How the Bible Became the Bible
Class 2: Eusebius Makes Important Lists
(This post is for my internship project at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Franklin, TN: a series of classes on the Christian biblical canon.)
In this class I gave a brief summary of the first formal attempt to sort out true New Testament scripture from the mass of early Christian writings. It had a large effect on later discussions and decisions on scripture.
Eusebius of Caesarea
- Bishop of Caesarea, c. 313-339
- Caesarea = major center of Christian scholarship, ideas
- First to compile opinions on Christian writings and to categorize these writings based on whether or not they were considered to be scripture. His lists are found in his highly-influential book Church History (or Ecclesiastical History).
- Relevant for next class: Eusebius was a favorite of Emperor Constantine
Criteria Eusebius Used to Categorize Scripture
- True (Does it accurately and fully teach the gospel? Is it orthodox in its teachings?)
- Genuine (Was it written by an apostle or one of his assistants?)
- Acknowledged (Is it regularly used in the orthodox churches?)
- Corroborative Criteria (when the answer’s not easy)
- Style (If we have a writing that’s supposed to be written by Paul, we can look at the writing style to see if it matches that of known letters of Paul)
- Orthodoxy (If it strays from what the church/the scriptures say to be true, it’s probably not scripture)
Criteria that were NOT Used (based on examination of records)
- Divination (ex. casting lots)
- Dreams, visions, signs
- Inspiration of the Holy Spirit
- Follower’s willingness to suffer and die for their beliefs (martyrdom)
- Though the above criteria were often used to support claims or make decisions, records give no example of the orthodox church using them in its debates over scripture.
“Acknowledged” Scriptures —These writings received unanimous support from the orthodox bishops and their churches:
- The Four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
- The Acts of the Apostles
- The Epistles of Paul (Hebrews* was under dispute)
- 1 John
- 1 Peter
- Revelation of John* “if proper”
“Disputed” (but popular) Writings — These writings did not receive unanimous support, but they were approved by many churches:
- 2 Peter
- 2 & 3 John
“Disputed” (but highly doubted) Writings — Eusebius called these writings “spurious”; very few churches approved them.
- Acts of Paul
- Shepherd of Hermas
- Revelation of Peter
- Epistle of Barnabas
- Institutions of the Apostles
- Revelation of John* “if it should appear right”
- Gospel According to the Hebrews
- Gospel of Peter
- Gospel of Thomas
- Pseudo-Matthew (and other false gospels)
- Acts of Andrew
- Acts of John
- Other heretical writings
Illumination of Eusebius’s canon tables from the Egmond Gospels, c. 900 A.D., Netherlands. Eusebius’s canon tables were drawn into many early medieval gospel books.
*Books that almost didn’t make it in — but did
The Revelation of John (Revelation)
Some argued firmly against using this book as scripture. Reasons:
- Authorship: They doubted that it was actually written by John the Apostle
- Heresy: When read literally, Revelation seems to say that Christ will come back, wage war, and then reign on earth for a 1,000 years. This belief had been rejected as heresy in the 2nd century.
- Heresy: Revelation condemns the Roman Empire, and these debates were going on when the Roman Empire had come to support Christianity.
- Eventually, the majority came to believe it was actually written by John the Apostle.
The Letter to the Hebrews
Much debate as to whether this writing was to be used as scripture. Reasons:
- Authorship: Some doubted that Paul wrote the letter.
- Unorthodox: In some places this writing contradicted other works which were accepted as scripture.
- Unorthodox: The greatest point of contention came from Heb. 6:4-6, where it says that it is impossible for a fallen Christian to be restored to the faith. This contradicted scripture, doctrine, and church practice.
- Eventually, the majority came to believe it was actually written by Paul.
Dungan, David L., Constantine’s Bible, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006).
McDonald, Lee M., The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon, rev. and expanded ed.
(Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995).
Next Class: June 28. Topic: “Constantine Lays Down the Law” (how the Roman Empire took on Christianity as its religion, and the effect this had on canonization)