Last year I posted an article entitled “What Is The Earliest Complete List of the Canon of the New Testament?” In that post I argued, contrary to common opinion, that the earliest (nearly complete) list is not Athanasius’ Festal Letter in 367. Instead, the earliest complete list occurs more than a century earlier in the writings of Origen (see picture).
My blog post was based off a fuller academic piece I wrote for the recent festschrift for Larry Hurtado, Mark Manuscripts and Monotheism (edited by Chris Keith and Dieter Roth; T&T Clark, 2015), entitled, “Origen’s List of New Testament Books in Homiliae on Josuam 7.1: A Fresh Look.”
Around 250 A.D., in his typical allegorical fashion, Origen used the story of Joshua to describe what seems to be the complete New Testament canon:
But when our Lord Jesus Christ comes, whose arrival that prior son of Nun designated, he sends priests, his apostles, bearing “trumpets hammered thin,” the magnificent and heavenly instruction of proclamation. Matthew first sounded the priestly trumpet in his Gospel; Mark also; Luke and John each played their own priestly trumpets. Even Peter cries out with trumpets in two of his epistles; also James and Jude. In addition, John also sounds the trumpet through his epistles [and Revelation], and Luke, as he describes the Acts of the Apostles. And now that last one comes, the one who said, “I think God displays us apostles last,” and in fourteen of his epistles, thundering with trumpets, he casts down the walls of Jericho and all the devices of idolatry and dogmas of philosophers, all the way to the foundations (Hom. Jos. 7.1).
So, why is this list not accepted by modern scholars? Because some have argued that the list has been modified by Rufinus who translated Origen’s sermon on Joshua into Latin. Rufinus, it is argued, changed the list to fit his own view of the New Testament a century later.
In my academic piece for the Hurtado festschrift I defended the reliability of Rufinus’ translation, arguing that there is no reason to think he has materially modified Origen’s view of the NT canon (see the article for the fuller argumentation).
I was pleased therefore to see the article by Edmon L. Gallagher in the latest issue of New Testament Studies entitled, “Origen via Rufinus on the New Testament Canon.” In short, Gallagher’s study confirms my own conclusions, namely that Rufinus was (generally speaking) a reliable translator of Origen regarding the NT canon.
Gallagher covers much of the same ground as my earlier article, but he offers a more detailed analysis of Rufinus’ translation of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History–a topic I touched on more briefly. His analysis explores the particular terminology used by Eusebius in Greek and the varied ways that Rufinus translated that terminology into Latin, showing that (as a whole) Rufinus was quite reliable.
And if Rufinus was reliable in his translation of Eusebius then we have reasons to think he was also reliable in his translation of Origen’s Homilies on Joshua. Gallagher concludes:
On balance it seems probable that Rufinus’ translation of Origen’s Homilies on Joshua contains a list of New Testament books because the translator found such a list–very similar to what he provided in Latin–in the Greek copies of the homilies lying before him (475).
In other words, it seems that we have good reasons to think that Origen’s list of NT books in the Homilies on Joshua is authentic. And therefore we have good reason to think that there was a fairly well-established NT canon further back than many have thought.
Don Ward says
That is splendid. Thanks
Randy Hickey says
I am just curious as to your opinion of David Trobisch’s work demonstrating that the NT Canon was closed in the 2nd century.
David Trobisch, The First Edition of the New Testament. Oxford University Press, 2000
Michael Kruger says
I appreciate Trobisch’s book very much. Although I am not persuaded by his overall thesis, I think he makes some great points about how the canon was more well-established in the second-century than most realize. He also draws attention to some features of New Testament manuscripts and scribal conventions that point towards a canon consciousness in early Christianity.
Randy Hickey says
This is great! Is there a reference-able work on this, or would the blog article be adequate?
Forgot to set notifications on that question. Setting them on this comment.
Interesting. Also, it looks as if he attributed Hebrews to Paul. Is that how you read it?
That was not unusual … Hebrews was frequently found in collections of Paul’s letters.
How does this passage by Origin relate to the passage related to us by Eusebius? Seems Origen had a difference of opinion during times.
“When expounding the first Psalm he gives a catalog of the Sacred Scriptures of the Old Testament as follows: “It should be stated that the canonical books, as the Hebrews have handed them down, are twenty-two, corresponding with the number of their letters.” Farther on he says: “The twenty-two books of the Hebrews are the following: That which is called by us Genesis, but by the Hebrews, from the beginning of the book, Breshith, which means ‘in the beginning’; Exodus, Welesmoth, that is, ‘these are the names’; Leviticus, Wikra, ‘and he called’; Numbers, Ammesphekodeim; Deuteronomy, Eleaddebareim ‘these are the words’; Joshua the son of Nun, Josoue ben Noun; Judges and Ruth, among them in one book, Saphateim; the first and second of Kings, among them one, Samoel, that is, ‘the called of God’; the third and fourth of Kings in one, Wammelch David, that is, ‘the kingdom of David’; of the Chronicles, the first and second in one, Dabreiamein, that is, ‘records of days’; Esdras, first and second 1 in one, Ezra, that is, ‘an assistant’; the book of Psalms, Spharthelleim; the Proverbs of Solomon, Meloth; Ecclesiastes, Koelth; the Song of Songs (not, as some suppose, Songs of Songs), Sir Hassirim; Isaiah, Jessia; Jeremiah, with Lamentations and the Epistle 2 in one, Jeremia; Daniel, Daniel; Ezekiel, Jezekiel; Job, Job; Esther, Esther; And outside of these there are the Maccabees, which are entitled Sarbeth Sabanaiel.” 3 He gives these in the above-mentioned work.
In the first book of his Commentary on the Gospel according to Matthew, defending the canon of the Church, he testifies that he knows only four Gospels, writing somewhat as follows: “Among the four Gospels, which are the only indisputable ones in the Church of God under heaven, I have learned by tradition that the first written was that according to Matthew, who was once a tax collector but afterwards an apostle of Jesus Christ, who published it for those who from Judaism came to believe, composed as it was in the Hebrew language. Secondly, that according to Mark, who composed it in accordance with the instructions of Peter, who in the catholic epistle acknowledges him as a son, saying, ‘She that is in Babylon, elect together with you, salutes you, and so does Mark, my son.’ And thirdly, that according to Luke, for those who from the Gentiles came to believe. After them all, that according to John.”
And in the fifth book of his Expositions on the Gospel according to John, the same person says this with reference to the epistles of the apostles: “But he who was made sufficient to become a minister of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit, that is, Paul, who ‘fully preached the gospel from Jerusalem and round about even unto Illyricum,’ did not write to all the churches which he had instructed; and even to those to which he wrote he sent but a few lines. And Peter, on whom the Church of Christ is built, left one acknowledged epistle; possibly also a second, but this is disputed. Why need I speak of him who leaned back on Jesus’ breast, John, who has left behind one Gospel, though he confessed that he could write so many that even the world itself could not contain them? And he wrote also the Apocalypse, being ordered to keep silence and not to write the voices of the seven thunders. He has left also an epistle of a very few lines; and, it may be, a second and a third; for not all say that these are genuine but the two of them are not a hundred lines long.”
In addition he makes the following statements concerning the epistle to the Hebrews, in his Homilies upon it: “That the character of the diction of the epistle entitled ‘To the Hebrews’ has not the apostle’s rudeness in speech, who acknowledged himself to be rude in speech, that is, in style, but that the epistle is better Greek in the framing of its diction, will be admitted by everyone who is able to discern differences of style. But again, on the other hand, that the thoughts of the epistle are admirable, and not inferior to the acknowledged writings of the apostle, this also everyone who carefully examines the apostolic text will admit.” Further on he adds: “If I gave my opinion, I should say that the thoughts are those of the apostle, but the style and composition belong to someone who remembered the apostle’s teachings and wrote down at his leisure what had been said by his teacher. Therefore, if any church holds that this epistle is by Paul, let it be commended for this also. For it is not without reason that the men of old time have handed it down as Paul’s. But who wrote the epistle, in truth, God knows. Yet the account that has reached us is twofold, some saying that Clement, bishop of the Romans, wrote the epistle, and others, that it was Luke, the one who wrote the Gospel and the Acts.” But let this suffice on these matters.”