The Development of the Canon of the New Testament

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Early Christian Authorities

Ignatius of Antioch
Polycarp of Smyrna
Justin Martyr
Irenaeus of Lyons
Clement of Alexandria
Tertullian of Carthage
Muratorian Canon
Eusebius of Caesarea
codex Sinaiticus
Athanasius of Alexandria
Didymus the Blind

Origen (Origenes Adamantius)    (b. ~185 in Egypt, d. 253/254 at Tyre)

Among ante-Nicene writers of the Eastern Church, the greatest by far was Origen, both as a theologian and as a prolific Biblical scholar. According to Eusebius, Origen was born of Christian parents in Egypt, probably about 185, and spent most of his life in Alexandria as a teacher, but he also visited Antioch, Athens, Arabia, Ephesus, and Rome, and lived for a rather long period at Caesarea in Palestine. A Catholic Encyclopedia article is online at Origen and Origenism.

In the year 203 Origen was appointed by Demetrius, the bishop, to succeed Clement as head of the catechetical school in Alexandria. For a dozen years he carried on that work with marked success and with increasing numbers of pupils at the school. In 215, however, as a result of the Emperor Caracalla's furious attack upon the Alexandrians, Origen's work at the school was interrupted and he was driven from the city.

Origen took refuge at Caesarea in Palestine, where he preached in churches at the request of the bishops of Jerusalem and Caesarea As he was only a layman, this was regarded by his bishop, Demetrius, as a breach of ecclesiastical discipline, in consequence of which he was recalled to Alexandria, where he resumed his scholarly work at the school.

In 230 Origen traveled to Greece on some church business and, stopping at Caesarea on his way, was ordained as a presbyter by the same friendly bishops who had invited him to preach on his previous visit. When Demetrius learned of this, he felt that his authority had been flouted, and, on Origen's return, deposed him from his teaching office and excommunicated him from the Alexandrian church on the grounds of irregularity of ordination.

Origen now moved back to Caesarea, where he opened a new Biblical and theological school which soon outshone that of Alexandria, and where he continued his extensive literary work, as well as preaching and giving Biblical expositions almost every day. In 250, during the Decian persecution, Origen was imprisoned, cruelly tortured, and condemned to the stake. Although he regained his liberty at the death of the emperor, he died soon afterward, in the year 253 or 254, probably as a result of the torture.

In his lifetime he was often attacked, suspected of adulterating the Gospel with pagan philosophy. After his death, opposition steadily mounted. The chief accusations against Origen's teaching are the following: making the Son inferior to the Father and thus being a precursor of Arianism, a 4th-century heresy that denied that the Father and the Son were of the same substance; spiritualizing away the resurrection of the body; denying hell, a morally enervating universalism; speculating about pre-existent souls and world cycles; dissolving redemptive history into timeless myth by using allegorical interpretation, thus turning Christianity into a kind of Gnosticism, a heretical movement that held that matter was evil and the spirit good. None of these charges is altogether groundless.

Only a small part of Origen's writings has come down to us, but this fills volumes. The ones relevant to the New Testament canon are:

One finds in them citations of all the books of the New Testament, though he expressed reservations concerning:

James, II Peter, II John, and III John

At other times Origen, accepts as Christian evidence any material he finds convincing or appealing, even designating on occasion these writings as 'divinely inspired':

Origen denies the authenticity of these writings:

For a summary of his opinions see the Cross Reference Table.

Origen and the Gospels

From Origen's Homily on Luke (1:1), according to the Latin translation of Jerome:

That there have been written down not only the four Gospels, but a whole series from which those that we possess have been chosen and handed down to the churches, is, let it be noted, what we may learn from Luke's preface, which runs thus: 'For as much as many have taken in hand to compose a narrative' . The expression 'they have taken in hand' involves a covert accusation of those who precipitately and without the grace of the Holy Ghost have set about the writing of the gospels.

Matthew to be sure and Mark and John as well as Luke did not 'take in hand' to write, but filled with the Holy Ghost have written the Gospels. 'Many have taken in hand to compose a narrative of the events which are quite definitely familiar among us' . The Church possesses four Gospels, heresy a great many, of which one is entitled 'The Gospel according to the Egyptians', and another 'The Gospel according to the Twelve Apostles'. Basilides also has presumed to write a gospel, and to call it by his own name. 'Many have taken in hand ' to write, but only four Gospels are recognized. From these the doctrines concerning the person of our Lord and Savior are to be derived. I know a certain gospel which is called 'The Gospel according to Thomas' and a 'Gospel according to Matthias', and many others have we read - lest we should in any way be considered ignorant because of those who imagine that they posses some knowledge if they are acquainted with these. Nevertheless, among all these we have approved solely what the Church has recognized, which is that only the four Gospels should be accepted.

Origen also wrote commentaries on the Gospels according to Matthew and John. Now and then Origen does quote or refer to (sometimes with approval) the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of the Hebrews.

Origen and Acts

Origen's testimony concerning the Book of Acts is pervasive in his writings. As would be expected, he attributes Acts to Luke, the author of the Third Gospel; see p. 137 of [Metzger].

Origen and the Pauline Epistles

Origen makes frequent citations from the Pauline Epistles, including even the brief letter of Philemon (Jer. hom. 20.2). Often he uses the formula 'Paul says' or 'Paul said', and sometimes adds the name of those whom the apostle addresses. Only in the case of 2 Timothy does Origen make the remark 'some have dared to reject this Epistle, but they were not able' (In Matt. ser. vet. interp. 117). See p. 138 of [Metzger].

Origen and the Hebrews

Throughout Origen's writings he quotes from the Epistle to the Hebrews more than 200 times, and in the vast majority of his references he is content to attribute it to Paul as its author. But near the close of his life (after 245 CE), where Origen is speaking as a scholar, he admits that the tradition of its authorship is wholly uncertain. From the composite account in [Eusebius]:

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 Epistles entitled 'To the Hebrews' has not the apostle's rudeness in speech, who acknowledged himself to be rude in speech (2 Cor. 6:6), 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 some one 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 Rome, wrote the Epistle, and others, that it was Luke, the one who wrote the Gospel and the Acts. (6.25.11-14)

Origen and James

Although the Epistle of James is quoted several times by Origen, in his Commentary on John (19.61) he refers to it as 'the Epistle of James that is in circulation' , implying some doubt as to its authenticity. One also notes that in Origen's Commentary on Matthew (2.17), when he speaks at length of the brothers of Jesus, he mentions James but says nothing of his Epistle. For more discussion, see [Ruwet] pp. 29-32.

Origen and I-II Peter

Throughout Origen's writings that have come down to us in Greek, he does quote from I Peter, but never from II Peter. And from the composite Latin account in [Eusebius]:

And Peter , on whom the Church of Christ is built, 'against which the gates of hell shall not prevail' (Matt. 16:18), has left one acknowledged Epistle; possibly also a second, but this is disputed. (6.25.8)

Origen and I-III John, and the Revelation of John

Throughout Origen's writings that have come down to us in Greek, he does quote from I John, but never from II or III John. And from the composite Latin account in [Eusebius]:

Why need I speak of him who leaned back on Jesus' breast (John 13:25), 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 (John 21:25). And he wrote also the Apocalypse, being ordered to keep silence and not to write the voices of the seven thunders (Rev. 10:4). He has also left 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. (6.25.9-10)

Origen and Jude

In Origen's Commentary on Matthew (10.17), he says

And Jude, who wrote an Epistle of but a few lines, yet filled with the healthful words of heavenly grace, said in the salutation: Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James.

For more discussion, see [Ruwet] pp. 29-32.

Origen and the Gospel of Peter

Origen refers to the Gospel of Peter in connection with identifying the brothers of Jesus as sons of Joseph by a former wife (Comm. in Matt. 10.17). See p. 137 of [Metzger].

Origen and the Gospel of the Hebrews

More than once Origen refers to the Gospel of the Hebrews, sometimes without further comment (Comm. in John 2.12; Comm. in Matt. 16.12), sometimes with a qualifying phrase, such as 'if any one receives it' (Hom. in Jeremiah 15.4; Comm. in Matt. 15.14). See p. 137 of [Metzger].

Origen and the Preaching of Peter

Origen refers to the Preaching of Peter twice. The first is a report of its use by Heracleon, the Valentinian:

Now there is much to adduce from the words quoted by Heracleon from the so-called Preaching of Peter, and regarding them inquiry has to be made concerning the book, whether it is genuine or not genuine or mixed. But for that very reason we would willingly pass it by and merely refer to the fact that it states that Peter taught: (God) should not be worshipped in the manner of the Greeks, who take material things and serve sticks and stones. Also the Divine ought not to be worshipped in the manner of the Jews, for they, who believe that they alone know God, rather do not know him and worship angels, the month and the moon. (Comm. in John 13.17)

And another passage preserved only in a Latin translation:

And if anyone should confront us with (a section) from that book which is called the 'Doctrine of Peter', in which the Savior seem to say to the disciples: 'I am not a bodiless demon' , then the answer must be given him, in the first place, that this book is not included among the books of the Church, and further it must be pointed out that this writing comes neither from Peter nor from any other person inspired by the Spirit of God. (De Princ. praef. 8)

Whether the 'Doctrine of Peter' is the same as the 'Preaching of Peter' is discussed in [Schneemelcher], V. 2, p. 36.

Origen and the Acts of Paul

Origen refers to the Acts of Paul twice. In his work De Principiis he quotes a saying from the Acta Pauli (so in Rufinus' Latin translation): 'This is the Word, a living Being' (I2.3). So far the quotation has not come to light in any known text of the Acts of Paul. But the following quotation has been verified:

If anyone cares to accept was is written in the Acts of Paul, where the Lord says: 'I am on the point of being crucified afresh' ... (Comm. in John 20.12)

Origen thus knew this work, and probably valued it; at least he did not reject it as heretical. For more discussion see [Schneemelcher], V. 2, p. 215.

Origen and I Clement

Origen quotes from I Clement 4 times, see p. 140 of [Metzger].

Origen and the Epistle of Barnabas

Origen quotes from the Epistle of Barnabas 3 times; in fact on one occasion he calls it 'Barnabas'general epistle'. (Contra Celsum 1.63). See p. 140 of [Metzger].

Origen and the Didache

According to [Grant]:

It would appear that while he [Origen] was at Alexandria he regarded the Didache, Hermas and Barnabas as canonical, but that after moving to Caesarea he became aware that they were not accepted there. (p. 171)

For more discussion, see [Ruwet] pp. 33-38.

Origen and the Shepherd of Hermas

Origen makes numerous references to the Shepherd of Hermas, and on one occasion, in his later years, he describes it as 'a work which seems to me very useful, and, as I believe, divinely inspired' . (Comm. in Rom. 10.31, written about 244-6). See p. 140 of [Metzger].

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