An Introduction to the New Testament

By Adolf Jülicher


Chapter 3 - Section 47


§ 47. Result of the History of the Canon

1. As the original Canon of the New Testament grew out of the usages of the Church, and consisted of the books which had long served in the leading communities for edification and for settling questions of belief, and as this canonisation of tradition was only justified, after it was already accomplished, by the assertion that none but Apostolic writings had been canonised, so the second half of the history of the Canon is entirely governed by the idea here indicated, an idea which was firmly grasped as early as the time of Irenĉus and Tertullian! The Apostles signify to the Church of the New Covenant exactly what Moses and the Prophets signified to the people of the Old; the writings of the Apostles must stand on the same level with theirs, as authentic records of Divine Revelation. But naturally this only applied to the genuine, uncorrupted writings. Augustine felt no more strongly against the heretics who rejected the Apostolic writings, or portions of them, because these were not to their liking, than against those who could not endure that the hymn uttered by Jesus (Matt. xxvi. 30) or the Epistle written by Paul to the Laodiceans (according to Col. iv. 16) should no longer be in existence, and supplied the loss by their own fabrications: ʽwhat is Apostolic is Canonical,ʼ was his principle, but only what is truly Apostolic. Whether those writings which were called Apostolic really possessed this quality was left to the decision of none but the Apostolic Church, the questioner herself. What the Church had always held to be Apostolic must be accepted as such, and by ʽthe Churchʼ the majority in the Church was meant. Since the effort after uniformity constantly increased from the year 200 onwards, the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Apocalypse had at last to be given their place in the Canon, in spite of all objections, because the tradition of the whole Greek Church supported the former, and that of the whole Latin Church the latter. The case is different as regards the minor Catholic Epistles. They had not held a high place of old in any important church or circle of churches; they emerge almost without warning from obscurity, and raise the question of their recognition by the Church in spite of deficient ʽtradition.ʼ This question was answered variously according as more stress was laid on the trustworthiness of their Apostolic title or on the ecclesiastical tradition supporting them; at last it was agreed to accept them because they contained nothing which might contradict their Apostolic authorship, and because they attached themselves very easily to the Epistles already in existence, 1. Peter and 1. John; while the importance of these old favourites was happily increased by such a timely addition.

On the other hand, after the year 200, non-Apostolic writings, however brilliant their recommendation, could not by any manner of means effect an entry into communities which had not an earlier acquaintance with them. New writings were only received if they came with an Apostolic title; hence the Catholic uniformity of the New Testament with regard to writings like those of Clement, Barnabas and Hermas could only be attained by abandoning these even in their old homes. With them were abandoned also a number of works with an Apostolic title, such as the ʽTeaching of the Apostles,ʼ the Preaching and the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Acts of Paul, because the general sense of the Church discovered in them a closer relationship with undoubted heretical forgeries than with the Apostolic writings of the Canon, and because, on the whole, they had no sufficient points of connection with the Canon. Who knows whether the Apocalypse of Peter would not at last have been received in the West, as was the Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews, if, at the decisive moment, the Apocalypse of John had not been rejected in the Greek Church, thus making the Apocalypse of Peter untenable? Accident of this kind influenced the decision; but from the third century onwards the Church, with constantly increasing energy, consciously refused to admit anything within the Canon except the whole body of the attested writings of the Apostles.1 Those who ascribed the Apocalypse to a holy and inspired man distinct from the Apostle, or 2. and 8. John to an otherwise unknown Presbyter, and yet would retain them in the Canon, stand entirely alone. The required attestation is now found, artlessly enough, in the fact that the Church accepted them as Apostolic; as Augustine explained to the Manichĉans, ʽI must give credence to the Acts of the Apostles if I do to the Gospels, for both writings are recommended to me equally by the Catholic authority.ʼ

Augustine could not have entertained the theory of a modern Catholic theologian, Cornely—who indeed has a forerunner in Gregory the Great,—viz. that if Hebrews were proved to proceed, not from Paul, but from one of his disciples or some other Apostolic person, its canonicity would not suffer, inasmuch as this depended, not on its Apostolic origin, but on its inspiration as recognised by the Church; nor that of another Catholic, Martin, according to which certain portions of the Vulgate which do not belong to the original text are quasi-canonical, the authority of the Church supplying their defect and lending them a force which they had not in themselves. For Augustine, Apostolicity is the foundation upon which rest inspiration and canonicity, i.e. ecclesiastical recognition; in his eyes, to accept ecclesiastical recognition as a substitute for inspiration would be a sheer inversion of things. These theories, indeed, are but a return, by no means artless, to the first stage in the formation of the Canon, in which the sympathy of the communities, not a theory of inspiration or any learned information concerning the author, lent the sacred books their authority. Lutherʼs and Zwingliʼs return to the subjectivism of the earliest Church, while betraying another spirit, is in no cruder opposition to the law of history.

9. The technical term for what is recommended by this Catholic authority is Canonical; for that which it rejects on solicitation, Apocryphal. The original meaning of the word ʽCanonʼ (canonical, canonise) in this technical application is not perfectly clear; the Latins translate it sometimes by regula, sometimes by numerus. Both these meanings are attested by other evidence as well; κανών originally meant standard, rule, and therefore may also signify something established by absolute rule, something fixed (e.g. in the State, τὸν κανόνα, πληροῦν=to pay the fixed tax-assessment), such as a catalogue,2 an index. Now, as in the oldest ecclesiastical literature the word κανών, with additions such as ʽof the faith, of the truth,ʼ represents the ideal conception of the Divine things of the Church—its new law, whether written or unwritten—so, on the other hand, might theology, when it began to speak of a Canon of Divine writings, of admittance into this Canon and the like, have understood by it the fixed and established list κατ’ ἔξοχήν—that of the Holy Scriptures. Only in this sense do we speak of a Canon of Muratori, and the same sense meets us again when Amphilochius3 sets up his catalogue of the Biblical Books as an entirely infallible Canon of the inspired writings; or when Augustine speaks of the Canon of Holy Scriptures which requires definite limitation: ʽQuem definitum esse oportebat.ʼ Nevertheless, in the ecclesiastical use of the word ʽCanon,ʼ as=the Old and New Testaments, the idea of the subject-matter absolutely prevails over that of the form; with the word ʽCanon,ʼ a judgment is passed upon the contents of certain Scriptures: they are those which the Church holds to be incorruptible records of the Law of God. The Canon is the pattern according to which everything in the Church is judged; Canonisation signifies recognition as an integral part of this pattern. In using the word ʽcanonicalʼ the Christian of about the year 200 had exactly the same feeling as if he had said: Divine, holy, infallible, an absolute standard. Augustine used the terms ʽCanonʼ and ʽauthorityʼ interchangeably, and in some places used the two together. He considered ʽCanonicalʼ Epistles as Synonymous with ʽinspiredʼ; everywhere alike ʽCanonicalʼ is the absolutely binding, as opposed to the neutral and the bad —the writings lacking authority. The epithet ʽCanonicalʼ as applied to books is exchanged without any alteration of sense with ʽtestamentalʼ (ἐνδιάθηκος and ἐνδιάθετος) or ʽincludedʼ (ἔγκριτος) or even ʽecclesiasticalʼ (this particularly with the Latins). It is interesting to note that instead of κανονιζόμεναι or even beside it, the Greeks often put ἐκκλησιαζόμεναι, ʽbelonging to the Church,ʼ i.e. recognised by the whole Church. At the opposite pole to these stand the ʽwritings of individuals.ʼ4 The books in which the Church recognises her own flesh and blood are intended for publicity, they have to be brought forward regularly at every vital act of the Church; so that even the Muratorianum speaks of the ʽSe publicare in ecclesia populo,ʼ and later writers often of the δημοσιεύεσθαι of the sacred books, which is at last no longer distinguishable from the ʽreading aloud to the congregations.ʼ

The most comprehensive term for the books which were rejected, in spite of apparent claims to the highest rank, is the Apocrypha. In the mouth of the Gnostics it is a term of esteem; their secret traditions, as contrasted with the trivial, were the precious possessions of the Elect. The Church had every reason to keep the secret literature of the Gnostics at a distance; she was as proud of her published as they were of their secret records; all the ʽsecret writingsʼ which had not attained publicity in the churches were soon regarded with mistrust. But in itself there is as yet no reproach attaching to the term—it merely signifies exclusion from public reading in the churches. It was not until a prohibition had been passed against a number of writings presumed to be Apostolic, on the ground that they were spurious—thus making the ʽspuriousʼ a majority among the ʽsecretʼ or ʽseparatedʼ writings—that these ideas passed into one another, and Apocryphal came to mean falsely ascribed, lying, dangerous. Thus even the most innocent books, which had never laid claim to Apostolic authorship, but had merely been stripped of their earlier veneration, were now flung aside among the Apocrypha; and from the fourth century onwards the Church considered it her duty to hinder the reading of the Apocrypha, and to this end to draw up lists of the Apocryphal books. The most famous of these lists is the ʽDecretum de recipiendis et non recipiendis Libris,ʼ5 which is ascribed to the Popes Damasus,6 Gelasius,7 and Hormisdas,8 and exists in several recensions. This is the original form—disfigured by many gross errors—of an ʽIndex Librorum prohibitorum,ʼ for the authors did not confine themselves to Biblical and pseudo-Biblical books either in their lists of acceptable or prohibited writings. Apocryphal, however, remained the general title given to everything which was rejected, and soon meant simply heretical. The use of the word in the Lutheran Church, which describes Apocryphal books as those ʽwhich do not belong to the Holy Scriptures, but which are useful and good to read,ʼ is connected with its use in the early Church; unfortunately, in ecclesiastical language all the different meanings of the word have been retained: (1) secretly propagated (according to Priscillian), (2) not suitable for public reading in the church, (3) spurious (not by the reputed authors, or not entirely by them), and (4) heretical.

The differences in the form of quotation from the Old and New Testaments which were noticed as still existing about the year 200, disappeared soon after, owing to the feeling of unity between the Old and the New. The ʽNew Testamentʼ formed with the Old an inseparable whole, united with it under the name of the Scripture, or the Divine Scripture, or more rarely in the plural. So much has γραφή Scripture, become the name of the Bible, that Old or New Testament quotations are introduced as γραφικαὶ μαρτυρίαι, Scriptural testimony. Also the Old and New Scriptures are spoken of in the same sense as the Old and New Testaments, and in the innumerable instances to be found in Christian literature after 875, in which the substantive is omitted (only 7 maXavd—7 xawn}) it 18 impossible to say whether we are to understand ʽScriptureʼ or ʽCovenant.ʼ The term ʽbooksʼ (Divine, Ancient, and so forth) appears much more seldom among both Greeks and Latins. The word ʽbibliaʼ (ʽsacraʼ) in the singular, from which the word ʽBibleʼ is derived, originated in the later Middle Ages. 3. Every trace of growth—nay, of being the product of growth—appears to have been removed from the New Testament for centuries; even as early as the year 500 such traces are only to be recognised by the keenest scrutiny: externally, all appendages appear utterly rejected; internally, the various distinctions of class and degree are one and all swept away. But this latter is in reality an illusion. It has never been possible in practice to give to all the New Testament Books the same position. Chrysostom, the very man who feels obliged to put in a good word for the Epistle to Philemon, lets us see how lightly the Acts were often valued, and that to some readers they were almost unknown. A Western confuter of heresy, who is indignant because the heretics reject several of the Gospels and the Pauline Epistles, and also the Apocalypse, does not even mention their small regard for the Catholic Epistles. The Church—I do not speak of individual enthusiasts—has never considered the Apocalypse to be as important as the Epistle to the Romans, nor Mark as important as Matthew, nor the Catholic Epistles as the Pauline. Wherever we look, whether to their employment in dogmatic discussions, to their use in the Liturgy, or to the claims made on them for family edification, the difference between the individual documents, judged with particular reference to their bulk, has always been enormous. It is astonishing how far, on the whole, the Church has judged aright: the Gospels, which she completed first, are read a thousand times more often than the writings of the Apostles; and Matthew, which was the first to be universally received, is the most important book that exists. Those documents which were added last—the Antilegomena of Eusebius—and which were only introduced on the hesitating reflection of later generations, are those which have least to offer to the Christian world. The healthy manner in which the new book was allowed to grow up is one of the main reasons why, in defiance of the Churchʼs equalising dogma of inspiration, religious energy dared again and again to exercise choice within the Canon, and to distinguish the ʽessential booksʼ from straw and stubble—why in fact Christianity, although a book-religion from the first, has nevertheless remained ʽLife.ʼ The incontestable facts of the history of the New Testament Canon are themselves the safeguard against all danger lest this Canon might become—and remain—an oppressive yoke instead of a support.



1) The Christians whom Jerome attacks in his Commentary on Philemon might be considered an exception; they rejected this Epistle on account of its unimportant contents, because it did not contain teaching, but was only a letter of recommendation. The Holy Ghost, they said, had dwelt uninterruptedly in no man but Christ. But I cannot believe that these unknown Christians are really meant for the Syrian Church, in spite of the fact that Chrysostom and Theodore also assert the real value of this Epistle, with all the appearance of conducting a set argument in its defence. The question is one of points of pedantic theory, the importance of which Jerome exaggerates in order to make corresponding display of his zeal in defence; the learned writer himself has to acknowledge that ʽall the Churches in the whole world have received the Epistle,ʼ and the dogma of the uninterrupted inspiration of the Apostles is not seriously in danger.

2) E.g., the Canons of Eusebius (below, § 50, 5), and Socrates, Hist. Eccl. i. 19.

3) § 43, 1.

4) Canon Laodic. 59, ἰδιωτικοὶ ψαλμοί, and later the more general ἀκανόνιστα βιβλία

5) A text in Preuschen; vid. sup. p. 459.

6) † 384.

7) † 496.

8) † 523.