We all recognize the books that made it into the New Testament. The process by which the Canon was formed is interesting. There were many others that did not get included: Letter of Corinthians to Paul, 3 Corinthians, Laodiceans, 1 Clement, 2 Clement, Shepherd of Hermas, Epistle of Barnabas and the Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. There were also a number of Gospels such as Thomas, First Infancy Gospel of Jesus Christ, Nicodemus Judas. There were Acts of Paul and Peter that did not make it. The New Testament did not come with a table of contents. The Bible doesn’t tell us what is inspired, the church does.
The early church had many different opinions about what to consider inspired. Scripture Scholar Raymond Brown wrote a book entitled “The Churches the Apostles left behind” which described the different faith communities in the early century. Bart Erdman, a church historian from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, published a book entitled “Lost Christianities.” Both write about a time before the Catholic church emerged as the orthodox expression of Christianity.
When the Catholic church commissioned Jerome in 383 CE to translate the scriptures into Latin for the people, the version known as the Vulgate, they had to settle differences of opinion on what to translate. The Vulgate Canon was affirmed by the Council of Hippo in 393, Council of Carthage in 397 and finally at the Council of Trent. The Protestant Reformers accepted the New Testament Canon of the Catholic church. Martin Luther did attempt to remove Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation from the Canon because he believed they went against certain Protestant doctrines such as sola scriptura and sola fide. His followers did not accept that opinion.
It appears that the principle criteria used by the church in making its decision was what books were being used at liturgy. The idea was that they used “sacred” texts in worship while the other writings may have been popular in other settings. Additional considerations were: Universal acceptance and Apostolic Origin, that is based upon the teaching of first generation of Apostles.
What happened to those books not included? Some like the Apostles’ Creed and the Didache remained as part of the church’s library of important writings. Some of the others like the Infancy Gospels of Mary and Jesus Christ became part of the devotional literature of the church because of information they contained. For example we find the names of Mary’s parents, the grandparents of Jesus, in the Gospel of Birth of Mary. It also tells the story of how Joseph became her husband.
When it came to using valuable resources necessary to copy important books, those of lessor importance were not copied.
Father Patrick Toner is pastor at Saint Joseph Catholic Church, 140 West Ave., Plain City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (614) 873-8850.