ Pauline Epistles were probably admitted for public reading in Jerusalem and Joppa even before 140, as was the Apocalypse, despite its Jewish tone, in Corinth, Smyrna and Rome.

But ʽAnagnosisʼ of this sort, as applied to a group of Christian writings which was at first constantly increasing, must be clearly distinguished from embodiment in a Canon. That such an Anagnosis took place is indisputable, because the Apostolic Fathers are familiar with sayings of the Lord which, from their form, clearly betray their dependence on written sources like our Gospels, and also because their acquaintance with Pauline Epistles is undeniable3; but that a Canon was formed we cannot believe, because the way in which those documents were used teaches us too plainly how little the New was considered equal to the Old. True that when the reading aloud of Christian writings beside the Old Testament Scriptures first became the rule and was felt to be indispensable, it must have tended very much to efface the distinction; but the admission of a document to public reading in the worship of the Church implies nothing more in itself than that it was held to be edifying and useful to the community. The scruples of certain branches of Protestantism were unknown to the early, and especially to the earliest, Church. The correspondence between the churches or between their bishops, including purely business communications, was read out in the course of the service, as were the Acts of the Martyrs and the Lives of the Saints. Even in the fourth and fifth centuries it was ordained in individual provincial churches that anti-heretical writings should be read aloud on Sundays to the congregations, so as to arm the brethren everywhere against the factious and seductive arts of the heretics. But no one looked on these controversial writings as Canonical on that account.

2. It would be waste of time to make so much as a positive conjecture concerning the beginnings of a collection of the New Testament writings. Only one thing is certain: that no collector aimed at putting together a New Testament, that the idea of a new Canon did not call forth the collection, but that a New Testament grew, or was composed, out of partial collections which were already in existence. Love for the great Apostle of the Gentiles may very early (perhaps even during his lifetime) have inspired the attempt to seek out and collect all that could be obtained of his Epistles; and if some of the oldest quotations from the Gospels are cited as standing in the Gospel by some witness who certainly had several Gospel writings before him, this figure of speech is to be explained by the custom of speaking of the Gospel as a unity, and by the permanent importance of this conception: it was the one, true, redeeming Gospel. In view of the great bulk of these writings, it is quite improbable that in the earliest times several Gospels together could have been presented as a whole, or corpus, in outward appearance. The hypothesis that after 80 A.D. a complete collection of Paulʼs Epistles to the churches was sent out, possibly from Corinth, and dispersed through Christendom, has no foundation; nor does it receive much support from the fact that the older ecclesiastical writers do not appear to use, or rather to know, anything like the whole of Paulʼs Epistles, or even all to know the same Epistles. To deny to the author of 1.Clement the knowledge of 2. Corinthians, because he only mentions and analyses4 the letter of the Apostle to the Corinthians, is too rash a conclusion (Augustine, for instance, speaks in the same way of ʽthe Epistle to the Thessalonians,ʼ though he was equally well acquainted with both the First and the Second); but it is also impossible to prove the writerʼs acquaintance with 2. Corinthians from one or two points of contact. There is no difficulty in assuming that in different churches, before the period of Canonisation, collections of letters which were originally small were perhaps repeatedly enlarged solely for the purpose of reading aloud in the services. Those churches where the Epistles of Paul were used in public worship at all were not likely to place obstacles in the way of their complete collection; the fear that without careful examination spurious writings might easily be smuggled in did not belong to the times of which we are treating, any more than an obstinate conservative predilection for old tradition belongs to a young religion. The art which was so useful to Christianity was that of immediately regarding as traditional the new material produced by a very rich and rapid development, and of declaring it to be a thing accepted in all places, at all times and by all men. This most ancient Catholic art was brilliantly exemplified in the history of the Canon, though the actual makers of the New Testament certainly had no suspicion of this merit of theirs. Nevertheless, unity was in all respects the later product. It is but a poor satisfaction to imagine that at any rate the collection of Pauline Epistles was produced in its final shape all at once, when we are obliged to give up the far more important point, that the New Testament was completed at one stroke ʽfrom time immemorial.ʼ

Consequently: in post-Apostolic times, writings of Christian origin found a place in the Church services; kindred writings were gathered together and in some cases written on the same roll; but as to their nature and number, their place and time, no definite conclusions are possible. These are questions which need expect no answer even from the fortunate discovery of early Christian writings supposed to be lost; nothing but the most consummate folly could, in the year 1900, ʽcherish great hopes that the original New Testament will also be foundʼ among the treasures unearthed in some mosque at Damascus. The original in this case means the most complete diversity: its development is determined not by fixed principles, but by use and chance, by taste, nay, even by the pecuniary resources available at a given moment.



1) Rev. xxii. 20.

2) 1. Peter iii. 16.

3) 1, Clem. xlvii, 1-5: ʽTake up the letter of the blessed Apostle Paul.ʼ

4) Ch. xlvi. i