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How Early are Lists of NT Writings?

December 18, 2014

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.

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15 Comments
  1. Kruger’s, “Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books” is excellent, especially the discussion over defining “canon” and his survey of the manuscript evidence.
    I would have thought that Irenaeus was the earliest to definitely describe books that were scripture (the four gospels) and others that were not. Of course, Irenaeus did not necessarily organize these books into a “list.”

    • The earliest reference to Christian books as “scriptures” is in 2 Peter, referring to Paul’s letters (indeed a collection of them).

  2. Hugh Scott permalink

    I make a brief addition to my comment about the value of extra-canonical witness to the New Testament texts via commentaries, homilies, etc. .In the excellent book ‘Reinventing Jesus – How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture’, by Ko moszewski/Sawyer/Wallace (Kregel, 2006), there is the delicious statement: ” that no decree [in the early church – HS] ever announced what books were canonical also tells us implicitly that the canon was a list of authoritative books rather than an authoritative list of books (p. 132). As the authors put it somewhere else, the canonical books simply forced themselves,to be accepted by the church(es) because of their intrinsic merit; they were not forced upon an unwilling Church by authoriitarian decrees. Of course there were some difficult cases for inclusion/non-inclusion..

  3. Thanks for this post! I guess one question for me is whether or not it is helpful to refer to Origen’s discussion as a “list”, since it seems like there is room for discussion about whether Origen’s treatment of the status of various books falls under the same genre as “canon lists” that we encounter later. Perhaps it does. I don’t know. In case you are interested, here is a related post that I did on the Muratorian canon: http://wp.me/p4dgUF-ae.

    • Yes, Wayne, and Kruger doesn’t ascribe a “canon list” to Origen, but instead he simply notes that Origen lists books that he regards as scripture.

      • Thanks. That’s helpful. I’m glad to hear he makes this distinction.

  4. Reblogged this on Abidan Paul Shah and commented:
    Very good article on the early recognition of the New Testament Canon! Also worth reading is Kruger’s “Canon Revisited”

  5. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Why no mention of David Trobisch’s argument that the arrangement of texts in early MSS, nomina sacra, uniform titles and other pieces of evidence, indicate that the canon was already established in the middle of the second century.

    • Well, you’d have to ask Kruger. But my guess: Because Trobisch’s theory hasn’t won very many adherents, and so isn’t really a position held by some phalanx of scholars.
      The reasons are that (1) there isn’t a fixed order of NT writings in ancient manuscripts; (2) the nomina sacra have nothing to do with the matter; etc.

      • Brad Knight permalink

        Trobisch doesn’t claim there is a fixed order of NT writings in ancient manuscripts. He does see nomina sacra as relevant.

        (edited for brevity: LWH)

      • Trobisch does claim that there was a 2nd century edition of the NT, a claim that hasn’t succeeded, largely because it goes against evidence. The nomina sacra are relevant, but not in support of his case.

  6. Hugh Scott permalink

    A very interesting blog on the earliest lists of scripture, but surely this needs to be accompanied by dates for the earliest known references to individual texts considered as scripture, since, as I have seen it stated, almost every word of the entire New Testament could be reconstituted by collating all the quotations of individual books considered as ‘scripture’ by the end of the 2nd century (e.g. in Justin, Irenaeus, etc)..

    • Hugh: I haven’t seen the claim that you mention, and I rather doubt that it’s valid.

      • Hugh Scott permalink

        Concerning the value of the witness of early quotations, versions, etc. to the original New Testament texts, I have pinned down the source of my quotation to no less an expert than Bruce Metzger. I found the exact words with the reference to ‘Page 86’, which I think must refer to the first edition of Metzger’s ‘The Text of the New Testament’, but I have found it, still thriving, but now on page 126 in the 4th edition (which is now, to my regret, ‘co-authored’ with Bart Ehrman). It is worth quoting the text in full: “Besides textual evidence derived from New Testament Greek manuscripts and from early versions, the textual critic has available the numerous scriptural quotations included in the commentaries, sermons, and other treatises written by early Church fathers. Indeed, so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament”..

      • Well, interesting. But Metzger is referring to a large body of Patristic writings that take us down into the early medieval period.

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