Formation of the New Testament Canon
February 26, 2013 Length: 1:04:19
Fr. Evan provides a short history and spiritual biography of the New Testament canon.
Fr. Evan Armatas: Good morning to everyone.
Parishioners: Good morning, Father.
Fr. Evan: Good morning. We’re gathered together this morning as we began at our last session the Gospel of St. Mark, and we take it up again. I am so glad to see all of you with your Bibles; you’re ready to go… but chill out for a second.
I realized last time that we probably never spoke about the formation of the New Testament canon, and as we were speaking together at our last study I realized that’s problematic because there were many questions that came up about the origin of the Gospel of St. Mark and its authorship that we probably need to answer in a broader context. So if you’ll forgive me, I did mention that we were going to: who indeed is the author of St. Mark? I gave you a hint last week that I was going to contend that the author is who the Church says it is—St. Mark—although scholars aren’t sure of it.
But I thought we probably need to do a little background work, so if you have never thought about the formation of the New Testament canon, we’re going to talk a little bit about that this morning. What is the New Testament? It would seem that after five years of the Gospel of Matthew, we would have discussed this, but I think we need to do some basic work, because I can’t assume that everyone here and everyone listening is on the same page or at the same level of understanding.
For those of us as Christians there is a bad habit that has arisen—and I’m going to mention it again today; I’ve mentioned it before. Sometimes people are calling the Old Testament the Hebrew Scriptures. We don’t say that in the Church. The Old Testament is the Scripture; it’s not the Hebrew Scripture. Somehow we define the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures. This is part of the Bible!
The New Testament, as we call it, is the last part of the Christian Bible, and we accept both Old and New, although we do believe that the New Testament supersedes the Old. Within the New… This is important. You might think, “Oh, what’s he saying?” Trust me. If you do not have the framework that the New Testament supersedes the Old, you’re going to run into some theological problems. People do this all the time. They’ll quote something in the Old Testament to contradict what the Church teaches, and we don’t do that in the Church. Even within the New Testament, we have a hierarchy. If you remember this past Sunday I was speaking about this, because, again, this gets us into problems. For us, in the New Testament, what is preeminent?
Parishioners: The gospels.
Fr. Evan: The gospels, and certain specific parts of the gospels are even more important than others. Certain events in the life of Christ supersede other events. In other words, [are] his death and resurrection the key events of the gospels? Absolutely. But what happened in the Reformation is that you had the epistles, the Pauline epistles became preeminent, and you start to interpret the New Testament through the Pauline epistles, specifically Romans 1-6.
In the Church, we keep the hierarchy of the Bible by the way we do it liturgically. Where is the Gospel? On the altar table. Where [are] the epistles and the Old Testament? Out on the side. What is processed? Only the gospels. Who reads the gospels? Only the clergy. You stand, there’s the little hymns that go before it, so you get the order.
Now, that’s important for us to understand, but when we speak about the Old Testament, let’s also be clear. The Church uses a specific version. What version of the Old Testament do we use?
Parishioner: The Septuagint.
Fr. Evan: The Septuagint: why?
Parishioner: It’s what Christ [used].
Fr. Evan: It’s what Christ used. When Christ quotes the Old Testament, when Mark, Matthew, Luke, or John quote the Old Testament—Paul, Peter—they are quoting out of the Septuagint. They are not quoting out of the Masoretic text, the Hebrew text; they’re quoting out of the Septuagint, which at the time of Christ is the authoritative version of the Old Testament. Yes?
Parishioner: What is the Septuagint?
Fr. Evan: It’s the Greek version, translated by seventy scholars from the original Hebrew and considered an inspired text and translation. When we say “Septuagint,” there are some distinctive differences in the Septuagint text, and the Church continues to use the Septuagint. The way certain words are translated from the Hebrew into the Greek, because those scholars, knowing Hebrew, knowing Greek, knowing the theology of the Israelites, knowing the theology of the Church, made an inspired translation—not the Church, I’m sorry. The Septuagint is before the Church; forgive me.
But the Septuagint takes the psalm, “Have mercy, upon me, O God, according to thy abundant mercies,” however you’re going to translate it into English, and when it speaks of “iniquity,” how does it translate “iniquity”? In the plural: “iniquities.” If you retain the translation that the Reformation has, “iniquity” singular, you come to the idea of “I was born with original sin; it’s part of my nature.” “Iniquities” gives the understanding that we’re born into a condition in which the world is sinful, where the ancestral sin is not transmitted directly as a sin-nature, but rather creation has fallen.
Another example is in Isaiah. The Reformation text will say “a young maiden” in Isaiah; the Septuagint says “a virgin—parthenos.” So it’s important: if Christ is using the Septuagint, then we should be using the Septuagint. We’ll see when we get into Mark’s gospel, we’ll see when he quotes the Old Testament, he’s quoting the Septuagint. Yes? Follow up question.
Parishioner: What is the Masoretic text?
Fr. Evan: Hebrew text.
Parishioner: So the Septuagint the seventy scholars took the same text?
Fr. Evan: They took the Hebrew text, put it into Greek.
Parishioner: They translated it differently than…?
Fr. Evan: No, no, no. It’s an inspired translation. It depends how you translate it. You could take the Hebrew and you could go [with] “young maiden,” or you could go [with] “virgin.” With the Septuagint, it makes a decision that the correct translation is “virgin.”
Parishioner: So the only thing we find fault with is the English translation of the Hebrew, which is what the Masoretic text is?
Fr. Evan: Mm-hmm. It’s making a determination. What we also find fault with is that certain books then become omitted, that you find…
Parishioner: In the Masoretic translation?
Fr. Evan: Yeah, if you look at the canon of the Orthodox Church with the Old Testament, and you look at the canon of the Protestant Bible, they’re two different canons. They deem a lot of those apocryphal. Again, this isn’t an Old Testament class; we could probably do another lecture just on that. We’re coming onto these in a very topic-peripheral summary way.
Parishioner: So the difference is one of translation, not certain parts are superior to other parts?
Fr. Evan: But it’s a number of things. It’s a matter of translation, it’s a matter of meaning, it’s a matter of what books are in there, it’s a matter of what stories are important. For example, the Hymn of the Three Youths? You don’t find that in the Protestant Bible, but if you look at early Christian hymnody, the Three Youths figure widely. They’re all over the place, because that’s the event which Nebuchadnezzar, as he sends them into the fire, there’s that Fourth that he sees, which is a vision of the Son of Man, dancing with them, and with them he keeps them from being burned in the fire. Or the prayer of Manassah, King Manassah, that prayer of repentance, it’s not found in the Protestant canon.
Parishioner: In what way does the Catholic Bible figure in this?
Fr. Evan: It’s pretty close to the Orthodox. There’s a few little differences, but not many. Now, what’s happened is today people are using, in Christian circles, the Masoretic; they’re using the Hebrew text as authoritative, and we’re not saying that the Hebrew text isn’t important or essential, but what we’re saying is that when Christ is quoting from the Septuagint, if you’re a Christian, then you have to take the Septuagint as your inspired Old Testament text, because that’s what Christ is using.
Do we have a little summation? Oh, this is the canon, so, for example, if you just look at this list, on the right or on this side of the page, this is Protestant canon, this is the Catholic canon, this is the Orthodox canon. So you see a greater listing of books.
Part of it is, when you move into the Reformation, you have to get into this idea that every text is God-inspired and infallible, and in the ancient view of the Church the texts are used a little bit differently. We believe in an infallible God, but not necessarily an infallible text. We have a God-inspired text, and we certainly see value in certain texts over and above others. When you line it up here, it’s almost like they’re shoulder-to-shoulder. Mark stands next to Obadiah, next to Micah. We would say, “Absolutely not! Parts of John are certainly above parts of Mark,” or however you want to say it. Do you know what I’m saying? The Church orders it differently, so this peer-to-peer analogy doesn’t have to occur?
Some of it, too, is that some of the books of the Church, which are called apocryphal or deuterocanonical, they were written originally in Greek; they weren’t originally written in Hebrew, so all of those texts are thrown out. Again, this isn’t meant to be a discussion about the Old Testament canon, [but is] really just to make the point that when you view the Old Testament and when we go into Mark and we see the quotations that are coming out, we have to keep in mind that he’s using a version of the Old Testament that most Christian churches are no longer using. That’s problematic, because your theology is going to flow…
Like we were saying on Sunday, when you translate the word “koinonia—communion” into the word “participation,” you do away with the theology of the Eucharist. When you take the word “remembrance” and “memoriam” in Latin, when it’s “anamnēsis, which means something different [from] “memorial,” then you do away with the theology of the Eucharist, because in Luke’s Gospel, “Do this in remembrance of me,” well, that tends to mean “This is something you do as a remembrance of what the Lord did at the Last Supper.” It’s a whole different theology. [Whereas] “anamnēsis” in the Greek does not mean a remembrance; it means bringing into the present a live act. So you play with the translation. If you have the Septuagint being not the translation of the Old Testament, your theology can start to shift.
Parishioner: And it did.
Fr. Evan: And it did. Now, in terms of the New Testament, we have 27 books, written in Greek: the gospels, known as the evangelion or good news, which tells the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, and the three synoptics—Matthew, Mark, Luke. The Gospel of John: something different. We always leave that out; it’s not part of the synoptics. Matthew, we say, disciple of Jesus. Mark—we’re going to talk about this in a lot more detail, maybe today, maybe next week—secretary of Peter. Luke, traveling companion of Paul. John, beloved disciple of Jesus. That’s the way we understand these.
Then we have a separate book in the New Testament: Acts. It’s like historical work. It’s the spread of Christianity. And then you have all these epistles, letters which are primarily concerned with beliefs, practices, ethics. There’s 21 of them.
Pauline epistles—Romans, 1 [and] 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and Hebrews. The reason I listed those is because you have to… Now, I listed these quickly. Again, this is not a class on the Pauline epistles. Some people argue [that] Hebrews is not a Pauline epistle, [but was] written by somebody else. Whatever.
Second category is the general, universal, or catholic epistles: James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1 and 2 and 3 John, and Jude.
Then, a totally different genre, the Apocalypse. The end times, written by St. John, but not considered a gospel, not considered an “Acts,” not considered an epistle, but on the fringe, something else, apocalyptic, like Daniel. Remember that the Church, historically, didn’t accept the apocalyptic literature into the canon for a long time. It was debated whether or not it should be part of the Bible, and it never became part of the lectionary. It was never used in the Church in the lectionary. What’s happened in today’s modern age? People read out of Revelation. They preach out of Revelation. It was always considered as a very clouded work, not something you wanted to spend a lot of time in and trying to discern and decipher. And remember, the Church debated whether it was even part of the Bible—for a long time Not like a couple of months: hundreds of years! “Should this be in the Bible?” When you set your preaching out of that book, you should stop for a minute and say, “Wait a minute. Where am I going with this?” You’re going to say something, Graham?
Graham: Well, if you did it that way, you couldn’t sell any books.
Fr. Evan: It certainly is sensational stuff!
In terms of timing, because this gets into when we get into authorship, when we speak about when the Bible is getting written, what we can say is that most likely in the New Testament—we’re not going to deal with the Old Testament right now—the first people kind of go back and forth on this, but the period of time in which the epistles are being written is as early as 50 A.D. and as late as 150. Most people would tighten that up and say 50 to 100. A lot of evidence points to these early years that Paul’s writing that pre-date the gospels. So Paul’s writing before we have people writing the gospels. The earliest that we would place the Gospel of Matthew would be 50 A.D., about the same time Paul starts writing, but most people push it later, to 70-75 A.D. The time that John is writing is later, 95 A.D. He’s the last gospel written. Mark, probably 65-70 A.D., and Luke, 70-85.
Now, the reason I bring all this up is: think about the amount of time that passes between the time that Christ is crucified and resurrected and when you have a gospel. Even if you were to put the date of the Gospel of Matthew all the way to 50, which is really early, you have 17 years. How much do you forget in 17 years? A lot! I mean, I’m 43. What’s  minus , Brian? I don’t carry a…
Fr. Evan: What did I ask him for? 26. Does anybody remember what they were doing when they were 26? Can you give me a timeline of what you did at ? You can, but I’m . Anyone who’s above the age of 40, can you give me…
Parishioner: I can tell you what I did. Started school.
Fr. Evan: You started school.
Fr. Evan: Can you tell me what you did in February?
Parishioner: In Feb… No. Come on now!
Fr. Evan: My point being: that’s a pretty big gap, right? 17 years, at the earliest. If you say, no, Mark’s the first one that’s written, 65, you’ve got 32 years. What is going on? See, this is where you have a problem with this sort of Sola Scriptura argument. What is going on from the time Christ dies and is resurrected until somebody starts to write something? And remember, when he writes it, you don’t have the Apple’s iBook store. You don’t have Amazon. You don’t have email. You don’t even have UPS. You don’t even have a copy machine. So someone writes this gospel, and who’s reading it? Most people can’t read!
You’re a Christian now, in the far reaches of the empire, and someone’s written this gospel. Are you going to hear it in your lifetime? No. Does it make you less of a Christian? In the Church’s eyes, no. So keep in mind that you don’t have, even at the time that these are authored, wide dissemination of these texts. In fact, it isn’t until 332 that Constantine the emperor orders 50 codex Bibles. 50? We have 50 in our pews!
Parishioner: And he calls on the resources of the empire.
Fr. Evan: The empire to get 50 Bibles written in a codex form. (That’s a book form.) Before that, what did you do?
Fr. Evan: You didn’t have the ability to go: “Well, what does Mark say?” [shuffles pages] You had to go like this, for two hours! to get to what Mark said. You had to read Matthew first. See, that’s why the codex is sometimes a problem, because the Church intended you to read Matthew, then read Mark, and not flip!
Fr. Evan: You had to read the whole thing! You couldn’t say, “What did Paul say in Romans?” and… No! Wait… Wait a little longer…
Parishioner: In fact, a lot of the early texts didn’t have spaces between words, didn’t have any type of numbering system at all. You had to know the text to read it.
Fr. Evan: Yes, the letters are right next to each other if you look at the original manuscripts. The Greek is just one continuous flow.
Parishioner: So you had to know the text in order to be able to read it.
Fr. Evan: Yes. It was, and that’s why there’s an office of reader in the Church. There was a time when someone had to be skilled in the reading. I still think that that’s true. You should be skilled in the reading of the text to be able to read it out loud.
But the point being, in 332, so all the way from when it’s written to 332, all that time, and the Emperor Constantine, calling on the resources of the empire, gets 50 codex Bibles printed.
Parishioner: Going back to this Book of Revlation, you said we shouldn’t be preaching from it, but it says in verse 3, chapter 1, “Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy and heed the things which are written in it, for the time is near.” In other words, I think we’re being blessed, we can be blessed, by just reading it; maybe not preach from it, but I think there’s a blessing that comes if we read it and heed the words.
Fr. Evan: Sure. There certainly is a blessing. The point certainly that we’re making today is that, as we understand the Scriptures, the formation of the Scriptures, how they’ve been used in time, it helps us in our approach, because what I have found is that a lot of time, you’ll find somebody who’s very absorbed in Revelation, and they read and read and read and read, and they’re trying to figure out the symbols and the numbers… You’re like: “Do you know Matthew’s gospel that well, because you might want to.” Derek?
Derek: I’m being very daring in correcting the good father.
Fr. Evan: That’s okay.
Derek: They weren’t printed.
Fr. Evan: No, they weren’t printed. Hand-written.
Derek: They were hand-written, which expands the magnitude of the project and the time involved.
Fr. Evan: Right. We don’t have printed… When I [said] “printed,” I [meant] “hand-written” Bibles. Fifty of them, in a codex form. It was a skill. A scribe was a specialized person.
Derek: And [it was] tedious.
Fr. Evan: Very tedious. Indeed. We’re going to come back…
Parishioner: Did you say about how did they decide all the floating the letters, who decided?
Fr. Evan: We’re going to get to that.
Fr. Evan: We’re going to come back to this idea of a formation, but we’ve got to say a couple of things. While the Scriptures are being written, there’s a bit of diversity in the Christian community. This is important for us to notice, because the Church is going to make an opinion statement. You have a group of people that are often called Jewish Adoptionists. These are people who were accepting that Jesus was God at the time of his baptism, but he was not divine in his person. They rejected Paul and all of his writings. This is a group of Christians, heretical Christians at the time that the Scriptures are being written. And the Church knows of this group, that this group says, “You can’t have any of Paul’s writings; those are out. And you can’t take Christ as divine, but rather adopted by God at the time of his baptism: ‘Behold my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased,’ and from that time forward [he] is God’s adopted Son.’ ” I’m collapsing a lot of Church history here for you, but it’s important for our understanding of the Scriptures.
Marcionites. These are people who were trying to reconcile how different God seemed in the Old Testament with the New. We still have Marcionites today. On the first radio broadcast, the first phone call I got was from a devoted Lutheran. I mean, I’m making a broad statement; I need to do a little bit more research, but I think the Lutherans and their understanding of the Old Testament are Marcionites. He said to me, “How do we deal with salvation in the Old Testament versus salvation in the New?” That’s a Marcionite doctrine. “Salvation is different in the Old than it is in the New.” This is what the Lutheran pastor—and I don’t know if it’s an official definition of the church—is teaching. He’s being taught: salvation is different in the Old Testament.
Do you know what the Orthodox response is? Salvation’s the same! Christ, the pre-incarnate Christ, is in the Old Testament. That’s part of Advent. Who is the young Man—this is why, when you collapse the Protestant Bible and you take out the reality of the Three Youths and Daniel, I think it’s chapter 3:92, and King Nebuchadnezzar seeing in the furnace the vision of a fourth Man who appears to him as to be the Son of Man—there’s an appearance of Christ. How about when Jacob wrestles with the Angel? What does Jacob then say? “I have seen the face of God.” Well, who did he see? Jesus. Who is the word that delivers the commandments to Moses through the burning bush? Christ. Who’s Melchizedek? Right? No beginning, no end, a priest of the most high God, who serves what? Bread and wine, the Eucharist.
Parishioner: And even the Trinity is in Genesis.
Fr. Evan: Oak of Mamre! Yeah, Genesis 18. The pre-incarnate Christ.
The Marcionites held that you had two separate and unrelated Gods. You had a God of the Old Testament and a God of the new. The wrathful God of the Old Testament and the Jews; the God of the New Testament, Jesus. And Jesus came to save us from this Old Testament God. Many Christians are trying to reconcile: “How can you deal with this God of the Old Testament, this God of the New? They seem like two different things.” So what they did is they said, “Let’s take a version of Luke—they’re going to truncate it, edit it, without chapters one and two, modify versions of Paul’s letters—besides the pastorals… So they come up with a canon. Keep in mind, this is going on. The Church is seeing this. I talked to you about this last time when we said when the Gospel of Thomas came out and everybody in the world took a big gasp, the Orthodox Church yawned. We knew about this gospel; we already dealt with this problem.
Gnostics, which is another category that I think many Christians fall under. You ask a modern Christian today what he thinks about God, and he’s going to go into his feelings and emotions. “I feel this… I think that…” and it’s all this nebulous God-talk. So the Gnostics had a wide range of views, were often polytheistic, but they thought salvation meant escaping from the material world. “Just want to live in this world of the mind and the spirit…”
Parishioner: Sort of the idea of being enlightened…
Fr. Evan: Yeah, enlightened, you didn’t have to deal with the nitty-gritty of life: people hungry, that didn’t have to be dealt with; the fact that you slept around on your wife, that’s not a big problem; you’re above all this. And you have secret knowledge that’s been given to an elect few.
Parishioner: And no physical thing has any…
Fr. Evan: Yeah, no value. The materialistic world is out. Many Christians today live that way. The same heresies pop up.
Then you have what I call the first Orthodox. The Orthodox Church. They are what we would call the forerunners of what becomes the Church. They’re the group of people who are accepting Jesus Christ as fully human and fully divine, in opposition to those other groups. There’s an argument going on—there still is an argument going on—about who Jesus is.
Did I ever tell you the story of Fr. Elias Warren? One of my favorite stories. When I was newly in the Metropolis, we got word that a man by the name of Fr. Elias Warren had become an Orthodox priest. He was an Episcopalian priest for twenty-odd years. So we had our first Clergy-Laity… clergy assembly, not Clergy-Laity, just clergy assembly, and later it was a Clergy-Laity Assembly.
Parishioner: I remember this story.
Fr. Evan: Remember this story? I was all excited to meet this priest, Fr. Elias. I grew up in a parochial world. I grew up kind of in the Orthodox, Greek world. I didn’t know priests outside of the Church. I didn’t know Christians really outside. So I was all excited to meet him.
We go to the meetings, he’s there. It was eight hours of “When you’re filling out your baptismal form, on line 32, section A, what you guys are doing is you’re putting the date in incorrectly. What we want you to do is…” Eight hours of this. And I’m mortified. “What is Fr. Elias thinking? He showed up and all we’re talking about is these forms. Oh my gosh, he must be just completely dispossessed. He probably wants to run out of here screaming.”
The meeting ends and I run up, anxiously, to Fr. Elias. “Hi, Fr. Elias! My name is…” and I introduced myself. “What did you think of our meetings?”
He goes: “They were wonderful.”
“Incredible. Glorious. The best meetings I’ve ever been to.”
I’m like: “Are you pulling my leg?”
He’s like: “No!”
I said, “How could you say that?”
He says, “Do you realize I was an Episcopal priest?”
“Because for twenty years I sat in meetings in which we debated the divinity of Jesus Christ. You guys are talking about forms. It’s settled. I don’t have to come in here and defend the authenticity of Christ and his revelation. So I’m okay in here! This is great! Talk to me about forms.”
That hit me; that struck me. I didn’t realize that these things are up for debate. They still are up for debate, and at the time that the Scriptures were being written, they were up for debate, and the Orthodox were standing, saying, “No, Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine. Jesus Christ taught the way of salvation. He is one being. The God of the Old Testament, the God of the New. Teachings are not secret; they’re true and known to all of us. They’ve been written down by Jesus’ apostles, and they can be understood and interpreted.” They’re arguing against all of these little groups. They rejected scriptures used by other groups that they deemed were harmful or hurtful or misleading. Specifically they rejected teachings and viewpoints that they considered counter to the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. In St. Paul, you see it in his writings saying the very thing: “Curséd be anyone who delivers a gospel different than the one I delivered to you.”
Parishioner: It’s amazing in reality how many churches reject the Nicene Creed. They’re not going to say that out front, but in their doctrine and practices, they do.
Fr. Evan: They reject it in some way, shape, or form, some aspect of it. And that’s why I’m saying that at this point, the proto-Orthodox began a movement that leads towards the formation of Scripture, because they realize we are going to need to set a boundary around what are accepted works, because this is becoming problematic.
Parishioner: What was it that enabled this Christianity to supersede all the competitive groups that were going at that time? Was it numeric? Was it organization? What was it?
Fr. Evan: You know, we would say it’s the Truth, because when you say “organization,” I kind of laugh. If you want to look at a more disorganized church, especially when you consider means of communication, power and authority… I mean, the Church just didn’t have anything, resources, most of its early membership were the oppressed, the poor, the rejected of society. It certainly isn’t its organizational structure. It certainly isn’t its ability to communicate. They didn’t have slick marketing campaigns. In fact, it’s not even numbers, because keep in mind that at the time of St. Gregory, the Arian heresy actually ruled 90% of the Church.
What the Church does see in its eventual rise is that the Truth gets served. It outlasts everything else. The Truth overcomes the lies. It would be similar in historical perspective to saying that at one time, Hitler ruled all of Europe, and yet it was based on a lie, and eventually that lie goes away, his heretical thinking. In a sense, the Church over time overcomes the reality that outside of its walls is all sorts of dishonesty or misrepresentation.
The Gnostics, the Jewish Adoptionists, the Marcionites, they had certainly the number and the power. The Arians, which is a later heresy, not only had the numbers and the power, but they had the ear of the emperor. See, a lot of times what happens is you hear people say, “Well, the institutional Church outlasted everybody else, because it was supported by the government.” That’s not true. The government, especially in the early days, was suppressing the true Church. They weren’t suppressing Gnostics, because they didn’t believe in the materialistic world. It was the true Christians who were saying, “Reject the emperor. Reject material goods. Have just one wife. Live morally.” That was the group that was getting persecuted. So that would be the Church’s perspective.
This early formation of a canon, it starts to happen, and let me give you an example. In a sermon from 2 Clement—you’ve heard of Clement? Early Christian writer. In a sermon that 2 Clement writes—it’s probably the earliest existing sermon we have in the Christian world, 2 Clement.
Parishioner: Clement of Rome.
Fr. Evan: Yes. He writes—it’s a priest—he quotes from the Gospel of the Egyptians. You okay with this? He quotes from the Gospel… This is in an Orthodox church, during the Liturgy. He quotes from the Gospel of the Egyptians. This gospel is later rejected by the Church and considered non-canonical. Nevertheless, it was used for some time. And even 2 Clement was included within in the canon for a time. In other words, we were accepting this Gospel of the Egyptians.
Today 2 Clement is still regarded as an Orthodox epistle. There’s nothing wrong with it. The fact of this raises an interesting question: Why is 2 Clement, which uses a non-canonical gospel, considered Orthodox and not rejected by the Church? The answer lies in how the Gospel of the Egyptians is used by the author of 2 Clement. As long as its message is interpreted in an Orthodox manner, it is okay. So the bishop at the time knew that this was being used, didn’t have a problem until the interpretation of the Gospel of the Egyptians was used in such a way that it was non-authoritative about the life of Christ, and therefore he said [it] can’t be used any more.
There’s a fluidity in the beginning of the Church, and certain texts are even used, and the Church is allowing their use until we see there’s a problem. Then we say, “No, that’s taking you in the wrong direction. We’ve got to eliminate it.” I’m trying to give you the sense that you don’t just get this: [book thump] Bible. The Church is working it out, the Orthodox Church, in competition with what’s going on around itself. These Scriptures are the ones we consider canonical and they comprise the 27 books, but it is important to note that at this time the books that we consider canonical were determined by the Church in opposition to other books that were considered part of Scripture: the Gospel of the Egyptians. The Church said, “Well, nope, it’s not going to be one of the gospels.”
Parishioner: Your approach is just probably on the table. It’s a very Mormon approach. That’s how they got their Bible; it just dropped on them.
Fr. Evan: Right, out of the sky, dig it out of the ground: there it is. We’re okay with saying, “Actually, people wrote that.” They redacted it, they modified it, they used it for their purposes, included certain stories, removed others. We get that, because there’s a Church that stands behind it; there’s a God that stands behind that. It’s just a different approach.
One of the things is that we also note there are other early writings, Gospel of Thomas, all these other writings, and we’re okay with that. The greatest group of these writings is the Apostolic Fathers. These are those Christians who are writing in the second century, and they’re using—remember I said to you St. Mark is probably not quoted by an outside source until 150, 180? He writes the book maybe as early as 65, and no one quotes it for another 100 years, that we know of. You get it? I’m getting quoted quicker.
Parishioner: You have an electronic dispersal, though. He didn’t.
Fr. Evan: He didn’t. He writes the book, and we don’t find anybody quoting him for almost 100 years. Some ancient Bible manuscripts include the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. This tells us that the ancient Church considered these writings as part of the New Testament. Eventually they were removed.
Now, when did the writings of the New Testament begin to be considered Scriptural? This is an important question for us. [At the] beginning of the second century, approximately 150 A.D., up until that point, Scripture for Christians meant only the Old Testament. So Christ dies, 33, roughly, until 150, was considered if you said to somebody, “What is the Bible?” it’s only the Old Testament. Mark, Matthew, Luke, all of Paul, they were just considered writings; they weren’t considered Bible. No one would have called them “Bible.”
In 1 Timothy 5:18, when St. Paul says, “All Scripture is for reproof and instruction,” he’s talking about just the Old Testament. He’s not considered himself to be a New Testament book: Paul, the books of Paul. He’s not in the New Testament. And it’s not until 367 A.D. That we have any official list of the canonical books of the New Testament. 367. Do the math. That’s 334 years, right? How old is the U.S.?
Fr. Evan: Imagine no Constitution for 230 years. No Constitution. You go to the Library of Congress; it’s not there. Bill of Rights? Not there. All you have is an institution reminding you of what the founding fathers wanted. For 334 years, no Bible, no canonical list the way that we would today say 27 books. It didn’t happen. Is that crazy?
Parishioner: But they did have letters that they shared and passed around.
Fr. Evan: They shared, but no Gideons! You didn’t have that. What I’m saying is: if you begin to question the Church that gave you the Scriptures, then you have to question the Scriptures themselves, and that’s what happens in the Reformation. It happens in the West; it doesn’t necessarily happen in the East, but what I’m saying is if you continue that questioning of the Church, then you have to say, “This document, this Bible that we’ve assembled for you through martydom, council, worship, experience, then you’ve got to question it. And if you’re not going to question it—sola scriptura, infallible word of God—then you’ve got to stop questioning the Church.
It’s an argument. People are going to find and punch holes in that. I’m just saying that’s a reasonable argument. You following me? If for 334 years, we were able to hold Christian belief against heretical notions and, as you pointed out, eventually rise to the dominant expression, then maybe you owe it a little bit more credit. Then from 367 forward, that golden age that often people call Christianity until the schism of 1054, and you start to say, “What then is our vehicle for reunification as Christians?” And the Church would say, “Well, you’ve got to look at the first thousand years. You can’t start taking stuff that appears [later].” We say that to the Catholic Church, too. We can’t take your doctrine on Mary at this point. Forget it; it didn’t appear in the first thousand years when we were one, so how are we going to take it now?
So let’s talk a little bit more about this, because we got into this the last time we were together. How do these books, then, become canonical? We talked about the criteria last time. What criteria was used in deciding that books go in the Bible? We gave several last time; I’m going to give some more. First: ancient. They were old. They seemed original. They’d been around a long time. We still like that today, old things. Second: they were written and accepted as written by the apostles or those close to them: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. Thomas was, but seemed skeptical, dubious, not sure.
Importance of the community that is addressed by the book. So when [Paul] writes his [epistles], and he’s addressing the suffering community in Rome, was the Roman Christian community an important one? You bet. Were the Corinthians an important early community? You bet. Were the Thessalonians, Colossians? You see? Those communities that then received those books retained them. They retained those letters and kept them.
Were the books that get accepted into the New Testament used by the Orthodox? Because, see, the Marcionites—remember I said they were using a version of Luke without chapters one and two and truncated versions of the Pauline [corpus]? That’s what they were using. The Jewish Adoptionists were using something else. The Gnostics were using something else. So when we started to form the canon, we said, “What are the [books] that the Orthodox churches are using? What’s the Church in Jerusalem using? Let’s find out what they’re using.”
Did they contain correct Christian teaching? In a sense, as you’re saying, Graham, did it match up with the Nicene Creed, in a sense? We didn’t have the Nicene Creed in this form then, but did it match up with what Christians believed? Jesus is the Son of God. Obviously the Gospel of Thomas has a different point of view. The Church said, “Well, it’s not a Christian gospel.”
You know what, when I said the Gospel of the Egyptians, I made a mistake. I was thinking of the Gospel of Peter. The Gospel of Peter is the one that the bishop knows about, but eventually says, “It’s out.” So you have the Gospel of Peter. [It] was used by a congregation near Antioch, and the bishop’s name [is] Rhossus—I don’t know how to pronounce it: R-h-o-s-s-u-s. He’s the bishop of that city… No, no, no, no. I’m getting this totally wrong. The city is Rhossus; the bishop is Serapion—S-e-r-a-p-i-o-n—around 190, and he heard the use of the Gospel of Peter. It was being used in the congregation, and he found it a bit strange, but he tolerated its use in his churches. So around Antioch, the Gospel of Peter is being used. You could understand why.
Parishioner: He’s the first bishop.
Fr. Evan: He’s the first bishop at Antioch. People always say he’s the first bishop of Rome. No. He’s the first bishop of Antioch, and the Antiochenes get quite upset when Rome claims him as their first bishop. They say, “Wait! He was our bishop first. He came here first.” He’s the first bishop of Antioch. It’s the Gospel of Peter, so you could understand it would be accepted in that area. Later, the bishop, Serapion, hears that the Gospel is being used to support Docetic teaching, which is a heresy that proclaimed Jesus was not truly human, and at that time he forbade its use.
Parishioner: So if people were interpreting it wrongly…
Fr. Evan: Then it’s out.
Parishioner: ...then they’re assuming somebody else might…
Fr. Evan: That’s right. We’ve got to protect. In other words, the Church’s concern about your soul and its salvation. We’re not playing games. So we’re not okay with just “Enh, okay. Dabble. Try it out.” No, there’s too much at risk. It’s like the Air Force saying, “You know, I know you haven’t take all of the classes to fly, but get up there and try it out.” It might not be a good idea. And then you put a few passengers in the back and say, “Give it a go.” The Church is not willing to fly the plane without an experienced pilot, so it says, “You know what? Take the pilot out of the plane.”
The other thing that comes into play—and we didn’t talk about this—is the place of oral tradition. We talked a little bit about it, but the oral tradition and the telling of the story of Jesus and what he did and taught persisted for a long time in the Church; early fourth century. In fact, this tradition was primary for many years, and even alluded to in Scripture. So I want you to just open to 2 Thessalonians 2:15. If you’re there, tell me you’re there.
Fr. Evan: Okay, read it out loud, because I’m not there.
Parishioner: Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.
Fr. Evan: So St. Paul wants the Church to keep traditions…
Parishioner: ...by word of mouth.
Fr. Evan: By word of mouth. Oral tradition. But the idea that you received by word of mouth or by epistle, the received part is a technical word in Greek. It’s the same word we would use if we were transporting an object of material significance in a murder trial. It’s a technical language. What you give me by oral tradition, I have to then give to someone else. You can’t take it away.
Now, one of the things that the stories will tell you is that one of the greatest ways for a culture to preserve a tradition is through oral tradition. It’s a very robust way. We find this again. Go to 1 Corinthians now, chapter 15, verse 1. 1 Corinthians 15:1-5. Arlen, would you read those verses for us?
Arlen: Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you which also you received in which also you stand.
Fr. Evan: We’ll stop right there. Remember: the gospel is the one I gave you, the one Paul gave them, not some other gospel. In a sense you could say he knows there’s other gospels, but it’s this gospel that I gave you that you’ve got to stand in; forget the other gospels. Go ahead.
Arlen: By which also you are saved if you hold fast the word which I preached to you unless you believed in vain.
Fr. Evan: So how did they receive the Gospel? Orally, by preaching.
Arlen: For I delivered to you, as of first importance, what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve, after that… Is that [enough]?
Fr. Evan: That’s enough. In other words, Paul’s talking about…
Fr. Evan: What do you think? He’s talking about the New Testament Scriptures? No-o. He’s talking about the Old Testament Scriptures.
Parishioner: He is?
Fr. Evan: Mm-hmm. Because Paul, when he argues to Jews about the reality and revelation of Jesus, what does he use? The Old Testament! He can’t use New Testament writings on Jews. They’re not going to listen to him.
Parishioner: And they were just disparate letters…
Fr. Evan: Yeah, where were these Scriptures? Paul’s writing this letter maybe as early as 60 A.D. Where’s the Bible? It’s just the Old Testament. So when he’s attesting to them by Scriptures, he’s meaning the Old Testament and those hints of the Resurrection found within, and we talked about this many classes ago.
Parishioner: And we see with the Ethiopian eunuch, that’s the example. He’s taking the Scriptures and he says, “Do you know what you’re reading here? Do you know what this is about?” And that’s when he’s baptized.
Fr. Evan: Acts 8, and he’s covering the Prophet… is it Isaiah?
Fr. Evan: So he’s interpreting Isaiah for him, and that’s the proof he uses for baptism.
This is interesting stuff, because we say [about] the oral tradition [that] the Church is relying predominantly or wholeheartedly on this—the first Christians not having a Bible, most people being illiterate, [and because of] the great cost and expertise needed to produce a written document.
Another interesting reason for the length of the oral tradition could be the emphasis that early Christians placed on the imminent return of Christ. You brought that up in St. Paul’s… That’s one of the reasons that book was important to read, because it made you aware that Christ is coming, quickly. To their mind, there was no need to write anything down for future generations.
Parishioner: Because they thought he was coming imminently.
Fr. Evan: Yeah, Maranatha, come, Lord, quickly. It’s still what the Church does. Every time we come to Holy Week, we talk about the fact that he’s coming, quick.
This is all really important to us, because when you keep this in mind, you start to understand that the way the Church approaches Scriptures is based on the history of how they came about. The fact that the oral tradition in the Church is so important, the telling of stories and the interpretation of the stories of Christ through our oral tradition…
I was thinking about this the other day. There is no rubric for many of the actions a priest does, and yet all priests do them. How do all priests do them?
Parishioner: Someone showed them.
Fr. Evan: Someone showed them, and somebody showed him, and somebody showed him, and somebody showed him, and you can go all the way back. Again, historians and sociologists will tell you one of the greatest ways to preserve truths is to create a priesthood. A priesthood will retain truth with a voracity that even written documents have a difficulty doing, because, [if you] become a priest in the Orthodox Church, [and] there’s all this formation that happens, so that by the time the priest is standing there preaching, he’s standing upon the shoulders of all those other priests, and if he says something wrong the bishop says, “Retract it.”
I told you the story: I wrote something, and he wrote me and said, “Retract it.” And then remember—this is the other part of the story—I was teaching at CCU and I told them I had to retract it, and they went up in arms. “Don’t you have any scholastic vigor!? How come you don’t defend your point of view!?” I said, “Boys, I don’t want to be right if I’m wrong.” If I’m wrong, I want to know I’m wrong! We’re not playing games in the Church, so when the bishop said, “Retract it; you’re wrong,” I said, “Okay, I’ll retract it. I don’t want to be wrong.” If someone corrects me—and trust me, in the Orthodox world, lots of people want to correct priests, and now that I have this podcast, I get emails all the time, several pages long, detailing my exact error. What’s my response supposed to be? “Thanks.”
Parishioner: Thank God.
Fr. Evan: “Good. I’m glad you pointed it out. It’s good to know.” Ignorance is not bliss; it’s ignorance.
So the oral tradition continues still in the Church, the telling of stories. Go sit with an elder in the Church. They’re just going to talk to you, tell you stories, and these stories are important.
Are we doing okay? I know we’re going a little over. Is that okay? If you want to leave, go ahead. I’m going to skip this whole bit I was going to do about how St. Paul’s letters come about.
Parishioner: Will you take it up again?
Fr. Evan: No. You want me to do it? Okay. Paul’s letters. It appears that his first letters were sent and received by various communities. We know that. And Billy, you were speaking about that. These communities got these letters and they kept them. Paul even says, “Read the letter to the Laodocians, and give the letter I sent you to them,” so that starts. These encyclicals, it’s possible that Paul, as he’s writing, that copies were kept. If copies were not kept by the senders, as Colossians 4:16 suggests, communities exchange letters, and that’s how the collection of Paul’s letters comes about. He’s writing, people copy the letters, they keep it, they send it on, they keep the original, whatever it is.
Another possibility is that after Acts was written and circulated, the career and esteem of Paul increased, and this led to a more systematic collection of Paul’s letters. You see within Acts the transition from Peter to Paul, and as Acts became known, people started to go… Because, again, there’s not Facebook, so you can’t create false popularity. You actually have to earn it, and Paul did, and people knew about his acts, and they went: “Whoa, when he’s writing, we should pay attention to him.” It’s the same process that happens today.
Parishioner: So then they might even say, “Oh, don’t we have a letter…?”
Fr. Evan: Yes: “Go dig that thing out. What did that guy write?” And they start paying attention. By the time 100-120 A.D. of Bishop Ignatius of Antioch—that’s another interesting thing, because you’ve got these bishops that knew... Clement knew Paul. Polycarp, Ignatius, Irenaeus—these guys were working with the apostolic luminaries, and then themselves became Apostolic Fathers, and they continued writing: 1 Clement…
However, it was several decades before there appears clear evidence for a large collection. In other words, although the writings are going around and people are receiving them, there’s not a mass collection. By the time you get Polycarp and Marcion, these letters are found. At the end of the second century, 13 letters are accepted in the West, while in the East, 14, including Hebrews. Think of this: in the West, for those communities that did accept it, it wasn’t until the fourth century that they accepted Hebrews. The East went, “Well, Hebrews is in,” but the West said no, and the East didn’t say, “You’re excommunicated.!” because, again, the Church is a different thing.
That’s why, even today, I said if someone was to point out to me something in the Scriptures that contradicted the preaching of the Church, I might say, “I’m not willing to accept what’s preached in the Scriptures.” (I realize that’s a very dangerous comment, so I say it with a lot of footnotes.) What I’m saying is that if you were asked, as the Arians did, to use some part of the Scriptures to prove that Christ was not co-essential and co-eternal with the Father, but rather first-born of creation… There’s a text in the New Testament that kind of makes that point. “First-born of creation” is what they said. The Church said, “Well, even if you find that, we reject it. It’s not the truth that we preach.”
So the truth is more important sometimes than the specific verse. You find that all the time. People will lift out a verse and say, “See, look at that.” So Hebrews wasn’t accepted generally in the West. Okay, fine.
Parishioner: And also there are kind of a problem with who wrote Hebrews.
Fr. Evan: Still to this day. It’s not Paul. He didn’t write that; it’s some other author. The great question with that is: Who?
Fr. Evan: And at the same time, how many times do we produce a document and it happens in the Church all the time: someone writes is, I review it and say it’s acceptable, and it goes out. It’s under my authority, and I sign it, but she writes it to all the Church school teachers, but I sign it.
Parishioner: Certainly Hebrews is much different than…
Fr. Evan: Sure, the language is different.
Parishioner: The language is different; the style is different. It’s a very strange book, in a way.
Another parishioner: How come the Church emphatically says it was Paul?
Fr. Evan: Well, in all of these cases, when we get to the authorship of the Gospel of Mark, it was the accepted tradition within the Church. For example, with Mark, there is some scriptural evidence to say that Mark, he was a companion of Paul, a companion of Peter. It’s acceptable to see how he could write a gospel. With Paul, like for Hebrews, it has all this liturgical language, and an intimate knowledge of what was happening within the Old Testament priesthood, and the sacrifices of the altar. Well, for the Church, Paul’s a presbyter and then a bishop. He has intimate knowledge of the liturgy of the Church. He was a Pharisee of Pharisees. He had intimate knowledge of the temple worship, that he could come up with such a technical book.
We tend to flatten the genius of certain people, don’t we? We say, “A man back then in Palestine, how could he write something like that?” Wait a minute. Someone said to me recently, “I’ve come to realize that those ancient writers were much more adept than these modern writers.” Read Dostoevsky, and then read the current best-seller. Give me a break. It’s like two different worlds, but we tend to discount the things of the past. I think there’s a lot going on there.
Now, of course, literary criticism, textual analysis, all these modern techniques, and we say, “Oh, it’s not possible that someone could write that. It’s too different [from] his other writings. There’s a different bent in his theology” or whatever. It’s hard to make those arguments, because in a sense you can’t get behind the text anyway. All you have is the text and the community that created it. So what do you do with it? The Church says, “You’re going to have to accept what we said, because you don’t have another choice.” That’s part of the problem, I mean, authoritatively, you don’t have another choice; it’s just what has been accepted for centuries. Billy?
Billy: I remember the first time in church hearing “the epistle to the Hebrews from Paul,” or however it was worded, in the Orthodox Church, and thinking, “How did they know it’s Paul?” because of the tortuous route they go through in the Protestant church [for] the letter of the Hebrews, and they don’t say who the author is.
Fr. Evan: That it’s Paul.
Billy: I remember hearing that in an Orthodox church, and thinking, “Because it’s the Church. They know who wrote it. They know from the get-go.”
Fr. Evan: Last Sunday, someone said that in Paul’s letter in Hebrews 10, there seems to be an argument against the continual sacrifice that you offer as a Eucharistic sacrifice, right? So it’s a bit disingenuous, because that argument would be leveled against the Church as an argument against the Eucharist. At the same time, we can say Paul was a presbyter and a bishop in the Church, and he served the Eucharist. He celebrated the Eucharist. So it’s probably like saying he’s part of the family, he’s part of the lineage, he’s one of our guys. So St. John Chrysostom, who was a student of St. Paul to the level that many people say St. Paul visited him and whispered in his ear, so that St. John knew what to write to interpret Paul…
Again, it’s part of a family thing. It’s like when I tell a story about my Uncle Tom, my Uncle George, and someone says, “How do you know that’s true?” And I say, “That’s my family story. It’s been in my family for… That’s our heritage.” Part of it, too, is that this the heritage of the Church. This is what the Church has always said. You can punch holes in it; I know you can. I’m not ignorant of those scholastic arguments.
Parishioner: But you can’t keep going back to what you were saying about the gospels, Peter, that we don’t deny anything, but Peter, he’s our man, too, but because of the phrasing or whatever…
Fr. Evan: And the way it was used, and it didn’t match up…
Parishioner: People have gotten confused by it, so it’s better not to have it, even though we know Peter.
Fr. Evan: Is it Peter or John? I think it’s Peter who even writes that some of you get Paul’s writings all mixed up. Do you know what I’m talking about? Yeah, it’s Peter, right?
Parishioner: I think so.
Fr. Evan: Peter’s like: “Some of you guys are out there misinterpreting Paul.” So the problem of Paul has been going on for a long time. You could see where maybe in the West, too, it was problematic to accept Hebrews, because they knew that the way it was being used was sometimes difficult.
Okay, we really do need to end here, because we’re 15 minutes over. We will take up the authorship of the Gospel of Mark at our next meeting.
"My name is Ali. I am a former American convert to Islam (I was 14 years old when I converted and practiced for about 20 years) and now a catechumen in the Orthodox Church. I just wanted to take some time to tell you how much AFR has meant to me. I have been studying the Orthodox faith for only about two years and have been actively seeking entrance into the Church since March of this year. AFR has been an indispensable help in my learning and understanding the ancient faith. You offer such a vast array of podcasts that I don’t have enough time in the day to listen to them all. May God continue to bless you, and I ask for any and all prayers possible as I continue my journey."