In the middle of the second century, a guy named Marcion took his Bible and tore out most of the Gospel according to Luke and some of Paul’s letters. He stapled these together and chucked the rest in the dumpster. Marcion had decided that the “god” who created the world was evil because the world sure wasn’t doing him any favors. The other god, the real “God,” was Lord of the “spirit world,” totally alien from our world, except for that thing about sending his son here. The trouble was, that’s not what the Bible said. So, Marcion, with a stockpile of misplaced entrepreneurial zeal, made up a new one.
Well…that’s not actually what happened. You see, the “New Testament” as we now have it wasn’t compiled yet. Christians and various derivative groups had been writing letters and gospels and stories and strange things called “apocalypses” for a hundred years. Some circulated widely, like the ancient equivalent of viral YouTube videos. Others stayed put in the community which produced them. Some were attributed to Jesus’ apostles or their associates. Others were written by that guy with the hair and the thing. Some espoused doctrine that both created and helped support the emerging theological position of the “Church.” Others claimed “secret knowledge,” known only to the few who could get into the metaphysical country club.
The viral papyri attributed to an associate of Jesus and espousing sound theological views eventually became what we now call the “New Testament.” The other stuff — the classified documents, location-specific texts, and the ones written by that guy — predictably faded into obscurity.*
Okay, let’s go back to Marcion. Since there was no list (or “canon”) of authoritative texts, Marcion felt entitled to make one up that suited his own viewpoints. When he threw the Hebrew Scriptures and many of the viral papyri into the rubbish bin, the leaders of the Church said something to the effect of, “Hey, you can’t do that!” And Marcion shot back, “Too bad, suckers.”
At that point, those leaders decided that a list of their own would probably be a good idea. But, things moved slowly in the ancient world, so the top 27 texts were not finalized until the end of the fourth century (and even then, there was still some dispute between the Eastern and Western churches). But, I get ahead of myself. Let’s back up a bit.
With Marcion’s heresy forcing the Church to respond with its own canon of authoritative texts, scholars began compiling lists. Certain texts were shoe-ins. First and foremost, the Hebrew Scriptures (which became known as the “Old” Testament) were never in question because these texts were the Bible for the people who wrote the rest of the Bible. Second, the letters of Paul (the most virulent of all the viral papyri) and the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, along with the Acts of the Apostles (which is sort of the Godfather II of Luke’s Gospel). The Gospel of John was on the bubble at times because some of the heretical groups loved it. But, it made the cut partly because its “high Christology” helped the Church’s position on the divinity of Christ.
Over time, the New Testament canon solidified with 27 texts.** The four accounts of the Gospel came first, as they narrated the reason why the rest of the texts exist. Then the Acts of the Apostles propels the canon into the letters of Paul (strangely enough, appearing in descending order by length). After Paul, Hebrews begins the section of various texts addressed to a wider audience (the “catholic” epistles). Appropriately, the Revelation to John ends the canon.
The compilation of the New Testament from viral papyri to authoritative text speaks to us today of the value of various viewpoints within a larger structure. Unlike Marcion, who depleted the message until it said only what he wanted it to say, the 27 canonical texts present myriad experiences that coalesce into the great message of the love and grace of God. From an early time, the Church valued several different expressions of the Gospel of Jesus Christ because it realized that one text could not contain such overwhelming truth and beauty. What is striking about the compilation of the canon is that the Church exhibited pretty startling ecumenism over a long period of time as the churches from both far-flung places and major cities shared their experience of the God made flesh in Jesus Christ.
I wonder when we Christians decided to stop valuing the experience of our fellows. The viral papyri tell a different story. Would that we could live that story again.
* Well, until a sensationalist media program digs up a “gnostic gospel” and decides that “everything we know about Christianity is about to change.” Honestly, give it a rest. That story lost the lead to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.
** In the mid-1700s, an Italian named Ludovico Antonio Muratori stumbled upon an ancient fragment stuck in a book in a library in Milan. The “Muratorian fragment,” which could be dated anywhere from the second to the fourth centuries is the oldest extant list of the texts of the New Testament. What’s most interesting about the fragment is the short justifications it gives for why certain texts were either chosen or not.