Formation of the NT Canon

Much of the contemporary Christian community knows little about the formation of the New Testament Canon and perhaps has little incentive to discover more about it. There is much more security in the idea that God has ensured His Word rests between the cover of the “good book” than in the history that suggests that the work of man was involved in its creation. The canon was heavily influenced by the early adoption of the codex as a literary technology and a way of using this technology to speak to the value of its contents.

Technologically, the invention of the codex was of great importance in the historical creation of the NT canon. While codices were used outside of Christian literary culture, the extant codices dated to the first four centuries are comprised of 70% Christian writings. (Hurtado, 56) The use of the codex by Christianity was not accidental; it served the purpose of binding together the multiple books it contained, physically and theologically. As these bound volumes were circulated, they inherently lent credit to each other, and by extension, discredited other writings of the same category. In the case of the Gospel accounts, the non-canonical Gospels of Peter or Thomas were never bound together with the canonical four. (Elliot, 107)

Writings that were left out of these collections suffered blows to their reputation and relative status, despite the fact that they were still read aloud and reference by patristic authors. It is notable that extant versions of these non-canonical writings appear more often in book roll form by percentage than their canonical siblings. It seems that early Christians had a preference to use the book roll for these types of texts. (Hurtado, 56)

Written texts hand copied and distributed afar bring their own dangers, and so a canon became necessary to legitimize a singular understanding of the faith. The canon’s creation also served to facilitate the transmission of what had largely been an oral tradition by providing an intertextual explanation to the reader. (Aichele, 51) As canon has the innate effect of legitimizing some views while delegitimizing others, it is no coincidence that the creation of the canon happened alongside the establishment of Christianity as the religion of Rome. As the formerly persecuted became powerful through Constantine, they found themselves capable of eliminating heterodox beliefs and structuring a foundation on which Christianity could stand. (Aichele, 56)

By the 4th century, the New Testament canon had been principally established, but the choices made before this time were unquestionably influential on the final product. The attributed author and the acceptance and proliferation within the broad Christian community are perceived to have been some of the most critical factors, but the use of the codex and the decisions concerning inclusions and exclusions of texts in these codices had pre-shaped that conversation.

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