Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Canon

I'll again use as a springboard for a defense of the New Testament Scriptures a quote from The God Delusion...
The four gospels that made it into the official canon were chosen, more or less arbitrarily, out of a larger sample of at least a dozen including the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Nicodemus, Philip, Bartholomew, and Mary Magdalen.
For starters, it should be noted that the gospels were not 'chosen.' Rather, they were recognized or received by the church as inspired Scripture. And this recognition--and the complementary rejection of those not recognized as inspired--involved several very reasonable criteria.

The first such criterion is apostolic authority. If a gospel (or church history or letter or apocalypse) was written by an apostle or (as in the case of Mark and Luke) by a close associate of an apostle, then it was recognized as Scripture. This was the one sufficient criterion, meaning that if this was true of the writing, the other criteria were already satisfied. By contrast, if a written work were not believed to have been witten by an apostle or close associate, it was dismissed from consideration as canonical.

A second (related) criterion is antiquity. The gospels deemed inspired by God were each written within the first century (as, indeed, were all 27 books of the New Testament). By contrast, each of the other works listed by Dawkins (in the quote above) were written in the second century or later. (There are a few letters--as from early church fathers--that date to the late first century but are not included in the canon. These, while potentially edifying and worth reading in the early churches, were not recognized at the same level of inspiration as the canonical letters; they did not meet the other criteria.)

A third criterion is orthodoxy. In order to be recognized as Scripture, the doctrine of a text had to cohere with that of the apostolic teachings. A book was rightly rejected if it contained an understanding of Jesus--his person, his work, or both--that differed from the teachings upon which the first generation church was founded and the teachings contained in those writings that were undoubtedly apostolic.

A fourth criterion is ubiquity. Those gospels (and letters and such) that were inspired were copied and memorized and subsequently shared throughout the known world of the time. Thus, the canonical writings were known from early on throughout Christendom. The corollary principle is that a text known only from a small region was unlikely to be recognized as Scripture.

The last criterion I want to mention does not make the lists of such criteria (at least that I have found), and this is because it is assumed. It generally goes without saying that a necessary attribute of inspired Scripture is authenticity. Thus, any writing--such as the "Gospels" of Thomas, Peter, Nicodemus, Philip, Bartholomew, and Mary Magdalen--that made a false claim about its authorship was immediately disqualified, and rightly so.

Far from being "chosen, more or less arbitrarily," as Dawkins asserts, the true gospels can be separated from his other nominations by each and every one of these criteria.

The Gospel of Thomas, for example, dates to only the second century. It never enjoyed a widespread circulation, and that largely because of its departure from orthodox doctrine (it was Gnostic in its theology). It was not written by an apostle, and its claim to have been written by Thomas has always been recognized as false (which alone was enough to disqualify it from consideration in the canon).

Let me mention one other (even though Dawkins doesn't list it), since it was popularized within the last couple of years--the "lost Gospel of Judas." This work is an example of what a friend of mine refers to as "a corn nut." A corn nut is neither corn nor nut. In the same way, this particular text is neither lost nor by Judas nor gospel. It was known by the church (when the issue of the canon came to be important), and so its having been "lost" is merely a marketing ploy on the part of its modern proponents. It was not written by any Judas (let alone one of the two disciples of Jesus by that name), but by a member of the Gnostic sect of the late second century. On this same basis, it is not gospel, since gospels by definition are Jewish writings that accurately place Jesus within his first-century Jewish setting. The entire New Testament is written by Jews whose understanding of Jesus reflects the worldview unique to that generation and nationality. (Luke may be an exception with regard to his ethnicity, but he was living as a Jew among Jewish people and with a Jewish understanding of the events of which he wrote.)

Like virtually all of the assertions made by Dawkins in The God Delusion, this claim about the arbitrary nature of the New Testament canon is easily refuted by a look at the evidence. But (as I may have mentioned once or twice before) Dawkins' book is short on both logical reasoning and on examination of evidence. We have every reason to accept the four gospels handed down to as the inspired word of God and to reject the extrabiblical "gospels" as noncanonical.

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