The Difficulty of Studying New Testament Canon Formation

This is a subsidiary post of The Formation of the New Testament…from Beginning to End.

The difficulty of studying the history of the New Testament’s formation is acknowledged by those who have studied it.  This difficulty is best navigated by seeking to identify the obstacles in its way.

Abraham, William J. (1947-).  Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology: From the Fathers to Feminism.  Oxford University Press, 1998, 520 pages.  At Kindle location 205, Abraham writes:

As we shall see, the story of canonization of the Bible is very complex, for the reasons behind the process of canonization are multiple.

And as to the paucity of reporting on the process as it took place, he writes (at Kindle location 5810):

The very category, Old Testament, is a Christian invention, required by the way in which the New Testament is construed.  One would dearly love to know how this quiet conceptual revolution took place.

Balla, Peter (1962-).  “Evidence for an Early Christian Canon (Second and Third Century)” in The Canon Debate, edited by Lee M. McDonald and James A. Sanders, 2002 (bibliography).  In the very first words of this essay (Kindle location 8323), Balla writes:

Due to the scarcity of evidence, one cannot firmly conclude when exactly and as a result of what development the early church came to possess a twenty-seven-book collection called the New Testament and a two-part collection that comprises our Bible of Old and New Testaments.

Gamble, Harry Y.  “The New Testament Canon: Recent Research and the Status Quaestionis” in The Canon Debate, 2002, edited by McDonald and Sanders (bibliography).  Here’s how he begins his report on modern academia’s “state of investigation” of NT canon formation (Kindle location 5840):

Hans Lietzmann once remarked that the history of the canon is “one of the most complicated aspects of the study of church history.”  Few who have broached this subject would disagree.

And here’s how he ends it (Kindle location 6430):

The history of the New Testament canon will not be adequately grasped until all of its dimensions have been comprehended. I have sought to suggest that these dimensions are far more numerous than is customarily thought. They include the social history of the early church, the history of theology and doctrine, the liturgical life of early Christian communities, the history of interpretation, the bibliographical practices of the church, and the textual history of particular documents and collections of documents. It is a daunting task.

Metzger, Bruce M.  The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance.  Oxford University Press, 1987.  On p. 1, Metzger says:

The recognition of the canonical status of the several books of the New Testament was the result of a long and gradual process, in the course of which certain writings, regarded as authoritative, were separated from a much larger body of early Christian literature. Although this was one of the most important developments in the thought and practice of the early Church, history is virtually silent as to how, when, and by whom it was brought about. Nothing is more amazing in the annals of the Christian Church than the absence of detailed accounts of so significant a process. In view of the lack of specific information, it is not surprising that many questions and problems confront the investigation of the canonization of the New Testament.


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