Why are some books in the Bible while others were excluded and how was that decided?
This is a great question! Today I’m going to address the New Testament canon. Let’s start off with a little bit of context.
By the end of the first century or early in the second century, all of the texts that now make up the New Testament had been written. As early as AD 95 or 96, Clement of Rome alludes to multiple passages in the New Testament, though he does not name them as scripture yet (that is a title still reserved for the Old Testament at this point). In the mid-second century, St. Justin Martyr refers to the gospels as the “memoirs of the apostles” in his First Apology, and in the famous text Against Heresiesof St. Irenaeus (c. 180), the saint firmly proclaims the authority of the four gospels.
At the same time, a number of other texts were circulated amongst the nascent Christian community. There are really two categories of texts outside of the canon of Scripture. First, texts whose teachings were accepted in whole or in part as edifying for the Christian community but ultimately deemed outside of the core texts which became the New Testament, and second, texts that were considered heretical.
Concerning the first category of texts, in the first and second centuries, many these early Christian writings were considered interchangeable with the four Gospels, the epistles of Paul, and the catholic epistles. For example, St. Clement of Alexandria considered books such as the Didache and I Clement as part of the canonical list of texts while later in the early fourth century, Eusebius the historian points out that James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2-3 John, and Revelation were sometimes disputed as parts of the New Testament.
Eventually which books were accepted and which were considered outside of the canon but still useful to Christians sorted itself out. The first full list of the current 27 books of the New Testament that we have is in a Paschal letter of St. Athanasios in 367. However, the Church continued to quote and learn from the letters of Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Barnabas as well as the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas. These works later became known as the works of the Apostolic Fathers, those who were typically one or two generations away from the apostles themselves and shared much of their worldview and theological emphasis.
The second group of texts that were being written and circulating at the same time as the New Testament and the writings of the Apostolic Fathers were typically texts associated with gnosticism. Gnosticism was not a single heresy but a group of heresies identified generally by the rejection of the material world as evil and created by a lesser, created god (called a demiurge) and salvation as “enlightenment” or freedom from this completely corrupted or even simulated realm. Practices and beliefs amongst gnostics varied widely.
A schema of the complex system of Aeons in one gnostic tradtion. One can see the use of Christian terminology while also noticing the obvious divergence in belief. Image from Wikimedia Commons
Where things get tricky in the modern mind is that many of the texts associated with gnosticism were attributed to the apostles and used Christian terminology such as “gospel” to describe themselves, and even sometimes quoted Christian texts as justification for their clearly non-Christian beliefs. Unlike the canonical texts, however, most of the gnostic texts were written in the 2nd-4th century after the established circulation of the New Testament gospels. These include such titles as the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Mary, the Acts of Peter, and many others. Unlike some of the Apostolic Fathers, the gnostic texts were rarely included in early lists of the New Testament and were most usually blatantly marked as heretical (for example, by Irenaeus and Eusebius).
Removed from the living Tradition of the Church, the modern era has resurfaced many of these gnostic texts and has presented them as if they are newly-discovered and were kept hidden by early Christian leaders for some nefarious reasons. From inside the ancient Church, we can easily see that line of reasoning for what it is: nonsense. The Church never accepted gnostic teaching or the texts associated with it, and the reason that these texts disappear or become rare and obsolete is because they were not important to the actual practicing Christian community. All one has to do is read a few passages from one of these books to see that the Church very easily discerned their heretical teaching and vastly different worldview.
Thus, those books which were apostolic in origin and central to to the message of salvation were selected to be the main texts of the Christian faith while others were identified as useful to Christians, but not central to life of the Church or as simply heretical. All this is to say that the texts of the New Testament were written, collected, and canonized over the course of the first four hundred years of Christianity, and that ultimately, it was the consensus of the whole Church, voiced through the Fathers and guided by the Holy Spirit, that ultimately determined the canon of the New Testament.
Starting a rule of prayer can be quite intimidating–and keeping one quite discouraging. It helps when we understand that a rule of prayer (in Greek, κανόνας προσευχής) does not mean ‘do this or else’ or ‘follow this rule so you don’t get punished’. Κανόνας here means a measurement, more like a ruler than a rule. So a rule of prayer is a goal that we strive for each day which we believe, with the guidance of our spiritual father, is actually do-able. We are creatures of habit. Whether we are conscious of it or not we are continually developing either good or bad habits. Developing a habit of daily personal prayer is the best way to counteract the three giants (forgetfulness, laziness, and ignorance) which continuously seek to overcome us. Conversely, we can think of our prayer rule as our ‘tithe’ each day which we offer to the Lord so that He will bless the remainder of it. If even Jesus needed to go off alone and pray to His Father at set intervals, how much more do we need to do this as well?
When should we pray?
This is something particular to each person and their daily schedule, however, the beginning and end of each day seem to work best. The Jews would bring ‘the first fruits’ of the harvest as an offering to the temple so that the Lord would then bless the remainder of their harvest. Similarly, we have the example of those in monastic life who arise at the very early hours of the new day to be alone with God, even before gathering together for common prayer. By praying when we first wake up (and by making ourselves go to bed at a reasonable hour so that we will get enough rest!) we prioritize our relationship with God over any other relationship or activity. Before the cares of each day rush in we turn to the Lord and surrender it into His capable hands. At the close of each day we can thank Him for all that has come about by His Divine Providence that day; ask His forgiveness for the specific ways in which we strayed from His Holy Will for us, and raise up before Him our concerns and wishes for the morrow.
A spiritual father on the Holy Mountain once told a pilgrim, “If you pray ( specifically the Jesus Prayer) for one hour a day, in six months your life will be completely transformed.” Can we each find an hour a day to give the Lord? “I don’t have another hour in my day,” you respond. Let’s look at it this way. The saintly bishop Gerasimos from Holy Cross in Brookline once stated simply, “We can’t give to others what we haven’t first received from God.” In other words, we really can’t afford not to pray either if we want the Lord to bless our interactions throughout each day with others. St. John of Kronstadt even wrote in My Life In Christ that a half an hour of sincere prayer at night is worth three hours of sleep! Still not convinced? Try this. Keep a detailed log of what you do each day for one week. Isn’t quality face-time with God more essential than all those hours of social mediating?
Photo from Wikimedia Commons
Okay, how does this work?
The Lord taught us, “But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” The Fathers of the Church tell us that what is most essential is that our prayer is sincere and from the heart. This doesn’t mean that we do not use prayers that others have written. It simply means that we need to focus our efforts on being real with God. Prayer starts with the lips, moves to the mind, and then moves on to the heart. When our minds wander (which they do continuously) we gently but firmly bring our attention back to the actual words we are praying. St. John of Kronstadt said for beginners that we should listen for a corresponding “echo” of understanding with each line of a prayer. At some point, when God wills, the prayer of the mind descends into the heart and we are more consciously aware of God’s presence and that He is communicating to us through each word. Then prayers become prayer.
What prayers should we be using?
Most good prayer rules have a combination of five sources: the prayers of the Church, the Psalter, Holy Scripture, noetic (single thought) prayer, and intercessory prayer. We use the prayers of the Church (which are mostly taken from the Divine services) since we are never praying in isolation from the Church even when we are all alone. These prayers, written by saints of the Church whose experience of God is more intimate than our own, act as signposts to safely guide us to approach the fearful throne of God with the right attitude. The psalms are the prayer book of the early Church and express every disposition of man in relation to God. By reading Holy Scripture, we open up our minds and hearts so the Lord can speak directly to us through the sacred texts. We also read the writings of the Holy Fathers which are all simply insightful and pastoral commentary on Holy Scripture. Noetic or contemplative prayer is the most powerful moment in our rule fulfilling the command to, “Be still and know that I am God.” Having acquired a boldness before God we end our pray rule by raising others up in prayer as their intercessors while asking the intercessions of the saints on our behalf.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons
What is our goal?
Our goal is to be vanquished by God’s love in prayer. Our goal is to remember to not just say our prayers to get them out of the way but to allow ourselves through prayer to be reacquainted with our Maker and Savior each day and His immeasurable love for each of us. It is to receive our spiritual hug for the day in the Holy Spirit. We know our prayer rule is working when we don’t want to stop praying; when we feel the peace that comes from having handed our list of things that need to be accomplished that day over to Him. Our goal is to come to the transformative realization that even the thought to pray each day is already the awakening of our soul to the mystical presence of the Lord for He is the one who initiates prayer with us by giving us each day the thought to say our prayers. In the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa, “God is prayer,” because through prayer He takes up His abode in our hearts and rules as our King and our Lord. Come Lord Jesus!
A parish priest for twenty-two years, Fr. Theodore Petrides has served Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Stroudsburg, PA. for the past nineteen. He and Pres. Cristen have six children and two grandchildren (so far). He regularly travels in America as well as Greece (especially the Holy Mountain), Cyprus, and the Holy Land as a pilgrim, guide, and speaker. He has also taken six work groups to Project Mexico since 1999. He is very enthused about the staff and leadership board of OCF!
It’s often tempting to think that we are all so busy that we don’t have time to really engage in spiritual things. Well, thanks to the amazing work of Ancient Faith Ministries, Y2AM, and many others, there are now hundreds of blogs, podcasts, videos, and other media out there to help us grow. Here are seven podcasts and video series that run under 20 minutes that we think you should start following. Did we mention that many of these speakers will be at College Conference this year? Click on the images to start listening and watching today!
The Morning Offering
Average Length: 4 minutes
What you can expect: A short, daily reflection on the spiritual life, culture, and other bits of wisdom from the booming voice of Abbot Tryphon
Why you should listen: In four minutes, Abbot Tryphon can give you food for thought for a whole day, whether he is talking about loving our neighbor, humility, or current events.
Be the Bee
Average Length: 5 minutes
What you can expect: Orthodox theology, tradition, and practice in small, manageable bites always with the goal of searching out and acting on the good in God’s creation featuring the infamous Steve Christoforou
Why you should watch: Ever wonder why we do what we do in Orthodox worship and practice? Need a spiritual pick-me-up? Sometimes feel like there’s a lot of negativity in the world? Steve’s your guy. With humor, wisdom, and a real love for people, Steve shares how we can, like St. Basil and St. Paisios, “be the bee.”
Average Length: 5 minutes
What you can expect: Relationships–why they matter, what they look like, how they form us, and how they save us with Christian Gonzalez, husband, father, and Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for the GOA
Why you should watch: This is Y2AM’s newest video series, but from what we can tell, it’s gonna be good. Whether you’re thinking about family, friends, dating, work, or school, your life is filled with relationships, and Christian wants to help you see whoever you encounter as an opportunity to meet Christ and to engage in the spiritual life. Plus, this guy is just downright hilarious.
Average Length: 7 minutes
What you can expect: The daily Scripture readings according to the New Calendar with a brief reflection from Fr. Tom Soroka
Why you should listen: It’s hard to make up excuses for not reading Scripture daily when you can listen to Fr. Tom read it to you on your way to class!
Coffee with Sister Vassa
Average Length: 10 minutes
What you can expect: Reflections on Scripture, saints, and liturgy presented with the hilarious and dry humor of Sister Vassa Larin
Why you should watch: Sister Vassa is a professor of liturgy in Vienna, Austria, so her reflections on the liturgical life of the Church, feast days, saints, and Scripture come with a professor’s authority and knowledge, and she also shares practical ways we can imitate the saints and follow the Word of God. Plus, you don’t want to miss her entertaining captions, sound effects, and photos of the “zillions” drinking coffee with her.
Praying in the Rain
Average Length: 15 minutes
What you can expect: Excellent and personable reflections from Fr. Michael Gillis on prayer, suffering, temptation, bad thoughts, and the whole of the inner life often drawing on the writings of contemporary saints like St. Porphyrios and classic works like the Philokalia
Why you should listen: Listening to Fr. Michael is like having a spiritual elder on your smartphone. As you are learning to pray, facing the inevitable temptations that arise, falling, and getting back up again to follow Christ, Fr. Michael can give you great, simple advice along the way.
Becoming a Healing Presence
Average Length: 15-20 minutes
What you can expect: Dr. Albert Rossi from St. Vladimir’s speaks on a variety of topics that cover contemporary moral issues, Scripture, psychology, and relationships all in the context of Christ healing us so that we, too, can be a healing presence
Why you should listen: If you’ve never met or listened to Dr. Rossi, you’ll learn that no topic is off limits for him. You can browse or search the archives of his podcast and find episodes on things as diverse as pornography, schizophrenia, vocation, marriage, suicide, forgiveness, and time management.
In striving to be Modern Martyrs, there’s a lot to learn from the saints who have gone before us. What is it we can take from the lives of the martyrs and confessors that we can apply to our everyday life on campus? Well, a good place to start is at the beginning. St. Stephen the Protomartyr (it means he was the first one) who is commemorated on December 27th has a few lessons to share with us. You can read his entire story in Acts 6-7.
His purity was striking. Right before Stephen gives his account before the high priest and his council, we are told, “And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” And just a little before that, Stephen is described as “full of grace and power.” Stephen’s first and primary witness to the world was his inner peace and his pure heart. Even as the council is looking for ways to destroy him, they can’t help but notice God’s grace radiating through him. This should be our first and primary goal in bearing witness to Christ: that we, too, shine from within with Christ’s love, grace, and power.
His authority was scriptural and ecclesial. When Stephen proceeds to speak on behalf of Christ, he doesn’t do so on his own authority, but instead, places his own experience and the gospel message into the context of the entire history of salvation, starting from God calling Abraham out of Ur. On the one hand, his authority relies on the evidence of Scripture, on the many stories he must have known from childhood that told of God’s work among the people of Israel. On the other hand, the way in which he frames that history is ecclesial, or community-oriented, in the sense that he places himself and his contemporaries and the events of their own day into that same scriptural history. He sees a unity in God’s works that stretches from the past and into the present. Likewise, when we are called upon to speak for Christ, we should know and rely on Scripture to give context to our own experience, and we should speak from the perspective not of ourselves, but of the Church, the community of saints beginning with Abraham and coming down to our own time. This is an inheritance we can claim as Orthodox that gives our witness a full authority–our own experience is confirmed and supported by the witness of Scripture and the great cloud of witnesses of the whole Body of Christ throughout history.
His response to abuse was forgiveness. As the stones started flying toward him, Stephen did more than just bear suffering with strength and fortitude. He kept his eyes on heaven and asked Christ for mercy upon his persecutors. Like Christ on the cross who asked the Father to forgive the ignorance of those who crucified Him, Stephen allowed himself to suffer innocently and did not hold the sin of his murderers against them. When we face rejection for our faith, abuse for our attempts at purity, or suffering when we bear witness to Christ, St. Stephen again is our model. We bear all things for the sake of Christ and do not hold sin against others. We do not pick up a stone and throw it back, either with real violence or with our words. Instead, we humbly ask God for His mercy upon those who defame Him (Him, not us) and assume the best of intentions of those who dismiss and reject us.
Holy Protomartyr and Saint Stephen, pray to God for us.
As we’ve mentioned before, the first forty days of your freshmen year of college are going to be foundational for the rest of your college experience. We’ve spent a lot of time encouraging your parents, your priest, your catechetical school teachers, and your camp counselors to help us connect you to an OCF chapter in the first forty days of school this fall. But what will you be doing in those first forty days to stay connected to Christ and His Church? After all, you are the one who will decide if all the efforts of those who love you will come to fruition. You will choose your friends, and you will choose how to spend your time. You alone will decide where your path will take you. Will you listen to Christ calling you to repentance and transformation? Will you continue to dedicate your life to Christ as your parents and godparents have done for you?
A lot will be decided–whether you are conscious of it or not–in the first forty days of classes this fall. The habits you build then will likely stick with you throughout your college career. So here’s my advice for those first forty days:
Go to Liturgy. Sounds simple enough, right? But after an intense first week of getting oriented to your classes coupled with no sleep as you make new friends, when Sunday rolls around, it will be so easy to tell yourself, “I’ll go next week.” But next week often rolls around and hears the same song. And trust me, the longer you are away, the harder it will be to take the leap to go back for the first time. Being in Liturgy, in the presence of God and surrounded by the Christian community, and receiving Christ’s very Body and Blood are absolutely essential to the life of a Christian. You can’t go long without them without starting to lose a sense of who you are. Don’t know where the nearest church is? Here ya go.
Go to Class. There’s a reason that freshmen year courses are often considered “weed out” classes: they can be really overwhelming. Actually making sure you make it to that 8 AM bio class will be worth it in the long run. So will doing your homework. You do, after all, want to get that degree at the end of this whole thing.
Pray on Your Own. Take five minutes in the morning and five minutes at night to be silent, be thankful, and offer up a prayer to God. Like going to Liturgy, having a prayer life will keep you centered on who you really are and will give you a chance to reflect on the challenges and choices that you are facing as a young person.
Read Scripture. If reading Scripture isn’t already a part of your daily routine, now is the time to add it in. The words of Scripture stabilize, sustain, and strengthen us. As you meet challenges to your faith and your morals, having the words of Scripture to turn to, especially the words of our Lord in the Gospels, will help you make sense of the world around you and will help you navigate difficult times. Not sure where to start? Download the OCF Connect App to get the daily readings right on your phone (along with lots of other pretty cool stuff).
Just remember, a little bit goes a long way. Forty days is not a long period of time, but it’s long enough to build a strong foundation for what you lies ahead. Do what you can without making excuses, and keep the work of salvation at the forefront of your mind.