Of Sailing Ships and Flax

My youngest son, Andrew, and I are fascinated by sailing ships. We have different interests though. Andrew’s interest in sailing ship largely came from the “Hornblower” series. As a result, he can identify not only all the classes of British, French, and American sailing vessels of the Napoleonic era, but he can identify almost all ships individually at a glance. Andrew’s ideal day would be crewing a square-rigger. I am more interested in the development of sailing ships. In the next age, I anticipate getting my chisels and planes out and building a few sailing ships.

This fall in the Western Civilization class at Gutenberg, we start with the ancient world. This gives me an excuse to spend time learning more about the ships of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Greeks. I have been aware for a number of years that early sailing ships mostly used linen for sails. It’s hard for me to think about linen sails. I can’t answer basic questions. How strong were they? How strong were they when wet? How long did they last in the elements?

But these sorts of questions lead to more questions, like these: When did early man first figure out how to make linen out of flax? How complicated was it to learn to process the flax into thread? What is the general history of the use of flax? Some of the questions are easy to answer with a little research.1 The first recorded finding of linen was in a Stone Age lake dwelling in Switzerland. By the time of Mesopotamia and early Egypt, the craft of making linen was well established.

In America, flax came first to Pennsylvania with early German settlers. Early settlers raised about two acres of flax to meet their families’ needs for clothes and bedding.

Closer to home, a species of flax is native to Oregon. Merriweather Lewis collected some in 1805 while in eastern Oregon. A commercial linen industry started in Oregon in the late nineteeth century. A major part of the early story of the Oregon linen industry is that flax was grown and processed by the state penitentiary personnel and inmates. It was their experience that provided the farmers with the knowledge of how to grow and process flax into cloth. In the first half of the twentieth century, Oregon was internationally known for its linen. However, the commercial linen industry ended rapidly after World War II. Oregon linen could not compete with western European linen and the introduction of synthetic materials like nylon. As a result, the farmers in the Willamette Valley turned to grass seed. Curiously, in the last few years farmers have expressed a resurgent interest in flax as the grass-seed market has declined.

The question about how early man first figured out how to make linen is more difficult to sort out. It certainly occurred before writing. To help me think about that I decided to grow some flax and process it by traditional means. Obtaining flax seed suitable for fiber is difficult. Almost all the flax seed available today is for oil, not fiber. However, one of my favorite heirloom seed sources came to the rescue. The Landis Valley Museum in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, has a heritage seed project. They collect and maintain varieties of plants that were important to the German settlers in Pennsylvania from 1750 to 1940. I was able to obtain some fiber flax seeds from the museum.

I planted a few of the seeds in the corner of a raised bed to see how to grow it and to experiment with it. I planted the seeds Memorial Day weekend (at least a month late for Oregon). The flax came up and grew rapidly. Right on schedule, sixty days from planting, the flax blossomed. Fiber flax is much taller than oil flax, averaging about 31 to 47 inches high. Most of my flax is 53 inches high—well taller than average.

Flax photo by Gutenberg College tutor Charley DewberryFlax photo by Gutenberg College tutor Charley Dewberry

Harvesting is about thirty to forty days away—when the lower half of the plant has turned yellow. The flax is pulled up by the roots and dried. Then begins the processing. I will let you know how it goes.

I think it would be very interesting to build a wooden boat and make a set of linen sails. It would be a real challenge to sail such a craft here in the Siuslaw estuary, given our challenging winds. It would challenge even Odysseus’s skill. (Homer tells of Odysseus making several trips to Egypt to obtain people with the skill to make linen sails.) I will end with a quote from Pliny the Elder (23 AD–79 AD):2

How audacious is life and how full of wickedness, for a plant to be grown for the purpose of catching the winds and the storms…out of so small a seed springs a means of carrying the whole world to and fro…



1) The best reference is Heinrich, Linda. Linen: From Flax Seed to Woven Cloth, 2012, Schiffer Publishing Ltd, Atglen, Pennsylvania. Most of the historical information in this post is from that book.

2) Pliny, Natural History, Book XIX, 1, p.423.


A New Puzzle Piece in the Origins of WW II

The last week of June our family made a five-day trip to Michigan to visit my family. We make this trip about every three to five years. As I packed, I looked through my stack of unread books for one I could read in airports and other down times on the trip. I selected Nomonham, 1939: The Red Army’s Victory that Shaped World War II (2012) by Stuart D. Goldman. The subtitle had caught my attention. I knew that the Nomonham battle had occurred, but I always thought of it as a border skirmish. To claim that it shaped World War II seemed quite a stretch, and I was hooked. This post is a review of that book.

The book is really telling two stories: one is a story of the military history of the Soviet-Japanese conflict on the Mongolia-Manchuria border; the other is a diplomatic history of the origins of WW II.

The first story is well researched. The author was for thirty-years a senior specialist in Russian and Eurasian political and military affairs at the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress. In addition, he also learned Japanese and studied and worked in Japan with recently declassified Japanese documents from the period. I will only make a few comments on this story. It is mostly for WW II buffs.

The details of the Soviet-Japanese conflict indicated that this was no mere border clash. Nearly 100,000 men and a thousand armored vehicles and aircraft engaged in fierce combat for four months. Thirty to fifty thousand men were killed or wounded. It was called “Nomonham” in Japan and the “Battle of Khalkhin Gol” in the Soviet Union.

Georgy Zhukov, who later became one of the most famous Russian commanders of WW II, commanded the Russian units in the battle. His tactics in this successful rout of the Japanese were based on prodigious artillery combined with coordinated armor and infantry attacks. He encircled and destroyed the Japanese units. This was substantially his tactics throughout WW II.

The second story of the diplomatic history leading up to WW II is of much greater interest. It is also more speculative. Goldman points out that the negotiations and signing of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact of 1939 correspond exactly with the Battle of Nomonham. His thesis is that the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact paved the way for Germany to invade Poland, launching WWII. Understanding of the battle of Nomonhan, then, is an important piece of the puzzle for understanding the diplomatic negotiations between Germany and the Soviet Union. In order to better understand Goldman’s argument, let me provide a little context.

According to Goldman, it makes the most sense to start with the year 1853. During that year, two apparently unrelated events started Russia (Soviet Union) and Japan on the road to conflict. One event was American Commodore Mathew Perry steaming warships into Tokyo Bay. This event ended Japan’s feudal regime and launched Japan on one of the most spectacular conversions to modernism in the history of the world. The second event was Russia’s invasion of the Turkish-controlled Balkans, which triggered the Crimean War. The Russians were defeated by an ineptly led Anglo-French force which had the advantage of modern rifles. The defeat led the Tsar to initiate modernization and to look east. In the late 1850s, Russia forced the Chinese to cede huge amounts of territory to Russia. Russia began building in earnest the Trans-Siberian Railroad with an eye on next capturing Manchuria and Korea. A number of countries grew suspicious of Russian aims; Japan, who was eyeing the same piece of real estate, was among them.

In 1894-1895, Japan successfully wrestled Korea and southern Manchuria from a politically disintegrating China. However, Russia intervened on China’s side and minimized the Japanese gains. Russia further antagonized Japan by taking most of Manchuria and much of Korea by 1900. In 1904-1905, Japan defeated Russia and got Korea and one-half of Sakhalin Island. Curiously, both parties agreed to evacuate Manchuria.

During World War I (1914-1918), the Manchu Dynasty (China) was dying, Russia was becoming embroiled in its own revolution, and the Western powers were focused on their own struggles. Into this vacuum, the Japanese began to move. They sent 70,000 troops into the Russian Far-East. The Japanese gained little by this endeavor, but it did heighten the hostility between the Soviet Union and Japan.

During the 1920s, Chinese Nationals under Chiang Kai-shek attempted to drive all imperial powers out of China. Both the Soviets and the Japanese attempted to gain a favorable position with the Nationalists. The Soviets were in a position more bizarre than a George Orwell novel: they were trying to form an alliance with the Chinese Nationalists at the same time the Nationalists were fighting a to-the-death struggle with the Chinese Communists who were linked with Moscow.

The diplomatic history of the Soviet Union and Japan during the 1930s is dynamic and complex. I will mention only the most salient points. In 1932, the Soviet Union found itself in a serious predicament. In the East, the Japanese conquered all of Manchuria; while in the West, the Nazis rose to power in Germany. As a result, the Soviet Union reestablished diplomatic relations with Chiang Kai-shek that had waned during the previous five years; signed nonaggression pacts with France, Poland, Finland, Estonia, and Latvia; and, in 1933, established diplomatic relations with the U.S. and joined the League of Nations that the Soviet Union had denounced for years. Stalin also instructed the Chinese Communist Party to join forces with the Nationalist Chinese to defeat the Japanese, and he sent aid to the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War who were fighting rebels supported by Germany and Italy.

In 1936, Germany and Japan concluded the Anti-Comintern Pact aimed at the Communist International (CI), an international communist organization initiated in Moscow during March 1919 (although Moscow always insisted that there was no connection between the CI and the Soviet government). Germany and Japan agreed to take no measure to ease the situation for the Soviet Union if one of the partners was threatened or attacked by the Soviet government. Also, neither party could negotiate a treaty with the Soviets that was contrary to the Anti-Comintern Pact without consent of the other.

From 1935 to 1938, the Soviet government tried to ally with the Western democracies but to no avail. Great Britain and France considered diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union undesirable. The Communist International had railed for two decades against Great Britain, claiming that it represented the most developed capitalistic society.

In 1938-1939, Stalin found himself more and more isolated from any potential allies. And here we come to crux of the diplomatic portion of Goldman’s book. Stalin decided to approach the Nazis, but he knew he must bargain from a position of strength. He decided that the strongest position would be the appearance of forming a military alliance with the West. I have never understood why Stalin would consider an alliance with Hitler, but Goldman argues it was in part a result of the East Asia situation. If Stalin formed an alliance with the Western Allies, likely he would have been confronted with a two-front war. On his western border, he faced Germany; on his eastern border, he faced Japan. Stalin suspected that the West and the U.S. would not come to his aid. By allying himself with Germany, Stalin could stay out of the coming European war. In addition, he could minimize the Germany-Japanese alliance, which would allow him to focus his attention on Japan. During the negotiations between the Soviet Union and Germany, Stalin demanded that Germany persuade Japan to back off in the east. A serious conflict with Japan at this moment could have jeopardized the negotiations. Once Stalin was assured that he had an agreement with Germany, within days he ordered Zhukov to launch the attack on the Japanese. Goldman’s argument here seems plausible. It does not change substantively the understanding of the negotiations, but it helps me make more sense of it from Stalin’s point of view.

Finally, with the humiliating defeat of the Japanese army at Nomonhan, the Japanese generals clamoring for war with the Soviet Union were discredited. Their loss of power combined with the U.S. embargo of oil and metals to Japan resulted in Japan shifting its interest to Dutch, British, and French possessions and ensured that Japan would be fighting the Western European powers and the U.S. and not the Soviet Union.

Goldman’s book was well researched and adds new pieces to the understanding of the origins of WW II. For the most part, Goldman avoids the greatest potential pitfall—that of making more of the Battle of Nomonham than was warranted. As a result, he largely substantiated his thesis that the battle played a role in shaping WW II. Reading it was time well spent during our vacation.

Where Did the Bible Come From? Part 5

Ratifying the Christian Canon

The formation of the Bible remains a mystery for most Christians. Who chose these books? Why were they selected? What books were not chosen? Why not?

In my second and third posts, I wrote about the writing of the New Testament books and how those writings came to be recognized as authoritative by early Christians. In my fourth post, I wrote about two controversies that forced Christians to formulate the criteria for inclusion in the Christian Bible.

This post discusses the final stage in the historical development of Bible. It answers the questions, “How were canonical books separated from heretical or merely uninspired books? And who separated them?”


The First Three “Lists”

Three important markers denote the Church’s path toward the finalization of the New Testament canon:

  1. Eusebius’s list in his ecclesiastical history (A.D. 325),
  2. Athanasius’s Easter letter (A.D. 367), and
  3. The Council of Carthage (A.D. 397).

Eusebius is considered the first historian of the Church. His The History of the Church (A.D. 325) lists three types of writings used by the early Church. He divides these writings into the following three categories:

  1. homolegumena (universally accepted),
  2. antilogomena (disputed), and
  3. spurious (uncanonical).

In the quote below, Eusebius lists the universally accepted books:

In the first place should be placed the holy tetrad of the gospels. These are followed by the writings of the Acts of the Apostles. After this should be reckoned the epistles of Paul. Next after them should be recognized the so-called first epistle of John and likewise that of Peter. In addition to these must be placed, should it seem right, John’s Apocalypse.[1]

In the list of disputed books, Eusebius includes James, Jude, 2 Peter, and 2 & 3 John. In the list of spurious books, he includes the Acts of Paul, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Teachings of the Apostles, the Apocalypse of John, and the Gospel According to the Hebrews.

Fifty years after Eusebius’s History, Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, published a festal letter announcing the date of Easter in A.D. 367. The majority of this letter is spent naming the books included in the canon of Scripture. After listing the Old Testament books, Athanasius then writes the list of the New Testament books that were considered canonical:

Again, we must not hesitate to name the books of the New Testament. They are as follows: Four gospels—according to Matthew, according to Mark, according to Luke, according to John. Then, after these the Acts of the Apostles and the seven so-called catholic epistles of the apostles, as follows: one of James, two of Peter, three of John and, after these, one of Jude. Next to these are the fourteen epistles of the apostle Paul, written in order as follows: First to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians, and after these to the Galatians and next to that the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians and two to the Thessalonians and that to the Hebrews. Next are two to Timothy, one to Titus, and last the one to Philemon. Moreover, John’s Apocalypse.[2]

The Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas were mentioned as edifying works, but weren’t recognized as canonical.

The next notable event on the path toward the ratification of the canon were the Synod of Hippo and the Synod of Carthage. The Synod of Hippo (A.D. 393) set the limits of the canonical books according to standards approved by the great Church father Augustine. These proceedings are lost but were summarized by the Third Council of Carthage (397). These gatherings appear to be the first councils to make formal pronouncements upon the canon. “When they did so,” says Bruce, “they did not impose any innovation on the Church. They simply endorsed what had become the general consensus of the churches for two centuries.”[3]


Nineteen centuries after the life of Christ, the New Testament canon remains a source of debate between Christians and non-Christians, scholars and laymen. Without question, the formation of the canon was not a neat and orderly process. On the contrary, a multitude of historical, theological, and personal factors contributed to its formation. Even today, long after the twenty-seven books were officially recognized as canonical, some books have met with serious opposition. During the Reformation, Martin Luther questioned the canonicity of the book of James. And, in the ninteenth and twentieth centuries, critical scholars undercut the whole concept of a canon.

Nevertheless, the durability of the New Testament stands as a witness to the credibility of its formation. Not only has the canon showed itself durable against critical inquiry, it has emerged recently as a subject of renewed scholarly interest.[4]

The fads of ecclesiastical opinion, academic scholarship, and even paperback bestsellers (like The DaVinci Code) will probably continue to cause great fluctuations of public opinion. But an inspection of the history of canonization shows their development to have developed from fair-minded criteria along reasonable rails of progress.



A Select Bibliography

All Scripture references in these posts, “Where Did the Bible Come From?” are from the New King James Version.

Blackman, E.C. Marcion and His Influence (London: S.P.C.K., 1948).

Bruce, F.F. The Spreading Flame (London: Paternoster Press, 1958).

—-, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity)

Campenhausen, Hans van. The Formation of the Christian Bible (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1972).

Eusebius, The History of the Church (Penguin Classics: Reprint Edition, 1986).

Grant, Robert M. The Bible in the Church (Binghamton, NY, 1948).

Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Writings of the New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999).

Metzger, Bruce. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (Clarendon Press: Reprint edition, 1997).

Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971).

Sailhammer, John. How We Got the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998).

Schaff, Phillip. The History of the Christian Church, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910).

Shelley, Bruce. Church History in Plain Language (Grand Rapids: Word Publishing, 1996).

—-, By What Authority: The Standards of Truth in the Early Church (Eerdmans, 1965).

[1] Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., 3.3.ff. He later includes Hebrews among the epistles of Paul.

[2] From Athanasius’s Paschal Letter, vv. 6-7, letter 39/NPF2 4.551 (367). Athanasius’s corresponds exactly with our present Bible, with the exception of Esther, which he excludes from his catalogue of Old Testament books.

[3] Bruce, Canon, p. 97.

[4] For example, Brevard Childs sees canon studies as potentially showing the way out of the long-running disputes between high-church and high-scripture Christians. See Childs, The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1994), p. 4-10.


Where Did the Bible Come From? Part 4

The Jewishness of Christianity
The Criteria for the New Testament

The formation of the Bible remains a mystery for most Christians. Who chose these books? Why were they selected? What books were not chosen? Why not?

In my previous posts, I wrote about the following:

  1. The writing of the Gospels and the epistles of the New Testament;
  2. How those writings came to be recognized as authoritative by early Christians;
  3. A controversy about the role of the Old Testament.

This post will explain the second stage[1] in the development of the New Testament: How Jewish is Christianity? What Are the Criteria for the New Testament? I will begin with the Marcion controversy that compelled the Christian Church to form a consensus about the value of the Old Testament and the criteria for the New Testament.

The Marcion Controversy

By the mid-second century, the Church seemed to be slowly progressing toward formal acceptance of the New Testament canon, but several controversies forced the Church to increase her speed. The Marcion heresy was the biggest.

Marcion was a wealthy man who came to Rome in A.D. 138/9, perhaps to seek an audience for his theological views. Within a few years he had attracted a large number of followers, but he was suspected of heresy and barred from communion around A.D. 144. He then formed his own church where he could spread his ideas.

Marcion’s beliefs were greatly influenced by Cerdo, a Gnostic teacher who hoped to sever Christianity’s ties to Judaism. Like Cerdo, Marcion believed the Church had betrayed the “good fruit” of the gospel by joining it to the “bad tree” of Judaism.[2] The god of Judaism, he said, was ignorant, malicious, and contradictory; the god of the New Testament was loving, forgiving, and kind.

According to Marcion, only Paul truly understood Jesus. For that reason, Paul assumed a place of near deity in Marcion’s theology; Jesus sits on the right hand of the Father in heaven, and Paul sits at the right hand of Jesus.[3]

Believing that “Christianity could be understood without reference to anything that happened before A.D. 29,”[4] Marcion assembled his own New Testament. His collection contained none of the Old Testament, only a portion of Luke’s Gospel, and ten of Paul’s epistles (he excluded Paul’s pastoral letters).[5]

But were these the right books? Would the Church truly reject the Old Testament and most of the Gospels? These challenges forced the Church to define the criteria by which a book would be included in the canon.

What’s In, What’s Out?

In defining what books would be included in the canon, the Church used four main criteria.

Criteria #1: The Internal Confirmation by the Spirit. The internal prompting of God’s Spirit may seem vague or subjective to be considered as a criterion for the canon. But early Christians believed that the Spirit helped them sift truth from falsehood.[6] Both Paul and John are emphatic in their writings that the Spirit of God was a witness to the truth of the gospel. Accordingly, the Church believed that Christians were aided in recognizing the Scripture.[7]

An example of the Holy Spirit’s witness to Scripture is seen in the conversion of Tatian (A.D. 120–180) in his Address to the Greeks (A.D. 170). After unsatisfying encounters with Greek philosophy and mystery religions, Tatian read the Old Testament and “found myself convinced by these writings” because his soul was “being thus taught by God.”[8]

Scores of other believers in the early days of the Church had similar experiences with the Old and New Testaments, most famously Augustine, but also Theophilus, Hilary, and Victorinus.[9]

Criteria #2: The Apostolic Rule. The Church also had external criteria for selecting which books to include in the New Testament. Already in the earliest churches, there was a concept of orthodoxy or “apostolic faith” or “apostolic rule” that had been passed from the apostles to their disciples and disseminated to the churches. Orthodox Church leaders were particularly suspicious of variations from this tradition. Papias makes this clear in his Address to the Greeks:

For I shall not hesitate also to put down for you along with my interpretations whatsoever things I have learned carefully from the elders and carefully remembered, guaranteeing their truth. For I did not, like the multitudes, take pleasure in strange commandments, but in those that deliver the commandments given by the Lord to faith.… If, then anyone came, who has been a follower of the elders, I questioned him in regard to the words of the elders.[10]

Criteria #3: Use in Christian Worship. If a book was being used regularly in worship, the Church was more likely to consider it authoritative. A memoir from the pen of Justin Martyr (A.D. 100–165) describes early Christian worship, saying, “the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read.”[11] It seems that the “memoirs of the apostles” (Justin’s name for the Gospels) already held a central place in Christian worship. Other sources show that Paul’s writings were also in use.

So, use in worship was a criteria. But, just because a book was read in worship did not ensure its place in the canon. For example, Clement’s letter to the Corinthian Church (A.D. 96) was read in worship during Justin’s time, but it was not considered Scripture. Why not? The answer brings us to the fourth and most important external criterion.

Criteria #4: Apostolic Authorship. To be considered Scripture a book must have been written by an apostle or someone who had direct contact with the circle of the apostles. During his earthly ministry, Jesus appointed the apostles to a special position, telling them, “He who receives you receives me” (Matthew 10:40) and “whatever you bind on earth shall remain bound in Heaven” (Matthew 16:19). Clement reflected the Church fathers’ opinion of the apostles, when he wrote,

The apostles were made evangelists to us by the Lord Christ; Jesus Christ was sent by God. Thus Christ is from God, and the apostles from Christ.… The Church is built on them as a foundation. (I Clement 42)

Hans van Campenhausen concludes: “Apostolic origin is thus the basis of the New Testament’s title and the criterion by which its limits are determined.”[12]

Before I end this post, let’s discuss one more controversy, the Montanus Controversy. If the Marcion controversy forced the Church to define the canon, the Montanus controversy urged the Church to close it.

The Montanus Controversy

Think of Montanism as a forerunner of today’s Pentecostal movement. A man from Asia Minor named Montanus started the movement in A.D. 156 when he claimed to be God’s prophet. He boasted of receiving a revelation from God about an impending apocalypse. The four Gospels and Paul’s epistles had achieved wide circulation and largely unquestioned authority within the early Church but hadn’t yet been collected in a single authoritative book. Montanus saw in this fact an opportunity to spread his message, by claiming authoritative status for his new revelation. Montanus urged his followers to exercise their own ecstatic gifts and prophetic tongues.

In opposing Montanism, one Roman theologian, Gaius, took extreme measures. He tried to defeat Montanism by showing that the Gospel of John was illegitimate. But Gaius’s strategy conflicted with the Roman Church’s list of Scripture, the Muratorian canon (named after its modern discoverer). This canon (A.D. 180)[13] identified the written sources of Scripture that would soon be called the New Testament.[14]

The Muratorian canon seems like the first step toward the ratification of the Christian Bible. That ratification process is the subject of my next post.


[1] These stages are times of concentrated activity and notable progress toward the finalization of the canon. See my first post for a description of all three stages.

[2] Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity. (2 volumes; New York, NY: Prince Press, 2000), vol. 1, p. 127.

[3] E.C. Blackman, Marcion and His Influence. (London: S.P.C.K., 1948), p. 103-112.

[4] Ibid, p. 123.

[5] Some modern historians believe Marcion is the primary reason that the Church has an idea of a canon today. One scholar went so far as to conclude that Marcion “is primarily responsible for the idea of the New Testament.” But this seems an exaggeration. There was already, as historian Jaroslav Pelikan explains, an “increasing tendency to cite apostolic writings as authoritative.” See Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, (5 volumes; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971.), vol. 1, p. 79.

[6] For more on this, see J. Theodore Mueller’s “The Holy Spirit and the Scriptures,” Revelation and the Bible, (ed. Carl F.H. Henry; Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1958), p. 267-281.

[7] The preceding paragraph may seem like circular reasoning. I quoted Scripture to attest to the validity of the Holy Spirit’s witness about the validity of Scripture. I am merely citing Scripture (in this case, John’s writings) to show that Christians (in fact, the apostles themselves) believed in the witness of the Holy Spirit.

[8] Tatian, Address to the Greeks, 29 cf.

[9] Shelley, Church History, p. 61.

[10] Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., 3.9

[11] Justin Martyr, First Apology, 67.3.

[12] Hans van Campenhausen, The Formation of the Christian Bible. (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1972), p. 254. Campenhausen later tempers this statement a bit by adding, “The apostles … owe [their] position to their status not as apostles, but as witnesses to the Christ-event and to the teaching which in the first instance was entrusted to them … the critical principle in accordance with which the sources are scrutinized is nevertheless determined by historical or, if preferred, dogmatic-salvation-history considerations.”

[13] This date is disputed by some scholars.

[14] For a brief overview, see Christianity Today, Nov. 2003.


Where Did the Bible Come From? Part 3

Writing the New Testament: The Old Testament and the New

In my last post, I wrote about the composition of the Gospels and the early Church’s acceptance of the Gospels as authoritative.

This post discusses the writing and acceptance of the other New Testament books like Paul’s letters, Jude, and John’s Apocalypse (Revelation). This post will also consider a very thorny question for the early Church: Should the Old Testament be accepted as Christian Scripture?

After this post, I will attempt to answer the question, “Who chose the New Testament books and why did they choose them?” But for this post, let’s turn to the writing of Paul’s letters and their acceptance into the New Testament.

Paul’s Writings and Recognition

Unlike the Gospels, which are narratives, Paul’s writings are letters. He wrote to individuals like Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and to churches that he founded.[1]

Literary epistles were common in the first-century Roman world, and Paul followed the style of the day. However, he was a born orator, and his letters seem composed to be publicly read publicly, which helps account for their occasional digressions and uneven style.[2]

Although he referred to himself as “the least of these apostles” (I Corinthians 15:9), Paul’s writings surpassed the those of the other apostles for their influence on the Church and Christian life. His letters were well known and widely disseminated by the second century. It is unknown who made the first collection of Paul’s letters,[3] but it is clear that by the second century, they were circulated by the churches, not singly, but together.[4]

By the first half of the second century, the writings that would become canonical (the four Gospels and Paul’s letters) were being put into collections.[5] But something was still missing. In the words of one scholar,

[A] canon which comprised only the four Gospels and the Pauline Epistles would have been at best an edifice of two wings without the central structure, and therefore incomplete and uninhabitable.[6]

To provide a bridge between the Gospels and Pauline epistles, the Church recognized the book of Acts. Then, after Paul’s letters, the Church placed the so-called “catholic” or “general” letters (1 & 2 Peter, the Apocalypse of John, etc.). This collection completed the books that would be the New Testament canon. (The book of Hebrews was usually included in the circulating Pauline collection).

Is the Old Testament Christian Scripture?

By the end of the first century a thorny question emerged: What exactly was the Church’s relationship to the Old Testament? Even though Gospel/Pauline collections were in circulation, the Old Testament was the only book that first-century Christians considered Scripture.[7] The second epistle of Peter (probably the last written of the New Testament books) refers to Paul’s epistles as “Scripture” (2 Peter 3:15), but most first-century Christians probably did not yet recognize them as such. In fact, some early Christians balked at the suggestion that there might be a second (new) testament. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110) found some Christians so devoted to the Old Testament that they said, “If I do not find it in the ‘charters’ [the Old Testament] I do not believe in the gospel.”[8]

Other Christians ran the opposite direction; they wondered if there was any value in the Old Testament. The author of the apocryphal Epistle of Barnabas said that God’s covenant was always with Christians and not with the Jews:

Take heed to yourselves now, and be not made like some, heaping up your sins and saying that the covenant is both theirs and ours. It is ours.” (Epistle of Barnabas 4:6ff). 

There were Christians who believed that the Epistle of Barnabas went too far, but they saw no definitive reason for holding onto the Old Testament.

The question about the value and purpose of the Old Testament erupted into a crisis during the second-century Marcion controversy. Marcion, an early Church leader (A.D. 85-160), proposed the wholesale rejection of the Old Testament. His influence (we shall see) pressed the Church to form a consensus about the value of the Old Testament and content and nature of the New Testament canon.

But the Marcion controversy will have to wait until my next post.

[1] The book of Romans is an exception.

[2] Bruce Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, eds., The Oxford Companion to the Bible, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 578.

[3] C.F.D. Moule suggests Luke, noting that, “it is entirely in keeping with the historian’s temperament to collect them.” Moule, The Birth of the New Testament (London, 1981), p. 264.

[4] L. Mowry, “The Early Circulation of Paul’s Letters,” Journal of Biblical Literature 63 (1944), p. 73-86.

[5] F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity), p. 130.

[6] Adolph Harnack, History of Dogma, (7 volumes; translated from the 3d German ed., by Neil Buchanan; New York, Russell & Russell, 1958), p. 48, n. 2.

[7] Robert M. Grant, The Bible in the Church., (Binghamton, NY, 1948), p. 44.

[8] Ignatius, To the Philadelphians 8.2.

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