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 Heresies of 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.
One thing is education, that you learn to love God. – Mother Gavrilia
As promised, today I’d love to introduce you some of the saints most beloved by students, saints whose prayers have been requested before countless exams and before many a presentation. I’d like to encourage you to not only read their stories, but invite them into your life. I’ve included a troparion for each saint that you could pray as you sit down to your books, when you start off a study group, before you go into class, and before those nasty final exams. Print out their icons with the words to the hymn, and use them as bookmarks in your textbooks so that you are reminded to sanctify your schoolwork with prayer. Create opportunities to converse with the saints, ask their advice, and plead for their prayers!
So here goes, the patron saints of education:
We LOVE St. Katherine (November 24). She’s the patron saint of OCF, and we’ve written about her example for us before. St. Katherine is loved for so many reasons and is known to intercede on our behalf for many things. For students, she is an example of Mother Gavrilia’s words: she used her first-rate education, eloquence, and wisdom to come to know God and share His Gospel with those around her. She was also young, zealous, and fearless (like many of you, I’m sure)! She wasn’t afraid to stand up to the (male) authorities of her day who not only renounced the Christian message but who sacrificed Christians to their pagan gods. In an age when students are often explicitly asked to keep Christ out of the classroom, St. Katherine’s prayers are even more needed.
Troparion in the Fourth Mode
By your virtues as by rays of the sun you enlightened the unbelieving philosophers, and like the most bright moon you drove away the darkness of disbelief from those walking in the night; you convinced the queen, and also chastised the tyrant, God-summoned bride, blessed Catherine. You hastened with desire to the heavenly bridal chamber of the fairest Bride-groom Christ, and you were crowned by Him with a royal crown; standing before Him with the angels, pray for us who keep your most sacred memory.
St. Justin Martyr
St. Justin Martyr (June 1) is another saint we’ve written about before. Like St. Katherine, he received a great education and used his education to share the gospel with others. What’s special about St. Justin is his unwavering certainty of Christ’s truth combined with his ability to see that truth scattered throughout the world in every person, no matter their beliefs or religion. He saw the seeds of the Word even in the pagan philosophy of his day and used what was known to the unbelievers to draw them to belief in Christ. May St. Justin pray for us as we strive to share Christ with fidelity to His truth and real understanding for those who do not yet know Him.
Troparion in the Fourth Mode
O Justin, teacher of divine knowledge, you shone with the radiance of true philosophy. You were wisely armed against the enemy. Confessing the truth you contended alongside the martyrs, with them, ever entreat Christ our God to save our souls!
The Three Hierarchs
The Three Hierarchs (January 30), St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil the Great, and St. Gregory the Theologian are seen as the greatest of the Church Fathers whose teachings shaped the Orthodox expression of theology as perhaps no others had before them and no others have since. As teachers of the whole Church, we can ask that they become our personal instructors, teaching us through their writings the content of our faith and offering us by their prayers a chance to encounter Christ in our hearts.
Troparion in the First Mode
Let us who love their words gather together and honor with hymns the three great torch-bearers of the triune Godhead: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom. These men have enlightened the world with the rays of their divine doctrines. They are sweetly-flowing rivers of wisdom filling all creation with springs of heavenly knowledge. Ceaselessly they intercede for us before the Holy Trinity!
St. John of Kronstadt
One of the most beloved saints of the modern era, St. John of Kronstadt (December 20) has blessed so many people both in his lifetime and today, especially through his memoir, My Life in Christ. And even though he is now a well-known teacher, pastor, and writer, when he started out, St. John struggled to just get through his studies. You have to read his own words about his anxiety over his studies, his inability to commit his lectures to memory, and his desperate cry to God for help. It’s an amazing confirmation that God listens to our prayers, even prayers for small things like studying and test taking. Ask for St. John’s help especially when you are working on memorization, be it biology terms, history dates, or poetry lines.
Troparion in the First Mode
As a zealous advocate of the Orthodox faith, as a caring Solicitor for the land of Russia, faithful to the rules and image of a pastor, preaching repentance and life in Christ, an awesome servant and administer of God’s sacraments, a daring intercessor for people’s sake, O good and righteous Father John, healer and wonderful miracle-worker, the praise of the town of Kronstadt and decoration of our Church, beseech the All-Merciful God to reconcile the world and to save our souls!
St. Sergius of Radonezh
St. Sergius of Radonezh (September 25) provides another incredible example of God’s grace in our studies. Though offered an excellent education as a boy, St. Sergius was unable even to learn to read, despite his best efforts. Desiring desperately to be educated, most especially in the words of Scripture, St. Sergius asked the intercessions of a visiting monk to help him learn to read the Scriptures. By trusting God earnestly and asking for illumination with humility, St. Sergius was granted the ability to read perfectly. St. Sergius went on to live a life of extreme asceticism and was granted the grace to work miracles for the sake and salvation of many. Invite St. Sergius to be near you especially when you are struggling in a course or when you feel like you’re falling behind.
Troparion in the Fourth Mode
A zealot of good deeds and a true warrior of Christ warrior of Christ our God, you struggled greatly against the passions in this passing life; in songs and vigils and fasting you were an image and example to your disciples, thus the most Holy Spirit lived within you, and you were made beautiful by His working. Since you have great boldness before the Holy Trinity, remember the flock which you have wisely gathered, and do not forget to visit your children as you promised, venerable Sergius our father!
(All troparia are from www.oca.org)
St. Justin Martyr–sometimes called “the Philosopher”–lived in the time when Christianity was first making its mark on the world, figuring out how to express the Truth of Jesus Christ in a world that was not only unfamiliar with the salvation history of the Jews and the new revelation brought through the Messiah, but hostile towards anyone who did not accept the established beliefs of the majority. Christians (and Jews) were misunderstood, at best, and persecuted to the point of death, at worst, by the Roman authorities who saw the new religion as a threat to society and interpreted certain aspects of the Christian faith as disgusting and backwards.
Justin was a highly educated philosopher before and after his conversion to Christianity, and as an educated Christian, he felt it his responsibility to understand the views of those around him and help those outside of the Church understand Christianity as a rational faith and ultimately, as the one true Faith. He wrote two apologies or defenses of Christianity to the Roman authorities in which he explained the beliefs of the Christians, asked that they be treated as equal citizens under the law, and dispelled rumors about the actions of his fellow believers.
But here’s the best part: St. Justin didn’t do this by sending a Bible (there wasn’t one yet, anyway) to the emperor and expecting that he would see things from his perspective. Instead, he took what he knew the Romans knew–pagan cult worship, philosophy, and mythology–and demonstrated how these sources revealed shadows of the Truth that Christians had now come to know fully. While he certainly rejected many of the pagan ideas and especially their practices, Justin believed that all of God’s creation was imbued with his reason, his patterns, his Logos. Therefore, he viewed non-Christians–yes, even those who persecuted Christians–as bearers of the “seeds of the word,” as humans in which God had implanted his Truth who simply needed the right kind of cultivation to help those seeds grow.
And hence there seem to be seeds of truth among all men… –First Apology XLIV
Are we, like St. Justin, looking for the little bits of truth in the world around us? Do we have the discernment of the Spirit to know what from outside the Church can be praised and lifted up as part of God’s intended pattern and which are the distortions that must be rejected? Do we see in every person, especially those who disagree with our Christian faith, the mark of our Maker, His own handiwork, the seeds of His Word? Are we cultivating those seeds with love and gentleness or do we let them lie dormant in our neighbors or worse, try to throw them out as garbage?
Following the Philosopher, we can take away a few principles:
- To engage others, our education should be well-rounded–we have to know what others know and believe to open up a dialogue.
- While recognizing the innate goodness of God’s creation, we should pray for the spiritual discernment to recognize distortions of that truth for what they are, not accepting all things wholeheartedly.
- Every person has been made in the image and likeness of God, and that includes their reasoning. We have to be respectful of the conclusions others have drawn with that reasoning, even if we think it is incomplete or incorrect.
- We should recognize the seeds of the truth in the thoughts of others as a point of reconciliation and agreement and let them be a starting place for dialogue.
And let me add one more, though I’m sure St. Justin would agree…
Love is the water by which the seeds of the Word grow.