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

Tertullian of Carthage (Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus)   

(b. 155/160 Carthage - d. 220? CE)

Tertullian, an early Christian author and polemicist, helped to establish Latin -- rather than Greek, which was the most widely used language at that time -- as an ecclesiastical language and as a vehicle for Christian thought in the West. He coined many new theological words and phrases and gave currency to those already in use, thus becoming a significant thinker in forging and fixing the vocabulary and thought structure of Western Christianity for the next 1000 years. Because he was a moralist rather than a philosopher by temperament -- which probably precipitated his famous question: "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem" -- Tertullian's practical and legal bent of mind expressed what would later be taken as the unique genius of Latin Christianity.

The life of Tertullian is based almost wholly on information written by men living over a century after him and from obscure references in his own works. On this basis a general outline of his life has been constructed, but most of the details have been continually disputed by modern scholars.

Tertullian was born in Carthage in the Roman province of Africa, present Tunisia, approximately 155-160 CE. Carthage at that time was second only to Rome as a cultural and educational center in the West, and Tertullian received an exceptional education in grammar, rhetoric, literature, philosophy, and law. Little is known of his early life. His parents were pagan, and his father may have been a centurion in an African-based legion assigned to the governor of the province. After completing his education in Carthage, he went to Rome, probably in his late teens or early 20s, to study further and perhaps begin work as a lawyer.

While in Rome, he became interested in the Christian movement, but not until he returned to Carthage toward the end of the 2nd century was he converted to the Christian faith. In his early works he indicated that he was impressed by certain Christian attitudes and beliefs: the courage and determination of martyrs, moral rigorism, and an uncompromising belief in one God. By the end of the 2nd century the church in Carthage had become large,firmly established, and well organized, and was rapidly becoming a powerful force in North Africa. By the year 225 there were approximately 70 bishops in Numidia and Proconsularis, the two provinces of Roman Africa. Tertullian emerged as a leading member of the African church, devoting his talents as a teacher in instructing the unbaptized seekers and the faithful and as a literary defender (apologist) of Christian beliefs and practices. According to Jerome, a 4th-century biblical scholar, Tertullian was ordained a priest, but this view has been challenged by some modern scholars.

During the next 20 to 25 years (his early 40s to mid 60s) Tertullian devoted himself almost entirely to literary pursuits. Developing an original and unprecedented Latin style, the fiery and tempestuous Tertullian became a lively and pungent propagandist though not the most profound writer in Christian antiquity. His works abound with arresting and memorable phrases, ingenious aphorisms, bold and ironic puns, wit, sarcasm, countless words of his own coinage, and a constant stream of invective against his opponents.

Tertullian is usually considered the outstanding exponent of the outlook that Christianity must stand uncompromisingly against its surrounding culture. Recent scholarship however has tended to qualify this interpretation, however. Like most educated Christians of his day, he recognized and appreciated the values of the Greco-Roman culture, discriminating between those he could accept and those he had to reject.

Sometime before 210 Tertullian left the orthodox church to join Montanism -- a new prophetic sectarian movement founded by the 2nd-century Phrygian prophet Montanus -- which had spread from Asia Minor to Africa. Jerome says he was 'distressed by the envy and laxity of the clergy of the Roman church', so he found the Montanist message of the imminent end of the world, combined with a stringent and demanding moralism, congenial. Tertullian gave himself fully to the defense of the new movement as its most articulate spokesman. Even the Montanists, however, were not rigorous enough for Tertullian. He eventually broke with them to found his own sect, a group that existed until the 5th century in Africa. According to tradition, he lived to be an old man. His last writings date from ~220, but the date of his death is unknown.

Tertullian's writings are numerous. The ones relevant to the New Testament canon are:

Tertullian's New Testament was not perceptively different from that of the preceding period. He cites all the books of the New Testament with the exception of:

II Peter, James, II John, and III John

He also considered these writings, not in the present New Testament, of value:

Shepherd of Hermas

However, the following he considered heretical:

Acts of Paul

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

Tertullian and the Gospels

According to [Metzger] p. 159:

The four Gospels are the Instrumentum evangelicum, and their authors, he [Tertullian] insists, are either apostles or companions and disciples of apostles (Adversus Marcion, 4.2)

Tertullian and Acts

According to [Metzger] p. 159:

In the course of the denunciation of Marcion, Tertullian chides him for not accepting the Acts of the Apostles, and so depriving himself of information concerning the career of the apostle Paul. (Adversus Marcion, 5.1)

Tertullian and the Pauline Epistles

According to [Metzger] p. 159:

He [Tertullian] defends, one by one, each of the Pauline Epistles, expressing astonishment that Marcion has rejected the two Epistles to Timothy and the one to Titus: 'His aim was, I suppose, to carry out his interpolating process even to the number of [Paul's] Epistles' . (Adversus Marcion, 5.2-21)

Regarding the 3 Pastoral Epistles, Tertullian means that Marcion has not only mutilated the text of Paul's Epistles, but their number as well, by rejecting these three.

Tertullian and Hebrews

According to [Metzger] p. 159:

In another treatise Tertullian cites a passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews (6:4-8), which he attributes to Barnabas as the author, 'a man sufficiently accredited by God, as being one whom Paul had stationed next to himself' . (De pudic. 20)

Tertullian and I Peter

According to [Metzger] p. 159:

He [Tertullian] quotes several passages from I Peter, though without explicitly identifying the epistle. (Scorp. 12)

Tertullian and I John

According to [Metzger] p. 159:

From I John he [Tertullian] quotes 4:1-3 and launches into a long discussion of the Antichrist. (Adversus Marcionem. 5.16)

Tertullian and Jude

According to [Metzger] p. 159:

The Epistle of Jude (verse 14) is appealed to [by Tertullian] as a testimonial to the authority of Enoch. (De cultu feminarum. 1.3)

Tertullian and the Revelation of John

According to [Metzger] p. 159:

Several times he [Tertullian] refers to the Apocalypse of John in ways that prove that, for Tertullian, there is no other Apocalypse than that by the apostle John. (Adversus Marcionem 4.5; De fuga in persecutione 1; De pudic. 20)

Tertullian and the Shepherd of Hermas

According to [Metzger] p. 159-160:

Tertullian's opinion concerning Hermas changed over the years. In his earlier writings he speaks favorably of the Shepherd of Hermas (De oratione 16), but during his Montanist period he declares that the book has been adjudged (judicaretur) by every council in early times as false and apocryphal (De pudic. 10).

Tertullian and the Acts of Paul

Tertullian writes:

As for those (women) who <appeal to> the falsely written Acts of Paul [example of Thecla]<in order to> defend the right of women to teach and to baptize, let them know that the presbyter in Asia who produced this document, as if he could add something of his own to the prestige of Paul, was removed from his office after he had been convicted and had confessed that he had done it out of love for Paul (De Baptismo 17).

It was the administration of baptism by a woman that scandalized Tertullian and led him to condemn the entire book. A full discussion of this paragraph is in [Schneemelcher], v. 2 p. 214-215.

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