There is an erroneous polemic circulating among Muslim apologists that the New Testament was canonised at the Council of Nicea in 325AD. The argument claims ‘The Church has deceived the world by wanting us to believe that Jesus is God. They chose books which supported this conclusion at the Council of Nicea, and destroyed those that suggested otherwise. Thus the canonisation of the New Testament was the Church’s attempt to control the available materials.’ One popular Muslim website claims that “the Church was plagued from its very infancy with heated debates over what precisely qualified as “scripture”.”
These claims show that there is a pressing misunderstanding regarding early Christian history and the process of canonisation. As discussed in a prior leaflet (“What Happened at Nicea?”), the Council of Nicea centred on the so-called “Arian” heresy, and secondarily discussed church polity structures. We have multiple detailed records of the proceedings and conclusions of this Council transmitted by Eusebius, Socrates, Sozomen, Theodoret, and Rufinus all within 100 years of the Council, as well as a comprehensive history of the Council written in the 5th Century by Gelasius of Cyzicus. From these we know that the Council did NOT discuss canonisation. In fact, Arius, whose ideas the Council did address, frequently quoted Gospel, Pauline, and Old Testament references in his surviving works for support, attesting to widespread acceptance of the New Testament as authoritative well before the Council took place. In this leaflet, we want to explain more concerning the canonisation of the New Testament.
Process of Canonisation
The word ‘canon’ comes from the Greek word kanon for “reed,” which was used as a unit of standard measurement. Thus kanon came to mean a “rule” or “standard” by which one can evaluate. The canon of Scripture is the standard for the authoritative collection of books and the collection of authoritative books, simultaneously. While, admittedly, the discussion of canonicity did not arise until one or two centuries after the books themselves were written, the current books of the NT have always been recognised as authoritative for the church. The church alone does not determine canonicity, and no council decreed authority to certain books to the exclusion of others. On the contrary, the books themselves carry inherent authority. God gives the book authority, and not councils or churches. The early church recognised this authority by discerning certain qualities of NT canonicity:
1. Was the book written by an apostle of God? [apostles were 1st century eyewitnesses of Jesus, and hence reliable in what they describe (for the case of Mark and Luke who did not see Jesus, they are recording the stories of persons who did)]
2. Did the message tell the truth about God? (coherence: the book cannot contradict itself or accepted church doctrines)
3. Was it accepted by the people of God? (widespread acceptance by the church)
4. Does it carry the power of God? (conviction: living power to challenge and change a person’s life. Jesus prepared his disciples for this in promising the Holy Spirit who would “guide you into all the truth” John 16:13)
It was debate concerning weight or priority amongst these that caused for disagreements over official lists. Of the books under discussion for canonicity that are not included in the NT canon, only three were seriously considered by the church [Epistle of Barnabas (2nd C), Shepherd of Hermas (2nd C), 1 Clement (early 2nd C)], and these failed to be written by an apostle or attested by an apostle. In fact, in some cases (eg.1 Clement, Shepherd of Hermas), the author states dependence upon other apostles for the writing’s authority. And even though some of these books were kept in codices alongside canonical texts, they were explicitly set apart from the rest, as the very first canonical list (the Muratorian Canon 170AD) makes plain. According to these criteria, the many late Gnostic and apocryphal gospels and epistles that arose in the second and third centuries are considered ‘non-canonical’ [eg. the Gospel of Thomas (ca. 175AD), the Gospel of Judas (ca. 180AD), the Gospel of Philip (200-350AD), the Gospel of Mary (ca. 220AD), or the many “infancy gospels” (all within 140-235AD)]. That is, these apocryphal books are not inherently authoritative, and are far too late to have been written by apostles, many being written after the very discussion on canonicity began. Additionally, early church fathers, like Irenaeus or Cyril of Jerusalem, wrote against inclusion of these very books, showing their lack of coherence to doctrine and lack of widespread acceptance. Finally, while it is difficult to evaluate the power of conviction that these books might carry, even a cursory read of these books will show a sharp disparity from the books of the NT. Princeton scholar Bruce Metzger concludes that “the evaluation of modern readers will no doubt corroborate that of the early Church…the voice of the Good Shepherd is heard in only a muffled way, and that it is, in fact, often distorted beyond recognition by the presence of supplementary and even antagonistic voices.” We challenge our Muslim friends to actually read these books before making claims concerning them.
Received and embraced, not selected and protected To state quite simply what we find is that there was no official canon of NT Scripture in the earliest church history as there was no need for an official canon of Scripture. Metzger continues, “the Church did not create the canon, but came to recognise, accept, affirm, and confirm the selfauthenticating quality of certain documents that imposed themselves as such upon the Church.” The lack of a ‘canon’ does not mean that there was not a generally accepted corpus of inherently authoritative books, but that the books were so widely held as authoritative Scripture that there was no need to stipulate them (even the Old Testament, while established for quite some time, was not officially recognised as canon until the Synod of Jamnia in 90AD).
Historians tell us that controversy and crisis often serve to refine existent beliefs, and rarely function as an opportunity to create new beliefs. As false gospels started to arise in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the discussion of canon arose as well. But the very controversy itself regarding the infiltration of false gospels shows us that the canonisation of the NT was already in process. To substantiate this claim, let’s look at the earliest discussion of canonicity. The first mention of a canon of the NT as Scripture is the Muratorian Canon in 170AD. Two hundred years later (367AD) we have Athanasius’ famous 39th festal letter that lists all 27 books of the NT as we have them today. Between these times there were 6 other lists of canons, each consistent with the others, repeatedly listing all 27 NT books between them (Canon of Origen ca.185-254AD, Canon of Eusebius ca. 265-340AD, Codex Claromontanus ca. 300AD, Canon of Cyril ca. 350AD, Cheltenham Canon ca 360AD, Canon of Laodicea 363AD). These lists also tell us which other books were in circulation at the time, the process by which books were considered canonical, and which apocryphal books arose from heretical sects. In the end, the Synod of Hippo Regius (393AD) brought closure to the debate affirming the 27 books of the NT as we have them today. There is no need to speculate concerning the acceptance or rejection of a canon of Scripture. The books in the NT today have always been the inherently authoritative divinely inspired Word of God. Metzger concludes his whole history of canonicity by saying that “no books or collection of books from the ancient Church may be compared with the New Testament in importance for Christian history or doctrine.”
Canonisation of the Qur’an
To follow a consistent argument, that the late development regarding the discussion of canonicity shows that there was early human manipulation, we need to apply the same standard of inquiry to the Qur’an. It is widely accepted that the revelations of God to Muhammad were memorised by him and recited to his followers who, likewise, memorized them. Some of these companions wrote down pieces of the message on scraps of wood or bone or stones. But after the Battle of Yamama in 632 AD, when so many of those who had memorized the Qur’an died in battle, it was decided by Abu Bakr that the Qur’an needed to be written down and protected for fear that “a large part of it may be lost” (Bukhari 6:509 in Khan trans.). It is commonly accepted that this was done by Zaid ibn Thabit shortly thereafter. This pamphlet was c omp i l e d b y a n interdenominational group of evangelical Christians concerned with Muslim- Christian dialogue. T23EN0408 The earliest Hadith collector al-Bukhari (d. 870AD) tells us that within twenty years of this event there arose significant manuscript variations, however. So many that Caliph Uthman in 653AD ordered that all available manuscripts be collected and burned so that an officially sanctioned Qur’an could be disseminated (Bukhari vol. 6: 510). While this is not referred by Muslim scholars as ‘canonisation,’ that is, in effect, what was done. To contrast, for the NT there was an early standard acceptance of authoritative books with variations and distortions coming much later; whereas for the Qur’an, there were distortions and variations from the very earliest compilation of the Qur’an with unity coming later. As a result an official copy needed to be produced and the variants destroyed. Unlike the NT, which was canonised later as an official declaration regarding what was already in place, the Qur’an was canonised very early as an attempt to humanly control variants and distortions. The two accusations: 1. that the NT was canonised very late; and 2. with an overarching human conspiracy, have been disproven for the NT. Yet, this second and greater accusation of human manipulation can be much more powerfully levelled against the Qur’an.