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How did we get a 'canon'?

In the first century, different traditions within Judaism were in discussion and debate about what documents were authoritative for communities, and different communities gave different answers. For example, the Sadducees were a group that believe only the "Pentateuch" (from penta, meaning "five"), the first five books of Hebrew scripture (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers), were authoritative. As a result, the Sadducees rejected theological innovations like belief in angels the resurrection of the dead, and some kind of final judgment, of which were not mentioned in the Pentateuch, but did play a role in later books. The Pharisees took the lead in saying that other books should also be authoritative, and they especially emphasized prophetic writings like Isaiah. Judging from what books Jesus quoted, Jesus landed with the Pharisees on questions of canon, viewing his ministry especially as an extension of the work of prophets like Isaiah.  When Jesus talks about "scripture," he is referring to the Pharisaic collection of sacred writings, which is pretty much what we call the "Old Testament."

That's also what first-century Christian writers meant when they used the term "scripture," though most Christian congregations used the Septuagint (from the word for "seventy," the number of scholars who were said to have worked on the translation), which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures.

Christians weren't in a hurry to write their own accounts of Jesus' life or what the Spirit was doing among them, and we have no Christian documents prior to Paul's letters, from around 50 A.D. In part, Christians didn't produce documents earlier because in the ancient world, written documents were considered less reliable than oral tradition. With oral tradition, you knew the character of the speaker, and the character of those who taught him or her; with written documents, it was harder to weigh the reliability of those responsible for their content. Furthermore, writing materials and scribal services (necessary because most people in the ancient world could not write, beyond what was needed for basic tallies of inventories or shopping lists) were exorbitantly expensive. Even the wealthiest and most literate of citizens was unlikely to own more than about twenty books the size of one book in our Bible, and Christianity was on the whole more popular with the poor than with the rich. Early Christian churches were fortunate to own a copy of one gospel, and most did not consider more than one gospel to be authoritative for their community.

Some documents, though, became very popular very quickly after they were produced. Some of Paul's letters were that way; he'd write to one community he founded, and others, who had heard sections of the letter read while they were visiting a neighboring community, would encourage their home church to raise the money to have a scribe copy the letter. Paul wrote some letters that we don't have, and there's a fair chance that the reason we lost some of them is that they weren't popular enough to copy. But some were circulated so widely and so quickly that the earliest reference we have to a Christian document as "scripture" is a reference not to a gospel, but to Paul's letters: 2 Peter 3:16, written in about 115 A.D., which notes that "There are some things in [Paul's letters] hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures."

The first recorded canon of Christian scriptures is the one from Marcion, a second-century bishop. Marcion compiled one book that he called "the gospel," which incorporated material from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and another book he called "the apostle," which was a collection of letters from Paul. Marcion wasn't very popular with his fellow bishops, though, and he was condemned by many of them as a heretic. Marcion's time saw a lot more success among Christians in reaching out to wealthy citizens, and the number of Christian documents went drastically up in the second century. Both Marcion's collection of "the gospel" and "the apostle" and the increasing number of letters to churches and accounts of Jesus' life and his apostles' travels started a conversation among Christian communities about whether there should be some consensus about what documents are authoritative.

Still, there couldn't be one list of authoritative scriptures for Christians until there was some centralized Christian authority, and that didn't really happen until the emperor Constantine became a patron of Christian churches in the fourth century. Although Constantine continued worshipping Sol Invictus, the sun-god of his ancestors, throughout his life, he made Christianity legal in the empire, and he paid for bishops of his choosing to come together for councils that could issue rulings that had Constantine's backing. The most famous of these councils is the Council of Nicea, which was where the Nicene Creed was written. The Council of Nicea didn't explicitly deal with the issue of what was in or out of the canon; it was more concerned with WHO was an authoritative teacher, and which teachers should be considered heretical. In the process of approving or condemning a particular teacher, though ecumenical councils like the one at Nicea had a major influence on which books were considered "orthodox"; books supported by teachers who had been condemned lost favor (and the patronage of wealthy people who wanted to be on the emperor's good side!), and books supported by influential bishops received wider circulation (in part because their supporters had patronage from the empire). Still, there seems to have been fairly wide consensus in favor of the gospels and letters attributed to Paul that are now in our canon, even as debate continued about books like James, Jude, the letters of John, and Revelation (which was the slowest to get support, especially in the East.

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