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Introduction Among the many writings that still survive from early Christianity are several that discuss the issue of which books ought to be included in the canon of Scripture. These discussions provide us with our clearest indica­ tions that no set canon of the New Testament existed, even among orthodox Christians, prior to the end of the fourth century. I have included in this collection several of the fullest discussions available, all of them from forebears of orthodoxy: no “heretical” canon list survives. Among other things, these lists show that even though the contours of the canon were still very much in flux in the early Christian centuries, there was a broad agreement in proto-orthodox circles that the canon was to include the four Gospels, the writings of Paul, and several other apostolic texts. They also reveal the criteria for canonicity that were considered in such circles: for a book to be accepted as canonical, it needed to be ancient (near the time of Jesus), apostolic (connected to one of his closest followers), catholic (used widely by like-minded churches throughout the world), and orthodox (promoting the right kind of belief rather than heresy). It appears that of all the criteria, “orthodoxy” was primary: if a writing did not promote a perspective that was considered orthodox—so the argu­ ment went—it could not very well be apostolic. Those who made the argument found the point obvious: no apostle would support heresy. Any book, therefore, that was written in the name of an apostle, yet supported an “aberrant” perspective, was necessarily forged. These may not be the grounds scholars use today to determine the authorship of ancient texts, but the arguments proved both persuasive and powerful for the formation of the Christian canon. The first author to list the twenty-seven books of our New Testament as the canonical books (these and no others) was the bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, in 367 ce. Even then, however, debates continued, even in orthodox circles. In some parts of the Christian church, there never has been complete agreement.1


See the discussion in Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 229–46.

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