How Early are Lists of NT Writings?
Michael J. Kruger (former PhD student) contributes a significant study on the question of how early we have lists of NT writings treated as scripture: “Origin’s List of New Testament Books in Homilliae in Josuam 7.1: A Fresh Look,” in Mark, Manuscripts, and Monotheism, ed. Chris Keith & Dieter Roth (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014), 99-117.
There are two sides of opinion on the question of when we find our earliest lists of NT writings. The one view (championed by Sundberg and Hahneman) is that these appear initially in the fourth century CE. The other view (defended by others, including Kruger) is that we have evidence of such lists from the early third century (and these may have had earlier precedents).
The debate has focused much on when to date the so-called “Muratorian Fragment,” a portion of what was apparently a list of Christian writings that were coming to be recognized as scripture, as well as some that remained under dispute. Kruger’s focus here, however, is on a list of writings in a text by the early third-century Christian scholar, Origen, which has a number of similarities to the Muratorian Fragment list.
Origen’s writings (Greek) come to us via a Latin translation by a later figure, Rufinus, and so the first step in Kruger’s discussion is to determine how faithfully Rufinus may have rendered Origen. Essentially, Kruger contends that, whatever changes Rufinus may have made, the substance of Origen’s thought was faithfully conveyed.
Then, Kruger turns to the list of writings in Origen’s work, Homiliae in Josuam 7.1. In this list, Origen accepts the four Gospels, Acts, fourteen epistles of Paul (Hebrews included here), 1 Peter, 1 John, Jude, and Revelation. Origen acknowledges here that 2 John & 3 John and 2 Peter are doubted by some, but Kruger contends that Origen showed himself content to treat them as scripture. We have a similar stance on the epistle of James.
Interestingly, Origen’s list has three categories: writings commonly/widely accepted as scripture, writings not accepted, and a “mixed” category (writings that seemed to have both what he regarded as apostolic teaching and other content). Kruger then points another place where Origen lists authors of NT writings (Homilies on Genesis 13.2), which matches fully the list of book in the other Origen text. This three-fold classification is, to my mind, another earmark of its early date.
Then Kruger analyses a canon-list by Rufinus himself (Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed), noting that it seems more fixed and advanced than the two lists in Origen. This would suggest that Rufinus didn’t impose his own list on Origen, but faithfully rendered what Origen had written.
Kruger’s conclusion, thus, is that the list of NT writings in Hom.Jos 7.1 is authentically Origen’s, which takes us back to the early third century CE, showing that already at that point Christians were forming views on what writings should be treated as part of the NT canon. Together with the Muratorian Fragment (which Kruger with many others assigns to the early third century CE), Origen gives us indication that the formation of a NT canon was a process that began surprisingly early, even if it was not completed until much later.